Sunday, May 7, 2017


In the history of the world literature, many essays have been written on the purposes of marriage in our society. Some of the rationales include that it is the will of God, that it provides the couples fellowship, companionship, mutual help and comfort, that it is an expression of love, and is based on a commitment to share life's joys and sorrows. The biblical rationale for marriage is expressed in Gen. 2:18: "it is not good for man to be alone; I [God] will make a fitting helper for him." The Rabbis add, "he who has no wife is without goodness, without a helpmate, without joy without blessing and without atonement" (Gen. R. 17:2). 

Recently, I have been perusing through a classic commentary on the Pentateuch, written in the 18th century by Rabbi Jacob Culli of Turkey, which reflects the thinking of his time. The text was composed in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish spoken by Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, and who lived in different parts of the Ottoman Empire . Commenting on the Genesis text above, "it is not good for  man to be alone," the author identifies four reasons for marriage that are charming and unique.

First of all, he stated that whoever refuses to marry remains without blessings, and that the ideal age of marriage is 18 but that it is better at the age of 13, however not before. And woe to him who marries only for money (p.150/1). 

The main benefits of marriage for men are: (I am translating the most important parts of the discussion):
1. God will take care of them, because of the friendship, peace and love that exist between the husband and wife.

2. Because he (the husband) will have someone to take good care of the house.
3. To avoid the sin of wasting semen. (Here, he mentions the case of a certain Rabbi who remained married , even though the wife was mean to him. The Rabbi stayed married, because she helped him avoid the greatest sin of wasting semen).
4. When he comes home from the store, he will find the meal prepared on the table, so he will have time to fulfill the divine commandments and he will be able to read for about an hour before going to sleep.

For the peace and tranquility of the house, the author also recommends that "the man should play dumb when it comes to the management of the house by his wife, and he should rather pretend to be sleeping , instead of pointing out to his beloved one what is wrong by shouting or quarreling with her for every mistake she makes" (p.263). 

Obviously, most of Rabbi Culli's list  of benefits and suggestions are patriarchal in nature and do not apply to our time. However, for the sake of tranquility of the house, he is not totally mistaken when he suggests that, once in a while, the husband should state, "Whatever you say, honey!"

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
May 7, 2017 

Friday, April 21, 2017

WHO WROTE THE PENTATEUCH? (The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, attributed to Moses)--A SUMMARY

Since ancient times, many people believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. After all, the Bible claims it (e.g., Ex.24:2); Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, affirmed it (Ant. IV, 8:48) and the ancient Rabbis supported it (BB 14b). 

Yet, critics noticed a number of difficulties: The text includes a number of doublets (e.g., two covenants with Abraham, Gen. 15 and 17) and contradictions (e.g., Gen I vs. Gen.2). It also contains some events that could not have been known by Moses (e.g. references to kings in Israel, in Gen. 36:31). 

Throughout the centuries, various solutions have been offered: Some argued that there is no chronological order to the Bible (e.g., Pes. 6b). Others maintained that the whole text was written by divine inspiration. And there were others, like the medieval rabbinic scholar Ibn Ezra, who suggested that there is a secret here and we need to keep quiet about it.

Modern textual criticism began in the 18th century with critics such as Richard Simon and Jean Astruct. However, the one scholar who offered the first complete reconstruction was Julius Wellhausen in 1884. According to his theory, the Pentateuch is made up of four documents: J (that uses the term YHVH for God) was composed in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 9th cent. BCE; E (that uses Elohim for God) was composed in the northern part of Israel in the 8th cent. BCE. These two were combined by a redactor in the middle of the 7th cent. BCE. To this combined text, was added a text called D (for Deuteronomy) in 621 BCE. Finally, the priests (P) composed their own texts during and after the Babylonian exile and completed the Pentateuch. 

Many modern scholars have slightly amended this reconstruction. Today, critics do not talk about “compositions” produced by individuals but “schools of thought” that generated the texts throughout many years. In fact, scholars like Herman Gunkel (1862-1932) argued that many texts in the Pentateuch were orally transmitted for a long period before they were written down. Around the mid-3rd cent. BCE, the Pentateuch was translated into Greek (i.e., the Septuagint) by Jewish scholars of Alexandria, Egypt.

To the Pentateuch, later on, were added two major components, namely the prophetic books and Writings. According to the Jewish tradition, the Rabbis finalized the entire canon in the city of Yavneh, in the central district of modern Israel, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70CE. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
April, 2017

Sunday, March 26, 2017


Recently, at the archives of Temple Beth Shalom, in Needham, MA, where I am the Rabbi emeritus, they discovered a booklet written in 2003 by the children of the religious school. Entitled, “Dear God…Our Children’s Letters to God,” it was dedicated to me and to my wife, Ines, on the occasion of my retirement from the congregational rabbinate. That was a lovely surprise. I did not know of this book and I am flattered that the kids decided to think of me at this critical stage of my life. They wrote: “You have pushed, pulled, prodded and led us on a wonderful spiritual journey, for the past 23 years.”  

I immediately read the book and realized that these children, most of them very young, 6-10 years old, are troubled by a number of issues regarding God. Here below are a few examples:

1.    What God looks like:
“What are you doing? What is it like to be God? How old are you? What color are your eyes? How high are you in the sky? Do you eat or drink?
“Are you a boy or a girl? Is the earth ever going to die?”
“How challenging was it to create the world? Did you enjoy it?”
“What do you do all day?”

2.    Many are grateful for their existence:
 “You are the best God in the world! Because you created the world.”
“I know you are watching me! I appreciate your love and care. You are awesome and doing wonders. You are my hero.”
“Thank you for giving me my wonderful family which I love so much.”
“Thank you for getting me through my medical problems, pains, hard times, troubles and allergies.”

3.    Some children have questions worth thinking about:
“I know people have their idea of you. But is that you? Are you just a spirit that lives inside us?”
“Why do you make people born with disease?”
“How come you made miracles a long time ago, but not now?”

4.    Some even doubt God’s existence:

“I’m having trouble believing in you. In school I have learned that the world started with atoms and molecules and the Big Bang theory. …I hope I don’t hurt your feelings, although I believe you are not real.”
“Why don’t you ever show yourself? Why all the secrecy? Do you have something to hide? Give me some sign that you are here with me for ever.”

5.    Some have specific requests:
“ I want a brother so I can play with him.”
“Are you watching over my papa? He is in the hospital. I miss him a lot.”
“Are you going to write back to me?”

6.    Some were even worried about their me:
“Why is the Rabbi retiring?”
“Please give Rabbi Sonsino a great retirement. He was a great Rabbi.”

7.    And, finally, some good wishes for the future:
“I wish there would be no more wars.”
“I wish that all people would be respectful, kind and grateful to all the other people in the world.”

These comments need to be taken seriously, and answered with sensitivity and realism. I will cherish this booklet for many years to come.

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
March 24, 2017

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


The Bible requires that sacrifices be offered to God.  What exactly is a sacrifice? And, how was it done? 

A good part of the Book of Leviticus is set aside to discuss the various sacrificial offerings, which were influenced by the practice in the ancient Near East.  (I feel for the Bar/t Mitzvah students whose celebrations fall within the cycle of Torah readings that deal with these technical subjects). Let us look first at what was done in Mesopotamia:

1.    Mesopotamia
By offering a sacrifice, people accomplished four main goals: 1. Provide food for the deity; 2. Reach a mystical union with the gods; 3. Induce the divine beings to provide help to individuals and community; 4. Expiation of their sins.
In those days, people thought that gods lived a luxurious life like kings, but even better. Each sacrifice was a banquet, consisting of a meal, libations and burning incense, to which other gods were often invited. It included specific cuts of meat, flour, fruit, and some liquids. Food was placed in front of the divine image and believed to be consumed by the gods who merely looked at them. Water was also brought in for washing, and the inner side of the temple was then fumigated in order to dispel the odor of food. (That is the basis of the incense used during services today in Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches).  Musicians performed during the ceremony. Gods “ate” alone; there was no communion between the deity and the worshiper.

Having been presented to the divine statue, the consecrated dishes from the gods’ meals were taken away and sent to the king for his consumption. In the city of Uruk, an ancient city of Sumer and later Babylonia, situated east of the present bed of the Euphrates river, this was done twice a day, morning and evening. 

2.    In the Bible
Ancient Israelites, under the influence of those living in Mesopotamia and Canaan, set up their own sacrificial system, first in many cities, and finally in the temple of Jerusalem.
Each sacrifice was considered “the food of [his] God” (Lev. 21: 17,22). Offerings to the deity were called by various names, such as: korban- “that which is presented/brought close”, minhah – “a gift/grain offering” or nedavah--“a free will offering.” In earlier times, many individuals offered sacrifices to god (e.g., Noah [Gen. 8: 20]; Samuel [I Sam. 7: 9] David [II Sam. 24: 25] etc.), but after the centralization of the cult in the 8th cent. BCE, only priests were allowed to do that in the temple of Jerusalem. 

Offerings were usually presented twice a day, morning and evening (Num. 28:4). Even though the biblical description of the sacrificial acts is not very clear, they most likely occurred in the temple compound as follows: after the lay person brought the animal, laid his hands on it, and actually slaughtered it, the priests took over and tossed away the blood, burned the animal on the altar and disposed of the remains (See, Lev. 1). 

There were different types of sacrifices for all kinds of occasions: for purification, thanksgiving, vows, reparation, and others. The main meal consisted of meat, flour, oil and liquids. It was believed that God assimilated the food through its scent: “And YHVH smelled the pleasing odor (of the sacrifice)” (Gen. 8: 21). In some cases, the food was actually consumed by “a fire than that came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offerings and the fat parts on the altar” (Lev. 9: 24).  

As time went on, the prophetic literature records a tendency to limit or eliminate the sacrificial system altogether. In fact, there are many passages saying that they are not sufficient. For ex.: “I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6: 6), or unnecessary: “When I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them: do my bidding….”(Jer. 7: 22-23).
When the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the sacrificial system finally came to an end. However, because they appear in the Hebrew Scriptures, the instructions about them had to be reinterpreted. Thus, for instance, Philo of Alexandria (4th cent. BCE) stated that the fact that the sacrificial animals had to be unblemished is a symbol that the offerers had to be wholesome in body and mind. Later on, the Rabbis taught that the salt, an essential ingredient of the sacrifices, stood for the moral effect of suffering (Ber. 5a). In medieval times, Maimonides taught that the sacrificial requirements were given to the Israelites as a concession, as a teaching devise, with the ultimate intention of weaning them from the debased religious rituals of their idolatrous neighbors (Guide, 3: 32). For the medieval mystics, the sacrifices represented the spiritual worship of God in which material means were employed as symbols; they brought about the dynamic union of the divine powers, restoring the soul of humans and other created beings. 

Today, except for a few fundamentalist Jews, who still pray for the reestablishment of the 3rd temple in Jerusalem and the restoration of the sacrificial system, the majority of Jews use prayers as a replacement for the old sacrifices. We still read the texts about them in the Bible, but only as a recollection of what happened in the distant past. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.

Books by Rifat Sonsino:

FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)