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Letter to My Rabbi

By Naftali Zeligman

Posted June 20, 2005

Discussion

Contents

  1. Dear Rabbi

  2. What We Believe

  3. Outreach arguments

  4. The Written Torah

  5. The Scripture's prophecies -- proof of Divine supervision?

  6. The Oral Torah and the Halacha -- I

  7. Tradition -- is it reliable?

  8. The Oral Torah and the Halacha -- II

  9. Moral problems in the Halacha

  10. Summary

1. Dear Rabbi

Many years have passed since we studied Torah together. Since then you went on to become a prominent scholar and I continued with my business endeavors. Thank G-d, my business is doing well and I am able to devote part of my time to Torah studies. My wife and children are well and at least outwardly my family seems well integrated in the community where we live.

Inwardly, however, the last few years have been quite trying for me. I seem to have lost the calm and confidence I used to have in observing Yiddishkeit, in following the path which gave my life overall meaning, definite and absolute goals that I should strive to achieve. My belief that the Torah and only the Torah is the absolute Divine truth has been seriously challenged and I find myself at a loss to respond.

As you know, just about all religions in the world and many non-religious ideologies proudly state that the meaning they give to human life is the ultimate true meaning. Every religion claims that it contains the genuine Divine revelation and all the others hopelessly miss the true meaning of life. So how, objectively, do I know that Judaism's claims to the truth are correct? Because I believe so? But then I cannot speak of the Divine plan for my life, only of my own invention, something I created in my own image, according to my personal considerations, hopes, and the inclinations of my heart. What I was taught to consider absolute becomes relative, and if that is so, I see no difference between me and an adherent of any other religion or ideology, G-d forbid.

I am looking for arguments to strengthen the rational basis of my faith. I am searching for answers to an assortment of problems so as to restore my confidence in the truth of our tradition. It is important to point out: I am not looking for absolute "mathematical" proofs, but rather for common sense plausibility, for an intellectually honest approach which would lead to a reasonable conclusion that the Torah is really from Heaven and that our Halachic tradition, which determines the practical behavior of a contemporary Jew, really has Divine authority.

2. What we believe

Until now, I have understood what Yiddishkeit teaches as typified by the assertions below. I have chosen to weave together various statements and arguments. This is how our beliefs were communicated to me. If I am in error, please do not hesitate to correct me:

  1. G-d, who created the Heaven and the Earth 5762 years ago, chose the people of Israel, saved them -- 600,000 adult males, their wives and children -- from Egyptian slavery and revealed His glory to them on Mt. Sinai. Such a thing -- Divine revelation to a whole nation -- was an event unique in human history, and no religion except Judaism claims or has ever claimed to have such a revelation at its foundation.

  2. During the Sinai Revelation G-d gave us the Torah -- that is, He told some of the commandments to the whole people and the rest to Moses, who later on taught the commandments in all their details to the people.

  3. After the Sinai Revelation, the Israelites were to enter the Land of Israel, but they sinned, so G-d sentenced them to 40 years of wandering in the Sinai desert. During those 40 years, G-d dictated the entire Torah to Moses. The Torah was completed at the end of the 40 years, when the Israelites encamped on the east bank of Jordan, ready to enter the Promised Land.

  4. The Torah, being the word of the Living G-d, is totally and absolutely true in all its details, and, needless to say, internally consistent.

  5. Each and every word of the Torah was dictated by G-d, and nothing was changed in it through the successive ages -- the Torah which we now have is exactly the same as dictated by G-d to Moses in the Sinai desert.

  6. Besides the Torah, there are also books of Prophets and Writings in the Holy Writ. These books, though not dictated by G-d letter by letter, were nonetheless written under Divine inspiration; they contain moral instructions to bring people closer to G-d's will, clarification of certain matters of the Torah, and description of the history of the Jewish people, from which one can learn of the eternal covenant between G-d and the People of Israel. Needless to say, all the doctrines and historical details described in these books are absolutely true.

  7. There are predictions for the future in the books of the Holy Writ ("for the future" is relative to when the books were written). All of these predictions have come true except for those whose time has not yet come. The fulfillment of the Scripture's predictions is proof of G-d's supervision over the world and of the Divine authorship or inspiration of the Scripture itself.

  8. It is not only the Written Torah that was given to Moses by G-d, but the Oral Torah as well. It is the Oral Torah which contains the details of fulfilling G-d's commandments -- the Halachic laws. Some of these laws, including all the laws derived through interpretation of the Scriptures, were given to Moses at Sinai and handled down through tradition until they were written in the Mishnah and in the Talmud; others were established by the Sages in order to make a fence around the Torah, to keep people from violating the Torah laws. But even when the Sages established rulings of the latter category, they acted based on the absolute authority the Torah gave them to issue Halachic rulings obligating all of Israel. Thus, it is ultimately the Divine imperative which obligates us to observe all the details of the Oral Law.

  9. The Sages were very wise and intelligent men; all of their statements in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrashim testify to it. They knew, in their great wisdom or by tradition handed down from Sinai, many things of which the wisest gentile scholars of their time were unaware. While the whole world was wallowing in ignorance the light of wisdom shone from the Sages over the whole Israel.

  10. The Sages -- and the Halachic arbiters in all subsequent generations -- were not only wise, but also highly moral men; all their rulings and lifestyles testify to their supreme morality, and these rulings, as well as the Torah commandments, are intended to teach us the true moral virtues.

Unfortunately, as it will be detailed in this letter, if we submit these points to rational inquiry they don't seem to hold up. This is a source of endless agony and confusion to me. I continue to practice Orthodoxy, but it is as if the ground beneath me has been swept away. I have no bases for my actions. The weight of evidence points away from our faith. Rabbi, I am stuck--a doubter amongst the faithful, a skeptic amongst true believers. I do not wish to live this confusion. Please help me.

3. Outreach arguments

Let me begin this inquiry with the arguments that are usually brought by the people of outreach organizations, whose goal it is to rationally prove to skeptics the divinity of the Torah. Sadly, after I devoted time and effort to analyze these arguments, they all appeared to lie somewhere between charlatanry and ignorance or, more accurately, seemed a mixture of both. Perhaps they may best be described as overenthusiastic. To give one example, they 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. Our Sages, OBM, knew that from Divine tradition and stated so explicitly in the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 59a). They then argue that if our Sages' tradition of were not of Divine origin, they would not dare say no other animal in the world has only one sign of purity, nor could they be correct.

Now, not only are the outreach people wrong in their claim that they have definite proof of the divinity of the Torah, they chose a topic which seems to show actual inaccuracies in the Torah itself. The Torah explicitly states that the hyrax and hare (shafan and arnevet) "bring up the cud" (Leviticus 11:5-6), which most clearly means rumination. Now, we know with utmost certainty that the hare and hyrax do not ruminate.

Of course I am aware of the fact that there are some Rabbinical authorities who claim the shafan and arnevet of the Torah are not the hare and the hyrax familiar to us. Alternatively, there are some who interpret the term "brings up the cud" (ma'alat gerah, in the Torah's terminology) as some action or quality other than rumination, but these responses seem to be, after all is said and done, mere apologetics. We have no more reason to doubt that the arnevet is the hare than we have to doubt the chazir is the pig. Moreover, the Talmud itself (Megillah 9b) relates that the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy, ordered the Jewish sages to translate the Torah into Greek for him. The Sages did not translate arnevet literally, for the king's wife was called "Arnevet" and they feared the king would consider the literal translation a mockery. Some manuscripts of the Talmud say that it was not the king's wife but his father who was called "Arnevet." Indeed, the father of Ptolemy I, the first Greek king of Egypt and the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, was called Lagus, which sounds quite similar to the Greek word for hare -- lagos.

The term ma'alat gerah is defined explicitly by the classic Rabbinical commentaries on the Scripture: "'Ma'alat gerah' -- [an animal that] brings up and vomits food from its bowels back to its mouth to crush it and to grind it well" (Rashi on Leviticus 11:3); "'Ma'alat gerah' -- [an animal that] brings up its food through the throat after it has been eaten" (Rashbam ibid.). And indeed, the verb ma'alat (or ma'aleh, in masculine) means bringing up something, and if we consider all the other animals described in the Torah as ma'alat gerah, we can only conclude that gerah means cud, and that ma'alat gerah means "bringing up the cud," i.e. rumination. (We cannot propose that ma'alat gerah means "looks like a ruminant," since the verb ma'alat means that the action of "bringing up" really does take place.)

Recently I've heard another "explanation": hares regularly re-ingest their fecal pellets. In fact, they produce two kinds of pellets: one dry and hard, the other soft and moist. The latter, which appear to contain both vitamins and metabolic products, are eaten, in most cases directly from the anus. Encyclopaedia Britannica (lagomorph, Natural history) writes that "the nutritional effect of this practice [called coprophagy] has been compared to that of rumination among cows," and, perhaps based on what they read in the popular scientific literature, some people consider coprophagy a kind of true rumination. But it is clear that whatever coprophagy is, rumination it is not. If the Torah says that a certain animal ruminates (ma'alat gerah), it most clearly means that the animal brings something up (that something being the cud).

The great Rabbinic commentators on the Scripture -- Rashbam and Ibn Ezra -- explicitly wrote that the Hebrew word gerah is derived from the word garon (throat), and that means that an animal described as ma'alat gerah must bring up something through its throat; that is quite different from an animal excreting feces from its anus. And even if the nutritional effect of coprophagy is similar to that of rumination, it does not mean that coprophagy and rumination are one and the same. It may be said, for example, that the nutritional value of spaghetti is similar to that of rice -- but that does not mean, of course, that rice and spaghetti are one and the same food. And besides, the hyrax does not practice coprophagy in any form. So do the proponents of "coprophagy as bringing up the cud" maintain that hyrax does not bring up its cud, despite what is written in the Torah?

In short, the Torah verses do not seem to accurately describe reality as it is. And 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. (If one considers coprophagy a kind of bringing up the cud, then some other animals, including lemurs and mountain beavers, should also be considered as having one sign of purity, for they practice coprophagy but do not have split hooves; of course, they are also not mentioned in the Torah.) 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 the animals mentioned in the Torah from all others:

"One who walks in a desert and finds an animal whose mouth is damaged [so it is impossible to check whether it has upper incisors and/or canines, which is the way to verify whether it brings up its cud], should look at its hooves: if the hooves are split -- it is clear that the animal is pure, and if they are not -- it is clear that the animal is impure, provided that one is familiar with the pig [whose hooves are split, yet it is impure]."

(Tractate Chulin 59a)

If one finds in the desert an unknown animal which cannot be checked for signs of rumination, provided that the animal has split hooves and does not look like pig, one may eat it. This means that an animal whose external look is different from that of a pig is definitely not a pig -- and yet the peccary, for example, looks very different from a pig.
Collared peccary Yorkshire (Large White) pig
From that same Talmudic discourse (Chulin 59a) it is clear that an animal whose external look is different from that of the camel is certainly not a camel. The South American llamas look very different from the camel, so they also should be considered an additional kind of animal with a single sign of purity.
Llama Arabian camel (dromedary)
Maimonides ruled in the Laws of Kilayim 9:4, in line with what is written in the Tosefta (Tractate Kilayim 1:5), that the horse, mule, and donkey are all different species which one is forbidden to interbreed, despite the fact that the mule is a hybrid of a he-donkey and a she-horse, and that all the three look quite similar:
Donkey MuleHorse

So if the horse, mule, and donkey are considered different animals by the Halacha, the pig and peccary, or camel and llama should certainly be considered different animals -- and then, of course, the claim that only those animals mentioned in the Torah have a single sign of purity must be wrong.

One more case of outreach argumentation: they bring a citation from the Zohar (on Leviticus, p. 10a), which says that the world "rolls in a circle like a ball." From this they say we see that even at the time of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai, who supposedly wrote the Zohar (2nd century CE), the Jewish sages knew that the earth is spherical, while the gentile wise men still thought of it as flat. But what can we say? All the evidence shows the Zohar was not written before the 13th century CE, while the ancient Greeks (specifically, Pythagoras) had already stated in the 6th century BCE that the earth is spherical. True, we do not need the Zohar's statement, for the Jerusalem Talmud, written in the 4th century CE, says that the earth is "made like a ball" (Avodah Zarah, chapter 3, halacha 1) -- but this, again, was said 900 years after Pythagoras, and the Jerusalem Talmud itself uses this statement to explain why a statue of a gentile deity holding a ball is forbidden (the ball symbolizes power over the whole earth); the Talmud admits that gentiles were aware of the earth's spherical shape.

But apparently here, too, we have much more than simply a problem with outreach activists. The Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 94a) gives us 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 thickness of the dome of the sky takes the sun the time of 4 mils -- and based on this Talmudic statement, Rabbeynu Tam in the 12th century issued a Halachic ruling that the time between the beginning of the sunset and darkness is 4 mils, and what Tractate Shabbat 34b says, that the twilight time is 3/4 of a mil, refers only to the time which passes from the end of the sunset to darkness (see Tosfot on Pesachim 94a, s.v. Rabbi Yehudah). Rabbeynu Tam's ruling was adopted by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 261:1-2), who also ruled that though the Halachic category of twilight denotes the time of 3/4 of a mil before darkness, that refers only to the final stage before darkness, but actually the sunset begins 3 1/4 mils before that phase, that is, 4 mils before darkness. The author of the Shulchan Aruch, R' Joseph Karo, lived in the 16th century -- and even then, when every person learned in natural sciences knew that the Earth is spherical, this highly revered Halachic arbiter preferred to adopt the Talmudic ruling based on the flat-earth picture!

I can bring more examples of far-fetched proofs by outreach activists, but that is not the point. It does not take much to pull their weak arguments apart (one of those tricks, incidentally, is using haskamot from leading rabbis as weighty arguments in scientific disputes) but the problem seems to go much deeper.

I have searched and researched, but I cannot find any positive evidence for the correctness of our beliefs. History, natural science, and every other field of human activity involved in discovering factual reality (in searching for the truth in its most essential form) yields a great deal of evidence that seems to make the main points of our tradition implausible -- and yet virtually no evidence exists which could serve as support for our tradition.

4. The Written Torah

Discrepancies between the Torah and reality

There is a very popular approach claiming the very existence of our tradition is sufficient evidence of its veracity -- yet that is highly problematic, as I will show below. Unfortunately, it seems that the text of the Torah itself contains major discrepancies with factual reality. It tells us about the Creation of the world only thousands of years ago -- yet from scientific research we know for certain that the world has existed for billions of years and that in 4000 BCE there were already well-developed human civilizations in Sumer and Egypt (see Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sumer and Egypt, history of).

The Torah tells us about a global flood 1656 years after Creation (2104 BCE, according to our tradition) which only Noah, his family, and the animals on his ark survived, but archeological research reveals no traces of a global flood during the last 10,000 years. We have a well-documented history of Egyptian civilization from the late 4th millennium BCE to the Greek conquest of Egypt in the 4th century BCE -- a summary of which may be found in any encyclopedia -- and no flood other than local overflows of the Nile is mentioned there, let alone anything resembling the complete destruction and rebirth of the Egyptian civilization. Geologists have actually discovered patterns of a flood in the Black Sea area circa 7500 BCE (see K. A. Svitil, "Forty Days and Forty Nights, More or Less," Discover, January 1999), but it was very far from covering "all the high hills that were under the whole heaven," as the Torah tells us (Genesis 7:19), and it happened 3800 years before we are taught the world was created.

According to the Torah, different languages appeared after the Tower of Babel incident, that is, some time about 2100 BCE, yet we definitely know that centuries before then 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 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Egyptian language ibid., Akkadian language and Sumerian language ibid.). These languages were totally different, each with its own writing system, and we have documents written in each of them dated 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 could 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).

In Genesis 11:31 we are told that Abraham, his wife, his father, and the rest of his relatives "went out from Ur of the Chaldeans [Ur Kasdim]." According to our tradition, Abraham was born in 1813 BCE and died in 1638 BCE, but the Chaldean tribes reached southern Mesopotamia (where the city of Ur is situated) only about 1000 BCE, and the first historic reference to them appears only in Assyrian documents of the 9th century BCE (Encyclopedia Hebraica, Kasdim, v. 20, p. 1076), and the city of Ur was turned into a major religious center of the Neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) kingdom only in the 6th century BCE (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, p. 313). So Abraham could not have left "Ur of the Chaldeans," and the account of Genesis 11:31 seems to be an anachronism committed by a writer who mistook the geopolitical situation of his time for that of hundreds of years earlier.

Likewise, in Genesis 21:34 we are told that "Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines many days," and Genesis 26:1 tells us "Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines to Gerar." The region of Gerar was located, according to the Torah, in the Land of Israel; in the subsequent verses of Genesis 26 G-d even warns Isaac not to leave the Land. But the Philistines only appeared in the Land of Israel (on its southern coast) in the 12th century BCE (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Philistine).

Should one doubt whether the Philistines of which the Encyclopaedia Britannica speaks are those written about in the Torah, the Scripture itself answers: "Woe to the inhabitants of the sea coast, the nation of the Cherethites! The word of the Lord is against you, O Canaan, the land of the Philistines" (Zephaniah 2:5). In Hebrew "the nation of the Cherethites" is goy Kretim, the people of Crete, also called Kaftor in the Scriptures (e.g. in Amos 9:7). Only once during the 2nd millennium BCE did people from the Aegean islands invade the eastern and the southeastern coast of the Mediterranean -- in the 13th-12th centuries BCE; in the history books this is called the Sea People invasion. Some of those Sea People were indeed from Crete; they are the Scriptural Philistines (Pelishtim), and the Egyptian sources call them prst or plst (the later is usually vowelized Peleset). By the 13th-12th centuries BCE, according to any possible Scriptural chronology (the Judaic tradition included), both Abraham and Isaac had already been dead for centuries. Stories of the visits they made to "the land of the Philistines" and their meetings with Philistine kings also seem to be the work of later authors. How, then, can we believe in the Torah's historical accuracy?

Historical impossibility of the Exodus, the Sinai Revelation and conquest of Canaan

Not only are the Torah stories about the events of the remote past problematic, the very narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, the Sinai Revelation and the conquest of the Land of Israel -- the continuum of events we consider the basis of our faith -- is by no means rooted in reality. Even if we dismiss our tradition (which dates the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation to 1313 BCE), the Scripture itself defines the chronological framework for this narrative as somewhere between the 15th and the 12th centuries BCE. Egyptian history of that time, as well as of the whole 2nd millennium BCE, is well documented and we have a clear picture of what happened there. Besides the Egyptians, other civilizations flourished in the Near East of that time: the Babylonians, the Hittites, and towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE the Assyrians. Each left plenty of historical documents, and from them we can reconstruct a clear historical picture of what happened in the Middle East in the 2nd millennium BCE. Moreover, events which were significant for the whole region were mentioned and described in documents of different civilizations, and this gives us a brilliant opportunity to cross-check information, to crystallize the facts, and to separate fiction from the facts of the ancient Near East. Modern archeological studies add to the picture, and thus we obtain quite a detailed and reliable chronology of the Near East in the 2nd millennium BCE.

The problem is, there is no room for the Exodus--Sinai--Land-of-Israel narrative in this picture. To begin with, in order to leave Egypt, the Israelites had obviously to arrive there in the first place. The Torah tells that the number of the Israelites who came down to Egypt was seventy (Exodus 1:1-5). In Exodus 12:37 we are told that 600,000 adult males left Egypt in the Exodus, which, taking into consideration women and children, is about 2.5 million Israelites leaving Egypt. According to our tradition, the Israelites stayed in Egypt for 210 years. Such a rate of population growth -- by more than 35,000 times in two centuries -- seems quite unnatural. To add fuel to the fire, the Judaic tradition tells that most of the Israelite population did not leave Egypt: "Those who went out [of Egypt] were one out of five, and some say one out of fifty, and some say one out of five hundred... And when did those [who did not come out of Egypt] perish? During the plague of darkness." (Mechilta deRabbi Ishmael, Beshalach, Petichta; Mechilta deRabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Exodus 13:18). This gives us an Israelite population growth from 70 to 12,500,000, 125,000,000 and 1,250,000,000 persons correspondingly. These extraordinary numbers have a fanciful, almost playful quality to them. But the situation is even worse: historical and archeological research tells us that the whole population of Egypt was only 2-3 million people towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE (see Encyclopaedia Britannica, Egypt, History, Introduction to ancient Egyptian civilization). So, when the Israelites left, according to the Torah, Egypt would have been devastated. Yet this devastation did not happen in fact. Moreover, no large population decrease occurred in ancient Egypt from the 4th millennium to the 4th century BCE. How, in light of the above, am I to understand the Rabbinic notion of the Exodus? Are the Rabbis simply tellers of tall tales? What purpose is thereby served?

If the Israelites coming to Egypt numbered only 70, it would be quite meaningless to try to look in Egyptian annals for mention of them -- surely not every Semitic clan coming into the country was documented in detail (there are many general mentions of such clans arriving in Egypt). However, the Torah states that one of the Israelites coming (or actually, brought) to Egypt -- Joseph -- was appointed viceroy of Egypt. In Genesis 41 and 47 we are also told of very significant reforms Joseph introduced in Egypt:

  1. Gathering of all the surplus food from the seven plenteous years into Pharaoh's storehouses.

  2. Selling food to other countries during the famine.

  3. Centralizing money and all the cattle in the hands of Pharaoh.

  4. Purchasing of 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 exemption from this law was the Egyptian priests and their lands and crops.

  5. Enslaving the whole Egyptian population and moving them all over the country; the priests seem to have been exempted from this policy as well.

Yet there is no mention of such a reform in any Egyptian source. As I wrote above, the history of the Egypt in the mid-second millennium BCE (when Joseph's adventure must have taken place, according to the Scripture and to our tradition) is well documented; many literary sources and monuments from that time are available, and we can trace the historical and social picture of ancient Egypt at a highly precise level. A major reform like the one 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 as described in the Torah, or even of anything close to those reforms, leads to most unsettling conclusions.

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 came to Egypt to buy corn -- "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 a total dependence of the Babylonian population on Egyptian food supplies. Texts from the great Hittite empire of Asia Minor reveal nothing of this kind about the Hittite people. Are we therefore to understand the Biblical phrase "in all lands," as legend?

This has all been about the Israelites' arrival in Egypt, but the picture is simply disheartening about their exodus from there. No historical source mentions a large Israelite slave population in Egypt, nor any distinct ethnical group subjected to slavery there in the second half of the 2nd millennium BCE. The city of Ramses, which, according to Exodus 1:11, the Israelites built in Egyptian captivity, appears in fact to be built during the reign of Ramesses II in the 13th century BCE (The Bible Unearthed, p. 59) -- decades after the date of Exodus according to our tradition. No historical source tells us of the ten great and awesome plagues reported in the Torah. Much less significant events are thoroughly described, yet these major catastrophes rate not a single mention, not only in Egyptian sources (maybe the Egyptians were traumatized enough to want to forget the plagues), but also in all the historical sources of the ancient Near East. And though some very optimistic people suggest that the ancient Egyptian Papyrus Ipuwer is a description of the Exodus from the Egyptian point of view, this view seems implausible. The papyrus (which can be found in English translation in Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: a Book of Readings, v. 1, pp. 149-163) is in fact the admonition of an Egyptian sage, describing certain natural and social calamities. Some Egyptologists hold that the papyrus is written in an allegorical manner and has no relation to any historical events whatsoever.

The papyrus does not provide even the slightest hint about most of the Ten Plagues (including the final and the crucial one -- the plague of the firstborns), nor is there any mention of Hebrews, Israelites, Moses, Aaron, mass exodus from Egypt or anything of that kind. The only resemblance it bears to the book of Exodus is the phrase "Lo, the river is blood" (Ipuwer 2:10). A few lines earlier the papyrus explains also the source of this blood, "There's blood everywhere, no shortage of dead... Lo, many dead are buried in the river" (Ipuwer 2:5) -- so it speaks not of a plague of blood, but of many bleeding dead bodies thrown into the river. The papyrus is dated by Egyptologists to the time of the 10th-12th dynasties of Egypt (2133-1786 BCE) -- hundreds of years before the Exodus is reported to have taken place. Of course, our knowledge of ancient Egyptian chronology is not perfect, and imprecision of a few decades is quite possible, but a discrepancy of several centuries is too much -- in short, Papyrus Ipuwer may be related to almost anything but the Exodus from Egypt, and in searching for historical corroboration of the Exodus narrative this papyrus offers no real help.

There no mention in any of the Near Eastern sources of a total rout of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea waters, which is particularly problematic since the Torah tells us that this event made a great impression on the other nations: "The peoples have heard, they tremble; anguish has gripped the inhabitants of Philistia. Then the chiefs of Edom were dismayed; the leaders of Moab, trembling grips them; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away" (Exodus 15:14-15).

Moreover, were the Egyptian army indeed crushed, the not-so-peaceful neighbors of Egypt -- the Babylonians and the Hittites -- would have immediately invaded the powerless empire. At the end of the 14th-beginning of the 13th centuries BCE Egypt and the Hittite empire were at a state of constant war; the ten plagues and the Exodus would have quickly led to a Hittite invasion and conquest of the ruined Egypt, especially since according to the Torah the Egyptian army wasn't able to recover for at least 40 years (see Deuteronomy 11:4 and Nachmanides's commentary on it). But no such invasion ever happened, and after almost four decades of indecisive war a peace treaty and a mutual defense pact were signed between Egypt and the Hittite empire (see Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hittite).

Egyptian borders in that period were well guarded and watched. Papyri Anastasi (from the end of the 13th century BCE) show that neither Egyptians nor foreigners could enter Egypt without special permission of the authorities, and each border crossing is well documented. Papyrus Anastasi V goes so far as telling in minute detail about two slaves from the royal residence of Pi-Ramesses who managed to flee from Egypt, about their path, the point they crossed the border, and the measures taken to pursue them and to return them to their masters (see A. Malamat, "Let My People Go and Go and Go and Go," Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1998, p. 65). Were 2.5 million ex-slaves to leave Egypt, it would most certainly be documented, and yet there is not a single mention in all the Egyptian documents of such a massive exodus. (Of course, only a fraction of the documents describing fleeing of slaves from Egypt came down to us, and therefore minor exoduses, of which we have no evidence nowadays, could really have happened, but that an escape of 2.5 million people -- almost the whole country's population -- would leave no evidence which would make it down to our time seems quite improbable.)

According to the Torah, after they left Egypt, the Israelites (some 2.5 million of them) wandered for 40 years in the Sinai desert. Such major nomadic activity in an area not so large usually leaves many traces easily discoverable by archaeologists, especially since "modern archaeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed, the archaeological record from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in such eras as the third millennium BCE and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods [when the population of Sinai was tiny compared to the wandering Israelites of the Torah]" (The Bible Unearthed, p. 63). Yet, "repeated archaeological surveys in all regions of the peninsula, including the mountainous area around the traditional site of Mount Sinai... have yielded only negative evidence: not a single sherd, no structure, not a single house, no trace of ancient encampment" (The Bible Unearthed, pp. 62-63).

Furthermore, among the places in which Israelites encamped on their journey through Sinai, the Torah mentions Kadesh Barnea (Deuteronomy 1:2) and Etzion Geber (Numbers 33:35). The former was identified by archaeologists with the large and well-watered oasis of Ein el-Qudeirat in eastern Sinai (a water spring near that oasis is called to this day Ein Qadis), and the latter is mentioned in the Scripture (e. g. in I Kings 9:26 and 22:49) as a port town on the north-eastern tip of the Red Sea -- which led to its identification by archaeologists with a mound located between the modern towns of Eilat and Aqaba. However, numerous excavations and surveys throughout these areas have not provided even the slightest evidence of any settlement or encampment there at the alleged time of the Israelites' wandering through Sinai (The Bible Unearthed, p. 63).

In Numbers 20:14-22 the Torah tells how Moses sent emissaries to the king of Edom to ask permission to pass through his territory on the way to Canaan -- permission which the king of Edom refused to grant, thus making Israelites bypass his land. The Torah implies that in the last year of the Israelites' wandering through Sinai there was already a kingdom in Edom. However, "archaeological investigations indicate that Edom reached statehood only under Assyrian auspices in the seventh century BCE. Before that period it was a sparsely settled fringe area inhabited mainly by pastoral nomads" (The Bible Unearthed, p. 68).

There is also quite a lot of archeological evidence about what happened in the Land of Israel at the alleged time of the Israelite conquest. This evidence shows no trace of any massive conquest by a people coming from the east bank of the Jordan (where the Israelites are reported to have attacked from). The first historical document to mention the name "Israel" is the stele of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, who reigned 1213-1204 BCE (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Merneptah), but the theme of that stele is quite far from matching the Biblical account: "Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer; Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not... All lands together, they are pacified" (cited from Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. by J. B. Pritchard, p. 378). To be sure, the phrase "Israel is laid waste, his seed is not" is but a common boast of power by rulers of that period and need not be taken at face value, but much more important is the fact that the whole book of Judges (which, according to our tradition, describes the events of that period) makes no mention of an Egyptian campaign in Canaan, nor even of any Egyptian presence there -- something which cannot be expected from an author familiar with the history of Canaan in the 13th-12th centuries BCE, when that land was firmly under Egyptian rule. (Merneptah's military exploit was not a conquest, but a punitive campaign intended to crush rebels and to "pacify" the land under the control of the Egyptian throne.)

Moreover, the nature of the group called "Israel" on the stele of Merneptah remains unknown. The first references which allow us to speak of Israel as a cultural and geopolitical entity do not occur before the early 1st millennium BCE, centuries after Merneptah's time. There is no evidence of any link -- ethnic, cultural, or political -- between the defeated "Israel" of Merneptah and the conquering Israelites of the Scripture.

According to the Scripture, the number of the Israelites invading the land of Canaan was about 2.5 million, and it is simply impossible for such a vast population to have survived in that area at that time. In fact, even the earlier archeologists estimated the Israelite population immediately after the supposed time of the conquest as much smaller: W. F. Albright thought it to be about 250,000 (see C. C. McCown, "The Density of Population in Ancient Palestine," Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 66, p. 435), and M. Avi-Yonah approximated it to be 1,000,000 ("Uchlusiyah", Encyclopedia Mikrait, v. 1, p. 146). However, the further excavations and research progressed, the more skeptical archeologists became about the magnitude of the Israelite population at the time of the supposed conquest. Israel Finkelstein speaks of about 20,000 sedentary Israelites living in Canaan in the 12th century BCE, while towards the end of the 11th century BCE their number increased to about 50,000 (I. Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement, p. 334).

Prof Ze'ev Herzog of Tel-Aviv University wrote about archeological research into the period of the alleged Israelite conquest of Canaan:

"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 tell 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, October 29th, 1999)

We see that modern historical and archeological research has already shown the Scripture, up to the period of the Judges, is difficult to reconcile with the historical record. The point now in dispute amongst researchers is the existence of a United Monarchy of David and Solomon (see H. Shanks (ed.), "Face to Face," Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1997). Many researchers think that no united monarchy ever did exist, much less one resembling Solomon's huge empire as described in the Scripture: "Now Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the River [to] the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life... For he had dominion over everything across the River, from Tifsakh even to Gaza, over all the kings across the River; and he had peace on all sides around about him" (I Kings 5:1-4).

Moreover, were 2.5 million people to enter the Land of Israel, they would have to eat and drink something. Assuming a very modest diet of 0.5 liters water and one pound of bread a day per capita, they would need 1.25 million liters or 1,250 tons of water and 1,134 tons of bread a day. From where did this food come? The manna? It stopped falling from the sky as soon as they entered the Land of Israel: "And the manna ceased on the morrow after they had eaten of the old corn of the land; neither had the children of Israel manna any more; but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year" (Joshua 5:12).

But to eat "of the fruit of the land of Canaan," one first has to take control of the land, and that took the Israelites a lot of time: "Joshua made war a long time with all those kings" (of Canaan) to conquer their land (Joshua 11:18). Judaic tradition (Seder Olam Rabbah, Milikowski edition, chapter 11) states the conquest took Joshua as long as seven years. What did the Israelites eat all that time? Food stored by the defeated local residents for their own use, in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:10-11? This was not possible, since the population of the whole Land of Israel, from Upper Galilee to Negev, was at that time less than 200,000 people (see M. Broshi, I. Finkelstein, "Minyan Uchlusey Eretz-Yisra'el Bi-Shnat 734 Lifney HaSefirah," Katedra, v. 58 (1991), pp. 22-23). Surely the food stored for their own use would not suffice for nearly 12 times as many conquering Israelites for a single year, let alone seven.

Interestingly, the Torah says to the Israelites: "The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you because you are more in number than any nation; for you are the fewest of all the nations" (Deuteronomy 7:7). Given the fact that the whole population of the Egyptian Empire at that time was 2-3 million people, were the number of Israelites really as stated in the Torah they would actually be "more in number than [almost] any nation" of that time. What am I to suppose about the Torah author's knowledge of historical realities? If the historical narrative of the Torah and the subsequent books of the Scripture is wrong, then the account of the Sinai Revelation and the Giving of the Torah is obviously also unhistorical, how can one speak of the Torah's divinity?

Contradictions in the Torah text

In fact, the Torah text itself contains much evidence suggesting that it was probably not written down under the circumstances we believe it to have been. Though we believe that the Written Torah should be understood in the light of its interpretation by the Oral Torah, we nevertheless consider the Torah text to be comprehensible, on a plain level, in and of itself. In dozens of places the Talmud says, "The Torah spoke in human language" (see e.g. Yevamot 71a, Sanhedrin 67b, etc.); we find the Rishonim interpreting the Torah according to the plain meaning of its verses in the Hebrew language and considering such interpretations no less legitimate than the exegesis brought in the Talmud and the Midrash (see e.g. Rashi on Genesis 33:20 and Nachmanides on Leviticus 27:29). Sometimes the commentators even rejected the Midrashic homilies on the Torah verses and adhered instead to the plain meaning of the verses in the Hebrew language (see e.g. Rashbam on Genesis 37:2, and Ibn Ezra on Genesis 25:1 vs. Bereshit Rabbah, section 61). The Torah text has its own meaning and may be read and understood on its own by a person familiar enough with the Hebrew language.

But the Torah text seems to support the idea that it was written by different people in different times, and leads to the conclusion that it was finished many years after the Israelites established their control over Canaan. First, the Torah text contains clear contradictions. In the first chapter of Genesis we are told that on the third day of Creation G-d 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 person -- more precisely, the first couple: "So G-d created man in his own image, in the image of G-d created He him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27).

But in Genesis 2 we have a quite different picture:

"These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, on the day that the Lord G-d made the earth and the heavens. And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord G-d had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the Lord G-d formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord G-d planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord G-d to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food... And the Lord G-d said, it is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helpmate for him. And out of the ground the Lord G-d formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a helpmate for him. And the Lord G-d caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and he slept: and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord G-d had taken from man, made He a woman, and brought her to the man."

(Genesis 2:4-22)

That is, first Adam (the male only) was created, then flora was planted ("a garden eastward in Eden"), then -- when G-d considered the first man's loneliness to be bad for him -- He created the beasts and the fowl, and when Adam did not find a helpmate for himself amongst them, G-d created the first female, Eve.

To the neutral reader it would seem that these two accounts are completely contradictory. Of course our commentators tried to explain this matter, but their exegesis seems tenable only if one has a pre-conceived commitment to the text's truthfulness. Rashi on Genesis 2:5 says that "on the third day [of Creation], when it is written 'Let the earth bring forth grass,' [the plants] were standing just under the ground until the sixth day... and when Adam, who knew that the world needs it [rain], came and prayed for it, it started raining, and trees and grass started growing." But this seems to contradict the plain meaning of verses of Genesis 1:12-13: "And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after its kind: and G-d saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day," that is, on the third day -- three days before the creation of Adam -- the earth had already brought forth grass (Hebrew: vatotze haaretz deshe -- the verb vatotze, in perfect form, means that the grass had actually come out of the ground).

Another explanation Rashi gives about the order of creation of man and animals is (on Genesis 2:19): "'And out of the ground [the Lord G-d] formed [every beast of the field] -- this 'formation' is the 'making' described above [in Genesis 1:25], 'And G-d made the beast of the earth after his kind...'" But Genesis 2 says explicitly that G-d wanted to make Adam "a helpmate," and then He created all the beasts and fowls and brought them to Adam; this is the order of the events the Torah itself tells us, and if we break the order apart, the story of Genesis 2:4-22 would lose any consistency. Rashi himself must have noted it, for he says in his commentary (on Genesis 2:19-21), "And also we learn from here that when they [the beasts and the birds] were created, [G-d] immediately, on that very day, brought them to Adam, so that he would call them names... And when [G-d] brought them [to Adam], He brought them to him by couples, so [Adam] said: 'They all have a counterpart, and I have not'." Only then, according to Rashi, when Adam understood that he lacked a spouse, did G-d create Eve -- so that Adam would appreciate G-d's charity to him.

But this means that the birds and beasts were created on the same day as Adam. This sets up an inconsistency between Genesis 2 and Genesis 1, where the birds are said to have been created on the fifth day and Adam on the sixth.

Another example: in Genesis 15:13 G-d 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 still can be solved by claiming that 400 years is the duration of the enslavement and suffering only while 430 years is the whole duration 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 in the desert 40 years. So at the time of the Exodus Moses was 80 and the total duration of the Egyptian captivity therefore cannot exceed 133+137+80=350 years. If this were not enough, Rabbinic tradition reduced the time of the Egyptian captivity to 210 years (Midrash Seder Olam, chapter 3) and interpreted the verse of Exodus 12:40 as referring to the time from the Covenant between the Pieces to the Exodus from Egypt (Rashi ibid.). This exegesis contradicts the verse itself, which speaks of "the sojourning of the children of Israel." Israel is another name for Jacob (Genesis 32:29). The Covenant between the Pieces is said to take place well before Israel (Jacob) himself was born, let alone his children.

Some of the contradictions in the Torah text even bear clear marks of different historical epochs in the ancient Near East. Thus, in Exodus 20:23 we read G-d's command: "Do not ascend My altar by steps, so that your nakedness not be revealed on it." The Torah is careful to ensure that priests serving before G-d not occasionally expose their genitals and therefore forbids building an altar to G-d with steps leading to it. However, this problem has yet another solution: demand that the priests wear pants when serving at the altar. And the Torah speaks of this, too: "Make for them [for the priests] linen pants to cover their nakedness, reaching from their waists to their thighs" (Exodus 28:42). But if the priests wear pants, what danger is there of an exposing priests' nakedness?

Art historians note that pants first appeared in the Middle East in Achaemenid Persia in the 6th century BCE (S. David Sperling, The Original Torah, p. 116). Before that time people in the Middle East -- both men and women -- wore kiltlike garments, which made the occasional exposure of nakedness when ascending steps indeed possible. This seems to lead to the unavoidable conclusion that the author of Exodus 20:23 lived before pants were introduced by the Persians, while the author of Exodus 28:42 was already acquainted with the latest fashion -- and we of course know that Jews were living under Persian rule only after the Babylonian exile.

These are only three examples of contradictions between different Torah verses, and there are many more. Isn't it now far more logical to conclude that we are dealing with multiple authors who lived in different epochs?

Could the Torah have been written down by Moses?

Nor am I doing better with the time at which the Torah was written. According to our tradition (Maimonides, Foreword to the Mishnah Commentary) Moses finished writing the Torah (as G-d dictated it to him) just before his death, in the 40th year after the Exodus. But in Genesis 14:14 we find: "And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them to Dan." The place-name Dan is mentioned once more in the Torah: "And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to the mountain of Nebo... and the Lord showed him all the land of Gilead, to Dan" (Deuteronomy 34:1).

But the first time a place in the Land of Israel (where the events took place) was named Dan was long after Moses's death, when the Israelite tribes were already conquering the land:

"And the children of Dan went their way... and came to Laish, to a people that were at peace and secure: and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and burnt the city with fire. And there was no deliverer, because it was far from Zidon, and they had no business with any man; and it was in the valley that lies near Beth-rehob. And they built a city, and dwelt therein. And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father, who was born to Israel: howbeit the name of the city was Laish at the first."

(Judges 18:26-29)

One can say the Torah spoke in the terms of the future, since for G-d there is no difference between the future, the present and the past, and Moses was a prophet to whom G-d revealed the matter of Dan. But we believe that the whole People of Israel received the Torah in its final form before they entered Canaan; how were they supposed to comprehend these verses?

This question also troubled the author of "HaKtav vehaKabbalah" commentary (on Genesis 14:14), and his explanation, based on the Targum Yerushalmi, is that the Dan spoken of in Genesis is not the Dan spoken of in Judges, but another Dan called "Dan deCeysarion," and it, says HaKtav vehaKabbalah, is "a place known to travelers." But alas, the city of Ceysarion is not Caesarea (as the author of HaKtav vehaKabbalah most likely thought), but another city, built in the time of Herod near the sources of the Jordan River, north of the Sea of Galilee, exactly where the Dan of Judges was situated (see the map in Encyclopedia Hebraica, v. 6, pp. 365-366). "Dan deCeysarion" is the same Dan as in Judges, and the question remains: was the Torah written years before the city of Dan was established, or -- a painful conclusion to which I am drawn -- afterwards?

Moreover, if G-d didn't mind including in the Torah names of cities that were not known when the Torah was given, but would only be known to future generations, then why does the Torah include only names known in the first half of the 1st millennium BCE? Why doesn't the Torah also mention, for example, the names Haifa, Dimona, Kiryat-Shemona etc.?

Just another example -- in Exodus 16:35 the Torah says: "And the Children of Israel ate manna forty years until they came to a land inhabited; they ate manna until they came to the borders of the land of Canaan." And the Gemara (Kiddushin 38a) says that when Moses died on the 7th of Adar, the manna stopped falling from the sky, and the Children of Israel ate the manna they had gathered that day until the day after Passover of that year, when they were already in the land of Canaan.

But we believe that the Torah as a whole was written down and presented to the people before the Children of Israel entered Canaan -- and yet the verse speaks in the past tense: "They ate manna..." That is, eating manna "until they came to the borders of the land of Canaan" is described as an event which had already taken place -- something possible only after they entered the land of Canaan, at least 30 days after Moses's death (Deuteronomy 34:8) and not before the day after Passover, according to the Gemara.

In Deuteronomy 34:5-12 we find:

"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: but no man knows of his sepulcher to 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. And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the Children of Israel hearkened to him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses. And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, and in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses showed in the sight of all Israel."

These verses, describing Moses's death, obviously could not have been written by Moses himself. Moses could have known about the events of his death through prophecy, but this is no help -- Moses's funeral and the mourning for him are described here in the past tense, so this account could not have been given to the whole People of Israel while Moses was still alive.

Indeed, even our Sages OBM disputed whether Moses wrote 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 Nechemiah. [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 G-d spoke and Moses wrote, from here on G-d spoke and Moses wrote in tears."

(Tractate Bava Batra 15a)

Rabbi Judah's (or Rabbi Nechemiah's) position is quite easily understood: if it is self-evident that Moses did not write these verses, it is reasonable to conclude that Moses's closest disciple, Joshua, finished the work. But Rabbi Simeon's opinion seems totally implausible -- no one can report his own funeral actually taking place and present this report to his whole community, be it in tears or not.

The Vilna Gaon tried to explain that the word "in tears" (bedema) means "in a muddle" (bedimua), that is, the letters of the Torah's last eight verses were not separated into words and verses, but all the letters were written in a sequence which could be partitioned in several different ways, and each partitioning, of course, would lead to a different variation of the text, so that it was not read as "So Moses... died there" (see R' Eliyahu Ki Tov, Sefer HaTodaah, chapter "HaTorah VehaMesorah"). But if the Vilna Gaon is right, then the Torah which Moses wrote had quite a different meaning from the one we now have, in which "So Moses... died there" is explicitly written. Who was it who later separated the non-separated letters, thus altering the original meaning of the Torah text? Whoever he was, he did in fact change the text after Moses's death -- according to the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Simeon's position is essentially no different from that of Rabbi Judah.

So we find that among the Tannaim there were those who did not consider the Torah to be authored, as a whole, by G-d himself. And not only among the Tannaim was there this dispute. Deuteronomy 34:6 says: "But no man knows of his [Moses's] sepulcher to this day." The expression "to this day" implies a lot of time had passed from when the events took place to when the verse describing them was written. And indeed, R' Abraham Ibn Ezra (of 12th century), wrote in his commentary on this verse: "'To this day' -- these are the words of Joshua. And it is possible he wrote them at the end of his days." Midrashic sources state that Joshua died 28 or even 38 years after Moses did (see Seder Olam Rabbah, Milikowski edition, chapter 12 vs. Yalkut Shimoni on Joshua, section 35). And, though according to Ibn Ezra on Exodus 33:11 there were only 14 years between Moses's death and Joshua's, we see that the sacred text of the Torah was changed more than a dozen years after it was introduced, sealed, and put "in the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 31:26), despite the explicit prohibition, "Do not add thereto nor diminish from it."

Were this prohibition seen as G-d's living word, neither Joshua nor anyone else would dare alter or add to the book. I cannot find an explanation for this save that, in Ibn Ezra's view, the Torah was not seen, as a whole, as the word of G-d. And not only is it Ibn Ezra's view, it follows ultimately from the Torah verses themselves, consistently analyzed.

5. The Scripture's prophecies -- proof of Divine supervision?

As I wrote above, the assumption that the prophecies contained in the Holy Writ are correct is a very essential element in Orthodox Jewish belief. The Torah itself says that after Moses's death G-d would raise prophets for the Jews "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). Sadly, it seems that many predictions of the Prophets and even of the Torah itself did not in fact come true.

The commandment of the sabbatical year (shemitah) is given Leviticus 25:2-7. The Torah also says: "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). But we do not have a single historical document confirming that such a miracle -- land giving a triple harvest on the eve of the sabbatical year -- had ever occurred. On the contrary, the book of I Maccabees (6:48-54) relates that the inhabitants of Bethsura and Jerusalem had nothing to eat because of the sabbatical year, and the Talmud (Sanhedrin 26a) tells 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 triple 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 yet they do not gather a triple harvest in the sixth year; observing the sabbatical year brings them significant economical damage, for which they regularly ask compensation from the Israeli government.

Indeed, there is a Halachic dispute on whether after the First Temple period the Torah's commandment of keeping the shemitah is valid, or whether the shemitah is kept in these times according to a Rabbinical regulation only. Rashi (on Gittin 36a, s.v. Bashvi'it bazman hazeh) and Tosfot (on Erchin 32b, s.v. Manu yovlot) state that according to Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the Torah's commandment to keep the shemitah is not valid in these times, while in the opinion of the other Sages this commandment is valid even nowadays. It might be admitted that the Torah's promise of triple harvest applies only when the Torah's commandment of the shemitah is valid, but then one would be forced to say that the Torah's promise has failed according to the Sages' opinion but not according to that of R' Judah HaNasi. It seems a rather lame excuse.

What emerges is no record of the shemita blessing actually happening while the law was clearly Biblical, combined with an explanation that when the law is Rabbinic (according to some opinions), the blessing doesn't apply. Does it not seem more logical to conclude that the promised blessings simply did not materialize?

The Torah says to the Israelites before they enter the land of Canaan: "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 G-d will impose the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land where you tread, as He had spoke to you" (Deuteronomy 11:24-25). Yet no Jewish tribe or state ever possessed any land on the bank of Euphrates, and even though the whole Scriptural narrative of the Israelite conquest of Canaan seems to present many historical and practical problems, even this narrative does not tell that the Israelites controlled "every place their feet trod." Despite their endless wars with the Canaanite population, 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 Philistine cities did not lose their nominal independence until the Babylonian conquest in the 6th century BCE. The Scripture and Judaic tradition also freely admit that the prophecy "nobody will stand before you" failed: "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, Milikowski edition, chapter 11). And no Israelite army ever attempted an assault reaching the banks of the Euphrates.

Thus far we have discussed the Torah, but the books of the Prophets are not free of seemingly unfulfilled prophecies either. We find in the book of Ezekiel (26:3-14):

"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 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 the 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 will be built no more, for I the Lord have spoken, declares the Sovereign Lord."

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon (Nebuchadrezzar in Ezekiel 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 did he turn it into "a bare rock... built no more." Tyre exists to this very day, occupying most of the area of the ancient Phoenician city. Tyre's population even grew from 16,000 inhabitants in 1961 to 70,000 in 1991. The first time when a coalition of "many nations" made war on Tyre was during the Crusades in 1124 CE -- long after Nebuchadnezzar's death (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tyre). In fact, Ezekiel himself admitted that his prophecy about Tyre failed:

"Nebuchadrezzar the 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)

[Of course, our rabbis tried to explain these verses so that the prophecy of the fall of Tyre would not be seen as false: Radak wrote in his commentary on this verse that "when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Tyre and plundered its wealth, the sea rose on the city and rinsed and washed away all the spoils, for that city was destined to be washed away with all its inhabitants and wealth; so it came out that Nebuchadnezzar's army worked hard in vain," and Rashi wrote similar things in his commentary. However, it must be noted that in reality Nebuchadnezzar did not manage to conquer Tyre, nor did all of Tyre's wealth ever wash away to sea, and it seems more comforting to admit, along with Ezekiel, that his prophecy had not been fulfilled (for whatever reasons), than to posit creative understandings trying to "save" the prophecy from failure.]

As compensation for his loss in the campaign against Tyre, Ezekiel promised Nebuchadnezzar -- in the name of G-d, of course -- Egypt:

"Therefore thus says the Sovereign Lord: I am going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar the 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)

But Nebuchadnezzar never did manage to conquer Egypt and plunder it "as pay for his army." So this prophecy of Ezekiel's seems also to have remained unfulfilled.

These are only some examples of the unfulfilled prophecies in the Holy Writ, but in fact there are many more -- enough to make the matter of unfulfilled prophecies a serious problem for our rabbis, who, in order to solve the issue, introduced several limitations on the necessity for a prophecy to come true. The best known of these limitations is by Maimonides, in his Foreword to the Mishnah Commentary: only a prophecy which foretells good and which a prophet said about other people (as opposed to a promise G-d gives to a prophet concerning the prophet himself) 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: all the prophecies I have brought here are obviously predictions of good for those to whom they were said (i.e. for the Jews), yet these prophecies also proved false. So it would seem that even Maimonides's limitations cannot save the Scripture from unfulfilled prophecies.

On the other hand, we find in the Gemara (Yevamot 49b-50a) the following discourse:

"'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."

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 G-d" 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 more and to sire Manasseh, to fulfill the prophecy; when Hezekiah sinned, these 15 years were subtracted from his life span as a punishment, but when he repented and prayed for G-d 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." But 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 G-d" is 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 rather external to a prophecy is able to 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 of that kind. And so prophecy, one of the main issues of our faith, turns into a product subject to a host of external spiritual factors. Hence, it would seem beyond any objective verification and not capable of proving anything.

6. The Oral Torah and the Halacha -- I

Categories in the Oral Torah

The situation is no less problematic when it comes to a belief in the Oral Torah and the Divine authority of practical Halachic rulings. Maimonides states in the foreword to his Mishnah commentary that the Oral Torah consists of five parts:

  1. "Traditional exegesis [perushim mekubalim], received through the 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."
  2. "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."
  3. "The laws derived rationally, and there was a disagreement [amongst 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 whole Talmud investigating the reasons and the arguments which caused disagreement between the parties."
  4. "The edicts [gezerot] which were established by the prophets and the Sages in each and every generation to make a fence around the Torah. G-d 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]' (Tractate Yevamot 21a)."
  5. "The laws which are based on paradigms of thinking and consensus about the things common among people, in which there is neither addition nor diminishment of any commandment... These laws are called regulations and customs [takanot uminhagim]. It is forbidden to violate them, for King Solomon said about the one who breaks these laws, 'He who breaks a fence, a serpent will bite' (Ecclesiastes 10:8)."

Chazal's regulations and customs and the Holy Writ

From the above words of Maimonides it seems that he bound the obligation to follow Chazal's regulations and customs to the verse of Ecclesiastes 10:8. But in the Mishnah we find:

"All the Holy Writings impurify one's hands. The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes impurify the hands. Rabbi Judah says the Song of Songs impurifies the hands and about the Ecclesiastes there is disagreement. Rabbi Yossi says Ecclesiastes does not impurify the hands, and about the Song of Songs there is disagreement... Rabbi Simeon the son of Azzai said, thus I received from the seventy-two elders [the Great Sanhedrin] on the day when they seated Rabbi Eleazar the son of Azariah in the Yeshiva, that the Song of Songs and the Ecclesiastes impurify the hands... Rabbi Jochanan the son of Joshua the son of the father-in-law of Rabbi Akiba said, as the son of Azzai told, thus was the disagreement and that is the Halachic decision which they ruled."

(Tractate Yadaim, chapter 3, mishnah 5)

To remove any doubt, R' Obadiah of Bartinura, the most accepted commentator on the Mishnah, explains: "'Ecclesiastes does not impurify the hands -- because it is the wisdom of Solomon himself and was not said through the Divine spirit." That is, about a thousand years after King Solomon's death the Sages of the Mishnah discuss which of his books are holy (and will therefore enter the Scriptural canon) and which are not.

The very authority of the book of Ecclesiastes as a part of the Holy Writ was determined by the Sages themselves. Of course, it may be said that Maimonides did not mean Ecclesiastes 10:8 to be a positive authority for the Sages to establish regulations and customs, only a recommendation to ordinary people to follow them lest bad things happen -- but in this case, what gives the Sages authority to establish regulations and customs?

Concerning the regulations and customs of the Sages, Maimonides said they are based "on paradigms of thinking and consensus about the things common among people." He also says that in every place where it is written, "Rabban Gamliel the Elder made a regulation" [hitkin Rabban Gamliel haZaken], a law of the "regulations and customs" type is meant. But in Tractate Eiruvin 45a we find:

"All who go out [of their Sabbath domain] in order to save people [from the enemies], return to the place they came from... As we have learnt: in old times, they did not move from there all the day; Rabban Gamliel the Elder made a regulation that they can move 2000 amahs in each direction. And not only they [those who come to fight the enemies], but even a midwife who comes to assist a childbirth... they are as the people of the city they came to, and they have 2000 amahs in each direction."

This Gemara speaks of the issue of a Sabbath domain, a prohibition of the Torah as Maimonides says in Sefer haMitzvot:

"Commandment number 321 is the prohibition of going out of a state's domain on Sabbath, as is said, 'Let no man go out of his place on the seventh day' (Exodus 16:29). From tradition it is known that [the area beyond] the bounds of the domain, where one cannot go, is anything which lays further then 2000 amahs out of the state, even a single amah [further]. But one is permitted to go 2000 amahs in each direction."

"A state" here is not a country, but the city, town or village in which one dwells (see Maimonides, The Laws of Sabbath 27:1). The Sabbath domain is the area which lays no further than 2000 amahs (3200 to 4000 feet, according to different Halachic opinions) from the state's bounds. And though this distance is given to us through tradition, the commandment of not going beyond the Sabbath domain is from the Torah.

True, for the sake of saving a Jew's life one may violate the Sabbath and go out of the Sabbath domain, as may people going to protect the Jews from their enemies or the midwife who goes to another city to assist a childbirth. But their Sabbath domain is measured from the bounds of the city where they began the Sabbath, and if on their mission they went out of this domain, when the mission is ended they cannot move from their place, lest they find themselves going beyond the domain's boundaries, which is forbidden by the Torah. And yet Rabban Gamliel the Elder "made a regulation" and permitted their going 2000 amahs in each direction from the place where they end their mission, even if it is far beyond their initial Sabbath domain. This regulation is Halachically valid to this very day (see Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 407:1).

Thus we find our Sages OBM abolishing Torah commandments in favor of "paradigms of thinking and consensus about the things common among people."

To Chazal, by the way, this did not seem remarkable. They thought it quite possible that somebody would abolish plain words of the Torah:

"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, '[G-d] 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)

As one can well see, this passage treats Torah verses as Moses's own edicts. Though it may be said that Deuteronomy 28:65 and 33:28 are quotes from Moses's speech to Israel (just as there are quotes from Abraham, Jacob, and Laban in other places), Leviticus 26:38 (as well as all of Leviticus 26:1-45) is said by the Torah itself to be G-d's own speech, and Exodus 34:7 is understood by Rabbinic tradition as G-d's own words, as is clear from the major Rabbinical commentaries on this verse. So how could the Sages say that Exodus 34:7 and Leviticus 26:38 are Moses's own edicts? Moreover, this Talmudic statement implies that one may come generations after the Torah was given and abolish its words! Is this how one treats the Divine text?

One may say that these prophets spoke not in their own names, but in the name of G-d, so the abolishment of Torah decrees came from the Divine itself. But even if this were the case, it clearly contradicts one of the principles of our faith -- that the Torah will never be changed. This is one of the things which distinguish us from the Christians, who believe that after giving the Torah G-d changed His mind and gave humanity the "New Testament."

Moreover, even provided that these prophets spoke in the name of G-d, the Gemara ascribes the abolishment of Torah decrees to them personally. This, however, is consistent with the Sages' relation to the Holy Writ -- though these books claim to contain the words of the Living G-d (the phrase "Thus said the Lord" appears 419 times in the Prophets and the Writings) Chazal did not conceal that they, on their own, determined which books would enter the Holy Writ and which would not.

We learn this not only from the above-mentioned mishnah in Tractate Yadaim, but also from several places in the Talmud. The Gemara in Tractate Shabbat 13b says:

"Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: behold, may that man be remembered for good, Chananiah the son of Chizkiah is his name, for were it not for him, the book of Ezekiel would be filed away because its words contradicted the words of the Torah. What did he do? They gave him 300 measures of oil [for lighting], and he sat in the attic and elucidated the book."

That is, were it not for Chananiah's elucidation the book of Ezekiel -- a prophet of G-d in whose book the phrase "Thus said the Lord" appears 126 times -- would have been "filed away" for generations and would not have entered the Holy Writ.

Sometimes we even find Chazal disagreeing on whether certain books would enter the Holy Writ or not, without a final halachic decision. Thus, in Tractate Sanhedrin 100b we find: "Rabbi Akiba said: even one who reads external books [has no share in the World to Come]. We have learnt: these are books of heretics. Rav Joseph said: even the book of the Son of Sirach it is forbidden to read." Rav Joseph considered the book of the Son of Sirach one of the "external books," which it is forbidden to read; he certainly did not consider it part of the Holy Writings. And so we find in Midrash Kohelet Rabba (Vilna edition, chapter 12): "Everyone who brings into his house more than 24 books [which Chazal included in the Holy Writ], brings turmoil into his house, and this is said of books like the Son of Sirach and the Son of Tagla."

However, we find in Tractate Bava Kama 92b: "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. The Amora who made this statement (Rabba the son of Marei) saw the book of the Son of Sirach as a part of the Writings!

[As a sidenote, I should add that the "verse" brought in the Gemara was actually compiled from 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 phrase "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 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 haGaluy, 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). R' Simeon Ben Tzemach Duran, one of the most prominent rabbis of the 15th century, even thought it appropriate to use stories of the Son of Sirach as arguments in Halachic discourse (see the Tashbetz Responsa, part 3, paragraph 263) -- but what he thought to be a story from the book of the Son of Sirach was in fact from Alpha Beta deBen Sira, a later midrash which is thought to have been compiled in the period of Geonim (Encyclopedia Hebraica, Ben Sira, alpha beta de, v. 9, p. 167). This midrash tells a story of how Ben Sira (the son of Sirach) was born of Prophet Jeremiah's daughter, impregnated by her father's sperm from the bath water. Nothing like that is found in the book of the Son of Sirach itself.

But actually, the book of the Son of Sirach is only one of those "external books" Chazal "filed away" from the Holy Writ. There are many others -- some of them entered the Christian Bible (as in the Apocrypha of the King James Version), and some -- like the above-mentioned "book of the Son of Tagla" -- were lost forever. But even the "external books" which are in our possession are written in the style of the Holy Writ: they also cite the explicit 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). And yet Chazal separated these prophetic books from those, thus judging -- centuries after the books were written -- which "Thus said the Lord" is valid and which is not.

So we find our Sages determining quite openly, and not always unanimously, the composition of the Holy Writ -- and yet we consider its books as words of prophecy, which, by the time of Chazal, had ended. Can you explain how this is possible? Even if prophetic content can be judged by one who is not a prophet, what standard would he use? What standard was used by the Sages?

Halacha given to Moses at Sinai

But let us return to the Oral Torah and its components. So far we have dealt with the "regulations and customs." Now let us turn to the second part of Maimonides' list -- Halacha given to Moses at Sinai. As I quoted above, "there are no logical arguments in favor of these laws" -- that is, they are not derived from Scripture or reason, but Moses received these laws from the Divine at Mt. Sinai, and these laws were transmitted through tradition, without any flaw or alteration until the Oral Torah was written down.

Not only is such a scrupulous oral transmission of detailed laws through 1500 years -- without a single change and with no point forgotten -- extremely unlikely from a common sense viewpoint, but we also have texts which relate that this is not how things happened.

Maimonides himself, in the foreword to his Mishnah commentary, counts the laws which he considers Halacha given to Moses at Sinai. Among them he counts the rule: "A mentor may look where the children are reading" (Shabbat, chapter 1, mishnah 3) -- that despite the prohibition against reading by candlelight on Sabbath, a teacher may supervise his students when they learn to read. Actually, this law is explicitly described as a halacha given to Moses from Sinai in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 1:3. And yet the very prohibition against reading by candlelight on Sabbath is an edict [gezerah] by Chazal aimed at preventing a person unintentionally trimming an oil candle while reading, thus violating the Torah prohibition against setting a fire on Sabbath, as the Jerusalem Talmud (ibid.) explicitly states: "Great are the words of Sages, who said, 'Lest he would forget and trim [the candle].'" It is obvious that if the whole prohibition against reading by candlelight on Sabbath was later established by the Sages, it is impossible to say that an exception to this prohibition was given to Moses by G-d Himself at Mt. Sinai.

Of course, our rabbis did not miss this difficult issue, and the Rosh wrote in his Laws of Mikvaot (section 1) that this law is not indeed Halacha given to Moses from Sinai, merely "clear as a halacha given to Moses at Sinai." However, the Rosh overlooked that the mishnah says, "Indeed they said, a teacher may look where the children are reading," and the Jerusalem Talmud in that very place explained: "Mishnah: 'Indeed they said...' Rabbi Lazar said: wherever the Mishnah says 'Indeed,' Halacha given to Moses at Sinai is meant." That is, we have a semantic rule of the Mishnah: 'Indeed' means Halacha given to Moses at Sinai. So, according to the Rosh, not only is this rule, stated in the Talmud, wrong, but the Talmud also chose to quote it in a case where it is not valid. The Rosh's explanation contradicts both the Jerusalem Talmud and Maimonides's determination that the law "a mentor may look" is a real and actual halacha given to Moses at Sinai.

Another law which Maimonides counts as a halacha given to Moses at Sinai: "[Those who live in] Ammon and Moab give the Tithe of the Poor [maaser ani] in the seventh year," and it is from Tractate Yadaim, chapter 4, mishnah 3:

"Rabbi Eliezer cried and said, '...Thus I received from Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai, and he had received it from his rabbi, and his rabbi from his rabbi, and so on, up to Halacha given to Moses at Sinai, that [those who live in] Ammon and Moab give the Tithe of the Poor in the seventh year."

But the Talmud itself says:

"[Those who live in] Ammon and Moab give the Tithe of the Poor in the seventh year, as they said: many places [the People of Israel] conquered when they came from Egypt, but they did not conquer them when they returned from Babylon, and the first sanctity [which the land obtained after the first conquest] was valid only for its time, but not forever, and [after they came from the Babylonian Exile] they did not sanctify those places, so that the poor would have something to rely on in the seventh year."

(Tractate Yevamot 16a)

That is, after the People of Israel came from Egypt, they conquered the lands of Ammon and Moab, sanctified them as a part of the Land of Israel, and each seventh year the laws of the shemitah were valid in those lands -- which means people were forbidden to gather their crops and were exempt from the obligation of tithes. After the Jews returned from Babylonian exile they did not sanctify those lands for purposes of shemitah, but they obligated the inhabitants of those lands to give tithes, which would supply the poor in the shemitah years. The rule that "[Those who live in] Ammon and Moab give the Tithe of the Poor in the seventh year" could not have been given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, hundreds of years before the Babylonian exile, and Rashi on Chagiga 3b explicitly calls this rule "a regulation since the time of the Great Assembly." R' Simeon of Sens wrote in his commentary on the mishnah of Yadaim 4:3 that "halacha given to Moses at Sinai" in this mishnah's context must be understood not literally but rather figuratively. But such an approach, depriving words of their plain meaning, seems inappropriate in Halachic discourse, where the terms should be always well defined.

R' Samson himself rejected the above interpretation, based on the Tosefta to Tractate Yadaim (2:16), where Rabbi Eliezer's words are cited as follows: "Thus I received from Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai, and he had received it from the Pairs [earlier Tannaim], and they -- from the Prophets, and they -- from Moses, that it is an halacha given to Moses at Sinai: [those who live in] Ammon and Moab give the Tithe of the Poor in the seventh year." That means the mishnah must speak of a Halachic law given literally to Moses at Sinai -- which is historically impossible.

In Tractate Sukkah 28a-b the Talmud tries to determine whether the definite article ha [the] in the word "ha'ezrach" [the native] (Leviticus 23:42) was intended to exempt the women from the commandment of sitting in a sukkah or to include them amongst those whom this commandment obligates. When they found no way to decide, they simply announced that women are exempted from the commandment of sukkah by halacha given to Moses at Sinai. This is a rather strange way to recall an existing tradition from Sinai on a basic commandment such as the sukkah, one about which no forgetfulness should have occurred. Are we again forced to conclude that "Moses at Sinai" is not meant literally? (Though Maimonides expresses the "no forgetfulness" view only concerning the laws given at Sinai which can be derived through the Torah's exegesis, it is hard to presume an essential difference between those laws and laws which are Halacha given to Moses at Sinai. Logically, Maimonides's view should extend to any tradition originating from Sinai, certainly if it concerns basic commandments familiar to every Jew.)

Further, in Midrash Sifra (Acharei Mot, section 5), it is said: "'The native' -- to include the native's wives." Here the Sages not only did not mention a "halacha given to Moses at Sinai," they explicitly ruled in contradiction to that halacha baseon exegesis from the Torah. It is true that such contradictions in exegesis are common. The problem is how they can exist in a situation where a law allegedly extends back to Sinai.

Chazal themselves freely admitted that the laws which are Halacha given to Moses at Sinai may be forgotten. Thus we find in Tractate Sukkah 44a: "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 from Sinai. They forgot it and then established it again."

The Gemara in Tractate Eiruvin 21b says: "If the words of the Sages are something of value, why were they not written? For the Scripture says: 'Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh' (Ecclesiastes 12:12)." And the Tosfot there (s.v. Mipnei) add that the words of the Sages were not given as Halacha given to Moses at Sinai so that they would not be forgotten. We learn from here not only that Halacha given to Moses at Sinai can be forgotten, but so might other kinds of oral tradition. I will return to this later.

I can only conclude this part of my letter with the words of Prof. Shmuel Safrai in his article "Halacha Given to Moses at Sinai -- History or Theology?" (Proceedings of the 9th World Congress on Jewish Studies, v. III, Hebrew section, pp. 23-30):

"Those chains described by the Tannaim which present a tradition of certain halachic laws received from their rabbis, who in turn received them from their rabbis, and so on until the Pairs [the early Tannaim] and the Prophets, are naught but a literary way of describing the steadier Halacha which joins the Torah given to Moses on Sinai... Generally, the halachot of which it is said, 'Halacha given to Moses at Sinai,' have no uniqueness on their own. They are neither ancient traditions nor halachic laws about which there was no disagreement, and they even have no specific Halachic or ideological status in and of themselves."

The Sages' edicts

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." These laws are also admittedly not from the Divine, but from the Sages' own minds -- though, Maimonides says, the Sages were authorized to establish these laws by the Torah verse, "Therefore you shall keep My guard" (Leviticus 18:30), the meaning of which is explained by tradition as "Make another guard around My guard [of Torah commandments]," as described in Tractate Yevamot 21a. The explanation of this verse as giving such great authority to the Sages is itself of the kind of "traditional exegesis [perushim mekubalim], received through the tradition from Moses," who, in turn, received it from G-d 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."

This matter is very peculiar -- why is a statement not disputed just because some individual or group claims to have 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. I shall expand on this issue below, but meanwhile it is appropriate to recall that even our rabbis knew that traditions may be distorted and forgotten -- see the above-mentioned Gemara and Tosfot in Eiruvin 21b.

But even if we accept Maimonides' approach to tradition, one needs only open the Gemara to Tractate Yevamot 21a to realize that the derivation of the Sages' authority to institute such edicts from the verse "Therefore you shall keep My guard" seems to be completely arbitrary.

The exegesis, "'Therefore you shall keep My guard' -- make another guard around My guard," does not necessarily say anything about the Sages' authority to establish any edict of any kind. It says, most probably, that a Jew should restrain himself from certain actions which are formally permitted by the Torah but the performance of which might put one in danger of violating Torah commandments -- 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, all according to his personal considerations and the inclinations of his own heart. That this exegesis provides the Sages with authority to define what all Israel should abstain from is highly questionable.

One might suppose that the Gemara says explicitly that this traditional exegesis gives the Sages the authority to establish such edicts, but the Gemara stubbornly refuses to carry out the mission that Maimonides placed upon it. Here is what the Gemara says on the issue:

"Rava said: where does the Torah hint about those [forbidden sexual contacts], which are of the second degree? It is written: 'For all these [ha'el] abominations the men of the land have done' (Leviticus 18:27); 'ha'el' 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 'ha'el' means 'greatly severe'? For it is written, 'And he took the great people of the land [eilei ha'aretz]' (Ezekiel 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' (Ecclesiastes 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 issue 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' (Leviticus 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! [Rav Joseph answered:] they are from the Torah, and the Sages had elucidated them. [Abaye:] But the whole Torah did the Sages elucidate! [Rav Joseph:] No, these issues were instituted by the Sages, and the verse is just a parable [asmachta be'alma]."

(Tractate Yevamot 21a)

The following points are to be noted:

  1. The Gemara does not deal at all with the Sages' authority to issue edicts in order to "make a fence around the Torah," thereby obligating 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 I will discuss below, Chazal, at times, seem not to differentiate between 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 G-d."
  2. The Gemara 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 be'alma]' 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.

So it seems that there was neither traditional exegesis given by G-d to Moses, and clearly nothing in the plain meaning of the verses about the Sages' authority "to make a fence around the Torah." Rather the Sages themselves introduced it for their own reasons. And be those reasons whatever they may be, they are the deductions and considerations of flesh and blood, not from the Divine -- so why are they more authoritative or binding than any other human laws?

Traditional exegesis

The next part of the Oral Torah, according to Maimonides, is "traditional exegesis [perushim mekubalim], received through tradition from Moses." Maimonides also gives an essential characteristic of these laws:

"The [laws derived by the] exegesis received from tradition which starts from Moses are never disagreed with in any way. 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 this criterion was 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 subjects of disagreement, but there may be laws belonging to other categories which are based on the Torah text and concerning which there is no disagreement). In the first case the "no disagreement" 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 G-d 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 tell 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 3 in Maimonides's division).

7. Tradition -- is it reliable?

Personal integrity -- not the best criterion

However, the questions raised in the above passage are not the main point. The main point is that, as we all know, tradition may well become distorted or forgotten, especially over the course of the 1500 years between Moses and Rabbi Judah HaNasi. The Tosfot, as said above, explicitly admitted this. Therefore it is peculiar that Maimonides was so persuaded tradition could be the only reason for the lack of dispute amongst Chazal on certain laws that he even ruled: "When one says, 'This is what I received from tradition,' it should not be disputed."

Do we simply rely on the personal integrity of each and every one of our rabbis? This seems most problematic -- not only because for common sense plausibility one should require matters not be dependent solely on the personal virtues and abilities of specific people, but also because we have found certain rabbis' concepts of the truth do not square with our notions of fact and historicity:

"So we find that truth is whatever leads to good and to the will of the Creator, while lie is whatever bring success to the business of the Master of Lies, he on the other side [Sitra Achra]."

(Rabbi E. E. Dessler, "Michtav MiEliyahu," v. 1, p. 94)

"It is written in the commentary of the disciples of Rabbeynu Jonah on Tractate Berachot... about what Rabbi Jochanan said (in Sanhedrin 42a), that everyone who blesses the new moon on time, it is as though he saw the Divine Presence: 'For despite the fact we cannot see G-d with our own eyes, we can see Him through His great deeds and wonders... Here also, because He renews the months, He thus reveals Himself to people, and it is as though they saw really His face; this is what I heard from the rabbi, my teacher [i.e. Rabbeynu Jonah himself].'... And despite the fact that all this comes from an erroneous supposition -- for a wise person who knows the calculations also understands the moon's trajectory, and he knows that it also moves in a constant movement and does not deviate from its trajectory even for a moment -- anyway, from what people conclude from superficial knowledge, they come to recognition of G-d, blessed be He. Chazal pointed out the great value of this recognition, derived only from superficial knowledge and from a lack of analysis, until they said that such a person is like one who sees the Divine Presence...

That is, because by this error one recognizes G-d, of what importance is the fact that it is an error? ...And because after all, this error brings to the true purpose and there is no other way that one could obtain the true recognition, we should conclude that this error is the only way to achieve the true purpose. In this case, it is really the true way, and one may not call it a 'lie'. For the difference between a lie and the truth is measured by the outcome of the things that result -- and if the outcome is true, the means by which that true outcome was obtained are also true."

(Rabbi Yerucham of Mir, Daat Chochma UMussar, v. 1, p. 113)

That is, first we define what truth is (regardless of factual reality) and then we judge statements as being true or false based solely on whether or not they lead to the conclusions which satisfy us. "The end justifies the means."

Of course, people may lie occasionally out of weakness. But the authors cited above speak of a principle -- that lies should be considered truth if they lead to a desirable outcome. And these authors are considered Torah greats and are role models for many religious Jews in recent generations. If this is the moral philosophy of our contemporary Torah greats, who can guarantee that in previous generations the outlook was any different? And if it was not, how can I rely on things they introduced as "tradition"? It may well be that they made those things up to bring the Jews closer "to the good and to the will of the Creator," and in that case it is conceivable that they would find no obstacle in describing their own innovations as "tradition which starts from Moses and the Sinai Revelation."

Tradition as the basis of our faith

Because many people see in tradition the main core of our faith, I find it necessary to expand on this matter. What those people think is well described in Nachmanides' commentary on Deuteronomy 4:9:

"What is said above (Exodus 19:9), 'And in you, too, they will believe forever,' means that 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 [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 which we will testify before them, but they will surely believe that we all have seen, with our own eyes, all that we tell them."

Maimonides likewise stated in the Laws of the Torah Foundations 8:1:

"Moses our teacher -- Israel did not believe in him because of the wonders he performed, for one whose belief is based on wonders has a fault in his heart, for it is possible that a wonder would occur through sorcery or witchcraft... And why did they believe in him? At the Sinai Revelation, when our eyes and not strangers' saw, our ears and not others' heard the fire and the voices and the torches, and Him coming near the cloud, and the voice saying him: Moses, Moses, go tell them this and that... And from where do we know that only the Sinai Revelation is proof that his [Moses's] prophesy is true, without a fault? For it is written, 'Here, I come to you in a thick cloud in order that the people may hear when I speak with you, and in you, too, will they believe forever' (Exodus 19:9)."

But even if at the Sinai Revelation the people of Israel really saw the fire with their own eyes and heard G-d speaking to Moses with their own ears, we now perceive contradictory data with our own eyes and ears. We perceive that the shafan and the arnevet do not bring up their cud, that there are no traces of a global flood on the planet Earth during the past 10,000 years, etc., as I described in the earlier pages of this letter. If the Torah does not describe the world correctly, is it plausible to believe that it was given by the Creator of the world? These two sources of "truth," namely, tradition and sense observation, are in conflict. Are my own eyes and ears less reliable than the eyes and the ears of the Jews at the Sinai Revelation?

Some people may answer "yes, they are." For the "seeing" and "hearing" described by Maimonides are not the usual, physical seeing and hearing, but spiritual senses, on the prophetic level, and they are more reliable than our physical senses -- for we all know of incidents in which the senses are deluded (optical illusions and the like), while prophetic or spiritual perception is 100% reliable, and no delusions are possible there, etc., etc.

But in fact, though it is true that the physical senses can be deluded, nobody can say for sure that spiritual perception (whatever that is) cannot be deluded just as well. We all know that there are many people, believers of all of the religions on earth, who claim to have experienced some sort of spiritual revelation and have always been ready to die for it in large numbers. Yet, since many of these revelations are contradictory, we must assume that at least some of them were deluded. Moreover, the Scripture itself admits that spiritual perception may be false:

"And the Lord said, 'Who will entice Ahab king of Israel into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?' One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, 'I will entice him.' 'By what means?' the Lord asked. 'I will go and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,' he said. 'You will succeed in enticing him,' said the Lord. 'Go and do it.'"

(II Chronicles 18:19-21)

To claim, without any proof other than the proposition of an inerrant tradition spanning thousands of years, that the Torah was revealed by G-d to the Jewish people through a true deep spiritual connection while all our physical and historical observations that contradict the Torah are rooted in sense delusions and the like, quite blatantly begs the question, especially since in our times there are no people who had a direct prophetic perception of G-d and the divinity of the Torah during the Sinai Revelation or under any other circumstances. All contemporary religious Jews have heard a story about it from their fathers and grandfathers -- no more. And we heard it with our physical ears, through the very physical sense of hearing. Why, then, should I trust my senses when told of this inerrant tradition that G-d gave us the Torah but not trust them when I see that the shafan and the arnevet do not bring up their cud?

The Gemara on the reliability of tradition

From the Talmud, by the way, one may learn that even if somebody tells me that 3300 years ago G-d gave us the Torah he is absolutely unreliable as a witness, despite what Maimonides and Nachmanides say. The Gemara in Shabbat 145a-b brings it as a law of the Torah that a witness who bears hearsay testimony should be disqualified, at least on matters of Torah law (the Sages sometimes permitted hearsay testimony to be qualified on the matters of their own rulings). G-d himself does not rely on hearsay testimony! Why should we rely on it to prove that He gave the Torah?

Judaic tradition unaware of its own history

Moreover, what is often claimed to be a characteristic of our tradition's reliability -- its awareness of the history of its own transmission -- appears to be faulty. The first three mishnahs of Tractate Avot say:

"Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and handled it to Joshua. Joshua handled it to the elders, and the elders -- to the prophets, and the prophets handled it to the men of the Great Assembly...

Simeon the Righteous was one of the last men of the Great Assembly...

Antignos of Socho received [the Torah] from Simeon the Righteous..."

This seems to be a consistent picture. However, if we try to find out when all these people lived, the problems begin. On one hand, the Gemara (Yoma 69a) tells us of the meeting between Simeon the Righteous and Alexander the Great -- the meeting which saved the Second Temple from destruction by Alexander's armies as they conquered the Land of Israel from the Persians. On the other hand, the last prophets were Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (Yoma 9b, Sotah 48b). They returned from Babylonian exile after the edict of Cyrus was issued and took part in building the Second Temple (Ezra 5:1-2); the last of them -- Malachi -- lived after the Temple was built, when sacrifices were already being brought there (Malachi 1:8). So the period of "the men of the Great Assembly" seems to fit the period of Persian rule over the Land of Israel.

Judaic tradition sees this period as rather short: "The kingdom of Media and Persia [lasted] 52 years" (Seder Olam Rabbah, Milikowski edition, chapter 30). Correspondingly, "the men of the Great Assembly" are reported to be a single generation:

"The Beit Din of Ezra was called the Great Assembly, which consisted of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, Daniel and Hananiah and Mishael and Azariah, and Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah, and Mordechai the Linguist, and Zerubbabel, and many other sages, a total of 120 elders. The last of them was Simeon the Righteous, who was one of the 120. He received the Oral Torah from all of them, and he was the High Priest after Ezra."

(Maimonides, Foreword to "Mishneh Torah")

The 120 elders of the Great Assembly, according to Maimonides, included all the Jewish sages of the Persian period -- from late prophets to Simeon the Righteous. For a period of 52 years this is not implausible.

However, the problem is: the account of 52 years is utterly unhistorical. From several independent Greek historical sources we know that Persian rule over the ancient Middle East commenced with Cyrus's conquest of the Babylonian empire (539 BCE) and ended when Darius III was defeated by Alexander the Great (332 BCE). This period spanned the reigns of the following Persian kings:

Cyrus 539-530 BCE
Cambyses 530-522 BCE
Darius I 522-486 BCE
Xerxes 486-465 BCE
Artaxerxes I 465-424 BCE
Darius II 423-404 BCE
Artaxerxes II 404-358 BCE
Artaxerxes III 358-338 BCE
Arses 338-336 BCE
Darius III 336-332 BCE

(See Mitchell First, Jewish History in Conflict, Appendix B)

Though there are some disagreements between ancient historians concerning the exact number of years each Persian king ruled, the total length of the Persian period appears to be about 200 years -- a discrepancy of 150 years from the Judaic tradition. This is too much to be ascribed to the imprecision of Greek historical documents, which usually does not exceed a dozen years. The dates in the table above are brought according to the 2nd century CE Hellenistic Egyptian author Ptolemy. Ptolemy, being an astronomer, took special care to mention the years of solar and lunar eclipses. As dates of eclipses can be calculated, this also gave him a tool for checking the accuracy of his chronological lists, called Ptolemy's Canon. To us, the dates of eclipses -- which we can also calculate using our system of calendar reckoning -- help fit the chronology of the ancient world into CE-BCE terms. The table above lists only those Persian kings who ruled for more than a year. Lest someone think that Greek historians artificially "created" a long line of Persian kings and a protracted Persian period, in the 19th century many Old Persian inscriptions were found in the ruins of ancient Persian palaces -- and all these inscriptions give us a picture consistent with Greek historical writings, and especially with Ptolemy's Canon (see M. First, Jewish History in Conflict, pp. 164-168).

It is clear that people living at the beginning of the Persian period (like the later prophets) could not meet those living at its end, and that Simeon the Righteous, if he met Alexander in 332 BCE, could not receive Torah from Daniel, Hananiah, and Mishael, and Azariah, who are reported to be have been taken as children to the court of Nebuchadnezzar even before the First Temple's destruction (Daniel 1:1-6), and therefore were quite old men at the commencement of the Persian period in 539 BCE.

The date of the Second Temple's construction, as given by the Judaic tradition, seems unhistorical:

"Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi learned: the Persian kingdom ruled 34 years during the [Second] Temple era, the Greek kingdom ruled 180 years during the Temple era, the Hasmonean kingdom ruled 103 years during the Temple era, the kingdom of Herod ruled 103 years during the Temple era."

(Tractate Avodah Zarah 8b-9a)

If the whole Persian period lasted, according to Chazal, 52 years, then it appears that the Temple was built 18 years after the period began, in 521 BCE. However, the Scripture states that the Temple was built "in the sixth year of the reign of Daryavesh the king" (Ezra 6:15). There were three Persian kings called Daryavesh (Darius), the third of them reigned only four years, and the sixth year of both Darius I (516) and Darius II (417) are distant from 332 BCE, when the Greeks took over, by much more than 34 years.

Chazal determined that the Second Temple existed for 420 years, and this served them (and also us) as a base for calculating the shemitah years (see Erchin 11b-12b). But as we know, the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and be the Daryavesh of Ezra 6:15 Darius I or Darius II, we obtain a period much longer than 420 years (586 or 487 years correspondingly). This means that our determination of the shemitah years is incorrect.

Maimonides called the Great Assembly "the Beit Din of Ezra," and indeed, in our tradition Ezra is considered the most prominent of Jewish sages in the post-exilic period: "When the Torah had become forgotten by Israel, Ezra came from Babylon and established it anew" (Sukkah 20a), "Ezra was worthy of the Torah being given through him" (Sanhedrin 21:2), etc. And yet we have no clear historical account of Ezra's life from any other source. From Ezra 7:1-7 we learn that he came to the Land of Israel in the seventh year of the Persian king Artachshasta. Greek historians -- and after them, all Western historical sources -- brought this name as Artaxerxes, and from the table above we can see there were three Persian kings with this name: Artaxerxes I (465-424), Artaxerxes II (404-358), and Artaxerxes III (358-338). The possible years of Ezra's arrival in Jerusalem are 458, 397 and 351 BCE. According to Ezra 7:1, he came to Jerusalem after the Second Temple was built. The Temple was built in the sixth year of Darius's reign -- but as there were two Dariuses who reigned for at least six years -- Darius I (522-486), and Darius II (423-404) -- this detail does not seem to help us either.

To know which Darius is referred to, one should analyze the Scriptural account. It relates that the building began by initiative of Cyrus, King of Persia, in the first year of his reign (Ezra 1:1-3). Cyrus permitted the Jews to "go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord G-d of Israel." The Jews who took advantage of this permission and returned to the Land of Israel were led by Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, who started building the Temple a year and a month after their arrival in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:8). Because of intrigues by the gentile inhabitants of the Land of Israel, who alarmed Persian authorities by describing the building as preparation for a Jewish revolt against Persia, the building was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius, King of Persia, when it was resumed, again by Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak, under the spiritual leadership of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 4:24-5:2). In the sixth year of Darius' reign the building was finished (Ezra 6:15). This suggests that the Darius spoken of is Darius I -- otherwise, Jeshua and Zerubbabel would have to live 117 years (as adults) from the first year of Cyrus to the second year of Darius II.

But in Ezra 4 we find gentile inhabitants of the Land of Israel writing to the Persian kings Achashverosh and Artachshasta, asking them to stop the building of Jerusalem. Artachshasta agrees with them and halts the building of the Temple "until the second year of the reign of Daryavesh, King of Persia" (Ezra 4:24). In Ezra 6:14 we find that the Second Temple was built "according to G-d's will, and according to the will of Koresh, Daryavesh, and Artachshasta, kings of Persia." So before the Daryavesh in whose time the Temple was built ruled, a king named Artachshasta reigned -- in that case, the Temple could only have been built during the time of Darius II. Then Ezra could not come to the Land of Israel before 397 BCE. The Scriptural account of Ezra's lifetime is self-contradictory.

The book of Nechemiah often describes Ezra and Nechemiah as contemporaries (see e.g. Nehemiah 8:1-9), and historical documents discovered at the excavations at Elephantine, Egypt, suggest that Nechemiah (and Ezra) lived at the time of Artaxerxes I. A letter by Elephantine Jews to the Persian governor of Judah, dated to 408 BCE, mentions an appeal on a certain issue to "Daliah and Shelamiah the sons of Sanballat, the satrap of Samaria" (Encyclopedia Hebraica, Sanballat, v. 26, p. 141). Sanballat, as we know, was the arch-foe of Nechemiah. If by 408 BCE Sanballat's sons had already attained positions in the Persian administration, Sanballat's own term in office as satrap of Samaria must have begun much earlier. Provided that Nechemiah came to Jerusalem in the 20th year of Artaxerxes' reign (see Nehemiah 2), this could have happened in either 445 BCE (in the time of Artaxerxes I) or 384 BCE (in the time of Artaxerxes II). Based on the time of Sanballat's reign in Samaria, we should eliminate the date of 384 BCE, and then we should date the period of Ezra and Nechemiah as being during the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE), which means that the Second Temple was built in the sixth year of the reign of Darius I (516 BCE) -- but then, again, we must conclude that the account of Artachshasta's reign before the Temple was built is wrong.

In short, the Scripture gives us a completely inconsistent account of Ezra's life, and some details seem confused, which suggests that the author (authors?) of the books of Ezra and Nechemiah were a bit overwhelmed by all those Dariuses and Artaxerxeses. However, to make his confusion possible he had to have lived some time after all the relevant Dariuses and Artaxerxeses had died -- that is, after the death of Artaxerxes II in 358 BCE. This means that the account of Ezra the Priest, the resuscitator of the Torah, was composed only on the eve of or during the Hellenistic period, long after whatever date is chosen for Ezra's death.

In this context it is interesting to note that no inscription or historical document of the Persian era mentions people called Ezra and Nechemiah, despite the Scriptural narrative's claims that they were given authority by Persian kings and are said to have held very significant positions in the Persian court: Nechemiah was the king's cupbearer (a position of great significance according to Herodotus' "History," III, 34), and Ezra was a sofer (safra in Aramaic and shapiru in Akkadian) -- an official secretary and the person in charge of the royal archives (see Encyclopedia Hebraica, v. 6, p. 314). We find mention of other people in such positions, and even of Jewish officials of lower rank, in Persian historical documents -- but nothing is said of Ezra and Nechemiah.

In the ninth chapter of the book of Daniel we find that "in the first year of Daryavesh the son of Achashverosh of the seed of Medes, who reigned over the kingdom of Chaldeans" Daniel prayed and asked G-d to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Rashi wrote in his commentary on Daniel 9:1: "'In the first year of Daryavesh the son of Achashverosh' -- it is not the Achashverosh who acted in the days of Haman, for that one was king of Persia. But this one is Daryavesh the Mede, who reigned over the kingdom of Chaldeans after Belshazzar was killed, as is written above, 'And Darius the Mede took the power' (Daniel 6:1)."

However, it was neither the Medes nor king Darius who captured "the kingdom of Chaldeans" -- Babylon -- but the Persians under the rule of their great king Cyrus, whom the Scripture calls Koresh and whose Persian name was Kurush or Kurash. In autumn 539 BCE the Persian general Gobyras entered the city of Babylon without any resistance and killed the co-regent of Babylon, Prince Belshazzar. Cyrus himself entered the city 17 days later. (Though Daniel 6:30 calls Belshazzar "the king of the Chaldeans," he was not the king but the son of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, and the de facto ruler of Babylon while his father was on military campaigns. Incidentally, Daniel 5:18-22 calls Belshazzar the son of Nebuchadnezzar.) The true king of Babylon, Nabonidus, surrendered to Cyrus of his own will. There are varying accounts of what happened to him later: according to the Greek historian Xenophon he was killed, but according to the Babylonian historian Berosus, Nabonidus became Cyrus's vassal and was given the small territory of Kerman in eastern Iran to rule (see Encyclopedia Hebraica, Nabunaid, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, Belshazzar, and also Mesopotamia, history of, The last kings of Babylonia).

Daniel 11:2-4 calculates the total number of Persian kings as four, and that figure is understood by later Rabbinic tradition as three (Seder Olam Rabbah, Milikowski edition, section 28). But again, there were many more kings in the Persian empire -- there are ten who ruled more than a year and others who reigned less (see above). Thus the account of the Persian period brought in the book of Daniel also appears to be interwoven with error and unhistorical.

The problems with Jewish history during the Persian period were so great that the Talmudic sages had no choice but to "unite" Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes into the personality of a single Persian king:

"Koresh is Daryavesh is Artachshasta. Koresh -- for he was a kosher king, Artachshasta -- after the name of his kingdom, and what is his personal name? Daryavesh."

(Tractate Rosh HaShanah 3b)

But this is, of course, simply wrong. We have seen from the table above that there were seven different Persian kings with these names: Cyrus (Koresh), Darius (Daryavesh) I, II, and III, and Artaxerxes (Artachshasta) I, II, and III. Each of them ruled in a different time, and the history of each one's reign is known to us and was known in the time of Chazal, too.

Nor are the things clearer about the person described as he who handed on the Judaic tradition after the period of "the Great Assembly" -- Simeon the Righteous. The Gemara in Yoma 69a describes his meeting with Alexander the Great, whose troops conquered the Land of Israel in 332 BCE. However, in Tractate Menachot 109b Simeon the Righteous is described as the father of Onias the priest, the one who built the so-called "Onias's Temple" [mikdash Chonio] in Leontopolis, Egypt, in the mid-2nd century BCE. In this case, evidently, Simeon the Righteous himself could not have lived before the late 3rd century BCE, and could neither meet Alexander the Great nor transmit the Oral Torah after the end of the Persian period. Were this not enough, in Tractate Sotah 33a we find:

"And it happened to Simeon the Righteous, that he heard the Divine Voice from the Holy of Holies, saying: the evil intent which the foe said to be done with the Temple passed away, for Gaskalgas has died and his decrees were abolished."

And though Rashi comments that Gaskalgas is "the name of a Greek king," there never was such a king in the Hellenistic world; of all gentile rulers who had any plans concerning the Temple in Jerusalem, the name Gaskalgas resembles only Gaius Iulius Caligula, the Roman emperor in 37-41 CE. Caligula indeed suffered from megalomania, saw himself and appeared in public as a deity, demanded his subjects worship him as a god, and even built a temple devoted to the cult of himself. In his megalomania Caligula also ordered his statue put in the Jewish Holy Temple. Agrippa I, who was Caligula's friend and was appointed king of Judea by him, managed to persuade the emperor to abandon his orders. A short time later, Caligula died.

This is the only possible basis for the Gemara's story (despite the fact that Caligula's decrees concerning the Temple were abolished before he even died). But of course, were Simeon the Righteous to hear the Divine Voice after Caligula's death, he could neither meet Alexander the Great in 332 BCE nor have a son who built a temple in Leontopolis about 150 BCE. Again, the Judaic tradition has no clear account of a person whom tradition itself claims to be one of its most prominent transmitters. This makes the tradition largely unreliable as history, combined as it is with legends and tall tales.

Judaism has no mass tradition

Even saying that Judaism has a mass tradition and that this alone is an argument for the tradition's historicity is of no help. A mass tradition would involve 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 the record of the events to their sons. Each account would thus add credence to the others. Yet we have no such mass tradition of the Exodus, the Sinai Revelation, and all the rest. 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, but this may be because of religious devotion rather than because of any historical veracity to the account -- just as hundreds of millions of pious Catholics accept the story of the Immaculate Conception and Virgin Birth as historically true. If one is going to check the veracity of the Scriptural account, as I wish to, he surely cannot rely on it a priori. Even during the Passover Seder, the ritual enactment of our 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, merely a recitation of the same texts and traditions.

From the words of our Sages it is also obvious they had never heard testimony about the Sinai Revelation as a historic event from their fathers. In the Gemara (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 Gemara brings three pages of discussion by Amoraim on when the Sinai Revelation really did occur. In all this lengthy discussion nobody brings arguments based on what he received through tradition (which would be quite expectable, 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 creative homilies on Scriptural verses.

The Rishonim, when they come to describe the Sinai Revelation, also use only Scriptural verses and the statements of Talmud and Midrash, which by that time were already written and had received their authority throughout most of Jewry -- and nobody makes claims based on testimony he received from his father. Thus, Rashi in his comment on Exodus 20:15 wrote: "See the voices" -- "they saw what is to be heard, that which cannot be seen anywhere else," that is, a physical seeing. On the other hand, Sforno and Chezkuni wrote that "see the voices" is a metaphor for knowledge and understanding, as in Ecclesiastes 1:16, "and my heart saw."

It is also unclear from the tradition exactly what G-d had revealed to the People of Israel at Mt. Sinai. On one hand, after the Torah again lists 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" (Deuteronomy 5:19). From this one may understand that all the Ten Commandments were revealed by G-d 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 G-d" and "You shall have no other gods before Me" -- were said by G-d directly to the people, and all the others were told to Moses alone. The last view may be supported by the account in Exodus 20. There the first two commandments speak of G-d 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 G-d 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 this is not all: Maimonides in "The Guide for the Perplexed" (part 2, chapter 33) wrote the following:

"It has become clear to me that at the Sinai Revelation what reached Moses did not reach all the Israelites, but His word reached Moses alone...He, may he rest in peace, came down to the bottom of the mount and told people what he heard [from G-d], as the Torah said, 'I stood between the Lord and you at that time' (Deuteronomy 5:5), and it is also said, 'Moses spoke, and G-d answered him through a voice' (Exodus 19:19). And they interpreted it in [Midrash] Mechilta that each phrase he [Moses] told them as he heard it [from G-d]. It is also written in the Torah, 'So that that the people may hear when I speak [with you]..' (Exodus 19:9) -- and this shows that G-d talked to him [Moses], but they [the people] heard that loud voice, but did not distinguish the words. And it is also said, 'You hear the voice of speech' (Deuteronomy 4:12) -- but not, 'You hear the speech,' [which would mean] all that the speech means. But... they heard the voice, and Moses was that who heard the speech [of G-d] and told it to the people -- this is what comes out of the Torah and of the most of our Sages' words.

But there is also an opinion brought in many places in the Midrash and even in the Talmud, that when He said 'I am [the Lord your G-d]' and 'You shall not have [other gods before Me],' they heard it directly from the mouth of the Glory."

According to Maimonides, from the Torah itself one can understand that during the Sinai Revelation the people heard nothing definite from G-d. All the commandments were revealed to Moses alone, who then told them to the people -- and the story that the first two of the Ten Commandments were told by G-d directly to the whole People of Israel is only a view of the minority of the Sages. Each commentator has his own view, but none of them claims a tradition he received from his ancestors and rabbis. All any of them attempt to do is to figure out what took place based on what is said in the Scripture, the Talmud, and the Midrash.

R' Abraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Exodus 20:1, adopted the view that all the Ten Commandments were said by G-d directly to the whole people, and wrote that "I am the Lord your G-d" 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 wrote: "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" (Exodus 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, this is the view of which he said, in his commentary on Exodus 20:1, "It is nonsense," so Ibn Ezra's account of the Ten Commandments seems self-contradictory. In any event, his account is clearly not based on any historical tradition, but only on Ibn Ezra's own understanding of Hebrew lexicon and grammar.

In short, no tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation exists among the Jewish people save the Scriptural narrative of those events (and its elaborations in the Talmud and in the Midrashim). In that case, it is proper to speak not of a mass tradition, but rather of a single narrative popular among many people; this, however, is the case for many other stories told by other faiths which contradict ours.

No Uninterrupted Tradition in Judaism

The Scripture itself admits that for long periods the Torah's tradition was forgotten by the Jewish masses:

"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 G-d, 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 G-d, 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."

(Nechemiah 8:13-17)

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 were not observed by the Jews for hundreds of years. The great Rabbinic commentators of the Scripture also 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 G-d, 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)

Even if there had been an original mass tradition of the Torah, it was forgotten by the vast majority of Jewish people for long periods, and then, as result of certain events, the tradition regained its mass popularity. Of course, neither the Scripture nor the commentators exclude the possibility that selected individuals preserved the original tradition even in the 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. It is equally possible that: a) there was an original tradition, forgotten by the masses but preserved by certain individuals, which was then readopted by the whole people, or b) that there was no original tradition whatsoever, but a group of certain individuals, claiming to have discovered old texts, actually "invented" the whole story, which was then believed by the masses.

Indeed, one can never ignore the possibility that at some point certain charismatic people, in order to bring Jews closer to G-d's will as they understood it, simply made up the whole Scriptural narrative either using popular ancient traditions or their own creativity -- and the Jews, because of an absence of their own written history before that point, due to a deep spiritual desire for religious repentance in hard times, owing to the personal charisma of the "inventors," in order to achieve national consolidation, or because of any of a million other motives, simply accepted this story upon themselves, just as the Christians accepted the story of Jesus's divinity, the Moslems accepted the story of Muhammad ascending to the sky on his flying horse al-Buraq, and so on -- each religion and its own story, firmly adopted by believers even if it had very little to do with historical reality.

Mass Revelation -- Not Unique to Judaism

Many times I have heard that Judaism is the only religion in the world claiming that it was founded in a mass revelation of its deity to people, and that makes it more trustworthy than all the other religions. However, this claim is baseless for the following reasons:

  1. It is unclear from the Judaic sources what exactly the people heard from the Divine at Mt. Sinai. Anyway, nobody claims that anything more than the Ten Commandments was revealed there to the people -- and the Ten Commandments, fundamental as they may be, do not comprise the whole core of Judaism. There is no hint in them of such basic elements of our religion as circumcision and ritual slaughter, the holidays and the Day of Atonement, permitted and forbidden foods, laws of family life, or of all the narrative portion of the Torah. All the latter were allegedly revealed by G-d to Moses, who then told them to the People of Israel -- this may or may not be so, but these matters definitely have nothing to do with any mass revelation.
  2. As we have seen above, Judaism itself admits that at certain points in the past masses had adopted anew belief in the Torah, having simply been told by a few individuals that it was the belief shared by their far ancestors. The people clearly believed stories which were told to them -- so it really makes no difference whether those stories were about a revelation of G-d to the masses or about His revelation to select individuals (as in the stories of Christianity and Islam, for example). The bottom line, in Judaism as well as in other religions, is that ancient people often believed the stories they were told. It's really hard to understand why the stories of Judaism are more trustworthy than those of other religions.
  3. The story of a mass revelation is, of course, not unique to Judaism. Catholicism has a highly developed tradition of the revelations (apparitions) of Mary, Jesus's mother, to individuals as well as to groups of people, Christians and non-Christians alike, throughout history. These apparitions happened in various places all over the globe, from the 1st century CE until these very days. In most cases, the apparitions are said to have taken place before individuals or small groups of people, but there are reports of mass apparitions, too. The most famous of the latter is, probably, the case of Marian apparitions at the Coptic church in the Cairo suburb of Zeitoun between April 2, 1968, and May 29, 1971. Millions are said to have witnessed the apparitions, which attracted much interest, and reports about them appeared both in the Egyptian and world press, as well as in a number of books written on the subject. Here is the description in one such book:

"Exactly a week later [after the first apparition] there was another apparition, then another and another at rapid succession. They always took place at night and were generally preceded by mysterious lights, flashing and scintillating silently over the church like a canopy of shooting stars. One witness described them as a 'shower of diamonds made of light.' Minutes later, formations of luminous doves would appear and fly around the floodlight church. Eyewitnesses described them as 'strange bird-like creatures made of light' which flew with astounding swiftness without moving their wings. They always maintained a definite formation and disappeared suddenly like melted snowflakes. Shortly after, a blinding explosion of light would engulf the church roof. As it dwindled, it shaped itself into a brilliant form of Our Lady. Invariably, she would be seen in a long white robe and veil of bluish-white light. The awed spectators below could even see her garments moving in the warm night breeze. A dazzling halo shone round her head... She shone with an overpowering splendour like the sun in human form, bathing the church in a glorious suffusion of light. The vision would glide with effortless ease across the domes, bowing and greeting the beseeching throngs packed and pressed around the church...

The frequency of the visions varied considerably. In the early days she appeared almost every night, sometimes several times in the space of a few hours. As time went by however, the visions grew less frequent. The duration of each appearance was another unpredictable factor. On the nights of 4-5 May and 8-9 June the apparition remained continuously visible from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. enabling hundreds of exultant onlookers to hurry home breathlessly and return with their startled families and neighbours...

News of the apparition spread like fire across Egypt, generating a wave of intense excitement and attracting immense multitudes of Christians, Jews, Moslems and unbelievers to Zeitoun to see the visions for themselves. Within a few weeks, the crowds reached an estimated 250,000 nightly and the resulting traffic congestion threatened to paralyse Cairo. At each appearance of the Virgin, a deafening cry would ascend from the tumultuous thousands besieging the floodlit church on all sides. 'We believe in you, St. Mary! We witness to you, St. Mary!' Great numbers of Moslems who had been kneeling on their prayer mats reciting verses from the Koran in praise of Mary, would raise their voices in fervent hymns to her... Others would pray in unison with Catholics, Copts and Protestants -- the first time in history that Christians and Moslems had prayed together in large numbers."

(Francis Johnston, "When Millions Saw Mary," pp. 4-5)

All this, I repeat, took place only about 30 years ago. Many witnesses to the events are still alive, and numerous testimonies of the apparitions, originating from the time when they took place, are available. On the other hand, we have neither living witnesses nor any written testimonies of the Sinai Revelation (except the Torah itself, and we can't really prove that it was written down not significantly later than 1313 BCE). Of course, there is no reason to believe that Mary indeed appeared to anybody at Zeitoun. Scientists think that all the people present at the site saw was light, in different forms, which appeared due to the existence of tectonic strain in the area (see J. Derr, M. Persinger, "Geophysical Variables and Behavior," Perceptual and Motor Skills, v. 68 (1989), pp. 123-128) -- but many people believe they saw Mary at Zeitoun, just as many Jews believe their forefathers heard G-d speaking at Sinai. So one who says his Judaic faith is based on the uniqueness of mass revelation at Mt. Sinai is simply wrong.

Different Jewish traditions of the exodus from Egypt

Returning to the issue of tradition, I find it valuable to note that concerning the events upon which the main core of Judaism is based, several significantly different traditions existed as late as about the beginning of the Common Era, and different Jewish circles and thinkers accepted whichever tradition better fit their spiritual or other needs. The different traditions popular among the Jews at that time cannot all be true, and we have no means of reasonably judging which of those traditions (if any) describes the events as they happened.

There were mutually contradictory traditions popular among the Jews around the beginning of the Common Era about the Exodus from Egypt -- one of the foundations of our faith. 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 for the Judaic tradition. The most prominent is Artapanus, an Egyptian Jewish writer who authored the book On the Jews about 100 BCE (fragments of the book came down to us in the writings of the 4th century CE Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who brings it in his Praeparatio Evangelica, book IX, chapter 27, sections 28-33). Artapanus stated that the forefathers of Israel laid the foundations of all human culture: Abraham taught the ancient Egyptians astrology, Joseph introduced agricultural reforms designed to protect poor and weak peasants from the aggressiveness of rich farmers -- but his favorite person was Moses. According to On the Jews Moses invented civil engineering and shipbuilding, armed the Egyptians and led them to war against Ethiopia, introduced hieroglyphic writing, the Egyptian religion, and their philosophy. In short, On the Jews is clearly an apology for the Judaic tradition and its heroes, so its author would have had no reason to distort this tradition, at least when distortion would bring him no polemic gain. And yet Artapanus's account of the plagues greatly differs from that of the Torah.

The first plague, according to Artapanus, begins with Moses striking the Nile's waters with his rod. The waters overflow, flood all the land of Egypt, stand, stink, and cause death for fish and thirst for men. Yet in his description the waters of the Nile do not become blood. In the course of the second plague Moses strikes the ground with his rod and the ground produces "a flying creature" -- an account paralleling the Torah's story of Aaron striking the ground to initiate the plague of lice. In this account Artapanus must be describing the plague of wild beasts (arov), for the plague of lice is explicitly mentioned among the later plagues; we have an exchange of traditions about lice and wild beasts. "The flying creature," according to Artapanus, affects "everybody...by pestilence" -- a parallel to the plague of boils. After the boils, Moses simultaneously brings the frogs, the locust, and the lice. In the Torah account, of course, these are completely discrete plagues -- the second, the third, and the eighth, and the plagues of frogs and lice were brought by Aaron, not Moses (in the first plague, too, the Torah speaks of Aaron, not Moses, striking the Nile). But most astonishing is that Artapanus does not mention anything like the plague of murrain, the plague of darkness, and the plague of the firstborns.

Another account of the plagues is brought in Philo's Vita Mosis ("The Life of Moses"), written in the first half of the 1st century CE. Philo of Alexandria, also known by his Jewish name, Yedidiah, is perhaps the most famous of pre-Mishnaic Jewish authors. He, too, was a faithful Jew, considered the People of Israel the chosen nation, "priests and prophets for all humanity," stated that one should not neglect the observance of any of the Jewish commandments and customs which have been divinely ordained, and fiercely rejected intermarriage. In his writings Philo praised the spiritual greatness of the personalities of the Scripture, attributed high moral reasons to the Torah commandments, and spoke with great enthusiasm of Moses and his laws. In short, he, too, was clearly an apologist for Judaic tradition, and is the last who should be accused of intentional distortion.

Yet Philo's account of the plagues is also significantly different from that of the Torah. Philo does speak of ten plagues (and not seven, like Artapanus), but his order of the plagues is different: 1) blood 2) frogs 3) lice 4) hail 5) locust 6) darkness 7) boils 8) wild beasts 9) murrain of cattle 10) plague of the firstborn. Philo also gives homiletic interpretations to the chronological proximity of certain plagues in his account, so he considered his order of the plagues real and accurate. This order, of course, is different from the Torah's. 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." (In later tradition many homilies were said on this verse; see Rashi's commentary).

One more account of the ten plagues may be found in The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus Flavius, written in 93 CE. Josephus is known, mostly due to his book Against Apion, as defending Judaism and its traditions against anti-Semitic attacks; this can also be seen in The Antiquities of the Jews. Here again it is hard to speak of intentional distortion of the tradition. In The Antiquities of the Jews (book II, chapters 12-14), Josephus brings a detailed account of the plagues -- and in this report there is not a single plague which hits cattle. According to Josephus the Egyptian cattle were not hit by murrain, nor by boils, hail, or the plague of the firstborn -- in contrast 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 Exodus 9:3-7). Instead of this story, Josephus brings a short, blurred, and almost incomprehensible account of people's illness, forming a single narrative with the story of the plague of wild beasts.

It seems that Josephus systematically rejected the tradition of the loss of the Egyptian cattle when speaking of the plagues themselves -- and yet this tradition leaves its tracks in his story of Moses negotiating with Pharaoh: Josephus tells that after the plague of locust, Pharaoh permitted the Hebrews to leave with their wives and children, but demanded they leave their cattle in Egypt, for the Egyptian cattle had been lost (The Antiquities of the Jews, book 2, chapter 14, section 5). In light of Josephus's narrative Pharaoh's demand is unreasonable and incomprehensible, but it is easily understood in light of the story of murrain of cattle which Josephus rejected. This contradiction in Josephus's account is, therefore, a typical result of two different traditions coexisting in the mind of a single author. These, and many other facts about the various Jewish traditions of the Exodus and their interrelationship, may be found in The Evolution of the Exodus Tradition by Samuel E. Loewenstamm (Magnes Press, 1992).

What was the relationship of these other traditions to Scripture? How could they be propagated against Torah tradition? Clearly there was considerable diversity in the ancient Jewish world on these matters.

No Definite tradition of the Torah text

So it is proper to speak of different Jewish traditions rather than of the one single tradition preserved by the Jews through generations without alteration or flaw which Orthodox defenders proudly proclaim. I have already written that the tradition of present-day Judaism concerning the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation is based solely on the Scriptural narrative. In the light of this, it is interesting to note that nowadays there is considerable evidence and largely a consensus among scholars that the text of the Scripture itself has undergone significant changes. And though the changes, of which we are now aware, did not affect the main details of the Exodus--Sinai--Land-of-Israel narrative, the findings dealing with the text of the Pentateuch as it looked through ages seem sufficient to undermine a belief in the Divine origin and immutability of each and every word of the Torah -- a belief which is presented as basic to Orthodox Judaism in its present-day form.

To begin with, 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 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 distributed to Israeli Army soldiers, published by Adi Ltd., proofread by Aharon Dotan, and approved by the Chief Army Rabbinate, are based on a Masoretic manuscript written in Egypt in the 11th century CE (the manuscript is kept in the Public Library of St. Petersburg under the number B19A and is called the Leningrad Manuscript), and 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). Though the differences in plene and defective spelling listed above do not change the words' meaning, there are more significant differences.

Thus what is written in the 20th chapter of Exodus, "I am the Lord your G-d, 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 the Adi edition as one verse (Exodus 20:2), while the Koren edition separates it into two verses (Exodus 20:2-3). This issue raises 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 these sentences -- as one verse or two? And which version matches the original partition into verses: Koren, or the Adi edition? Both of these versions are, by the way, based on the Masoretic school of Ben Asher, adopted by the Rishonim as the most trustworthy of the Masoretic schools, despite serious suspicions that Ben Asher was a Karaite (see Encyclopedia Hebraica, Ben Asher, v. IX, pp. 40-41). In the scrolls of the school of Ben Naftali (a contemporary of Ben Asher) there were yet more differences, both in defective and plene spelling and in punctuation.

In addition to the above, the words "I am the Lord your G-d" and "You shall have no other gods before Me" are considered the first two of the Ten Commandments by virtually all the commentators on the Scripture, but Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 5:16 considers the former an introductory statement by G-d and the latter the first commandment.

According to the Adi edition, "I am the Lord your G-d, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, of the house of bondage, you shall have no other gods before Me" is a single sentence, without any separation mark in the middle (not like the verse "You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your fellow," which, though it is one verse, has the signs of "parashah stumah" separating one commandment from another). In this case, "I am the Lord your G-d, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, of the house of bondage, you shall have no other gods before Me," must be a single commandment, and both opinions on which verses formed each of the Ten Commandments run into difficulty. So, what were the Ten Commandments according to the Adi edition? It is not surprising, then, that we have no definite tradition on this matter.

Yet a greater amount of discrepancy exists between our Torah scrolls (by "our scrolls" I mean those represented in print by the Koren edition) and those of the Sages of Talmudic and pre-Talmudic generations, as found in their descriptions in the Gemara. In Tractate Kiddushin 30a we are told:

"Therefore the sages of previous generations were called soferim ["scribes," also "those who count"], for they counted all the letters of the Torah. Thus they said: vav of the word gachon (Leviticus 11:42) is the middle of the Torah's letters; the words darosh darash (Leviticus 11:16) are the middle of the words; the verse 'Vahitgalach...' (Leviticus 13:33) is the middle of the verses."

But if one takes our Torah scroll and starts counting, he will find that:

  1. The middle letter of the Torah is aleph of the word hu in Leviticus 8:28. Leviticus 8:28 is 93 verses distant from Leviticus 11:42, where the word gachon makes its sole appearance in our Torah scroll spelled gimel-chet-vav-nun sofit, as brought by the Gemara. The distance between these two letters is 4829 letters --that is, there is a difference of 4829 letters between the ancient Sages' Torah scrolls and ours. This may be still ascribed to plene/defective spelling variations, but the huge number of differences makes such an explanation highly problematic.
  2. The middle verse of the Torah is "Vayasem alav et hachoshen..." (Leviticus 8:8). Its distance from "Vahitgalach..." is 164 verses. Must we therefore conclude that there are 164 verses by which our Torah is different the Torah the ancient Sages had? Might they have contained a lot of important laws and details which could completely change the meaning of the Torah text? This difference may still be ascribed to the confusion of separating the text into verses -- such as we saw above -- yet changes in punctuation and the separation of sentences may also affect the text's meaning, as we have seen concerning the Ten Commandments and as we see throughout Talmudic and Midrashic literature.
  3. One more point deserving mentioning on this matter is that even in the Torah texts of Tannaim and Amoraim the number of verses changed from one text to another. It is clear that to make "Vahitgalach..." (or any other verse) the middle verse of the Torah, one must have an odd number of verses. When the Gemara considered a number of certain units (namely, words) in the Torah text even, it did not hesitate to mention two such units (namely, darosh darash) as the middle ones. Yet, on the same page (30a) of Kiddushin the Gemara brings a Tannaitic statement that there are 5888 verses in the Torah -- an even number in which no single verse could be called "the middle of the verses" of the Torah. The text of 5888 verses obviously could not be the text in which "Vahitgalach..." is the middle verse. (In present Torah texts there are about 5845 verses -- the precise number depends on the version.)
  4. It is also interesting to note that in Tractate Soferim 9:2 it is written that the verse "Vayishchat..." is the middle verse of the Torah. Though in our 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 our Torah text, and all of them are quite distant from the verse "Vahitgalach..." which the Talmud in Kiddushin 30a stated was the middle verse of the Torah.
  5. And the most noteworthy -- the real middle word of the Torah is achat of "...vechalat lechem shemen achat..." (Leviticus 8:26). The real number of the Torah words is odd, not even, but not only that: the distance between this word and darosh darash is 743 words. Clearly 743 words could not appear or disappear due to variations in plene and defective spellings, nor as result of punctuation mix-ups. Either the Sages were engaged in some form of extraordinary hyperbole or their text was radically different from ours. (Actually, there are words in the Torah that are written as one word but read as two [like mazeh of Exodus 4:2, which is read mah zeh, or eshdat of Deuteronomy 33:2, which is read esh dat] -- and it is not clear how the soferim of the Gemara counted them -- but there are only a few such words in the whole Torah, and they could not add up to a difference of 743 words.)

Likewise, we find in Tractate Shabbat 49b:

"The principal categories of labor, forty less one, to what do they correspond? ...Rabbi Simeon the son of Rabbi Yossi the son of Lakonia said: they correspond to the words melachah [work], melachto [his work], and melechet [the work of], which occur forty less one times in the Torah."

The Gemara continues to say that there are really 40 occurrences of melachah, melachto, and melechet in the Torah, and the Amora Rav Joseph doubts which of the two occurrences -- "Vayavo habaytah laasot melachto..." (Genesis 39:11) and "Vehamelachah haytah dayam..." (Exodus 36:7) -- should not be included in the count, for in the context of one of these verses the word melachah or melachto means something other than "work" or "labor" (see Rashi on Shabbat 49b, s.v. Mishum dektiv).

We have, according to the Gemara, 40 occurrences of the words melachah, melachto, and melechet in the Torah, and each of them can also have grammatical prefixes (definite article, prepositions, etc.), as we learn from the example of "Vehamelachah haytah dayam..."

Yet in our text of the Torah there are 35 occurrences of the word melachah, 5 of the word melachto, and 23 of the word melechet (including those with grammatical prefixes). This totals 63 occurrences! Either once again we have some manner of playful hyperbole or in our Torah scrolls there are 23 melachah, melachto, and melechet occurrences which were not in Rabbi Simeon's scroll.

Of course our rabbis were aware of this difficulty. They suggested removing dozens of melachah, melachto, and melechet from the count, but without any consistent criteria guiding them in this process. Thus Ra'aban (Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Nathan), in his commentary on Tractate Shabbat, paragraph 350, ruled that the phrases "kol melechet avodah," which refer to holidays and not to the Sabbath, should be excluded from the count -- but not the phrase "kol melachah lo yeaseh" of Exodus 12:16, for example, which also refers to Passover. The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbat 7:2) states explicitly that the verse "Sheshet yamim tochal matzot... lo taaseh melachah" (Deuteronomy 16:8) though it also refers to Passover -- comes to complete the count of the 39 melachot in the Torah which correspond to the 39 categories of labor forbidden on Sabbath.

Yet this is far from the whole problem. Even from what the Rishonim wrote on this matter it follows that the Torah texts they possessed were different from those of the Gemara, from that of our time, and even from each other! Rabbeynu Chananel (who lived in the beginning of the 11th century CE in al-Qayrawan, Tunisia) wrote in his commentary on Shabbat 49b:

"And they [melachah, melachto, and melechet in the Torah] are 61. But when you draw out 3 occurrences written in the portion of 'Vayechulu hashamayim' (Genesis 2:1-3), and 4 [occurrences], where it is written ve'asita, vaye'aseh, vate'aseh, and the phrase 'leregel hamelachah' (Genesis 33:14), and 13 occurrences where it is written 'kol melechet avodah' -- which totals 21 -- you are left with 40 [occurrences, in accordance with the Gemara]."

But in our Torah scroll there are 63 occurrences of the words melachah, melachto and melechet, not 61, and there is not a single place where the verb ve'asita is written in proximity to one of these words.

Nachmanides and Rashba, the great Spanish rabbis of the 13th-14th centuries, also adopted the view of Rabbeynu Chananel on this matter. It seems they did not check the matter themselves, but just copied Rabbeynu Chananel's figures -- they wrote that one should omit 14 occurrences of 'kol melechet avodah' from the count (and not 13), but there are only 13 occurrences of 'kol melechet avodah' in the Torah; were there 14, the number of the occurrences omitted would be 22, not 21 -- but they wrote that one should omit 21 occurrences from the count. So, it is most plausible they just copied Rabbeynu Chananel's comment and erred in copying. And they, of course, did not solve the puzzle of ve'asita.

Raaban, in 12th-century Mainz, Germany, also mainly adopted the view of Rabbeynu Chananel and even copied from him the total number of occurrences -- 61 -- and the number of occurrences which one has to eliminate from the count -- 21 -- but he was scrupulous enough to take the Torah text and count those occurrences. And when one looks at his count (brought in Sefer Ra'aban, paragraph 350), he will discover that:

  1. For reasons unknown, Ra'aban also added the occurrences of the word melachtecha to the count. In our Torah scroll there are 2 such occurrences, and then the total count for our Torah scroll becomes 65.
  2. He found 62 occurrences of melachah, melachto, melechet, and melachtecha in the Torah. Two of them are of the word melachtecha, and 60 are of melachah, melachto, and melechet. His Torah scroll was apparently different from that of Rabbeynu Chananel.
  3. Again, 62 occurrences are not 65 -- in our Torah scroll there are 3 more such words than in Ra'aban's (in the portions of Mishpatim, Pekudey and Bamidbar).
  4. And of course, if one subtracts 21 occurrences from 62, 41, not 40, remain and so Ra'aban's work cannot solve the problem even for his own Torah scroll (let alone ours, in which one would be left with 44 occurrences after removing the 21).

It follows there was either error in counting or Ra'aban's Torah text was different from Chazal's, R' Chananel's, and ours as well!

The first rabbi whose explanation fits our Torah text is R' Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, author of the Tosfot Yom Tov commentary on the Mishnah. It seems that, despite his refusal to adopt R' Chananel's figures (because they did not fit his Torah scroll), the Tosfot Yom Tov was scared to state so explicitly and confined himself to a neutral sentence, "And he [R' Heller's son] asked me that... he found many more such occurrences [than the 40 mentioned in the Gemara]" (Tosfot Yom Tov on Shabbat, chapter 7, mishnah 2, s.v. Avot). Still, the Tosfot Yom Tov's answer does not seem plausible -- he rules that one should omit from the Gemara's count those instances of melachah, melachto, and melechet which appear in sentences constituting a prohibition against labor on certain occasions or describing the punishment for such violations. There are neither reasons nor hints which would allow one to ascribe such intentions to the Gemara. The Tosfot (on Yoma 76a, s.v. Uva'asor) from which the Tosfot Yom Tov tries to bring support implies quite the opposite.

And it is quite clear why the Tosfot Yom Tov is the first rabbi whose comment on the issue fits our Torah text. The author of Tosfot Yom Tov lived between 1579-1654, decades after the full printed edition of the Masoretic Torah text -- Mikra'ot Gedolot -- was published in 1524-25 in Venice. (Interestingly, it was published by a non-Jew, Daniel Bomberg, and proofread by Jacob ben Chayim of Tunisia, who later converted to Christianity.) Due to the low cost of this edition and its rather close correspondence to the Mesorah of Aaron Ben Asher, which was considered authoritative by the Halachic arbiters since the time of Maimonides or even before, Mikra'ot Gedolot spread quickly throughout the Jewish world of that time and became the version accepted by virtually all the communities who subscribed to mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. Printing allowed more exemplars of the Torah text to be published so there were more opportunities for uniform proofreading of each newly written scroll, and the Mikra'ot Gedolot version became the base of the Torah text we use to this very day (with some changes in spelling, but not to the extent of whole words). It is not surprising that R' Yom Tov Heller had, 300 years ago, the same text we have today -- a text rather different from that of Chazal and many Rishonim.

There is another attempt to explain the issue expressed by Rabbi Steinsaltz in the name of "Sha'ar Ephraim." He suggests that the Talmud text we have now is corrupt, and that instead of "...melachah, melachto and melechet..." the wording should be "melachah and melachto, which occur forty less one times in the Torah" (that is, 40 times, minus the one which the Gemara states should be eliminated). This wording meets the count in our Torah scroll, but there is not a single manuscript or edition of the Talmud known to us where the wording is "melachah and melachto" while "melechet" is omitted. I should note that as early as the 11th-12h centuries, Halachic arbiters living in as disparate places as Tunisia and Germany offered various answers to explain the matter, but none of them considered the Talmudic text corrupt and appealed to another, "correct" wording that would solve the issue, though when they have grounds for it, the Rishonim do not fear to correct the Talmudic wording. This makes it rather doubtful that such "another, correct wording" ever really existed. And anyway, the assumption of such wording does not explain the discrepancies between the Torah texts of the Rishonim, on the one hand, and the text we now use on the other.

Of course, the issue of counts brought in the Talmud and by the Rishonim -- both the count of the middle letter, word, and verse in the Torah and the count of melachah, melachto and melechet -- may be explained by assuming that the Talmudic Sages and the Rishonim simply did not count very well or did not intend their numbers to be taken literally. This, however, would imply that the Talmudic Sages were mistaken or unconcerned 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 or deliberate playfulness is reasonable, then it should be noted that the Rishonim themselves, instead of admitting that the Talmudic Sages erred or were careless in their count, preferred to appeal to rather farfetched explanations, omitting occurrences of melachah, melachto and melechet from the count without any consistent criteria, as I have shown above. If this is the degree of responsibility for the correct transmission of our Torah text through the generations, it leads to quite pessimistic conclusions concerning the resemblance of the present-day form of our tradition to its original form.

Moreover, in the Mesorah remarks at the end of the Leningrad manuscript (on which the Adi edition of the Scripture is based), it is written: "The total number of letters in the Torah is four hundred thousand nine hundred forty-five." In all the manuscripts and editions of the Torah known to us, from Middle Ages until now (including the Leningrad manuscript itself and all the editions based on it), the Torah text consists of a bit more than 300,000 letters -- that is, 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, what reason is there to believe that the Mesorah succeeded in preserving the Torah text in its original form?

Actually, we find Chazal themselves openly admitting that not only plene/defective spellings, but even whole words could be changed in the Torah text. Thus we find 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 ma'on, the scroll of za'atutei and the scroll of hu. In one [of the scrolls] it was written 'Ma'on,' 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 za'atutei benei Yisra'el,' and in the other two -- 'Vayishlach et na'arei benei Yisra'el' (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 -- za'atutei -- from the others, where it was written naarei. And though these two words are almost synonyms (za'atutei means "infants," while na'arei 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 za'atutei instead of atzilei in Exodus 24:11 (Ve'el atzilei bnei Yisra'el lo shalach yado -- "But [G-d] did not raise His hand against the noblemen of the children of Israel"). Here the discrepancy za'atutei/atzilei obviously changes the meaning of the verse, as za'atutei means "infants" while atzilei means "noblemen." Thus, 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. [As a side note, I should add that the word hi (or vehi), meaning "she/and she" appears 11 times in the Koren version of the Torah, but in the Adi edition the word hi appears 8 times and vehi 9 times, for a total of 17.]

The above evidence should be enough to lead to the conclusion that the Torah text underwent very significant changes, including some that totally changed the text's meaning. Yet these are all (aside from the case of Tractate Soferim) only variations of the Masoretic text used by the Rabbinic Jewish communities from the period of the Talmud to now. But obviously the Scripture existed well before the Talmud, and during the last 50 years many discoveries have been made that shed light on how the Scriptural text looked around the commencement of the Common Era. I refer to the discovery of hundreds of fragments of ancient scrolls, containing various portions of the Scriptural books, found at several sites in the Judean Desert: Qumran, Wadi Murabba'at, Nachal Chever and Massada. There were 225 manuscripts found containing fragments of the Scriptural books, and dozens of manuscripts of the so-called "external" books, like the Son of Sirach and Jubilees. Of the 225 Scriptural manuscripts, 215 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 215 Scriptural manuscripts from Qumran, 89 contain fragments of the Five Books of the Torah, 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 the Torah text now used by the Jewish communities.

Thus, in Genesis 22:14 the present-day Torah scrolls read: "And Abraham called that place 'the Lord will see' (YHWH yir'eh)," while in one of the Qumran scrolls the relevant name is quoted as "G-d will see (E-lohim yir'eh" (The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, p. 10). In the present-day Torah scrolls, Exodus 1:5 reads "And all the souls that came out the loins of Jacob were seventy souls, and Joseph was already in Egypt," while in another scroll from Qumran the number of Jacob's descendants is given as "seventy-five souls," and the words "and Joseph was already in Egypt" are missing (The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, p. 25).

In a scroll of Numbers, preserved in a very fragmentary condition, it is nevertheless possible to find out that before and after the verse Numbers 21:12 come two phrases that figure in the present-day Torah text as the verses of Deuteronomy 2:9 and 2:18-19, in which G-d forbids Moses to fight the nations of Moab and Ammon (the verses known to us from Deuteronomy are given below in bold; the portions of text not preserved in the scroll and reconstructed by scholars are given in square brackets, but judging from the words which are preserved, the relevant verses from Deuteronomy did appear there):

"[And the Lord] sai[d to Moses, 'Do not harass Moab nor engage them in battle, for] I will not give an[y of its land to you as a possession, since I have given Ar to the descendants of Lot for a possession.' From there they set out, and camped] in the Valley of Zer[ed. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Today you are going to cross at Ar,] the border of M[oab; and when you approach the Ammonites, do not harass them or engage them,] for [I will not give you any of the territory of the Ammonites as a possession, since I have given it to the descendants of Lot as a possession.']"

(The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, p. 125)

Another scroll from Qumran, containing the book of Deuteronomy, has, in the portion of the Ten Commandments, a much wider version of the commandment concerning the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:12-15), than the present-day Torah scrolls (in the table below, the differences between the two versions are marked in bold):

The scroll from Qumran
(The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible,
p. 54)

The present-day Torah text

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your G-d commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your G-d. On it you shall not do any work, you, your son, your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, your ox, nor your ass, nor your cattle, your stranger who is within your gates, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your G-d brought you out from there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your G-d 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.

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your G-d commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your G-d. You shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your G-d brought you out from there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your G-d commanded you to perform the Sabbath day.

The differences between the Qumran scrolls and the Masoretic texts of the Torah may even have theological implications. Thus, instead of the Masoretic reading of Deuteronomy 32:43, "Rejoice, O nations, with His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants and will render vengeance to his enemies, and will atone His land, for His people," one of the Qumran scrolls reads:

"Rejoice, O heavens, together with Him, and bow down to Him all you gods, for He will avenge the blood of His sons, and will render vengeance to His enemies, and will recompense those who hate Him, and will atone for the land of His people."

(The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, p. 192-193)

This verse seems to recognize existence of several gods, though it urges those gods to bow down to G-d of Israel!

There is 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 Yisra'el, which are distant by 15 verses in our Torah scrolls, it is thought to be a part of an ancient Jewish schoolbook or prayerbook, where the Ten Commandments and the Shema were quoted as the credos of Judaism. Various researchers date the Nash Papyrus to the 2nd century BCE-2nd century CE (see W. F. Albright, "A Biblical Fragment from the Maccabaean Age: the Nash Papyrus," Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 56 (1937), pp. 145-176). The full Hebrew text of the papyrus (more precisely, of the part of it that survived to now) is brought in Stanley A. Cook, "A Pre-Masoretic Biblical Papyrus" (Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, v. 25, pp. 34-56).

The Nash Papyrus is most interesting, since in its 24 lines it contains a very significant amount of differences from the text of our contemporary Torah scrolls. The most noteworthy of them is related to the wording of the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh commandments in the papyrus (translation from Hebrew mine, based on the one brought by Cook, with the antiquated English wordings replaced by modern ones, e.g. "thou" by "you"):

"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath to the Lord your G-d. On it you shall not do any work, you, and your son, and your daughter and your male servant, and your female servant, your ox, and your ass, and any of your cattle and your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; so the Lord blessed the seventh day and hallowed it. Honor your father and your mother, so that it may go well with you, and that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your G-d gives to you. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit murder."

The commandment of the Sabbath is expressed here by the verb "remember" (zachor), and the reason for remembering the Sabbath is the creation of the world in six days -- just as it is in the book of Exodus in our Torah text, as opposed to Deuteronomy, where the commandment is expressed by the verb "observe" (shamor), and the "reason" for observing the Sabbath is the escape from Egyptian slavery. However, the Nash Papyrus details that on the Sabbath, "You shall not do any work... and your female servant, your ox, and your ass, and any of your cattle," while our text of Exodus states, "You shall not do any work... and your female servant, and your cattle," without detailing the ox and the ass and without reading "any of" before "your cattle." On the other hand, the wording of this papyrus matches the Deuteronomy text on the commandment of the Sabbath. And, discrepant with both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the papyrus reads, "On it you shall not do any work" -- thus, the wording of the papyrus does not precisely fit either the Exodus nor the Deuteronomy text of the Ten Commandments.

Likewise, the fifth commandment is expressed in the papyrus by the sentence, "Honor your father and your mother, so that it may go well with you, and that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your G-d gives to you." In our Torah text, Exodus reads, "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your G-d gives to you," and Deuteronomy reads, "Honor your father and your mother, just as the Lord your G-d commanded you, so that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land which the Lord your G-d gives to you." Again, the Nash Papyrus version is different from the wording of both iterations in our Torah text.

Similarly, the sixth and the seventh commandments in the papyrus are, "You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit murder," while both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy in our Torah text the order is reverse: "You shall not commit murder. You shall not commit adultery."

And one more remarkable detail is that in the Nash Papyrus the wording of the Shema is: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, one Lord is He" (YHWH echad hu), while our Torah text -- Deuteronomy 6:4 -- reads: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one" (YHWH echad). Even in such an important verse as the Shema there is a discrepancy.

As you can see, not only was the text of the Torah used by the Jews around the commencement of the Common Era sometimes very different from the one we use now, but no uniform text existed at all, even within the boundaries of a single community (like that of Qumran). Even in a single community significantly different scrolls could be used at the same time. This provided, it seems that we cannot claim a definite tradition of the Torah text being maintained from the time the original Torah scroll was written until now. And, besides the problems which this raises for a belief in the immutability of the Torah text, let me ask a further disturbing question: if the tradition of our most sacred book is corrupt, what can be said about the tradition (both written and oral) on other matters?

Tradition unreliable -- an example

I feel it necessary to bring an example about the issue of tradition to show why it is highly problematic to rely on a tradition, even a tradition speaking of mass events which would be expected to leave many witnesses behind (as is claimed concerning the Sinai Revelation).

In 361-363 CE, the emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus ruled the Roman Empire. Since he was a bitter enemy of Christianity and publicly announced his conversion to Roman paganism in 361 CE, Christian chroniclers titled him Julian the Apostate. One of the deeds attributed to him is the order to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by Titus in 70 CE. The Christian historical tradition, starting with sources contemporary to Julian's reign, brings the account of events that followed Julian's order:

"He [Julian] at last brought the whole body of the Jews upon us, whom... he endeavored to convince from their sacred books and traditions that... they should return to their own land, rebuild their Temple, and restore everything to its former splendor... The Jews set upon the work of rebuilding with great vigor, and advanced the project with diligent labor. Suddenly they were driven from their work by a violent earthquake and a whirlwind, and they flew together for refuge to a certain neighboring church, many to escape the impending danger, and others being carried along by the dense crowd in its flight. There are some who say that the church door were closed against them by an invisible hand, although these doors had been wide open a moment before -- which hand was accustomed to work these wonders for the confusion of the impious and the comfort of godly men. It is, moreover, affirmed and believed by all, that as they strove to force their way in by violence, the fire, which burst from the foundations of the Temple, met and stopped them; some it burnt and destroyed; others it injured seriously, leaving them a living monument of the Divine wrath against sinners... But still, the most wondrous thing was that a light appeared in the heavens, as of a cross within a circle... Nay, further, they who were present and were witnesses of the following miracle, still show the mark of the cross that was impressed upon their garments. For whenever these men, whether they were of us or strangers, were showing these marks, or attending to others who were showing them, each observed on his own or his neighbor's body or on his robe a shining mark, which in art and elegance surpassed all painting and embroidery. Most of them ran to our priests, begging to be baptized, and humbly entreating their mercy."

This description was written by Gregory of Nazianzus, a prominent Christian theologian who studied with the future emperor Julian in Athens in the 350s CE. The text above, taken from Book 2 of Gregory's "Invective" against Julian (cited by Rabbi Michael Adler, "The Emperor Julian and the Jews," Jewish Quarterly Review, v. 5 (old series, 1893), pp. 631-632), was written only a year or so after the events supposedly occurred. The events, including the mass Jewish movement of rebuilding the Temple, the earthquake and the whirlwind which stopped their work, the fire which killed and injured many of the builders and caused the Temple project to be finally abandoned, the great cross mark in the sky and the smaller cross marks on bodies and clothes which lit up when shown to anybody, and finally, the mass baptism of those Jewish builders who survived the incident, would leave a huge amount of evidence and many witnesses to the events. It seems impossible that Gregory's account could be written and believed in by many people (as it was), were this account all a fiction.

And not only that, but two other Christian authors -- Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan (in his letter to the emperor Theodosius I), and John Chrysostom, a renowned Christian thinker (in the 3rd of his Homilies Against the Jews) -- left us their own accounts of the events, written about 25 years after the events supposedly occurred. Both Ambrose's and Chrysostom's accounts corroborate Gregory's report. In the first half of the 5th century CE (i.e. less than 90 years after the supposed events), we have four more accounts which point to Christian-tinged miracles, including the earthquake, fire and lighting crosses, which stopped the Jewish attempt to rebuild the Temple according to the order of Julian the Emperor. These accounts belong to four different people: Roman Christian theologian and historian Rufinus, Byzantine church historians Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen, and Syrian theologian and historian Theodoret. Sozomen, in his "Ecclesiastical History" (book 5, chapter 22), finishes his account of the events with the following passage:

"A more tangible and still more extraordinary miracle ensued; suddenly the sign of the cross appeared spontaneously on the garments of the persons engaged in the undertaking. These crosses looked like stars, and appeared the work of art. Many were hence led to confess that Christ is G-d, and that the rebuilding of the Temple was not pleasing to him; others presented themselves in the church, were initiated, and besought Christ, with hymns and supplications, to pardon their transgression. If any one does not feel disposed to believe my narrative, let him go and be convinced by those who heard the facts I have related from the eyewitnesses of them, for they are still alive. Let him inquire, also, of the Jews and pagans who left the work in an incomplete state, or who, to speak more accurately, were unable to commence it."

Later Christian historians -- Philostorgus in the late 5th century, Theophanes in the 6th, George Kedrenus in the 11th, Nicephorus in the 14th, the authors of Magdeburg Centuries, a history of the Protestant Church, in the 16th, Bishop William Warburton in the 18th, and Cardinal John Newman in the 19th -- also brought similar accounts of Julian's order to rebuild the Temple and the events which followed. This is definitely a Christian historical tradition of an incident which should have left many witnesses of it and which is rather strong evidence in favor of the Christian religion and against Judaism. Unlike the tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation there are seven accounts of these events written less than 100 years after the events' alleged occurrence: the first of them was written only a year or so after the supposed events, another two about 25 years later, and four more 50 to 90 years after the supposed events.

Moreover, even a prominent pagan historian who lived at the time of the alleged miracles, Ammian Marcellinus -- a personal friend of Julian's and a sympathizer of his anti-Christian reforms -- brings an account of Julian's attempt to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which ended when "fearful balls of fire, bursting out again and again, near the foundation, rendered the place altogether inaccessible to the workmen, who were scorched by the flames. And since the very elements [of nature], as if by some fate, repelled the attempt, it was abandoned" (Ammian Marcellinus, History, book 23, chapter 1). Ammian does not tell of glowing crosses in the sky and on people's skin and clothes, but this may be attributed to his dislike of Christianity. And what is even more remarkable -- there are even two Jewish rabbis who adopted the tradition of the miracles which stopped rebuilding the Temple in Julian's reign: R' Gedaliah Ibn Yachiah in his Shalshelet haKabbalah and R' David Ganz in his Tzemach David! They do not mention the glowing crosses, of course, but the very fact that these pious rabbis affirm miracles which could be used to corroborate the Christianity is most remarkable, and can be compared to the adoption of the story of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation by Christians. I could see a Christian evangelist using this tradition of miracles which stopped the rebuilding of the Temple in Julian's days as a mighty tool in his outreach activity, just the way our rabbis and outreach professionals use the tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation when trying to persuade their audience and readers about the veracity of those events.

But there is in fact no reason to believe that the miracles described by Gregory of Nazianzus and the others actually occurred -- and here is why:

  1. In Julian's epistle "To the Community of the Jews," which is the major source that testifies to the emperor's interest in rebuilding the Temple, he asked the Jews to pray for the success of his military campaign, adding:

  2. "Thus should you do, in order that when I return safely from the Persian war, I may restore the Holy City of Jerusalem, and rebuild it at my own expense, even as you have for so many years desired it to be restored."

    (Quoted by R' M. Adler, "The Emperor Julian and the Jews," p. 624)

    The emperor Julian himself stated that his intention was to rebuild the Temple after he returned from his war with Persia, but he never did return -- he was killed during his campaign in Mesopotamia in the summer of 363 CE, either by Persians or by Christian soldiers of his own army. Judging from Julian's epistle, the rebuilding of the Temple had not actually started -- and could therefore not be stopped by any miraculous event. [Though some historians doubted the authenticity of the epistle, there is no evidence which would show beyond a reasonable doubt that it was fabricated while there is a great deal of textual evidence that the epistle was indeed written by the emperor Julian himself (see e.g. M. Hak, "HaMezuyefet Hi Hatzharat Yulianus?" Yavneh, v. 2, pp. 118-139 and Y. Levi, "Yulianus Keisar uVinyan haBayit" in "Olamot Nifgashim," pp. 221-254)].

    And since Julian's own epistle implies that the rebuilding of the Temple was never begun, the tradition of Christian-tinged miracles that stopped the rebuilding of the Temple appears to be based on dubious foundations, it is hardly reasonable to build one's whole worldview on such a tradition. However, this is also true for the Judaic tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation, given its many internal contradictions -- let us recall, for example, the question of how much time the Israelites stayed in Egypt: 430 (Exodus 12:40), 400 (Genesis 15:13) or 210 years (Rabbinic tradition).

  3. It is quite possible (though not provable) that the Christian authors who wrote on the subject simply copied from Gregory of Nazianzus, sometimes interpolating a little, adding new details and magnifying the miracles in order to encourage the reader in his Christian belief -- in this case, obviously, we are dealing not with several Christian sources relating a tradition of the miracles, but with a single source copied and re-copied (with slight variations) for centuries by different authors. Rabbi Michael Adler made this point in his article "The Emperor Julian and the Jews" (pp. 591-651), and he summarized his argument by saying, "Gregory started the tale of the miracles, and the chorus of Church writers, even to this day, has echoed and re-echoed it until it has passed into the domain of history, into which it ought never to have entered." The tradition of the Exodus and of the Sinai Revelation is definitely based on a single source -- namely, on the Scripture -- with some elaborations of the basic narrative in the writings of subsequent centuries (Talmudic and Midrashic homilies). R' Adler's statement should hold true for the tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation also.

  4. The writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, like those of the other early Christian authors who reported the miracles which stopped rebuilding the Temple, are permeated with anti-Julian and anti-Jewish bias. It would not be reasonable to expect such an author to give an objective report of the events without "embellishing" his account with miracles designed to inspire the reader in his Christian belief, even if there were no connection between these miracles and reality. Similarly, the Scripture and Judaic tradition are no less full of bias against the other religions; it is equally possible to admit that the author of the Torah's account of the great and awesome miracles of the Exodus and of G-d speaking to the whole nation at Sinai ("You shall have no other gods before Me") intended to inspire his readers in their Judaic beliefs rather than to describe the real and actual history of the People of Israel.

  5. Though Gregory of Nazianzus definitely wrote his account of the miracles very shortly (a year or so) after the events were said to have taken place, and though he spoke explicitly of witnesses of the miracles who "still show the mark of the cross that was impressed upon their garments," it must be remembered that Gregory then lived in Anatolia (modern Turkey), and he could hardly know what actually happened in Jerusalem during the attempt to rebuild the Temple. Similarly, it is evident from the Torah's text that it could not have been written in the Middle East circa 1313-1273 BCE, as it is supposed to have been: the Torah speaks of "Ur of the Chaldeans" while Chaldean tribes reached the city of Ur only about 1000 BCE, it tells of Abraham's and Isaac's visits to the Philistine kingdom while the Philisappeared on the southeastern coast of the Mediterranean only in the 12th century BCE, and it speaks of the Egyptian army drowning in the sea and unable to recover for at least 40 years, just at the time when Egypt was in a state of permanent and indecisive war with the Hittite empire. It appears from the Torah's text that its author must have been much less acquainted with the reality of 1313-1273 BCE Middle East than Gregory of Nazianzus was acquainted with Jerusalem of 361-363 CE.

  6. The Christian writers were themselves confused about a significant detail of the alleged events -- whether the fire which finally stopped the Temple rebuilding burst from the foundations of the Temple (according to Gregory and most of the later authors) or came down from the sky (according to Socrates Scholasticus). On this point, at least, it is impossible to speak of a consistent Christian tradition, but this detail is rather minor compared with the disagreement which existed among Jewish authors around the beginning of the Common Era about the number and nature of the Plagues in Egypt, as I have shown above.

  7. As said above, Ammian Marcellinus -- the only historian who lived at the time of the supposed events and whose writings are free from pro-Christian bias -- mentions neither glowing crosses in the sky or on people's skin and clothes, nor an earthquake which destroyed the rebuilt fragments of the Temple and killed and wounded many of the builders. Moreover, Marcellinus mentions no Jews taking part into the Temple's rebuilding and attributes the whole work to a gentile, Alypius of Antioch, who had formerly been Roman pro-prefect of Britain. In fact, no source aside from accounts of Temple-rebuilding-related miracles mentions any earthquake in Palestine or in the neighboring countries in 361-363 CE. An earthquake is an event significant enough to be noted by many sources, even without any connection to the Temple; the absence of external corroborative evidence concerning this facet of the Christian tradition makes the tradition unreliable. At the very best, it may be said that Julian attempted to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple as a Roman rather than as a Jewish enterprise and that the construction work was stopped by a fire. This is rather far from the Christian tradition of the Jews attempting to rebuild the Temple because of their ignorance or denial of Jesus' prophecy of the Temple's eternal destruction and being punished time after time by Divine wrath -- first by an earthquake, then by a fire -- while the Christian aspect of this Divine punishment was manifest by a huge glowing cross in the sky and smaller glowing crosses on people's bodies and garments.

  8. But, the situation is actually much worse for the tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation. There exists no external corroborative evidence whatsoever from any source written at the supposed time of the events. The existing historical and archeological evidence allows one to speak, at the very best, of a continual flow of small groups of minorities out of Egypt, continuing for decades or even centuries, as Prof. Abraham Malamat asserts in an article bearing the telling title "Let My People Go and Go and Go and Go" (Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1998, pp. 62-66, 85). Needless to say, this picture is far from the traditional Judaic account of 600,000 adult male Israelites with their wives and children leaving Egypt in a single event, unprecedented in human history after Egypt is crushed by G-d's awesome plagues.

  9. Though Sozomen maintained that a person skeptical about the Christian tradition of the miracles which stopped the Temple's rebuilding should "go and be convinced by those who heard the facts I have related from the eyewitnesses of them, for they are still alive," it must be noted that several renowned Christian authors who should have had close connections to the supposed miracles say nothing about them. Jerome (347-419 CE), the author of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible translation used by the Catholic Church), was a pupil of Gregory of Nazianzus, had travelled through Palestine, lived for some time in Bethlehem (some 6 miles from Jerusalem), and made many references to Julian and to the Jewish Temple throughout his voluminous writings -- yet he maintained complete silence concerning the miracles. In his commentary on Daniel 11:34 Jerome mentions that it was the verse which Julian used to persuade the Jews that the time had come for the Temple to be rebuilt. Jerome, however, does not bring any account of miracles that stopped the attempt to rebuild the Temple -- it is hard to explain this silence aside from Jerome's disbelief in the story. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem at the time of the alleged events, left many written works, but none mentions miracles which stopped the Temple's rebuilding, nor even the very attempt to rebuild the Temple. Another Cyril, bishop of Alexandria in the early 5th century CE, left a polemical treatise against Julian and comments upon his opponent's views of the Temple worship and the Jews, but never speaks of even an intention on Julian's part to rebuild the Jewish Temple, let alone miracles which put an end to that attempt.

  10. The situation is quite similar about the ancient Israelites' acquaintance with the Torah in general and with story of the Exodus and of the Sinai Revelation in particular. Dozens of ancient Hebrew texts (inscriptions, ostraca, and amulets) of the First Temple period have been discovered during our century. 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 most remarkable. The earliest texts which allow one to assume that their writer was familiar with at least part of 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, Katef Hinnom, pp. 29-31). These 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 dated to 419/418 BCE -- 900 years after we believe the laws of the Passover were taught to the whole People of Israel (for the text of the papyrus see Bezalel Porten et al., The Elephantine Papyri in English, pp. 125-126). As for the 7th century BCE, we possess the Yavneh-Yam Ostracon, dated by 639-609 BCE, the petition of a harvester complaining against somebody who seized his garment. Though the harvester mentions that he finished harvesting and storage of 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 J. B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, pp. 568-569). One more ancient Hebrew legal petition of 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 did have 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 an 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" judging from the Torah's description of the feasts. Most likely the calendar refers to the month parallel to the present-day month of 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 J. B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, p. 320). And so on -- 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. G-d'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 G-d, or of a village sanctuary dedicated to YHWH as a local deity. On the other hand, the excavations at Kuntillet 'Ajrud in the northeast Sinai desert unearthed several inscriptions of that period with the following content:

    "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"

    (Eric M. Meyers [ed.], The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, Kuntillet 'Ajrud).

    These inscriptions are dated to the 9th-8th centuries BCE, and the pagan Canaanite goddess Asherah is described there not only as a deity blessing her believers, but also as the favored one of the deity YHWH -- a title referring usually to female consorts. Of course the Scripture itself mentions many times that many of ancient Hebrews worshipped pagan deities at certain periods, but here we have much more than just a pagan cult: the worship of a couple consisting of YHWH and Asherah, that is, a worship of YHWH itself as a pagan deity who even has some kind of family life. Isn't it peculiar that while we have no text written at that time which describes YHWH as the one and only G-d of the Universe, we have such outspoken pagan descriptions of Him?

    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 at that time engaged in a continual and indecisive war with Egypt, and they would be more than glad to record great disasters befalling their enemies. Therefore the tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation, and of the whole narrative of the Torah in general, appears to be in no better a position than the Christian tradition of miracles which stopped rebuilding the Temple.

  11. And finally, that Jewish authors speak of the failure of Julian's initiative to rebuild the Temple does little to help verify this tradition. One of these authors, R' David Ganz (Tzemach David), explicitly wrote that the sources he used for his account were two Christian chroniclers -- Winting and Cassius -- and therefore his account adds nothing. Moreover, R' Ganz does not detail which exactly events stopped the rebuilding of the Temple, confining himself to the ambiguous formula, "the Heaven made it so that the building was not finished, since the emperor [Julian] was killed in the Persian war." As for the other Jewish author, R' Gedaliah Ibn Yachiah's (Shalshelet haKabbalah) account states:

"About the year 4349 from Creation, the chronicles say that there was a great earthquake throughout the world, and the great Temple, which the Jews had erected in Jerusalem by the order of Julion Apostata the Emperor at a great cost, fell down. And next day, a great fire came down from the sky, melted all the iron tools that were at the building site and burnt a great number of Jews. And when the emperor Valenti [Valentinian?] saw this, he sent other Jews from Constantinople and built up all that was ruined."

The explicit use of the Greco-Latin term "chronicles" (kroniki in the Hebrew original), which, in R' Gedaliah's time (16th century) could refer only to Christian historical writings, as well as the name Julion Apostata -- a corruption of Latin Julianus Apostata, Julian the Apostate -- reveal the Christian origin of R' Gedaliah's account. (It was the Christians who named their bitter enemy Julian the Apostate for his renunciation of Christianity, while the Jews had no reason to refer in such a negative way to the emperor so friendly to them; R' Gedaliah apparently just copied the name from a Christian chronicle without having much interest in what it really meant). Thus, R' Gedaliah's account can lend no additional credibility to the Christian tradition -- just as the acceptance of the Scripture's Exodus--Sinai--Land-of-Israel narrative by the Christians lends no additional weight to the Scriptural narrative: in both cases adherents of one religion adopted another religion's tradition not because they had external sources corroborating it, but because of their spiritual needs, gullibility, or other reasons which have nothing to do with the tradition's veracity. [It is interesting to note that either R' Gedaliah or the author of the Christian chronicle he copied made a grave error: the events in R' Gedaliah's account are dated to 4349 years from Creation, which is 589 CE -- 226 years after Julian's death! Moreover, R' Gedaliah recorded that the emperor Valenti (most likely Valentinian I, emperor of Rome in 364-375 CE) rebuilt the destroyed Temple - which, of course, did not happen.]

I feel it best to conclude the discourse on a tradition's reliability with Rabbi Michael Adler's words in his article "The Emperor Julian and the Jews":

"Nothing should be admitted into the book of history except that which, by reason of its undisputed truth, merits a place in its sacred pages; and it is the time that the legends... of the reputed rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem by the Emperor Julian, and the attendant miracles, should be relegated to their proper sphere of imaginative literature and fictitious history."

Unfortunately, as I have shown above, if we apply same apparatus of reason to the tradition of the Torah's narrative as we apply to the Christian tradition, we will come to the same conclusions about our tradition that Rabbi Adler came to about this Christian tradition.

Halachic Traditions Contradictory to the Oral Torah As We Know It

Halachic traditions contradictory to Rabbinic Judaism have been preserved for centuries by certain Jewish communities. These communities did not proclaim war on the Rabbinic tradition as did the Karaites; they simply preserved their own Halachic tradition. Amongst these communities is Ethiopian Jewry, frequently called Falasha. (Since many of them view the term Falasha as derogatory, I will use the term Beta Israel -- House of Israel, which is what that community calls itself.) According to their tradition they are descendants of the Jerusalem nobles who came to Ethiopia with Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef's halachic ruling of 1973 states that Beta Israel are descendants of the tribe of Dan. In the past two decades, due to massive Beta Israel immigration to Israel and their subsequent subjection to Rabbinical influence and due to the activity of foreign Jewish organizations in Ethiopia, many Beta Israel customs were abandoned and Rabbinic ones adopted; the information I give below describes the original customs and traditions of the Beta Israel community in Ethiopia, as given by Encyclopedia Hebraica (entry Falashim), and by Michael Corinaldi in Jewish Identity: the Case of Ethiopian Jewry.

Beta Israel Torah scrolls, as well as their Scriptures, are written not in Hebrew but in Ge'ez (the ancient Ethiopian language); Ge'ez is also the language of prayer and of Beta Israel religious literature. The Scriptural canon of Beta Israel also includes the Apocrypha. Beta Israel synagogues are divided in two; one part, 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 who are engaged in religious education). Cohens are heads of the local communities; one of them is elected to be chief Cohen. To be a cohen one need not be the son of a cohen; all that is required is to be a descendant of a respected family and to receive a special education. Cohens lead the seven daily prayer services in the synagogue and other religious ceremonies. They also bring sacrifices and perform the regular shechitah.

The Beta Israel calendar is much like the Rabbinic one; the year starts in Nissan. On Nissan 14 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 Rabbinic tradition -- is unknown to Beta Israel. They do not celebrate Purim and Hanukkah, but they have two 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 Jews observe the Sabbath; however, they consider pumping water and having a sexual contact to be forbidden on Sabbath, in clear contradiction of Rabbinic Halacha. They do not permit circumcision on the Sabbath, while the Talmud (Shabbat 132b) learns from Leviticus 12:3 that a child born on Sabbath should be circumcised the next Sabbath.

Beta Israel have a tradition of monasticism, and monks -- both male and female -- live in abstinence in monasteries or (alone) in the 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 buying; the wedding does not include the groom "buying" the bride at all. The divorce ceremony includes writing a bill of divorcement, but it is not written as a get nor given by the husband to the wife. The whole idea of writing such a document is a relatively recent innovation; in 1977 it had not yet reached all the villages (M. Corinaldi, Jewish Identity, p. 86, n. 158). Traditionally a divorce was orally declared in the presence of the community elders and the marriage contract was torn. In any case, the bill of divorcement is not what validates a Beta Israel divorce, in clear contradiction with Rabbinic Halacha.

If, Rabbinic law, in fact, has its source at Sinai and was transmitted orally, why should Ethiopian Jewry not possess these laws? More significantly, why would they be missing a basic commandment such as shofar blowing? Isn't it reasonable to conclude that the Oral Law and traditional explanations of the Written Law were added at some later period of Jewish history, after the Beta Israel had gone their own way?

The Oral Torah and the Halacha -- II

Chazal's exegesis of the Torah must be rationally analyzed

So tradition, dear to us as it may be, is too vague to base our faith upon or to provide authority for practical Halacha. To Maimonides, celebrating Shavuot 50 days after the first day of Passover is most certainly "traditional exegesis" (see Maimonides, Laws of Permanent and Additional Sacrifices 7:11 and 8:1), and this practice should be shared by all the Jewish communities worldwide -- yet the tradition of Beta Israel does not include such a law, nor the way it is learnt from the Torah; instead it states that Shavuot should be celebrated 50 days after the last day of Passover. So we see that based on reason and factual reality, the category of "traditional exegesis" has no value based only on support from tradition; it should be examined together with the category of Oral Torah laws I have not yet mentioned -- "the laws derived rationally and there was disagreement about them... and in these matters the law is determined by the majority."

But if these laws are derived rationally from the Torah text, as Maimonides stated, then one should examine the arguments which led the Sages to formulate these laws. If the arguments are reasonable then it is understandable that the laws derive their authority from the Torah -- but if the arguments make no sense, what connection is there between the Torah and the laws that Sages formulated based on these arguments?

Did the Sages have Divine authority to interpret the Torah?

The most popular answer to the question above is: since the Torah itself gives the Sages the authority to interpret it as they see fit, all the laws they make -- be their arguments for those laws reasonable or not -- are binding for all Israel. As Maimonides put it in the Laws of the Disobedient, 1:1-2:

"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."

It is interesting to note that Maimonides here calls only those laws which are "learned from tradition" "the Oral Torah," while the laws derived by the Sages through the Torah's exegesis he calls "matters they learned on their own." This fits Maimonides's view, expressed in the second root in his Sefer HaMitzvot, where he called the laws learned by the Sages from the Torah through one of the 13 methods of the Torah's exegesis "the laws of the Sages [derabanan]," as opposed to "the laws of the Torah [deorayta]," which are only those laws received explicitly through tradition from Sinai. On the other hand, Maimonides did not include laws learned by the Sages through the Torah's exegesis in the same category as laws which are pure Rabbinic innovations -- edicts, regulations and customs. To Maimonides, apparently, there are three categories of Halachic laws:

  1. "The laws of the Torah" in the narrow sense of the term -- i.e. the laws which are either written explicitly in the Torah text or were given orally as they are to Moses at Sinai.

  2. The laws that are potentially included in the Torah text, but which require derivation from the text through one of the methods of the Torah's exegesis -- what the Talmud calls "[a law] whose essence is from the Torah and was interpreted by the Sages" (Sanhedrin 88b).

  3. The laws which are completely Rabbinic innovations -- there is no basis for them in the Torah text, but the Sages established them of their own considerations.

It may be disputed whether Maimonides views laws of the second category as similar to the laws of the Torah or to the laws of the Sages in practical Halachic matters (or maybe sometimes they are similar to these and sometimes similar to those) -- but anyway, in Maimonides' view the Torah commands us to obey the Sages' rulings from any of these three categories. This commandment he learns from the following verses:

"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 G-d 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."

(Deuteronomy 17:8-11)

Now, the simple reading of these verses yields something quite different from what Maimonides purports them to say. It speaks here of a person or a group of persons 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 G-d will choose." There they are taught the law, from which they have no right to deviate. Thus, the only authority the Torah explicitly 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). 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's 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 interpretation, as it is not found in the Judaic sources preceding Maimonides's time.

On the other hand, several Scriptural commentators tried to deduce the Sages' authority to issue Halachic verdicts, even if they contradict the plain meaning of the Torah and common sense, from the phrase "Do not deviate from what they instruct you, neither to the right hand nor to the left." This view is explained most fully in Nachmanides' commentary on Deuteronomy 17:11:

"'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 do not say, 'How will I eat this completely forbidden tallow?' or 'How will I kill this innocent man?' but say: 'This is what He who gives the commandments commanded me, that in all the matters concerning His commandments I should do as those who stand before Him in the place He had chosen instruct me...'

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 G-d 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 G-d'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."

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 necessarily mean what Rashi and Nachmanides claim. It only means that after one 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 -- yet I have already shown that any exegesis should be examined on the grounds of its reason and the logical arguments in favor of it, at least while the Sages' authority to give this exegesis a mandatory status is unproven - and one cannot consider it proven whilst trying to prove it as Sifri, Rashi, and Nachmanides do. Thus, the only source for Rabbinic authority becomes the Rabbis' own understanding, highly creative, of a Biblical verse.

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." This alternative reading only sanctions Rabbinic legislation if it squares with logic. It is up to someone else to pass judgement about whether the Sages' right is, indeed, right.

The authority of the Talmud

In addition to all the above, the verses of Deuteronomy 17:8-11 clearly tell us that one should go for "the verdict of judgment" only "to the place which the Lord your G-d 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 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 17:8-11. In Maimonides's own opinion,

"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."

(Foreword to Mishneh Torah)

So the authority of the Babylonian Talmud is not derived from any Torah verse, nor even from a legislative statement by earlier sages, but 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, why is the Halacha more Divine than the human-legislated laws of any country?

True, Maimonides sought to base the Talmud's authority not only on people's acceptance of its laws, but also on 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." But, as I have already shown, tradition is too vague and too alterable a thing to base Divine law upon.

Chazal -- were they outstandingly wise?

Yet one may say, as many religious Jews in our time do, 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 "the 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). I just want to analyze a few interesting statements and rulings of Chazal, Rishonim, and Achronim (for they are also included in "the previous generations") and see for myself whether these rulings speak of extraordinary wisdom and intellect or not.

In tractate Shabbat 107b we find:

"We have learned from the Tannaim: Rabbi Eliezer says, one who kills a louse on Sabbath is like one who kills a camel on Sabbath. Rav Joseph asked: now, the Sages disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer only about the louse, for it does not reproduce. But all the other reptiles and small creatures [shekatzim uremasim], that do reproduce are not a matter of dispute. And both sides learned their opinions from the rams [whose leather was used for building the Tabernacle]. Rabbi Eliezer thought: like the rams -- as the rams were deprived of their souls, so it is forbidden to deprive any creature of its soul. And the Sages thought: as the rams reproduce, so it is forbidden to kill any creature that reproduces. Abaye asked: but does not the louse reproduce? Yet it is said, 'G-d sits and gives food to everything, from horns of buffalo to eggs of lice' (Avodah Zarah 3b)? It is a different species, called 'eggs of lice.' "

The Tannaim and Amoraim agreed that lice do not reproduce; the only matter in dispute was whether or not it is permitted to kill them on Sabbath. The Gemara in Shabbat 12a states that this was also an issue disputed by Tannaim of the Halachic schools of Hillel and Shammai, and Halacha was ruled according to the school of Hillel, that one is permitted to kill a louse on Sabbath.

Since it was accepted that lice do not reproduce, the question of their origin arose, and the Rishonim gave different answers: 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, chapter 11, halacha 3). The Shulchan Aruch also permitted killing lice, and as late as the early 20th 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; but a flea, though it also does not reproduce, anyway, because it is born from dust, has a vitality as though it were born from a male and a female, and one is liable for depriving it of its soul [on Sabbath]" (Mishnah Berurah, paragraph 316, subsection 38).

Of course lice reproduce like any other living organisms, and they are certainly not born of sweat, mold, or dust. Experiments pointing to this conclusion had already been conducted in the 17th century, and in the 19th century Louis Pasteur proved that not only lice, but any "living creature can be born only of a living creature," so had the Chafetz Chayim been careful enough to inquire a little in scientific or even popular-scientific literature, he would have been aware of the problematic character of this ruling by the Gemara and Rishonim. But this failing was not the exclusive province of the Chafetz Chayim.

To see louse eggs is not difficult, even with the naked eye -- Chazal themselves recognized these eggs, called them inva, and even noted that they are usually found "at the base of a hair" (Nazir 39a). They explicitly used the term "eggs of lice" [beitzei kinim] (see e.g. Avodah Zarah 3b). And yet they did not consider them real eggs from which lice hatch, but a species on its own. Technically it would not have been difficult, of course, to pick some invas and see how lice hatch, which would lead to the conclusion that lice hatch from eggs and are not born of sweat, human flesh, or old clothes.

Why, then, did they not perform such a simple experiment? Because, apparently, they did not consider experimentation a relevant way of knowing about the facts. The Gemara's methodology was not empirical, but authority-based -- that is, accepting a statement or a concept not by conducting experiments and observations in order to verify whether it is true or not, but rather by inquiring into who formulated this statement or concept and how many respectable people adopted it. 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 Chazal -- and 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 an erroneous Aristotelian theory part of Jewish Halacha for generations. From that time on 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. Even after the worldwide triumph of the empirical method in 17th-18th centuries, mainstream Halachic thought adhered to the authority-based approach. Thus the Chafetz Chayim adopted the theory of abiogenesis, though in his time it totally discredited -- not because he had any empirical data supporting it, but because this was what he read in the Gemara and Poskim.

But the problem is even more serious. In the 18th century it was already known that lice reproduce and are not born through abiogenesis. As it became known to the scientists, their reports also reached the Jewish world of that time, and R' Yitzchak Lamperonti, a prominent Italian rabbi of that era, considered forbidding the killing of lice on the Sabbath, as he wrote in his Halachic encyclopedia Pachad Yitzchak (entry Tzeidah Asurah):

"Were I not afraid, I would say that in our times natural scientists made observations, and it became known to them that each and every creature, be as it may be, is born from eggs [that is, not through abiogenesis], and this was proved with most clear proofs. Therefore one who wants to safeguard his soul should refrain from it and kill neither fleas nor lice, so that he would not come to something that may be a Sabbath violation for which one is liable to a sinner's sacrifice. So, on this issue I would suppose that were the Jewish sages to hear the arguments of gentiles [scientists], they would abandon their previous view and agree to the scientists' opinion..."

R' Lamperonti did not attempt to abandon the Halachic category of a creature born through abiogenesis which one is permitted to kill on the Sabbath. He just tried to say that even if we adopt this category it is not valid for lice -- for they are not born through abiogenesis -- and therefore one may not kill them on the Sabbath. This is quite a reasonable approach which by no means seeks to undermine the law of Hillel's Halachic school, but seeks to determine, based on factual reality, in which cases this law is valid and in which it is not.

And yet this view was fiercely rejected by the contemporary Rabbinic world, and even R' Lamperonti's own rabbi, R' Yehudah Briel, stated that "one may not alter the laws, based on our ancestors' tradition, because of gentile scientists' research… For the tradition of our rabbis is sufficient, and on the foundations of it they ruled the law and determined the perfect judgment" (Pachad Yitzchak, ibid.). R' Briel relies on "tradition," even if factual reality refutes it as clearly as possible. Instead of objective, empirical methodology we have here a prime example of the authoritative method. One pays no heed to evident natural phenomena just because they do not fit certain sayings of earlier authorities.

Such conduct seems to be neither exceptionally wise nor intelligent. Essentially, what difference is there between the above and the tendency of certain Christian theologians (starting with Cosmas Indicopleustes in the 6th century) to describe the Earth as flat, though humanity had evidence of Earth's spherical shape since the 5th century BCE? No, these theologians were not blind -- they were devoted Christians and 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. And if the Scripture says something contradicting reality, reality should be nullified, they thought -- and this is exactly what Rabbeynu Chananel said on the Gemara in Pesachim 94a which also speaks of a flat earth under the semi-spherical dome of the sky: "Despite the fact that astronomers in our times claim things which are contradictory to this [Gemara's picture], we must not pay them any heed, but adhere to our rabbis' words as they are, and not pay attention to anyone else"! Now, this approach, rooted in tradition as opposed to observation and experimentation, leaves me with considerable doubt concerning our rabbis' credibility

And it is not only Rishonim and Achronim -- Chazal themselves explicitly admitted this was their methodology. In Midrash Bereshit Rabba, chapter 20, we find:

"One philosopher wanted to know, what is the time of snake's pregnancy. 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 time 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 time of 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 latter 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. It seems to be the typical "tall tale" seen frequently in the Talmud. Also, we know of no snake whose pregnancy lasts for seven years. Yet this story is very illustrative, as it tells us much of our Sages' concept of knowing reality. Chazal were quite aware of the empirical way of knowing through experiment and observation -- they ascribed it to a gentile "philosopher," while they chose the method of "knowing" reality by exegesis of Scriptural verses, even if they have no clear connection to the subject. (After all, why does G-d's curse on the snake affect the length of its pregnancy? The Scripture says nothing about animals' and beasts' pregnancies. It does speak of Eve's pregnancy, but the latter is not mentioned in Chazal's exegesis.) 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.

With such a non-scientific way of knowing reality, it is no wonder that Chazal often seem to have little or no knowledge of the simplest natural facts. In Tractate Chulin 57a we are told: "Chizkiah said: a fowl has no lungs; Rabbi Jochanan said: it has." After the Gemara determines that a fowl really does 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 peasant who slaughters hens for soup knows it. This is particularly distressing, since the matter of fowl having or not having lungs impacts on certain Halachic issues (as the Gemara there tells us), one should make some attempt at empirical verification before he makes such a statement. Moreover, please note that Rashi in his comment on this issue, emphasizes that Chizkiah was not just one of the sages, but "a great man of his generation."

Chazal also took for granted the existence of mythical creatures which had nothing to do with real fauna. From the Torah they learned laws concerning such creatures and used the creatures' characteristics to prove basic matters of 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 Chazal seem not at all troubled by this fact. In the Gemara (Chulin 127a) they learned whether this "mouse" is pure or not from Leviticus 11:29 -- according to the Gemara, 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." Or is the reality of 'mouse' of no interest? The Sages are simply concerned with what the law would be. Of course, if this be the case then the proof of resurrection is simply another example of the Sages playfully weaving together fact and legend.

Even in plain geometry we find Chazal determining laws based on homiletics, 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. It was round all about, and its height was five amahs. 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, this number is irrational (impossible to represent as a finite common or decimal fraction), and taken to 10 decimal places, pi=3.1415926536.

One might say that Chazal also knew that true pi is more than 3 and only tried to find a Halachically valid approximation of this number -- but this is impossible because of the Gemara in Bava Batra 14b:

"And if you think about the Torah Scroll [of the Temple] which had 6 tefachs in circumference, provided that everything that has 3 tefachs in circumference has one tefach in diameter and provided that the Torah scroll was rolled to its middle [i.e. it was rolled on two wooden shafts like our Torah scrolls are], we have more than 2 tefachs between one handle and another -- so how could it enter the 2 tefachs of free space [in the Holy Ark]? Rav Acha the son of Jacob said: the Torah scroll of the Temple was rolled to its beginning [i. e. it was rolled on one wooden shaft only]. And yet, since it was 2 tefachs in diameter, how could it enter 2 tefachs of free space [in the Ark]? Rav Ashei said: they did not wind all the Torah scroll on the pivot, but left a part of it unwound, put the scroll into the Ark, and then folded the remaining part of the scroll onto it."

They thought a Torah scroll 6 tefachs in circumference to be exactly 2 tefachs in diameter, so they considered it to be practically impossible to put such a scroll into a space of exactly 2 tefachs, unless one does not wind all the parchment of the scroll on its wooden shaft, thus leaving some free space to adjust the scroll in the Ark. Only after he puts the scroll into the Ark does he folds the remaining parchment and put it above the scroll.

Of course, were the Sages aware of the real value of pi -- or at least of the approximation 22/7 known to ancient Greeks centuries before the Talmudic era, they would have understood that the real diameter of a scroll 6 tefachs in circumference is about 1.9 tefachs and that nobody would need any special tricks to put it into 2 tefachs of free space. It is not difficult to determine that pi is significantly more than 3. All one needs is a ruler and a measuring rope. Nonetheless Chazal preferred to determine reality from verses and law instead of basing law on reality.

I want to emphasize: it is true that Judaism admits our Sages could err. I know that in Tractate Pesachim 94b Rabbi Judah HaNasi admitted (concerning an astronomical dispute between Jewish and gentile sages in which the Jewish sages held that "in daytime the sun goes below the firmament, and at night above the firmament") that "their [i.e. the gentile sages'] words seem to be better than ours," and that Maimonides wrote on the same issue in his Guide to the Perplexed (part 3, chapter 14):

"Do not ask me to reconcile everything that [Chazal] said on matters of astronomy with the situation as it really is, since science at that time was lacking and they [Chazal] said those things not because they received them through tradition from the prophets, but of their own knowledge [common] in those generations on such issues, or they learnt thus from the wise men of those generations."

Maimonides admitted that Chazal's knowledge of astronomy was their own or obtained from the astronomers of that time, and one should not be astonished if he finds Chazal's statements on astronomy (and obviously other fields of science, too) wrong.

However, the problem with Chazal's faulty knowledge of reality is much deeper. Not only was Maimonides wrong concerning the correspondence between the Sages' concepts of astronomy and the scientific knowledge of their times (for while Chazal and the Rishonim spoke of a flat earth under the dome of the sky, astronomers -- as opposed to theologians -- already knew that earth is spherical). Not only did the Sages issue Halachic rulings based on their faulty knowledge of reality -- rulings which are adhered to until this very day by Orthodox Jews (like Rabbeynu Tam's ruling that twilight lasts 4 mils after the beginning of the sunset, based on the flat-Earth picture of the Gemara in Pesachim 94a). Much more than that: the Sages' whole method of knowing reality -- through exegetics of Scriptural verses and sayings by sages of previous generations instead of by observation of reality itself -- is hardly what one would expect of a reasonable and responsible person trying to figure out what reality is (which definitely was the task of Chazal, at least in the cases they determined practical Halachic rulings that should be applied in reality).

In fact, not only is a great deal of Chazal's exegesis in conflict with physical reality, sometimes it is puzzling even in Chazal's own terms. From the Gemara of Kiddushin 30a it seems that Chazal knew that the Torah text is subject to variations, at least in single letters (they admitted that they were not "experts in plene and defective spellings"). However, they did not hesitate to learn Halachic laws from plene and defective spellings in the Torah. Thus, the Talmud ruled in Tractate Sanhedrin 4b that the head tefillin must have four chambers: "[The word] letotafot is written [in the Torah] two times deficient [which can be read as singular] and once plene [which should be read as plural], so you have here four [as plural means two in the Talmudic terminology]." The Sages themselves admitted that matters like plene and defective spellings are subject to change. Therefore there could be no confidence that the Torah scroll they had was letter-for-letter identical to the original Torah scroll -- yet they ruled a law based on plene/defective spellings as though they were given at Sinai. Unsurprisingly, in our Torah scrolls the word letotafot is not written plene at all, and there are three times when it is written deficient (in Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18). Should we now change the number of chambers in our head tefillin to three?

It is, of course, possible that the law really pre-dated the exegesis. My question then becomes: 1) what is the real source of the law, and 2) what purpose does the fanciful homiletic actually fulfill?

In Tractate Sanhedrin 22b Chazal learnt that a regular cohen [not the High Priest] must have a haircut at least every 30 days:

"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."

Analogy, as we know, 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 which Chazal themselves gave the status of Holy Writ after some dispute, as we have seen above. They draw an analogy between what they consider to be a G-d-given text and what they know is a book they determined to be written as prophecy. However, this is not simply an analogy, but one having practical Halachic implications, despite the clear and reasonable rule in Tractate Bava Kama 2b: "One may not learn matters of Torah from words of the Prophets and Writings."

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 her and her father does not:

"According to the Torah's law, her father should inherit her -- so how could the Sages rule that her husband inherits 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."

Thus the Sages annulled the law of the Torah (that father inherits 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.

In Tractate Berachot 31b the Gemara discusses 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 the odd one: 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.

Moreover, Chazal even thought -- and the most of 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 1:2). 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:

"G-d 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."

And the Chazon Ish wrote in his commentary on Orach Chayim (39:15) that, in fact, whether or not a girl's hymen would regenerate depends on the decision of the Beit Din.

I am at a loss as to how to respond to errors on matters of fact and methodological misconceptions of this magnitude. Can you help me?

So it seems that Chazal constructed a "virtual reality" for their Halachic purposes, without being troubled about whether it fit the real one. Still, they considered what they said to be actual reality.

The Messiah

In this context, it is interesting to look at how Chazal treated issues basic to the Judaic faith. Thus, one of the fundamentals of Judaism is the coming of the Messiah, of which Maimonides wrote, "And 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). In a matter so crucial to our faith, any error may lead to disastrous consequences. Some of the Sages understood this, and we find in Tractate Sanhedrin 97b: "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, we find that some of the other Sages did not agree to the opinion of R' Samuel the son of Nachmani, and tried to figure out the time of the Messiah's coming, sometimes even bringing their predictions in the name of Elijah the Prophet:

"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."

(Tractate Sanhedrin 97b)

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 from 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. The first option bears rather pessimistic implications concerning R' Judah's honesty (or one has to presume that his statement was intended as hyperbole, nothing more). The second option leads to rather gloomy conclusions concerning spiritual revelations and their veracity. But this is not all. On that same page of the Talmud we find:

"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 [a designation for the square script in which Torah scrolls are written] script and in the Holy Tongue... and it is written in that scroll: 4291 years fter 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, G-d 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]."

Thus our Sages relied on a mysterious scroll, which an unidentified man possessed, in their eschatological calculations. On what basis was this scroll deemed reliable in matters of extraordinary importance? 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 an unknown origin.

Unfortunately, the ill-fated predictions of the Messiah's coming did not end with the Talmudic sages. Most of these predictions were based on the final verses of the book of Daniel:

"The man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river... and I heard him swear by He Who lives forever, saying, 'It will be for a time, times and half a time. And when the power of the Holy People is finally broken, all these things will be completed.' I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, 'My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?' He replied, 'Go your way, Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end. Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand. From the time when the daily sacrifice was abandoned and the appalling abomination was set up, there will be a thousand, two hundred and ninety days. Blessed is the one who awaits and reaches the end of the thousand three hundred thirty and five days. As for you, go your way till the end, and rest; then, in the end of the days, you will rise to receive your lot.'"

(Daniel 12:7-13)

These verses, speaking of "the end of the days," became a mighty source of eschatological exegesis. Thus, Rashi wrote in his commentary on Daniel 12:11:

"'From the time when the daily sacrifice was abandoned' -- to replace it by the appalling abomination. 'A thousand, two hundred and ninety days' -- from the time when the daily sacrifice was abandoned until it will be renewed in the days of our Messiah, and this count is in line with the count of 'two thousand and three hundred evenings and mornings' (Daniel 8:14) from the beginning of the Egyptian captivity until the Final Redemption: the Egyptian captivity took 210 years, from the Exodus until the First Temple was built 480 years passed, the First Temple stood for 410 years, the Babylonian Exile lasted 70 years, the Second Temple period lasted 420 years -- all this totals 1590 years. The daily sacrifice was abandoned six years before the destruction [of the Second Temple] -- so from the Egyptian captivity until the time when the daily sacrifice was abandoned, 1584 years passed, and if you add to them 1290 years, they will total 2874, which equals the sum of the gematrias of 'evening' [erev, 272 in gematria] and 'morning' [boker, 302 in gematria] plus 2300."

Rashi's calculations of gematrias were intended to settle the words of Daniel 12, which speak of 1290 and 1335 "days" before the end of the times, with the verses Daniel 8:13-14, "Then I heard a holy one speaking... He said to me, 'It will take 2,300 evenings and mornings; then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated.'" The method Rashi used to reconcile these verses looks quite artificial: not only did Daniel say nothing about gematrias, it is also unclear when exactly the daily sacrifice was abandoned; Rashi himself admitted in his commentary on Daniel 8:14 that he had no source stating that the daily sacrifice was abandoned six years before the Second Temple was destroyed. But anyway, Rashi says that from the beginning of the Egyptian captivity until the time when the practice of bringing the daily sacrifice would be renewed in the Messiah's days, 2874 years would pass. 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 in 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 of the Ingathering of the Exiles -- first of those from the Ten Tribes of Israel, and then of those from the tribe of Judah -- wrote:

"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."

The 1290 years spoken of in the book of Daniel are "from the time when the daily sacrifice was abandoned," and it is highly peculiar that Nachmanides says these 1290 years would end by the year 5200 from Creation: in that case the daily sacrifice must have been abandoned in the year 3910 from Creation, while according to the Judaic chronological tradition, the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 3828 from Creation (68 CE), and no sacrificial practice could continue for 82 years after that date. (The destruction of the Second Temple actually occurred in 70 CE, but this does not help Nachmanides either.) Moreover, in his Sefer haGeulah (part 3) Nachmanides wrote explicitly, in line with Judaic chronological tradition, that the Second Temple period spanned 420 years. Were the Temple still in existence in the year 3910 from Creation, it could not have been built before the year 3490 from Creation, 271 BCE. At that time, of course, the Land of Israel had been under the Hellenistic Seleucid rule for decades, while according to the Scripture, the Temple was built during the Persian rule over the Land of Israel. Nachmanides's view is self-contradictory. His 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.

On the other hand, in his commentary on Genesis 2:3 Nachmanides wrote:

"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 G-d's image, and it [the daytime] is the time of man's power... All this corresponds to the sixth millennium [from Creation], in the beginning of which beasts -- that is, kingdoms that know not G-d -- will rule; but after the 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, to fulfill G-d's word transmitted through Daniel, 'From the time when the daily sacrifice was abandoned and the appalling abomination was set up, there will be 1290 days.'"

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 may be, 1358 CE was not the year of the redemption either. Nachmanides himself lived in 1194-1270 CE -- again, long before any of his predictions was due to be realized.

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 cease 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:

"'From the time when the daily sacrifice was abandoned' -- here it is said that there are two dates. One is the date when the Redemption becomes possible... But before that time, there is no reason to await [the Redemption] at all, and it is written that the time [before the Redemption becomes possible] is 'a thousand, two hundred and ninety days' from the time 'when the daily sacrifice was abandoned and the appalling abomination was set up.'"

The 1290 years before Redemption becomes possible should be counted, according to Malbim, not from any event connected with the Second Temple, but from the First Temple period -- from the time of Queen Athaliah, in whose days, Malbim wrote, the daily sacrifice was abolished and whose sons used all the Temple's sacred objects for the worship of Baal -- the "appalling abomination." Then Malbim asserts that the daily sacrifice was abolished, under the reign of Queen Athaliah, in the year 3060 from Creation (701 BCE),

"And if you count 1290 years since that time, you will arrive at the year 4350, when the Redemption became possible, and the Jews could be redeemed at any time if they had enough merit, and of this time it is said, 'Blessed is the one who awaits,' that is, from that time we should await the Redemption. And it is known that at that time, the emperor permitted to build the Temple in Jerusalem, and it was even built by the Jews according to the edict of the Emperor Julius, at a heavy cost -- but in the year 4349 from Creation, there was an immense earthquake in the whole world, and the great Temple they built was destroyed. And the following day a big fire came down from the sky, melted all the iron tools that were at the building site and burnt a great number of Jews. And the next year, 4350 from Creation, there was a great rancidity in the world, so that everyone who simply sneezed fell down and died, as it is written in the history books. Then the Redemption was already possible, but the sins delayed it."

As you can easily see, Malbim's account is borrowed not from real history books, but most likely from Shalshelet haKabbalah by R' Gedaliah Ibn Yachiah, who, in turn, copied it from Christian sources, omitting, of course, records of glowing crosses in the sky and on people's skin and clothes, and erring greatly about the date of the events: the alleged rebuilding of the Temple could only have happened in 361-363 CE (4121-4123 from Creation), not in 4349 from Creation. Not only that, but Malbim freely altered R' Gedaliah's account -- sometimes because of error, and sometimes, it seems, because of his own eschatological considerations. On one hand, the emperor by whose edict the rebuilding was started became at Malbim's hands Julius instead of Julian (which is like mixing up Slovakia with Slovenia), and on the other hand, Malbim does not bring the continuation of R' Gedaliah's account, which speaks of the emperor Valenti (most likely, Valentinian I) who "sent other Jews from Constantinople and built up all that was ruined." I cannot shake the impression that the reason for Malbim's selectivity is his assertion that after the failure of the Temple's rebuilding by "Julius," the era of possible redemption had come, and therefore were the Temple rebuilt by "Valenti" it could not have been destroyed again. It seems unlikely that Malbim had any knowledge from independent historical studies about the supposed attempt of the Temple's rebuilding, and rejected the account of "Valenti" through his own consideration -- for if he had such external sources, he would have understood that the whole account of Shalshelet haKabbalah is naught but a fiction borrowed (with some errors) from Christian apologetic sources. But most interestingly, even in our very days, when plenty of historical literature on the Roman Empire is available for everyone, there are some rabbis who take the account of Shalshelet haKabbalah (directly or in Malbim's rendition) for granted, without bothering to ask themselves whether it is true or not. Thus, R' Eliezer Waldenberg, who acted as the head of the rabbinical court in Jerusalem, brought in his responsa Tzitz Eliezer (part 10, paragraph 2) Malbim's account as an example of how "in the earlier times [the Jews] followed those who gave them permission [to rebuild the Temple before the time of Redemption had come], and the Heavens stopped their enterprise in a frightening way." Since Malbim's account is a fiction, can we, according to R' Waldenberg, rebuild the Temple before the redemption comes?

But what is even more peculiar in Malbim's commentary is that according to it, the Redemption could not occur before the year 4350 from Creation (590 CE) -- long after both the Tannaic and the Amoraic periods ended. All the Tannaim and the Amoraim who awaited the Redemption waited, according to Malbim, in vain, for in their days the Messiah could not come, even were the entire generation righteous. Malbim himself, of course, predicted the time of the Redemption:

"'And reaches the end of the thousand three hundred thirty and five days' -- if you count from the year 4350 [from Creation] 1335 years more, you will arrive at the year 5685 [1925 CE], when 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."

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.

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 by Messiah the Son of David, as Maharsha wrote in his Chidushei Agadot on Tractate Sukkah 52a:

"In the future Redemption, may it come soon, Messiah the Son of Joseph will come first to redeem the Jews… for the seed of Esau can be destroyed only by Messiah the Son of Joseph. However, many idolaters, who will come once more on Jerusalem, will kill him, and the Redemption will not be complete until Messiah the Son of David comes, as is clear from several places in the Scripture... And when he [Messiah the Son of David] sees that Messiah the Son of Joseph is killed in the war of Gog and Magog, he will say [to G-d], 'I ask you for naught but life,that I won't be killed as he was.'"

Messiah the son of Joseph is supposed to lead the Jews towards the redemption, but he will be killed in the war of Gog and Magog. 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. It seems that many of our rabbis did not and do not pay heed to the clever saying of R' Samuel the son of Nachmani, "Woe to those who calculate the end of times."

Chazal's attitude to the Torah

Moreover, even the Pentateuch -- the most sacred book of our faith -- was treated by Chazal with a certain measure of frivolity which suggests they did not consider it really given word by word by the Lord of heaven and earth. We have seen already the Gemara in Makot 24a which deals with several Torah verses as though they were Moses's own edicts. Things of that sort are also found in Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy, chapter 14. 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. Isn't the Midrash clearly implying that Moses wrote this portion at least once without dictation from Heaven? Or maybe both times G-d's dictation was the same, but at least once Moses failed to record it correctly? In this case, where else might he have erred in recording the words of the Divine?

We find one more example in Tractate Makot 22b:

"How silly are those people who stand up in honor of a Torah scroll and do not stand up in honor of a Torah scholar -- for in the Torah it is written, 'forty' [lashes should be the punishment of one who transgresses certain prohibitions (Deuteronomy 25:3)], but the Sages came and reduced the number of lashes by one."

That is, Chazal considered their own Halachic rulings more authoritative than laws stated explicitly in the Torah text. How is this to be understood?

In Tractate Ketubot 2b-3a the Gemara discusses the Sages' ruling that "one cannot claim himself 'forced' concerning the bill of divorcement" and states that if a man gives his wife a bill of divorcement and says, "This will be your bill of divorcement 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 bill 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:

"But how can it be that a bill of divorcement 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."

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 bill of divorcement 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 betroths 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 bill of divorcement 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). 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:

"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."

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 are comfortable invalidating the Torah's law on their own while offering very weak justification? Is it possible that they did not actually consider the Torah G-d's law, and thus felt free to annul as they saw fit?

Chazal -- were they outstandingly moral?

Regarding the moral qualities of our Sages, the Talmud itself admits that a high moral standing was not necessarily their greatest characteristic. It is written in Tractate Nedarim 81a:

"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."

Prominent Talmudic rabbis like Mar Zutra and Rav Ashi admit that the Sages behaved arrogantly towards the ordinary people and even called the people asses. Such conduct would seem far removed from basic, let alone "outstanding morality." Incidentally, the Gemara brings the following account of Mar Zutra himself:

"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)

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 our exalted Sages, using his knowledge of the Halacha for his own advantage while defrauding another person.

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,

"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."

The very institution of slavery, coercive and life-long for non-Jews, 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.

Not only did gentiles suffer 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:

"Our rabbis had learnt [in a Baraita]: who is 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 the 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 the Torah study. Others say: even if one reads and learns but does not minister the Torah scholars, he is am haaretz."

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 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 the 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 am haaretz.

All the above may be, indeed probably is hyperbole. But, what does it show concerning Chazal's understanding of and empathy for other, non-learned, Jews?

And here is what the Sages thought of women -- apparently, regardless of the degree of their religious observance:

"The Baraita says: a woman is a sack full of excrement, and her mouth is full of blood - yet everybody longs for her."

(Tractate Shabbat 152a)

This statement might be intended to prevent men from extreme lust, but Chazal 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 the people without a blessing, is hardly testimony to the "outstanding morality" of those who make such statements. Of course I know that some Sages spoke positively of women ("Rav Chisda said: ...so we learn that G-d gave a woman more intellect than He gave a man" -- Niddah 45b), but this does not bolster the general the image of Chazal.

Moral problems in the Halacha

The status of non-Jews

So far I have asked about statements by Chazal which do not necessarily have practical Halachic implications. But the situation is much worse: many practical Halachic rulings harshly discriminate between different categories of people in a way that makes a very bad impression on a member of modern society. Consider, for example, Tractate Yoma, chapter 8, mishnahs 6-7:

"...and in every situation when there is a doubt concerning saving one's life, it is permitted to violate the Sabbath [in order to save a life].

Someone on whom a building had fallen -- if there is a doubt whether he is there or not, or if there is a doubt whether he is alive or dead, or if there is a doubt whether he is an idolater or a Jew -- one should take the ruins apart [to save him from death]."

This seems to be a good and reasonable law: not only one must save another's life even if by doing so he violates the Sabbath, but even if there is a small chance his desecration of the Sabbath would save another's life he should desecrate the Sabbath. But here we have a list of possible doubts: 1) "he [the victim] is there or not," 2) "he is alive or dead," 3) "he is an idolater or a Jew." The "positive" side of the doubt, which permits violating the Sabbath for the sake of a possibly saving a life, is the possibility that the victim is indeed under the ruins, he is still alive, and he is a Jew. That is, only saving a Jewish life is called in Halacha "saving a life." If one knows that the person under the ruins is a gentile he may not violate the Sabbath to save his life -- he should let the gentile die! The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 26a tries to give an explanation for this approach: for Jews who observe the Sabbath it is permitted to violate the Sabbath to save their lives, but for gentiles who do not observe the Sabbath, it is forbidden to save their lives by violating the Sabbath. This explanation simply cannot satisfy. How can one fault gentiles for not observing the Sabbath if they are not commanded to do so? Only Jews are commanded -- can this be a reason to forbid saving people from death?

Not only do we find this approach in the Gemara, the Shulchan Aruch rules explicitly: "One does not help a gentile woman give birth on the Sabbath" (Orach Chayim 330:2). A woman who is to give birth should be abandoned to mortal danger simply because she did not happen to be born to a Jewish mother! And only a century ago the Chafetz Chayim wrote on this matter:

"Know that the doctors in our time, even the most religious, are not careful about this at all, for every Sabbath they travel beyond the borders of the Sabbath domain to heal those who worship the stars, and they write [prescriptions], and grind substances [to prepare medicines] -- and they violate the Sabbath willfully and completely, G-d save us."

(Mishnah Berurah, 330, subsection 8)

Again, this does not speak of people who actually worship the stars, the sun, and the moon, for there were no such people in the Chafetz Chayim's milieu, but of any non-Jew, all of whom one is forbidden to heal on the Sabbath. (The term "those who worship the stars" was used in Halachic literature for fear of the gentile authorities.)

We find even more upsetting rulings about treating gentile women and children in the Shulchan Aruch:

"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."

(Yoreh Deah, 154:2)

This does not even deal with desecration of the Sabbath. It is simply forbidden to breast-feed non-Jewish children; if that means they will die, 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, aside from a renowned midwife who is permitted to, for if she refuses to help a gentile woman gentiles would be hostile to the Jews and would not help Jewish women give birth (see Shach ibid.). And that renowned midwife may only help gentile women give birth for pay -- the common human virtue of charity or simple concern for human life may not be applied to non-Jews.

One may ask: but nowadays we see with our own eyes observant Jewish doctors healing non-Jewish patients, on weekdays as well as on the Sabbath and holidays -- so how are they allowed do so? There is an answer:

"We learn that in our times, when there is fear of more than just animosity should Jewish doctors forbear from treating non-Jews on the Sabbath and leave them to die, even this issue is one of saving Jewish lives, for if non-Jewish doctors heard this they in turn would stop treating Jewish patients."

(Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabi'a Omer,
part 8, Orach Chayim, paragraph 38)

That is, the only reason to save gentiles from death is that if we from doing so it may harm the Jews.

We have seen the Gemara trying to explain the ban on healing non-Jews on the Sabbath using the fact that they do not observe the Sabbath -- but this is the fate of a non-Jew who wants to observe the Sabbath, according to the Halacha:

"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 Sabbath, he ought to die."

(Maimonides, Laws of the Kings 10:9)

Actually, this law is set by the Gemara 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."

People who happen not to have been born to a Jewish mother are treated worse than animals by Halacha -- a Jew's animal, as we know, must have a rest on the Sabbath.

In property issues, too, there is injustice against non-Jews in Halacha:

"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 -- whether this ox was harmless before or had already been proclaimed dangerous, [the idolater] must pay the whole sum of the damage."

(Bava Kama, chapter 4, mishnah 3)

And though Maimonides, in Laws of Property Damages, chapter 8, halacha 5, tried to explain this law as a fine to gentiles for their irresponsible conduct (in not preventing their animals from causing damage), it is clear that this law applies to all non-Jews at any time, regardless of how this or that gentile population treats its animals -- and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat, paragraph 410, section 1) ruled this mishnah as a plain practical Halachic law, without even mentioning fines, gentiles' irresponsibility, or any other factor.

Of course, it is well-known that one of the Rishonim, R' Menachem ha-Meiri, wrote on this issue that "According to what is said in the Talmud, this law applies only to nations which are not bound by religious ways and ethics... [But] as long as they [the gentiles] fulfill the Seven Commandments they are judged by us as we are judged by them, and we don't show favor to ourselves in legal matters. And then, it is needless to say that such is the case regarding nations that are bound by religious ways and ethics" (in his commentary Beit ha-Bechirah on Bava Kama 37b). Yet this statement by Meiri is puzzling, since it is said in Mechilta deRabbi Ishmael (Masechta deNezikin, section 12) on the verse "If a man's ox injures his neighbor's ox:" "[It is written] 'his neighbor's' to exclude [the ox] of a gentile, the ox of a Samaritan, and the ox of a ger toshav." A ger toshav is a non-Jew who recognizes the authority of the Torah and fulfills the Seven Noahide Commandments -- and yet a Jew must not compensate him for the damage done to his property. To this I should add that the Meiri's ruling is definitely a minority view among the Rishonim, and the Shulchan Aruch does not mention his view at all.

Furthermore, the Halachic prohibition against defrauding one's partner in business transactions does not apply to a non-Jew:

"It is forbidden for either the seller or purchaser to defraud his fellow, as it is written: 'And if you sell anything to your neighbor, you shall not defraud each his brother' (Leviticus 25:14)... Whether one defrauded wilfully or he did not know that the transaction was fraudulent, he is obligated to recompense [his partner]."

(Maimonides, Laws of Transactions 12:1)

"A gentile has not [been included in the transgression of] fraud as it is written, 'Each his brother.' But a gentile who defrauded a Jew must recompense him according to our laws."

(Ibid. 13:7)

And the Shulchan Aruch made the same verdict in Choshen Mishpat 227:26.

Chazal even ruled that the commandment "You shall not murder" does not apply to non-Jews:

"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)

And as Sefer HaYereim explained (paragraph 175):

"For [in order 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."

Given such an approach, it is not surprising that the Rama ruled in Yoreh Deah 158:1 that "one is allowed to try medicines on people of the Seven Nations to see if they help" -- that is, a Jew may conduct medical experimentation on non-Jews without their knowledge or consent. (The term "Seven Nations" is used here only as an euphemism: in its original meaning it meant the seven Canaanite nations of the alleged time of the Israelite conquest, but Maimonides, 350 years before the Rama, wrote in the Laws of Kings 5:4 that "the traces of those nations had been already lost." The Shulchan Aruch and the Rama, on the other hand, brought only Halachic laws applicable in their times -- and it is clear therefore that they did not really mean just the seven Canaanite nations, but each and every non-Jew who does not observe the seven Noahide commandments. The term "Seven Nations" was used here only because of fear of the gentile authorities and their anger at the Jews.)

Even to give a gift to a non-Jew or to praise his good deeds, is forbidden by the Halacha:

"'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)

And though in its plain meaning Deuteronomy 7:2, "Give them no mercy," speaks only of the seven nations of Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest, Halachic arbiters ruled it to be a law applicable to all non-Jews at any time:

"And why is it forbidden to sell them [real estate]? For it is written, 'lo techanem' -- do not give them estate [chanayah] in the land, for if they do not have land of their own, their residence [in the Land of Israel] will be temporary only. And it is also forbidden to speak in their praise. Even to say, 'How beautiful this idolater looks,' is forbidden, all the more so [is it forbidden] to speak in praise of his deeds or to appreciate something of their customs, for it is written: 'lo techanem' -- let them not have grace [chen] in your eyes, because this would bring one to be close to them and to learn of their bad deeds. And it is also forbidden to give them a gift."

(Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 10:4)

And similar rulings may be found in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, paragraph 151, sections 8, 11, and 14.

A Jew is forbidden to give anything to his non-Jewish neighbor as a gift (even if he himself can do nothing with it, for example, if it is non-kosher food). Moreover, a Jew is forbidden to speak in a gentile's praise -- even if this gentile did many good deeds, perhaps even saved the Jew's life.

Even if one born as a non-Jew converts to Judaism, in some issues he is discriminated against compared to a person born Jewish. Thus it is said in Midrash Tanaim on Deuteronomy 17:15:

"We may not crown a king from among the proselytes, even after a number of generations, until his mother is [of pure] Jewish [descent]... [Moreover,] to any position of authority you may appoint only one of your brethren [that is, one born Jewish]."

Not only actual proselytes, but all those whose maternal ancestry included a female convert are thus deprived of the right to be appointed to a position of authority over the Jewish public. And Maimonides ruled in Laws of Kings 1:4:

"We may not crown a king from among the proselytes, even after several generations, until his mother is [one born] Jewish, as it is written, 'You may not place over yourself a foreigner who is not your brother.' Not only for kingship, but also for any position of authority in Israel, neither a general nor chief over fifty people, nor chief over ten people, nor even a person appointed to verify that the water is distributed to the fields. It is superfluous to talk about a judge or a nasi, who may not be other than [one born] a Jew, as it is written, 'From among your brethren you are to appoint over yourself a king' -- all the people whom you give positions of authority shall not be from other than your brethren."

Another example is that of a man who defamed his wife claiming that she had illicit sexual relations while betrothed to him:

"And they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver, and give them to the father of the girl, because he has defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he may not divorce her all his life."

(Deuteronomy 22:19)

"'And give them to the father of the girl' -- with the exception of a female convert whose mother became pregnant before she converted, but gave birth after she converted, for [defaming] her daughter one does not pay a hundred shekels of silver."

(Sifri, Ki Tetze, section 238)

"For any woman whose rape or seduction does not carry a fine, one who defames her is exempt from lashes and payments. So it is regarding a gentile woman who converted and a maidservant who was manumitted under the age of three years; even if she was conceived before her mother converted and was born after she converted, one who defames her is exempt from lashes, as it is written: 'Because he has defamed a virgin of Israel' -- [this does not apply] until her conception and birth are in holiness."

(Maimonides, Laws of a Virgin Girl 3:8)

Again, a woman born Jewish is discriminated against because her mother hadn't yet converted when she conceived her.

In general, Chazal's attitude to those whose only sin is that they happened not to be born to a Jewish mother 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."

Secular People

It is not only "idolaters," or more precisely, all non-Jews regardless of their beliefs and practices, who "are not called men." Even a Halachically Jewish person may be treated in an inhumane manner. The Talmud explicitly states: "A gentile and a shepherd of small cattle -- one should not lift them nor push them down" (Sanhedrin 57a), 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 even the life of a Jew if that Jew is used to sinning -- and it does not speak of severe sins like murder but of minor ones like pasturing cattle in another's fields! How can this be understood as reflective of basic morality?

Yet this speaks only of a believing Jew who violates some specific commandment. A deliberately secular Jew deserves a much more harsh attitude, according to our great Halachic arbiters Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch:

"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. How? If he sees one of them fallen into a well and there is a ladder in the well, first he should remove the ladder and say, 'I must take my son down off the roof, I'll bring it back' or something like that [and of course, he does not bring the ladder back].

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)

"Heretics, that is, Jews who do not believe in the Torah and 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. How? If he sees one of them fallen into a well and there is a ladder in the well, first he should remove the ladder and say, 'I must take my son down off the roof, I'll bring it back' or something like that.

But idolaters who are not at war with us, and Jews who pasture small cattle in an area where the fields are owned by Jews, and all the like -- one may not cause them to be killed, and it is also forbidden to save their lives."

(Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 425:5)

To review: There is one group of people, who happened to be born to non-Jewish mothers or who are not careful enough where their cattle pasture when they work for their living, whom we are forbidden to save from death. There is another group of Jewish people who don't believe what we believe; these we are commanded to actively murder, or at least to defraud and trap them in order to cause them to die, even if none of these people has done us any harm. What possible explanation can these laws have? Of course I know that 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:

"And 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, and the pious of the generation were under specific Divine providence, evident to everybody. Heretics were then especially perverse in swaying towards evil inclinations, lust, and lawlessness. 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, and brings pestilence, war, and hunger to the world. But in the time of concealment, when the 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, for they would see it as an act of destruction and violence, G-d forbid. 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."

Although I understand the Chazon Ish's motivation in wishing to virtually do away with these murderous laws, his distinction seems untenable. 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.

But alas, even the Chazon Ish himself used the approach of "ties of love" 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 the 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 touched 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 (Yabi'a 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.

Women

One more group of people that is the subject of a seeming double standard in Halacha is women. The attitude towards them may be seen in the first mishnahs of Tractate Kiddushin:

"A woman is bought in three ways... with money, with a contract, and through intercourse...
A Hebrew slave is bought with money and with a contract..
A Canaanite slave is bought with money, with a contract, and by seizing...
A large cattle is bought by delivery and small cattle -- by lifting..."

The relationship between a couple being wed is seen by Halacha as an act of purchase in which a man buys himself a wife -- and the laws of this purchase are brought with the laws of other purchases: of slaves, of cattle, and the like. We also find in Tractate Berachot, 57b: "Three things bring man a good mood: a nice home, a nice woman, and nice clothes." Again, a woman is considered part of a man's property, like his house and clothes. And once married, a woman is severely limited concerning the basic human right to property:

"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)

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! The reason for giving the husband a share in the compensation for damage or embarrassment to his wife is brought by the Gemara in Tractate Ketubot 66a: "For his wife is his body"! (Of course, nowhere it is said that the husband is his wife's body.)

Halachic arbiters ruled Halacha according to the son of Beteira:

"One who injures a married woman, the compensation for a break in her work and her healing expenses should be paid to her husband. The compensation for her pain -- to her. The compensation for her embarrassment and damage -- if she is hurt in an uncovered part of her body, like her face, neck, hands and arms, 1/3 of the sum is hers and 2/3 her husband's. And if she is hurt in a covered part of her body, 1/3 belongs to her husband, and 2/3 to her."

(Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 83:1)

To be sure, the Sages decreed that a woman's earnings belong to her husband only as a part of a settlement, whereby the husband is obligated to provide for his wife's living. If a wife wants she can break this bargain, but the husband may not:

"Her handwork is a return for her living. Therefore, if she says, 'I don't want my living of you, nor will I give you my handwork,' it must be done as she says... But if the husband says, 'I will not give you your living, nor do I want your handwork,' his words are nullified."

(Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 69:4)

But as for a woman's find, the Sages ruled that it belongs 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 consistently give one family member's property to another. Again, for some reason, the husband's property is not given to the wife, only vice versa.

Women are also discriminated against in a divorce:

"A man is not like a woman concerning divorcement: a woman may be divorced according to or against her will, but a man may divorce only of his will."

(Tractate Yevamot 112b)

"Ten things are mandatory for divorcement according to the Torah... a man may divorce only of his will."

(Maimonides, the Laws of Divorcement 1:1)

In a divorce only the husband's will matters; the wife has no right to break up or prevent the break-up of her marriage. And though Rabbeynu Gershom ruled in the 10th century that one who divorces his wife against her will should be excommunicated, the discrimination still remains. One of its most problematic manifestations is when a husband disappears as the result of war or a natural disaster, or simply of his own will -- and then his abandoned wife may not be given a divorce, since her husband is not there to give her a bill of divorcement. Such a woman may not marry anyone else, and she might remain an abandoned wife (agunah) for the rest of her life, as indeed has happened to many thousands of Jewish women over the course of the generations, and even happens to many nowadays.

Another field where women are discriminated against is matters of inheritance:

"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.

Everyone who is privileged in inheritance, his descendants are privileged. Therefore, one who died -- be it a man or a woman -- if he has a son, his son inherits from him. If his son is not alive, an inquiry must be made about his son's offspring. If his son's offspring exist -- male or female, even his son's daughter's daughter's daughter (and so on for any number of generations) -- she gets all the inheritance. But if no offspring of his son is alive, the inheritance returns to his daughter..."

(Maimonides, the Laws of Inheritance 1:1-3)

Not only does a daughter inherit nothing from her father, if she has a brother -- even if her brother is dead and only his daughter's daughter's daughter is alive, the latter inherits all the deceased's property by virtue of being a descendant of the son. That a son has privilege over a daughter in inheritance is discriminative, but that a son's daughter's daughter's daughter has privilege over a son's sister is very hard to fathom.

And speaking of a husband and wife,

"A wife inherits nothing from her husband, but a husband inherits all his wife's property..."

(Maimonides, the Laws of Inheritance 1:8)

In property issues a woman is merely discriminated against, but in all concerning interpersonal relations Halachic sources actually treat her as her husband's servant:

"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' (in Berachot 61a)."

(Rashba's Responsa, part 1, paragraph 60)

"[A woman who has] four servants may sit in an armchair [i.e. she has no duty to keep the house]. Rav Isaac the son of Chananiah said in the name of Rav Huna: in spite of what they said, 'May sit in an armchair,' she ought to pour her husband a drink, to make him a bed, and to wash his face, hands, and feet."

(Tractate Ketubot 61a)

"Every woman should wash her husband's face, hands, and feet, pour him a drink and make him a bed (and 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...

These things she must do herself; even if she has a number of servants, these things should be done for a husband only by his wife."

(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)

"It is a disgrace for a woman to go out frequently -- that is, if sometimes she goes out, and sometimes just walks in the streets. A husband ought to prevent his wife from doing this and let her go out only one or two times a month, according to what is necessary. For a woman's beauty is sitting in the corner of her house."

(Maimonides, Laws of Interpersonal Relations 13:11)

"Our Sages OBM said: only that woman is kosher who does her husband's will."

(Rama on Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 69:7)

Of course, nowadays no man treats his wife as a servant, and during the past 200 years 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 Orthodox Jewish husband was and is much more decent and sensitive than Orthodox Jewish Halacha. 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. These efforts have achieved a modicum of success, but they do not go to the root of the problem, the moral justification, if any, for the original laws. They are forbidden to study Torah (except the Halachic laws which apply to women), and of one who teaches a woman the Oral Torah it is said, "One who teaches his daughter the Torah, it is as though he taught her obscenity" (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 246:6). Consequently, women cannot be religious judges or Halachic arbiters (ibid., Choshen Mishpat 7:4). Moreover, they are generally not accepted before a religious court as witnesses (ibid. 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 Talmudical 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).

Today it is no longer possible to say that women are deprived of all these functions because of their incompetence. We can see with our own eyes female scientists engaged in all kinds of research -- are they unable to study the Torah? Women are judges and lawyers in civil courts and are accepted in these courts as witnesses -- and these courts seem to function no worse than religious courts. Women are members of legislative bodies and even heads of states -- would they do any worse as Halachic arbiters or function in administration positions? Women are surgeons -- should they really not be entrusted to perform ritual slaughter? And why should anyone 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 or seduced. 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). Even a woman's singing voice is considered "pubes," and a man is forbidden to listen to a woman singing if she is a woman whom he is forbidden to have sex with 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. I want to emphasize: the Halacha does not speak of women singing songs with sexual content while dressed in something particularly provocative, as is the case for modern pop singers' shows. 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. Do you think it is reasonable?

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). 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. As the Jerusalem Talmud puts it,

"A woman named Kimchit had seven sons, and all of them served as High Priests. The Sages asked her: what good deeds do you have [that you have deserved such a reward]? She answered: let so and more also be done to me, if the beams of my house had seen my hair and the flap of my gown even a single time in my life. They said: every flour is just flour, but the flour of Kimchit is semolina, and they recited about her the verse 'A king's daughter, all her honor is inwards, in a garment of wrought gold she is dressed.' "

(Tractate Yoma, chapter 1, halacha 1)

Kimchit obviously practiced her chastity not for fear of her house beams, but because she considered it her own honor to cover her body as much as she could. The problem is that Psalms 45:14 in its simple meaning has nothing to do with a king's daughter's honor. People are accustomed to reading this verse in Hebrew as "Kol kvodah bat melech pnimah," which translates into English as "A king's daughter, all her honor is inwards." The correct Hebrew reading, based on the vowelization marks, is "Kol kvudah bat melech pnimah." While kvodah means her honor, kvudah means chattels, treasure, precious things, as in Judges 18:21: "So they turned and departed and put the little ones and the cattle and the chattels [veet hakvudah] before them." Radak explained: "Veet hakvudah -- written with a vav marked with a dagesh... and kvudah means vessels and chattels." If we look at the 45th chapter of Psalms the matter is understood -- this psalm describes the wedding of a king to the daughter of another king:

"Kings' daughters are among your honorable women; at your right hand the queen stands in gold of Ophir. Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people your father's house. Then the king will greatly desire your beauty -- he is your lord, so bow down to him. And the daughter of Tyre, with the rich among the people, will bring you a gift. All the treasure of the king's daughter is brought inwards [kol kvudah bat melech pnimah], in a garment of wrought gold she is dressed. She will be brought to the king in clothes of needlework; virgins follow her, her companions are brought to you."

And the verse "Kol kvudah bat melech pnimah," the correct translation of which is "All the treasure of king's daughter is brought inwards," means that during the course of the wedding ceremony, the servants brought the bride's dowry into the king's palace. Of course, this has nothing to do with the chaste conduct of Kimchit and other women. Rather, we are once again in the realm of creative exegesis with seemingly no consistent or critical standards to be employed.

To conclude the matter of women's status in Halacha, it may be useful to once again consider the issue of saving a life:

"A man has privilege over a woman, to be saved from death and to return his loss."

(Tractate Horayot, chapter 3, mishnah 7)

"And if they both [a man and a woman] are going to drown in a river, one should save the man first."

(Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 252:8)

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. Pitchey Teshuvah on Yoreh Deah 252, subsection 7, even brought a Halachic ruling that if gentiles take two Jewish children, a boy and a girl, into captivity 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. Can this be defensible?

Forbidden thought?

Lastly, having raised assorted troubling questions I am haunted by the fact that the Halachic system forbids me to so much as think about my queries. Is there some internal insecurity which compelled Chazal to prohibit thoughts which might conflict with their world view?

We know that what distinguishes us as human beings from animals is the capacity for thought and understanding, as Rashi puts it in his comment on Genesis 2:7, "And the man became a living soul": "Animals and beasts also are called 'living soul,' but the human soul has a higher level of living than all of them, for a man also has reason and the power of speech." To be more precise, it is appropriate to say that humanity's uniqueness lies in its capability to understanding abstract concepts -- and this includes mastering language.

On the other hand, we have explicit Rabbinic rulings:

"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 mind, and we must not pay such a thought any heed, nor think this way, so that we would be lead after our heart's thoughts."

(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' (Numbers 15:39)."

("Sefer HaChinuch," commandment 213)

"There are six commandments which we are obligated to fulfill constantly, and one should not abstain from them even for the slightest moment through all his life. But each and every moment and time one thinks about them he fulfills a positive commandment of the Torah, and the reward for fulfilling the commandments is without a limit. 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, s.v. Hu klal)

It follows from the above that Halacha obliges one to deprive himself of thought, the apex of human nature, if a certain thought may undermine "one of the Torah foundations." And so, dear Rabbi, my final question to you is: am I to be prohibited from examining Judaism with a critical eye? Is your answer to me to be a simple, "We mustn't think about such things"?

Summary

To sum it up, it appears that:

  1. There are things in the Written Torah which contradict historical and scientific reality: the story of the Great Flood and of the Tower of Babel, for example, or the account of the "ruminant" hyrax and hare. Such a faulty knowledge of reality cannot be ascribed to G-d -- and it follows that the belief in the Divine authorship of the entire Torah is called into grave doubt.

  2. The account of the mass exodus (600,000 adult males alone) from Egypt in 15th-11th centuries BCE seems historically fictitious. The same is true for the account of that number of people wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years after the Exodus, or conquering Canaan after wandering in the desert. That is, the main core of the tradition of Judaism is lacking in any much needed historical verification.

  3. There are numerous contradictions and styles in the Torah text, which is very strong evidence that these books were written by different authors, conceivably in different eras.

  4. The text of the Torah itself contains phrases and verses reflecting the reality of times after the alleged lifetime of Moses, including the description of mourning after Moses' death. Obviously, these phrases and verses could not have been written down by Moses -- and there are great Jewish sages supporting this view. This being the case, the belief that Moses wrote down the Torah, with or without G-d's dictation, must be revised.

  5. Many of the prophecies of the Holy Writ were actually proven false, and thus, according to the Torah, those who made these prophecies should be considered false prophets. All attempts to explain the failure by imposing various limitations on the prophecies coming true seem to be excuses which either have no basis in the Torah or make the Torah's law of checking a prophet totally haphazard. The whole issue of prophecy then becomes the product of wishful thinking instead of being proof of G-d's supervision over the world and of the Divine inspiration of the Holy Writ.

  6. The Mishnah and the Talmud admit explicitly that Chazal themselves determined the canon of the Holy Writ centuries after the books which constitute it were written. Some books written as prophecy were included in the canon by the sages, and some were left out or "filed away." Moreover, Chazal never managed to reach a definite conclusion on whether the book of the Son of Sirach is a part of the Holy Writ or not. Here we find people, flesh and blood, determining on their own will which of the books written long before their time were Divinely inspired and which were not. By what process did they do this?

  7. Correspondingly, since one source of Chazal's authority to issue regulations and customs [takanot uminhagim] originates from Ecclesiastes - one of the books sanctified by Chazal themselves, not before some dispute - this authority appears to be not from the Divine, but established by Chazal themselves.

  8. Many of the laws of the Oral Torah named "Halacha given to Moses at Sinai" could not really originate from the Sinai Revelation, but were apparently established by Sages at much later dates. This strongly suggests that the term "Halacha given to Moses at Sinai" does not denote laws given actually by G-d to Moses at the Sinai Revelation, but refers to some of the Sages' own rulings that were given a fictitious legal-theological status.

  9. The authority of the Sages to issue edicts [gezerot] obligating all Jews, in order to "make a fence around the Torah," appears to have been introduced by Chazal themselves; at least there is no valid and consistent explanation of how this authority may be learned from the Written Torah.

  10. There is no reason to suppose that certain homiletic interpretations or ways of Torah exegesis were given to Moses on Sinai, as Maimonides claims them to be. It follows that all the Sages' interpretations of the Torah text and laws derived thereof are their own constructs, built by their human minds.

  11. Though Maimonides claims that some rules, laws, and interpretations of the Pentateuch had been given by G-d to Moses to be transmitted orally through the generations, this claim is mitigated by the realization that there is more than a good chance they are corrupt.

  12. Certain spiritual leaders of Judaism stated that truth is not necessarily an account of things as they really are, but is something which brings desirable results. If this is the universal Jewish religious concept of truth, one cannot rely on a tradition which is a part of such a religion.

  13. In the view of the Talmud itself, hearsay testimony cannot be validated in any matter concerning the Torah's law. This being the case, the tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation - which can be considered nowadays, at best, hearsay testimony -- cannot be validated as a testimony for the veracity of the Torah itself.

  14. The story of mass revelation at Mt. Sinai is not at all unique: reports of "mass revelations" are found even in our time. Unfortunately, the personages which "reveal" themselves to the public in this manner belong to the lore of religions other than ours and the revelations are better explained in terms of mass psychology than of theology.

  15. Judaic tradition claims to be outstandingly aware of the history of its transmission; however, traditional accounts of such key persons in the history of Judaism as Ezra and Nehemiah, the Men of the Great Assembly, and Simeon the Righteous are rather corrupt and sometimes utterly fictitious. This greatly undermines any claim for the tradition's historicity.

  16. Judaism does not even claim an uninterrupted mass tradition of the Torah and the commandments through the generations - both the Scripture and the commentators admit that for long periods the tradition was forgotten by the vast majority of the Jewish people, save perhaps a few select individuals. Therefore it is equally possible that: a) these select individuals revived what was indeed a genuine ancient tradition, or b) these select individuals created, from scratch, a system of beliefs, stories, and commandments which they presented as an ancient tradition, and which were adopted, for some reasons, by wide circles of the Jewish people.

  17. Indeed, despite claims to the contrary, Judaism has no mass tradition of the Exodus and the Sinai revelation. All that we have is the Torah's own account of those events. Obviously, it cannot be trusted a priori when trying to check its veracity. However, the tradition of the contemporary Judaism is based solely on the Torah's account of the events, with its exegesis in later Rabbinic literature. No other account of the Exodus and the Sinai Revelation, whether based on oral stories transmitted from one generation to another or on an independent written source, exists within the framework of the Judaic or any corroborating tradition.

  18. In the past, however, we can find Jewish traditions of the Exodus other than that of the Torah - but they contradict the Torah's account in many important details, and this calls into doubt the notion of a uniform Jewish tradition.

  19. There is no definite tradition of things fundamental to our faith such as what exactly the People of Israel heard from G-d during the Sinai Revelation and what the Ten Commandments actually were. Were the Judaic tradition historical, such major details should surely be described in it - and the absence of such agreement is good evidence for the tradition's lack of historicity.

  20. There is no definite tradition of even the Torah text itself: we know it has undergone many changes throughout the last 2300 years. Judging from the changes we are aware of, the Torah of the late Second Temple period was significantly different from the Torah we read now in synagogues.

  21. There exist millennia-old Halachic traditions contradictory to the traditions of the Rabbinic Oral Torah. This makes any reliance on "Halachic tradition from Sinai" as a part of the Oral Torah quite unreasonable.

  22. Judging from the plain reading of the text of the Written Torah, the Sages, even in the Temple period, had no Divine authority to initiate laws based on their own exegesis of the Torah - especially if those laws contradicted the plain meaning of the Torah text.

  23. Judging from the plain reading of the text of the Written Torah, Mishnaic and Talmudic laws issued after the Temple's destruction have absolutely no authority to obligate all Israel.

  24. The only rationale Maimonides brings for the authority of the Babylonian Talmud is the adoption of the Talmud's laws by the Jewish people. This is overwhelming evidence that the Sages' authority is based on the acceptance of their laws by people, not on any Divine commandment, and in this the Talmud's laws are just like the laws legislated by the people of any country.

  25. The Sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud do not necessarily demonstrate "outstanding wisdom and intellect." Not only did they err in matters of factual reality, their whole method of knowing reality was one we now perceive as wrong. They did not hesitate to introduce fantasies as the topic of Torah verses and as proofs of the foundations of faith. They did not base their laws on reality, but distorted reality to make it fit the rulings they had already established. Even provided that the Sages were not infallible (as our sources indeed do admit), such an approach to reality does not seem to be reasonable, at least in the cases they determined practical Halachic rulings which must be applied in reality and therefore must take into consideration reality as it is.

  26. Some of Chazal, as well as many Rishonim and Achronim, predicted the Messiah's coming at dates from 490 to 1990 CE. All of these predictions failed. The number of these predictions, the ease with which they were made, and the fact that the predictors generally set the date of the Redemption as after their own lifetime suggest that our rabbis approached this serious matter with an arbitrariness which seems a bit fanciful.

  27. Several statements by Chazal give a strong indication they did not consider the Pentateuch to be given word by word by G-d Himself. In this case, the present Orthodox Jewish belief in the Divine origin of each and every word and letter in the Torah appears to be a later doctrine.

  28. There seems to be little reason to believe that all of Chazal were outstandingly moral. Some of their statements, as brought in the Talmud, are particularly offensive to many people and certainly cannot testify to their authors' outstanding morality.

  29. Many Halachic laws discriminate against non-Jews, secular Jews, and women in a rather brutal and inhuman way. It is highly implausible that the just and perfect G-d would legislate so harshly against the vast majority of human beings.

  30. There are Halachic rulings forbidding one to think about certain matters. Are we to conclude that were the Orthodox Jewish belief reasonable, there would be no need to command people to abandon their reason when dealing with the basic principles of this belief?

All of the above, compounded by my fruitless search for positive evidence for the correctness of our basic beliefs and traditions, makes it very hard for me to remain a reasonable and intellectually honest person who believes that G-d gave us the Torah and to continue observing all the Halachic rulings of Chazal. My attempts to get answers to the issues above have so far been unsuccessful and therefore I appeal to you for help. I am sure there are other Jews who have similar questions and who can benefit from your scholarship and wise guidance.

Waiting for your response,

Naftali

Discussion