Wednesday, May 16, 2018


1.     THE NAME: B'MIDBAR, “In the wilderness.” The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, calls it Numeri. Similarly, the Rabbis called it homesh hapikudim, “1/5 part of the Pentateuch that deals with numbers.”
2.     The book begins 13 months after the Exodus from Egypt, and covers the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness of Sinai.
3.     The number 40 in the Bible should not be taken literally. Many events last that long: the Flood during Noah (Gen.7:4), Moses’ time spent upon the Sinai mountain (Ex.34:28), the number of days it took to embalm Joseph (Gen.50:3) etc. It simply means a long period of time.
4.     In chapter 3, Aaron’s sons, the priests, offered “a strange fire” upon the altar. What is it? No one knows. Speculation runs deep: coals from an ordinary place; secular fire; unauthorized fire, etc.
5.     The message of the Book: It seems to encourage people to move forward  when embarking upon a new adventure. Progress often depends on taking the first few steps. Without taking a chance on life, little is accomplished.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

SONSINO'S COMMENTS ON THE TORAH: Lev. 25-27, Behar-Behukotay

SONSINO’S COMMENTS ON THE TORAH: Behar/Behukotay, Lev. 25: 1-27:34, for 5/12/18

1.     This combined Torah portion deals with the Sabbatical year (every 7 years), the Jubilee year (at the end of seven sabbatical cycles) as well as with some humanitarian laws. During these key years the land remains fallow, property in land is restored to the previous owner and slaves are freed. In the ancient Near East, kings often make similar proclamations.
2.     “You shall fear your God” (Lev.25: 17): Another translation for “fear” is “revere or stand in awe.” In our time, when one realizes the beauty of nature, its complexity and harmony, we need to “stand in awe.”
3.     Lev. 26 concludes the section in the book of Leviticus called the “Code of Holiness.” One of the laws reads: “I will grant peace (shalom) in the land” (v 6).” In modern Hebrew shalom is “hello” or “good bye.” In the biblical period, it meant “wholeness” or “completeness.”
4.     The Torah portion ends with rewards and punishments. In fact, the collective responsibility of the earlier times gave way (in Ezekiel) to individual responsibly. In our time, knowing that even the righteous are sometimes punished, we need to stress that we must do what is right, not for its rewards, but because it is the right thing to do.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018


EMOR, LEV.21:1-24:23, for 5/5/18

1.     This Torah portion deals with a number of priestly matters, such as the festival calendar.
2.     Who were these priests? In the early books of the Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy), the priests are the Levites. In the later books (e.g., the P source in Numbers), the priests are the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses. The Levites appear only as guards, singers or instrumentalists. What happened to them?

Here is a most likely reconstruction: After king Josiah of the kingdom of Judah destroyed all the Jewish temples outside of Jerusalem and centralized the cult in Jerusalem (622 BCE), the Zadokites, who were the priests of Jerusalem, gave incoming Levitical priests a lesser role [ Zadok was a descendant of Eleazar the son of Aaron (1 Chron 6:4-8)]. When the 2nd temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the priesthood came to an end. Those with a surname of Cohen, Cohn, Katz, Kahn and others often derive their name from the ancient Jerusalemite priests.

3.     Counting the Omer: in biblical times, on the day after Passover, the first sheaf (“omer”) of the barley harvest was brought to the priests as an offering to God. People counted 49 days until the festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the revelation of the Torah at Sinai/Horeb. Today also, in Orthodox Jewish circles, it is customary to count 49 days until Shavuot.