Pesach and Psalm 118: Still Singing

April 3, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

After drinking, eating, talking, and singing our way through the Haggadah, we still have six more days of Passover/Pesach.  What do we do besides continuing our matzah diet, unleavened by any bread?

One of the 14 steps in the seder follows us all week: the Halleil (הַלֵּל = praise), consisting of Psalms 113-118.  The Levites sang these psalms in the second temple1 during the three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem:  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. 2  All three festivals originated as harvest celebrations: Pesach for the first barley harvest, Shavuot for the first wheat and first fruits, and Sukkot at the end of the growing season, for all the other crops.  A harvest is a good reason to celebrate and praise God.

In my years of organizing Pesach seders and Shavuot and Sukkot services, I have been grateful that the Halleil includes Psalm 118.  Why?  Because the good lines in that psalm have inspired song and chant writers to come up with melodies.  Now, for the rest of the week of Pesach, I have the perfect excuse to keep on singing them!

Singing a verse again and again makes me ponder its meaning—which may be one reason we sing the psalms.  Here are my thoughts about some of the verses in Psalm 118:


Hodu l’Adonai ki tov,                         Thank God, because it is good,

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomar na Yisrael,                               Let Israel please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na beit Aharon,                       Let the house of Aaron please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na yirey Adonai,                      Let yirey God please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

yirey (יִרְאֵי) = those who are afraid of, those who are in awe of.

(Note:  In Hebrew, nouns and verbs have grammatical gender; in English they do not.  Therefore a masculine noun suffix or verb affix in Hebrew can be either masculine or neuter in English.  In this essay, I am translating references to God using “it” or “its”.)

Levites, from James Tissot, The Choristers

The first verses of Psalm 118 are scripted for call and response singing.  The choir, or choir leader, of the Levites invites three groups to respond. The first group, Israel, covers everyone present who is not a Levites or a priest.  The second group is the priests, whose hereditary office is traced back to Aaron in the Torah.  The third group is yirey God.3

It is tempting to consider the “yirey God” as the “God-fearers” of the Hellenistic period (the first through third century C.E.).  This was the name for people who had converted to worshipping the God of Israel, but did not go so far as to follow all the rules (such as circumcision).  One argument for this interpretation is that 118:4 calls for a class of people who are not “Israel”.  An argument against this interpretation is that Psalm 118 was probably written well before the first century C.E.

I can identify with the “yirey God”, despite my conversion to Judaism over 30 years ago, because I am not an ethnic Jew.  When the psalms were written, there were few apostates and few full converts; most of the people called “Israel” belonged by both birth and religion.  Today, when many people with Jewish ancestry live with no ties to the Jewish religion, and many converts are passionately engaged in that religion, I would appreciate a separate call for Jews by religion.4  We, too, can use a reminder that God’s “kindness is everlasting”.


Ozi vezimrat Yah,                               My strength vezimrat God,

          vayehi li liyshuah.                               and it became my rescue.

vezimrat (וְזִמְרָת) = and/or/but the zimrah of (a construct form of the noun zimrah).  Zimrah (זִמְרָה) = praising-song, melody, music.5

This line also appears in Exodus 15:2 in a song attributed to Moses, and is quoted in Isaiah 12:3.

English inserts the word “the” and forms of “to be” in places where Biblical Hebrew has no such connecting words.  Thus it is not always obvious, when translating from Hebrew to English, where to throw in the extra “the”, “is”, or “are”.  These grammatical differences mean there are at least two equally valid translations of Psalm 118:14:

“My own strength and song are of God!  And it [God] became my rescue!”  (Both the speaker’s strength and his song are attributed to God.  God rescues him by giving him superhuman strength and a song.)

“My own strength, and the song of God!  And it [the song of God] became my rescue!”  (The speaker has his own strength, but it is not enough to save him.  It is the song about God that rescues him—by calling in divine strength.)

When I sing verse 118:14, I imagine that singing in praise of God is giving me enough extra psychological strength to rescue me from my troubles.


Pitchu li shaarey tzedek                     Open to me the gates of righteousness

          Avo vam odeh Yah!                                         I will enter and praise God!

Zeh hashaar l’Adonai;                                    This is the gateway to God;

          Tzadikim yavo-u vo.                                    The righteous enter through it.

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = righteousness, what is right, what is just.

tzadikim (צַדִּיקִים) = (plural) the righteous, those who are innocent and in the right, those who act according to morality and justice.

When the Levites sang Psalm 118 in Jerusalem, the “gates of righteousness” probably referred to gates in the second temple complex.6  The pilgrimage festival may have included a ritual in which the double doors of a gate opened and the Levite choir sang while Judeans filed through.

The second temple had gates from the city into the outer courtyard (the “Court of Gentiles”); three gates from the outer courtyard into the eastern inner courtyard (the “Court of Women”) which only women and men of Israelite descent or full converts could enter; one gate from that court into the “Court of Israel” (for men only) with its view of the altar; and a curtained gate into the vestibule of the temple proper, which only priests were allowed to enter.

Was coming to the temple and worshiping the God of Israel enough to make someone righteous?  Or did stepping through the designated gate express a desire and commitment to become righteous?

The first time I sang this part of Psalm 118, I felt as if I were pretending I was already righteous and commanding the gates to open for me.  Then I realized that the request in 118:19 could also be a plea.  Now when I sing, I beg for the gates of righteous to open to me, so that I can receive whatever I need to become righteous.

Rashi7 wrote that the “gates of righteousness” were the entrances to synagogues and study halls.  I would agree that these are places where one can become more enlightened about righteousness—through an emotional channel in a synagogue service, and through an intellectual channel in a study hall.  But personal gates of righteousness may also open to us, if we ask.


As I sing Psalm 118, using different melodies for different sections, I think of God in terms of infinite kindness; I feel the strength of a divine source entering me as I sing to God; and I humble myself to pray for the ability to become righteous.

And all that comes before Psalm 118 reminds me to look again when I reject or feel rejected, since:

The stone the builders rejected

          Has become the cornerstone!  (118:22)

  1. Scholarly consensus is that Psalm 118 was written during the time of the “second temple” in Jerusalem. The Babylonians razed the first temple dedicated to the God of Israel in 586 B.C.E.  After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, King Cyrus decreed that exiles could return to their original lands and rebuild sites of worship.  Under Ezra and Nehemiah, returning exiles from Judah laid the foundations of a second temple on the site of the old one in Jerusalem.  The temple was completed in 516 B.C.E.
  2. The Talmud determined that only the “Half Halleil”, which abbreviates Psalms 116 and 117, should be recited during the last six days of Pesach (Arachin 10a-b).
  3. Psalm 115, earlier in the Halleil, appeals to the same three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron, and “yirey God”. In this case, the leader asks each group to trust in God, and the group responds: “Their help and their shield is he!”
  4. Converts are currently called “Jews by choice”, but I do not want to exclude people of Jewish ancestry who also choose to practice Judaism.
  5. In this verse only, zimrat is often translated as “the might of” or “the strength of” . Yet the root verb zamar, זָמַר, means “pruned” in the kal form, and “sang praises” or “made music” in the pi’el   There is only one verse in the Hebrew Bible in which zimrah or zimrat is not translated in terms of music: Genesis 43:11.  There Jacob lists six products he considers zimrat the land: four kinds of aromatic resin, fruit syrup, and almonds.  All these luxuries come from trees, and therefore could be considered “prunings”.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century), The Hirsch Tehillim, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 968; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 417; The Koren Siddur (Nusach Sepharad), commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 771.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Pesach: Miriam the Prophetess

March 27, 2018 at 9:09 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

Pesach (פֶּסַח, “skipping”) means Passover.  Seder (סֵדֶר, “order”) means the dinner table ritual following the order in the Haggadah.  Haggadah (הַגָּדָה, “the telling”—a term that came into use in the 19th century) means the book of rituals, prayers, questions, four cups of wine, and stories.  The longest story, told while the second cup of wine sits on the table, is about the exodus from Egypt, up to the point when the pursuing Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea, and the newly-freed slaves celebrate on the far shore.

In the book of Exodus, Moses led the people in celebrating by singing a lengthy psalm.1

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Then Miriam the neviyah, the sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and with circle-dances.  And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21)

neviyah (נְבִיאָה) = prophetess (the feminine form of navi (נָבִיא) = prophet).

Miriam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a neviyah.  She leads the women in singing as well as in tapping hand drums and dancing.2

Miriam is a character in three dramatic scenes in the Torah.  She is the resourceful young woman who, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopts her infant brother Moses, arranges for their own mother to be his paid wet-nurse.3  She is the leader of thousands of women in the scene above.  And later in the trek across the wilderness, she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, too:

“Has God spoken only with Moses?  Hasn’t He also spoken with us?”  And God heard.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:2)

by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

God calls Miriam, Aaron, and Moses to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and speaks to all three from the pillar of cloud—in order to tell them that Moses gets the most direct divine communication.

And [God] said: “Please listen to my words!  When there is a navi of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so my servant Moses … I speak with him mouth to mouth, and in seeing, not in riddles, and he looks at the likeness of God.  (Numbers 12:6-8)

God afflicts Miriam with a temporary skin disease to underscore the point.  Nevertheless, in that scene Miriam is indeed a neviyah who hears God’s voice directly!

Miriam is mentioned in passing five times after this, including God’s speech in the book of Micah reminding the Israelites that God sent them three leaders for the exodus from Egypt: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 4


What is a navi or neviyah?  The Torah offers several paradigms.

  • Intercessor

The word navi first appears in the book of Genesis, when God tells King Avimelekh in a dream: “And now, return the wife of [Abraham], since he is a navi, and he can pray for you and you will live.” (Genesis 20.7)

Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and an unnamed prophet in the first book of Kings are also prophets who have God’s ear and intercede with God to save other people.5

  • Spokesperson

The Torah introduces a second paradigm of a navi after the enslaved Israelites give up on Moses’ idea that God will liberate them.  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh next, he tries to get out it, arguing that he has “uncircumcised lips”, i.e. he cannot speak well.6  But God has an answer for everything.

Then God said to Moses: “See, I place you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your navi.”  (Exodus 7:1)

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, March Chagall, 1931

In other words, Aaron will act like a navi for Moses, hearing Moses speak and then passing on Moses’ words to the Egyptian court.  Obviously Moses is God’s navi, hearing God speak and passing on God’s words, though the Torah does not bother to say so until the end of Deuteronomy:  And never again in Israel rose a navi like Moses, who knew God face to face.  (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Moses and God have the longest, most frequent, and most direct conversations in the entire Hebrew Bible.  After Moses gets over his initial reluctance to speak, he fluently delivers God’s instructions, warnings, and hundreds of rules.7

Other prophets transmit God’s predictions, or warnings, about the future of kings or kingdoms if they do not change their ways.  These include all the major prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).

  • Ecstatic

The third kind of navi in the Hebrew Bible is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness characterized by an awareness of the divine and obliviousness to the world, and who does not return with any coherent message from God.  The first occurrence of this state in the Torah is when God shares some of Moses’ spirit or ruach with 70 elders.

And the spirit was upon them, vayitnabe-u, but they did not continue.  (Numbers 11:25)

Saul Before Samuel and the Prophets, by Benjamin West, 1812

vayitnabe-u (וַיּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they acted like prophets, and they prophesied to themselves, and they spoke in ecstasy.  (From the same נבא root as navi.)

In both books of Samuel and both books of Kings, bands of prophets wander around making music, dancing, and babbling.  The bible explains the proverb “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?” first with a scene in which King Saul falls in with a band of prophets on the road and speaks in ecstasy like them, then with a scene in which not only babbles, but also strips naked.8


Miraim is the first of only five women called prophets in the Hebrew Bible. After her, two major prophetesses are spokespersons for God (type 2 above): Deborah, who summons a general and tells him to go to war;9 and Huldah, who authenticates a scroll as the word of God and utters two prophetic predictions.10  Two other prophetesses are mentioned only glancingly.11

Miriam is the only neviyah whom the bible reports as engaging in what might be ecstatic behavior: playing a drum, dancing, and singing on the shore of the Reed Sea.  But Miriam leads circle dances in complicated patterns that require concentration and planning.  She leads a coherent chant.  Rather than directing ecstatic worship, she is probably organizing a celebration of God as the victor in a war against the Egyptian charioteers.  Women customarily greeted soldiers returned from a victory with drumming, dancing, and singing.12

Although Miriam hears God’s voice, the Torah does not report her serving as either an intercessor or a spokesperson for God.

by Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Talmud attempts to fill the void by claiming that Miriam did pronounce a prophecy: that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this story, the whole house filled with light, and Miriam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.13  This is a pleasant tale with no basis in the Torah.

A modern folk explanation is that Miriam must have had foreknowledge of the victory at the Reed Sea, and told the women to bring their drums.  Otherwise they would not have bothered to pack them, since they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs.14

This argument for Miriam’s power as a neviyah fails in the context of the larger story in Exodus.  The Israelite women were already packing all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing they “borrowed” from the Egyptians; they could easily add their hand drums and any their other sentimental and ritual objects.


Miriam may be called a neviyah because of other deeds not recorded in the bible.  Or she may simply be an exceptional person who has a close relationship with God.

A traditional Passover seder includes pouring a cup of wine for Elijah the navi.  Many a modern seder adds a ritual cup of water for Miriam the neviah.  (The water alludes to a Talmudic story that says a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years thanks to the merit of Miriam.15)

I lift a cup for Miriam at Passover knowing that she may not be a neviyah in the sense of being an intercessor with God, a spokesperson for God, or a religious ecstatic.  I celebrate her lifelong wise leadership, and her ability to listen to God.  May we all learn to be a little more like Miriam the neviyah.

  1. Exodus 15:1-18. See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.
  2. Since the two lines of Miriam’s song are the same as the first two lines of the psalm ascribed to Moses, the women might sing them as a periodic refrain during the longer psalm. Most modern scholars consider either the entire psalm, or at least Miriam’s song, to be one of the oldest poems in the Torah (based on Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
  3. Exodus 2:4-8.
  4. When she dies in Numbers 20:1; in two genealogies listing her with her brothers Aaron and Moses, Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29; in a warning about skin disease in Deuteronomy 24:9, and in Micah 6:3-4.
  5. Moses for the Israelite people in Exodus 32:9-14, Exodus 33:12-17, Numbers 11:1-2, and Numbers 21:6-9, and for Miriam in Numbers 12:10-15; Samuel for the Israelites in 7:5-10; Elijah to bring a dead boy back to life in 1 Kings 17:20-24; Elisha for the same reason in 2 Kings 4:8-37; an unnamed prophet for King Jereboam in 1 Kings 13:1-6.
  6. Exodus 6:12, 6:30. See my post Va-eria & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  7. The Talmud (Makkot 23b and Yevamot 47b) claims there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  It is hard to decide which rules should count, but 10th-century C.E. rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon found a way to list 613 in his Sefer Hamitzvot, and Maimonides (12th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, nicknamed Rambam) came up with 613 for his book by the same name.
  8. 1 Samuel 10:10-12 and 19:18-24.
  9. Judges 4:4-16.
  10. 2 Kings 22:14-20.
  11. The unnamed wife of the first Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3) and Noadeyah, a false neviyah listed in Nehemiah 6:14.
  12. Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
  13. Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.
  14. Exodus 12:34.
  15. Talmud Bavli Taanit 9a.

Tzav: Oil and Blood

March 21, 2018 at 10:04 am | Posted in Tzav | 3 Comments

What does it mean to be a priest in the Hebrew Bible?  One clue is the ordination ritual.

Smikhah letter, 1877

My own ordination as a maggid, a Jewish preacher and storyteller, included telling a story.  Ordination as a rabbi through the ALEPH program includes giving a divrei Torah (“words of Torah”, corresponding to a sermon in the Christian tradition).  In both cases written documents are signed, and the final step is the laying on of hands (smikhah) transmitting authority from the teacher to the student.1

The first priests of the Israelites undergo an entirely different initiation experience in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”).  The primary job of biblical priests is to process various animal and grain offerings according to all the rules in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  Priests also enforce the rules on ritual purity;2 diagnose the skin disease of tzara-at;3 recite a blessing formula over the community;4; tend the menorah (lampstand) and other holy items inside the sanctuary;5 and look impressive while on duty.6  No wonder the ordination of the first priests focuses on purification, blood, and clothing.

First, in front of all the Israelites, Moses bathes Aaron and his four sons in water.7  Water and the blood of animal offerings are purifying agents in the Torah.  Next Moses dresses Aaron in all the garments of the high priest, ending with the gold forehead ornament engraved “Holy to God”.8

Next Moses picks up the anointing oil.  In the Hebrew Bible, only priests and kings are anointed before they take up their duties.

Then Moses took the anointing oil, and he anointed the sanctuary and everything that was in it, vayekadeish them.  And he sprinkled some of it seven times on the altar, and all its tools, and the basin and its stand, lekadesham.  And he poured out some of the anointing oil on the head of Aaron, and he anointed him lekadeshu.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:10-12)

vayekadeish (וְַיקַדֵּשׁ) = and he made holy, and he sanctified.  (In the Hebrew Bible, kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ = holy) means set apart for God rather than for ordinary use.  See my post Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.)

lekadesham (לְקַדְּשָׁם) = to made them holy.

lekadeshu (לְקַדְּשׁוּ) = to make him holy.

Moses uses the same oil to make Aaron and all the objects related to the sanctuary holy.9  While the temple stood in Jerusalem, priesthood was hereditary and new priests, when they came of age, were anointed to consecrate them for serving God.

After the anointing, Moses finally dresses Aaron’s four sons in their assistant priest garments.  (Some commentary assumes that they put on their own linen breeches after the bathing, so they did not spend the entire time nude.)

Then Moses slaughters three animal offerings: a bull as a chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, a ram as an olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, and a second ram as a milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering.  (See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2 on these three types of offerings.)

Smikhah for Aaron and sons

And he presented the bull of the reparation-offering, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the bull of the reparation-offering.  And Moshe slaughtered it. and he took the blood and put it on the horns of the altar all around with his finger, and he made reparation for the altar.  And he poured out the blood onto the foundation of the altar, and vayekadeish it for atonement.  (Leviticus 8:14-15)

The five men who are being ordained transfer some of their spirit or identity to the bull by laying their hands on its head.  (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.)  Then Moses cuts its throat and puts blood on the four corners of the altar, which are shaped like animal horns, as well as on its foundation.  According to Rashi, this blood not only makes the altar ritually pure, but also changes its status from ordinary to holy, so it can be used from then on to make reparations for people’s errors and atone for their crimes against God.10

Horned altar at Beersheva

Moses slaughters the first ram as an olah and burns up the whole animal into smoke; the God-character in the sky appreciates the fragrance.11  Then he slaughters the second ram as a milu-im, an ordination offering.  Just as he daubed bull’s blood on the horns of the altar, Moses daubs ram’s blood on the right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes of the five men being ordained, before he splashes the rest on the altar.12

Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar, and he sprinkled on Aaron, on his clothes, on his sons, and on the clothes of his sons with him.  Vayekadeish Aaron and his clothes and his sons and the clothes of his sons with him.  (Leviticus 8:30)

The anointing oil is for consecration; the blood is for ritual purification.  Having completed both, Moses tells Aaron and his sons to spend seven days and nights at the entrance of the sanctuary.  On the eighth day, the new priests will officially inaugurate the altar, and their own service, with seven animal offerings and a grain offering.  (See my post Tzav: Filling Up a Priest.)

Why does Moses apply oil and blood not only to the five men he is ordaining, but also to their clothing and the altar?

Sacrificing an animal is the primary means of worshiping God in the most of the Hebrew Bible.  Once the priests are ordained, the Israelites bring their animals to the altar to be slaughtered.  The priests collect and splash the blood, butcher the animals, lift up animal parts, burn, roast, and remove waste.  Both the priests and the altar are intermediaries between the people and God.

When I reread this week’s Torah portion I felt sorry for the priests in the bible.  Their honor is merely hereditary, and their contribution to the welfare of the Israelites consists in following the rules.  They do not volunteer creative work, like Betzaleil and the artisans who craft all the items for the tent-sanctuary.  They do not make plans and decisions, like the kings and their generals and aides.  They do not have visions and hear God’s voice, like the prophets.

The priests also do not get to tell stories, like a maggid.  They do not get to explain words of Torah, like a rabbi.  They learn the Torah only in order to follow and teach the rules about offerings, impurity, diseases, and temple protocol.  No wonder the ordination of the first priests includes multiple applications of blood from animal offerings in order to effect ritual purity.

Nevertheless, the Israelites depend on the labor of the priests so they can worship God in the only way they know.  Today, may we all honor those who follow the rules and keep things running just as much as we honor inspired artists, leaders, and prophets.

  1. For more on smikhah see last week’s post, Vayikra& Jeremiah: Kidneys.
  2. The many examples include Leviticus 12 and 15, and Numbers 5 and 6:9-20.
  3. Leviticus 13:1-14:57.
  4. Numbers 6:22-27.
  5. Exodus 27:20-21, Numbers 8:1-3.
  6. Priests are not allowed to serve at the altar or inside the sanctuary unless they have unblemished bodies (Leviticus 21:16-23 and 21:18-20). They must also be wearing their garments made of white linen and expensive dyes, and when the high priest officiates he wears a gold tabard with gems and a gold plate on his forehead (Exodus 28).  The high priest may not dishevel his hair or rip his garments—the usual signs of mourning—even when his closest family members die (Leviticus 21:10-12).
  7. Leviticus 8:6.
  8. Leviticus 8:7-9. For more information, see my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.
  9. But God’s instructions to Moses in Exodus 29:7 only mention pouring oil on Aaron’s head, not on the sanctuary or the altar.
  10. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) explained that Moses chata, made reparation, not because anyone had missed the mark, but simply to purify the altar so as to convert it from an ordinary state to a holy state.
  11. Leviticus 8:18-21.
  12. Leviticus 8:22-24.

Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys

March 15, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Vayikra | 1 Comment

In English we speak of rational thinking as using our brains, of feelings emotions in our hearts, and of reacting intuitively as having gut feelings.  But no body part corresponds to our conscience, or to our inner self.  And no colloquial metaphor uses our kidneys.

Biblical Hebrew associates the whole conscious mind, rational and emotional, with the heart (leiv, לֵב or leivav לֵבָב).  There is neither a separate word nor a body part for intuitions.  But the seat of both the inner self and the conscience is in the kidneys (kelayot, כְּלָיֺת or kilyot כִּליוֹת).

Kidneys are first mentioned in the Torah in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God gives Moses instructions for ordaining priests.  The first animal offering prescribed is a bull.

And you shall take all the fat that covers the innards and the extra lobe on the kaveid and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar.  (Exodus 29:13)

kaveid (כָּבֵד) = liver; heavy, weighty, oppressive, impressive, important.

The first eleven verses that refer to kidneys are all part of prescriptions for making animal offerings to God.1  For most types of offerings2 the fattiest parts, including the abdominal organs, are completely burned up into smoke.  Other parts of the animal are reserved for other purposes: meat for human consumption, blood for splashing on altars and curtains, and hides either for leather or for burning outside the camp.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra (“And he called”)3, describes specific organs burned up along with the belly fat in two types of offerings:

  • the shelamim (שְׁלָמִים = wholeness offering) of a community member who wants to thank God or give a voluntary donation.
  • the asham (אָשָׁם = guilt offering) of a priest who unwittingly caused the people to disobey one of God’s rules.

And [the priest] shall offer, from the slaughtered animal of the shelamim, a fire-offering to God: the belly fat and the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails; and the two kelayot and the fat that is on them, which is on the sinews; and the extra lobe on the kaveid over the kelayot which he removes.  And the sons of Aaron shall turn them into smoke at the altar … a fire-offering, a soothing scent for God.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 3:3-5)

The same organs are singled out for burning up into smoke when a priest offers a bull as an asham.4

Priests with ordination offering

When the instructions for removing and burning these organs were recorded,5 they were literal instructions for the priests serving at the temple in Jerusalem.  Before each animal is slaughtered, its owner must lay a hand on the animal’s head, a magic or symbolic act transferring some of the owner’s spirit or identity.6  Then when the animal is offered to God, the owner is offering part of himself to God.7

The meaty parts of the animal are lifted toward God, roasted rather than completely burned, and then eaten by the priests and their families and/or the owners and their guests.  Thus the animal’s owner shares his muscles, representing his actions in the world, with God.  He will continue to act so as to take care of himself, his family, and his community, but now he dedicates himself to doing so in alignment with God’s laws.

The organs from a shelamim or an asham that are completely burned could correspond symbolically with what the owner is surrendering entirely to God.  The extra lobe of the kaveid, the liver8 might represent excess self-importance; by surrendering it, the owner humbles himself.

What part of the owner is being offered with the kelayot. the kidneys?


The kidneys appear as metaphor in poems elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.  Sometimes kidneys refer to a person’s deepest self.  For example, the father in the book of Proverbs says:

            My son, if wisdom [is in] your leiv,

                        My leiv will rejoice in me.

           And my kilyot will exult,

                        When your lips are speaking upright things.                                                 (Proverbs 23:15-16)

The father predicts that if he observes his son thinking and speaking wisely, he will be happy both at the level of his conscious mind and at the level of his deepest feelings.

In some biblical poems, the kidneys represent a person’s conscience or moral sense.  For example, Psalm 16 implies that the voice of one’s conscience is the voice of God:

          I bless God, who has advised me;

                        Even [during] the nights my kelayot have chastised me.                        (Psalm 16:7)

And Jeremiah asks God:

Why does the way of the wicked succeed?

                        All the treacherous enjoy peace and quiet!

            You planted them, and they also took root;

                        They went and made fruit.

            You are close in their mouths,

                        But remote from their kilyot.

            Yet you, God, you know me, you see me.

                        And you have tested my leiv; it is with you.  (Jeremiah 12:1-3)

In other words, the wicked talk about God easily, but they have no access to divine warnings from their consciences.  Therefore they calmly continue to produce evil results.  Jeremiah, on the other hand, is dedicated to God with all his thoughts and feelings; his heart (mind) is in harmony with his kidneys (conscience).9


In the 6th century B.C.E. and earlier, astute Israelites and those who recorded their words understood the human conscience.  Jeremiah expected people with a weak conscience to be treacherous and violate God’s laws.  Today we identify sociopaths (or people with “anti-social personality disorders”) as those who have little or no conscience, who lack empathy or any deep feelings, and who casually disregard rules.  They are “the wicked” of the bible who have no communication with their shriveled kidneys, and therefore are unable to surrender their conscience or their feelings to God.

For the rest of us, who make it out of childhood with healthy kidneys, our minds have a chance at connecting with both our deepest feelings and our conscience.  But it does not happen automatically.

In Vayikra, the owner of a sacrificial animal brings his deepest self, as well as his conscience, to God as the kelayot of the animal are turned into smoke.  It is the ultimate act of trust in God.

Today we know that it is wise to check one’s own conscience before following what anyone else says God wants.  Some people find the voice of God in their own deepest selves and their own moral sense.

I pray that we all find our own ways to express thanksgiving and become more generous, like the shelamim donor; to pay attention and notice when we have inadvertently done something wrong, like the asham offerer; to cultivate empathy without selfishness; and to enlarge our own conscience so that we hear the divine voice of love rather than fear or hatred.

  1. Exodus 29:13, 29:22; Leviticus 3:4, 3:10, 3:15, 4:9, 7:4, 8:16, 8:25, 9:10, 9:19.
  2. In an olah (עֺלָה), a rising offering, the entire animal is turned into smoke rising up to God.
  3. The first Torah portion in each of the five books has the same name as the book, which is the first significant word to appear. In this case, both the book and its first portion are called Vayikra, the Hebrew word that opens the book of Leviticus.
  4. Leviticus 4:8-10.
  5. Modern scholars agree that Leviticus 1:1-8:36, comprising the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, were written by the “P” source. Although they disagree on the century in which P passages were written, scholars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries C.E. have all dated the P source to sometime when the first Israelite temple stood in Jerusalem, i.e. between the 10th century B.C.E. and the temple’s destruction in 588 B.C.E.
  6. Samakh (סָמַךְ) = he leaned or lay (a hand or hands) on. When Moses lays his hands on Joshua, he transfers some of his authority and spirit to his successor as the leader of the Israelites (Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9).  When the Levites are ordained, the Israelites lay hands on them to make them the people’s substitutes for service in the sanctuary (Numbers 8:10).  The word samakh is also used for the ritual before an animal sacrifice.  The word smikha (סְמִיכָה), from the root samakh, refers to the ordination of rabbis and other Jewish religious functionaries to this day.
  7. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra Part 1, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem & New York, 2002, p. 16-17.
  8. Cattle, sheep, and goats have an extra lobe of the liver not found in humans. In Hebrew this lobe is the yoteret (יֺתֶרֶת), from the same root as yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, excess, what is left over.
  9. Kelayot also appear in Jeremiah 11:20, 17:10, and 20:12 as a different part of the mind from the leiv.

Vayakheil & Ki Tissa: Second Chance

March 7, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Vayakheil | Leave a comment

Moses’ first forty-day stint on Mt. Sinai results in the disaster of the golden calf, which brings out the worst in both Moses and the people.  (See last week’s post, Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear.)  But then Moses goes back up the mountain for another forty days, and gives the people a second chance.

40 days and 40 nights

During the first forty days and forty nights, God gives Moses the plans for building a holy sanctuary, its furnishings, and the vestments and accoutrements of its priests.  Meanwhile, the people below are afraid that Moses has died in the fire on top of the mountain.  In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, they tell Aaron, the deputy leader:

“Get up!  Make for us a god that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!”  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

During his second forty days on the mountaintop, Moses persuades the God-character to forgive the people for making an idol (the golden calf), and to reveal more of the divine personality to him.  Meanwhile, the people below wait patiently for Moses to return.  When he does, they are afraid of what happened to him.

And Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, and hey!—the skin of his face glowed!  And they were afraid to come near him.  (Exodus 34:30)

But Moses calls to them, and gradually the people come close enough to listen to his report from God.

Some assembly required

At the end of Moses’ first forty days on the mountain, the people assemble themselves and confront Aaron with their demand for an idol.

Vayikaheil, the people, against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us a god …” (Exodus 32:1)

vayikaheil (וַיִּקָּהֵל) = and they assembled, and they gathered together.

When Moses returns from his second forty days, the people wait until he assembles them.  This week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, begins:

Vayakheil, Moses, the whole community of the Israelites, and he said to them: “These are the things that God commanded you to do …” (Exodus 35:1)

vayakheil (וַיַּקְהֵל) = and he assembled.  (From the same root as vayikaheil.)

Calf versus tent

Gold calf from Temple of Baalat, Byblos

The first time, the people demand an idol, a statue for God to inhabit, and Aaron makes a golden calf.  Nobody remembers God’s prohibition against worshiping idols, i.e. images or statues for gods to inhabit.

Then they said: “This is your god, Israel, the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”  (Exodus 32:4)

Aaron confirms their identification of the golden calf by declaring a festival for God, using God’s personal four-letter name.1

The second time, they make the tent-sanctuary God requested and sanctioned, confident that God will dwell in it.  Moses has time now to repeat what God said during the first forty days on the mountaintop:

“They shall make a holy place for me, and I will dwell among them. Like everything that I show you, the pattern of the dwelling-place and the pattern of all its furnishings, that is how you shall make it.”  (Exodus 25:8-9)


The first time, the people donate their gold earrings so Aaron can make them an idol.

And all the people took the gold rings that were in their ears, and they brought them to Aaron.  And he took from their hands, and he shaped [the gold] with a metal-working tool, and he made it [into] a calf.  (Exodus 32:3-4)

The second time, in the Torah portion Vayakheil, the people donate precious metals and gems, expensive dyes, linen and goat hair and leather, wood, oil, and spices—everything needed to make an elaborate portable sanctuary and its furnishings.

Then they came, every man whose heart lifted and everyone whose spirit nadevah him.  They came with the donation of God for the works of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the clothing of the holy.  And they came, the men in addition to the women, everyone nediv of heart … (Exodus 35:21-22)

nadevah (נָדְבָה) = it prompted, urged on.

nediv (נְדִיב) = willing, generous, noble.  (From the same root as nadevah.)

Moses also calls for skilled workers, male and female, to volunteer to make all the sacred objects.

And they took from in front of Moses all the donations that the Israelites had brought for the work of making (the items for) the service of the holy.  But [the people] brought to him more nedevah, morning after morning.  (Exodus/Shemot 36:3)

nedevah (נְדֶבָה) = voluntary gift, spontaneous generous offering.  (Also from the same root as nediv.)

The people donate so many materials that Moses has to tell them to stop.  Their hearts overflow with the desire to give, and the craftspeople among them are eager to donate their time and skills to make a sanctuary for the God of Moses.

From broken to whole

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

The first time Moses comes down with a pair of stone tablets engraved by God, he sees the people dancing in front of the golden calf.

And it happened as he drew near the camp: he saw the calf and the circle-dances, and Moses got angry, and he hurled the tablets down from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

But when he comes down with a second pair of engraved tablets, the stones remain whole.


What the people want all along is a leader to guide them, and a visible sign of God to reassure them.  They fail to get what they want the first time because, in their fear, they assume Moses is dead and they forget that their God hates idols.

The second time around the people succeed in getting what they want.  They trust Moses to return and he does, more impressive than ever.  Then they eagerly create a new and more impressive visible reminder of the presence of their invisible God.

Furthermore, they now have something they can do to please God, a project that gives their lives meaning and purpose.

All of these rewards result from the people’s change in attitude.  The second time around, they wait patiently for Moses to return from the mountaintop.  They are careful to follow God’s rules and obey God’s prophet.  Relieved that both God and Moses have forgiven them, they become eager to make their relationship with God better than ever.  This leads to an outpouring of generosity.

What causes the people’s change of heart?

After Moses smashes the first pair of tablets, he has a few thousand Israelites killed, and God strikes more of them with a plague.  After that, I suspect, the people are more terrified of Moses and God than they are of being leaderless.

But then Moses forgives them.  The next day, having recovered from his anger and fear, Moses announces that he will beg God to forgive them, and he climbs back up Mt. Sinai.2

Moses also asks God for a different vision of the divine, and the God-character shows him another side of the divine personality: the thirteen attributes of God, which include compassion, tenderness, patience, forbearance, and kindness.3  Finally, God lets the people build the sanctuary for him despite their two-day relapse into idol worship.

After a disaster or a misunderstanding, it takes compassion and kindness from leaders for their followers to respond with trust and generosity.

May we all develop these attributes.

  1. Exodus 32:5.
  2. Exodus 32:30.
  3. Exodus 34:6-7

Ki Tissa: Making an Idol Out of Fear

March 1, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa | 1 Comment

The Israelites give up waiting for Moses to come back down from Mount Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa (“When you bring up”).  Forty days before they had watched him walk into the fire at the top.1  Now they think he must have died there.

And the people saw that Moses took too long to come down from the mountain, and the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up!  Make for us elohim that will go in front of us, because this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him!  (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)

elohim (אֱלוֹהִים= gods (the plural of eloha, אֱלוֹהַּ.); a god, God.

The Israelites and their fellow-travelers have run out of hope.  They are afraid they are stranded in the wilderness without their leader, without the man who spoke with God and knew what to do.  And even God’s pillar of cloud and fire, which led them from Egypt to Mount Sinai, is gone.

Out of fear, they ask Aaron to make them an idol or two.  Out of fear, he does it, and calls the golden calf by the four-letter name of the God.2  The next morning they make animal offerings to it, and feast and drink and dance and play.

Moses Breaking the Tablets, by Rembrandt

And it happened as he drew near the camp: he saw the calf and the circle-dances, and Moses got angry, and he hurled the tablets down from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain.  (Exodus 32:19)

The sound of the shattered tablets stops the revelers cold.

And he took the calf that they had made and her burned it in fire, and he ground it until it was fine powder, and he scattered it on the surface of the water and made the Israelites drink it.  (Exodus 32:20)

The people meekly obey.  Moses is in charge.

Then Moses questions Aaron about what happened.

And Moses saw that the people were out of control, because Aaron had let them get out of control …  (Exodus 32:25)

Where there is anger there is often submerged fear.  Now Moses’ fear emerges.  He does not realize that his own appearance has restored order.

And Moses stood in a gate of the camp, and he said: “Whoever is for God, to me!”  And all the sons of Levi gathered to him.  And he said to them: “Thus says God, the God of Israel:  Each man put his sword on his thigh.  Pass through and return from gate to gate of the camp, and each man kill his kinsman, and each man his neighbor, and each man his closest.”  (Exodus 32:26-27)

Did God really issue this order?  Elsewhere in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God and Moses have a conversation first, and then Moses transmits God’s instructions.  Here, God says nothing.  Perhaps Moses, like many insecure religious leaders, is claiming higher authority for his own words.

Spoiling the Egyptians,
Golden Haggadah, 1325-1349

All the Levite men have swords, even though they were slaves in Egypt.  The Torah portion Beshallach notes: And the Israelites went up armed from the land of Egypt.  (Exodus13:18)   Perhaps while the Israelite women were taking gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing from their Egyptian neighbors, the Israelite men were stealing weapons, knowing they might be attacked by either Egyptians or new enemies in the wilderness.3  Enough men were armed to wage a battle when they were attacked by Amalek.4

They did not expect to attack each other.

And the sons of Levi did as Moses spoke.  And about 3,000 men from the people fell that day.  (32:28)

Is it really necessary for Moses to order his fellow Levites to harden their hearts and kill so many people, even their own best friends and nearest relatives?

No.  Moses forgets that he is no longer the tongue-tied novice he was at the Burning Bush; that he has threatened the Pharaoh in his palace, and commanded thousands of people.  Yes, the Israelites grumbled a few times between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai.  But they kept following him.  And during God’s revelation at Sinai, the people were so shaken they begged Moses to pass on God’s words to them while they stood at a distance.5  They were happy to trust him.

Moses does not realize that the people are relieved to have their leader back in charge.  He does not see that now he could speak to the people instead of having them killed.  He could remind them that God does not want them to worship any images; the second commandment says so.  He could say that God will not abandon them as long as they did not abandon God.

But Moses does not see it.  He acts out of fear, and 3,000 people die.

How can someone be so blind?  I think it begins with personal insecurity.  Moses tried to get out of being God’s prophet by making excuses at the burning bush.6  He did not believe he could be competent prophet and leader.

In America today, many people are living with uncertainty and a lack of confidence.  Some Americans feel insecure because the values they learned from their families, and the work they know how to do, are losing their value in our changing society.

Next, an alarming piece of news ignites personal insecurity and turns it into anger and fear. For Moses, it is seeing his people dance around an idol.  Today, it might be propaganda about immigrants, or news of a mass shooting.

Under the influence of fear, it is hard to assess the facts and draw rational conclusions.  It is hard to call for improving the rule of law, for improving society, for attending to unbalanced individuals.  But it is easy to succumb to panic and call for more weapons to defend ourselves.  And it is easy to panic and demonize the people who oppose us.

We are all afraid of something.  We do not all act of fear.  But it is hard to transcend yourself when you are too angry and fearful to see straight, like Moses when he realizes his people were out of control.

May we all be blessed with the ability to take a deep breath; with sympathy for our fellow human beings; with the humility to change our minds; and with the insight to stop the cycle of fear.

  1. Exodus 24:17-18.
  2. See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.
  3. Exodus 12:35-36.
  4. Exodus 17:8-13.
  5. Exodus 20:15-18.
  6. Exodus 3:11-4:13.

Psalm 127: Anxiety and Security

February 21, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim | 2 Comments

Vigilance can be contemplative, as when one keeps a vigil.  Or vigilance can be stressful, as when one keeps watch for the least sign of trouble, afraid to blink.

Parts of an almond tree

In last week’s post, Terumah: Tree of Light, I explored how the Hebrew word shakad (שָׁקַד) has two different meanings: “it was like an almond”, and “he was vigilant”.  In the Hebrew Bible, some words based on shakad describe how the menorah is made like parts of an almond tree.1   Others refer to God’s vigilant attention to the Israelites,2 human vigilant alertness for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching vigilantly for someone to leave a town and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake and alert at night.5  One appearance of shakad that refers to staying alert at night is in Psalm 127:1.

This week I noticed that Psalm 127 as a whole is a meditation on the anxiety of vigilance and the serenity of acceptance.

Humans are easily gripped by anxiety.  In simple situations, a bit of anxiety can be helpful, motivating a person to take action against a threat, or to create a more secure life.  But continuous anxiety, like continuous suffering, damages both one’s physical health and one’s ability to make good decisions.

Psalm 127 begins with three different examples of how we cannot guarantee our own security, no matter how much we do.  Knowing this makes humans anxious.  How can we find serenity despite our insecurity?  According to Psalm 127, the answer is God.

(A song of ascents for Solomon.)

          Unless God builds a bayit

                        In vain do its builders labor.

          Unless God watches over a city

                        In vain is the watchman shakad. (Psalm 127:1)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, home, household; temple.

Psalm 127 is dedicated to King Solomon, who built the first Israelite temple in Jerusalem.  He implication is that despite all the fine materials and the labor by both willing craftsmen and temporary slaves (corvée labor), the temple could not have become a home for God if God had not chosen to dwell there—or had not been welcomed into the hearts of the people.

The word bayit also means a physical house providing protection from the weather, wild beasts, and enemies; a home providing a place to rest in comfort and security; and a household or family providing mutual support.

City of Megiddo

A walled city also provided protection, security, and mutual support for its residents.  Its watchmen served as guards to sound the alarm if they saw anything threatening.  Today nation-states are supposed to fill the function of ancient cities, protecting their residents from external attack and internal crime, and providing systems for mutual aid and support.

The point of the first verse is that no matter how hard we work to achieve security, we cannot guarantee it.  A house with locks and alarms and bars over the windows might still be smashed by a bomb or an earthquake; while setting the locks and alarms and seeing the bars help to keep the inhabitants in a state of useless anxiety.  A nation with walls and guards on its borders, and X-ray machines in its airports, is still not safe from its own natives (especially when they are armed); while talking about “homeland security” generates more useless anxiety.

Real security comes not from anxious labor, but from a different state of mind, which this psalm attributes to God.


The next verse of Psalm 127 remains a puzzle for translators and commentators.

          In vain you rise early

                        And stop to sit late,

          Eating the bread of suffering;

                        Indeed [God] gives “his” beloved ones sheina.  (Psalm 127:2)

sheina (שֵׁנָא) = ?  (The usual translation of sheina here is “sleep”, but the word is a hapax legomenon, i.e. it occurs only once in the entire bible.  This translation is based on the word sheinah (שֵׁנָה) = sleep, which occurs 22 times.  Perhaps sheina in Psalm 127 is merely a misspelling.  On the other hand, sheina could be related to shena (שְׁנָא) = changed, altered.)

The psalm’s reference to eating “the bread of suffering” alludes to the story of the Garden of Eden.  There God tells Adam:

“… accursed is the earth on account of you; in suffering you shall eat from it all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles it will sprout for you…  By the sweat of your face you will eat bread …”  (Genesis 3:17-19).

Psalm 127 suggests that even if people get up early and toil away at agriculture, only sitting down late in the day, their labor might still be in vain, unless God sends the right weather for their crops.  Yet those whom God loves have a different attitude.  They work, but they also rest—perhaps because God helps them to change.  They no longer suffer anxiety about their crops, since they find security in their own relationship with God.6

In the Garden of Eden story, God also predicts that Eve will suffer as she labors to bear children:

To the woman [God] said: “I will certainly multiply your suffering and your pregnancies; in suffering you will bear children …”  (Genesis 3:16) 7


The third verse of Psalm 127 points out that childbirth can be viewed either as a hardship or as a reward.

          Hey, an inheritance from God is sons;

                        A reward is the fruit of the womb.  (Psalm 127:3)

It takes more than the two parents to make a baby.  In the Torah, God is responsible for opening and closing wombs, i.e. making pregnancy possible.8

Quiver & arrowheads
16th century BCE

The praise of having children continues from the male point of view.

          Like arrows in the hand of a warrior

                      So are the sons of youth.

          Fortunate is the man

                    Who fills his quiver with them.

          They will not be shamed

                    When they speak to enemies in the gate.  (127:4-5)

These last two verses offer a resolution of the first verse.  If you want to build a household (one meaning of bayit), you will labor in vain unless God lets you have a son.  In ancient Israel and Judah, the head of a household was a man, who acquired a wife (or wives), children, and servants.  His household was worthless without at least one son to inherit his land, livestock, and/or business.  Sons could also defend his property if he were attacked.9  So a literal interpretation of the opening and closing of Psalm 127 is:

          Unless God builds a household,

                      In vain do its builders labor …

          Unless God opens a womb,

                      In vain does a man seek security.


An interpretation of Psalm 127 for our own time might be:

         Unless we see God in each other,

                        In vain does our household exist.

          Unless we want friends more than walls,

                      In vain do we watch out for foes.  (127:1)

          Unless we change suffering to love,

                      In vain do we work for our bread.  (127:2)

            From God we inherit our world;

                      The fruit of each womb is a gift.  (127:3)

            Fortunate is the human who learns

                      How to speak to an enemy in the gate.

            Accept what life brings with a full heart,

                      And you will not be insecure.  (127:4-5)

  1. Exodus 25:33-34, 37:19-20.
  2. Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
  3. Isaiah 29:20.
  4. Jeremiah 5:6.
  5. Psalm 102:8, Psalm 127:1, Job 21:32.
  6. “An ordinary person, once he becomes aware of this inadequacy of all human endeavor, will worry without cease; he will be driven to overtax his energies; he will lose rest and sleep, and he will be unable to enjoy the very bread he eats. But it is through this same knowledge of inadequacy of all human effort that he who is aware of God’s tender love, of His friendship, as it were (ידיד is passive, i.e., ‘beloved’), will acquire that serenity which will enable him to sleep in peace.”  (Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 2014, pp. 1049-1050.)  Hirsch was a 19th-century Orthodox rabbi.
  7. The Hebrew words I translate as “suffering”—atzavim (עֲצָבִים) in Psalm 127:2, itzavon (עִצָּבוֹן) in Genesis 3:16 and 3:17, and etzev (עֶצֶב) in Genesis 3:16 all mean “suffering, hardship, pain, distress”. All three words come from the same root verb, atzav (עָצַב), which means “caused suffering or pain” in the kal form, and “felt distressed, anxious” in the nifil form.
  8. The belief that only God opens or closes a woman’s womb appears in Genesis 29:31, 30:2, and 30:22; and 1 Samuel 1:5-6.
  9. “The man who begets many sons in his youth creates the equivalent of a little army on which he can depend. In the social structure of ancient Israel, this may not have been an entirely fanciful notion.”  (Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 450)

Terumah: Tree of Light

February 14, 2018 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Terumah, Tetzavveh | 1 Comment

In February the almond trees bloom in Israel.  They are the first trees to wake up from winter dormancy, and their white flowers appear before their leaves.

Moses receives detailed instructions from God Sinai in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”), for making a tent-sanctuary and each holy item inside it.  God describes the lampstand or menorah in terms of an almond tree.

You shall make a menorah of pure gold.  Of hammered work you shall make the menorah; its seat and its shaft, its bowls, its kaftorim, and its blossoms shall be from it.  (Exodus/Shemot 25:31)

menorah (מְנֺרַה) = lampstand supporting bowls of oil with wicks.

Almond drupes

kaftor (כַּפְתֺּר), plural kaftorim (כַּפְתֺּרִים) = knobs, drupes (fruits with pits, such as peaches, plums, and almonds), capitals of columns resembling almond drupes; natives of Crete.

Since the lamp-stand is hammered out of pure gold, a fairly soft metal, it cannot be any taller than six feet. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) says it was eighteen handbreadths, just over five feet.  At that height, the high priest could easily reach the seven oil lamps on top to refill the bowls and trim and light the wicks.1

(The Arch of Titus in Rome, carved in 82 C.E., bears a relief sculpture of the sacking of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, including two soldiers carrying away a menorah somewhat shorter than they are.)

The overall shape of the menorah, according to this week’s Torah portion, is like a flat or espaliered tree with a central trunk and three branches on each side.  The branches and the central shaft all terminate in oil lamps, so there are seven lamps across the top:

And you shall make seven lamps on it … of pure gold.  (Exodus 25:37-38)

And [it shall have] six shafts going out from its sides: three shafts of the menorah on one side and three shafts of the menorah on the second side.  Three bowls meshukadim on one side, on each a kaftor and a blossom, and three bowls meshukadim on the other side, on each a kaftor and a blossom; the same way for all six of the shafts going out from the menorah.  And on [the central shaft of] the menorah, four bowls meshukadim, [each with] its kaftor and its blossom: a kaftor under each pair of shafts branching from it …  (Exodus/Shemot 25:32-35)

meshukadim (מְשֻׁקָּדִים) = being made like almonds.  (From one of the two root verbs spelled shakad, שָׁקַד.)

Menorah model at Temple Mount Institute

Each oil lamp consists of a bowl that looks like an almond blossom sitting on top of an almond drupe.  (Unlike a peach, the fleshy part of an almond drupe is a relatively thin covering over the pit, which has an almond seed or nut inside.)  The central shaft of the menorah has the same decorative motif at each of the three junctions where shafts branch out, with the central shaft continuing up from the flower-bowl shape.  At the top of the central shaft the fourth almond flower-bowl is open and serves as the middle lamp.

Lexicons classify meshukadim as a form of the verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = made like an almond, as opposed to the identically spelled verb shakad (שָׁקַד) = watched for, was vigilant, was alert.  Another passage in the Hebrew Bible uses the identical spelling and pronunciation of the two shakad root verbs as a prophetic pun.

And the word of God happened to me, saying: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”  And I said: “A shoot of a shakeid I see.”  And God said to me: “You do well to see it.  Because I am shokeid over my word, to do it.”

shakeid (שָׁקֵד) = almond, almond tree.

shokeid (שֺׁקֵד) = being vigilant, watchful, alert.

The Hebrew Bible also describes God as watchfully attentive to the Israelites, for good or bad.2  Elsewhere in the Bible, the verb shakad that means being vigilant is used to describe people watching for chances to do evil,3 a leopard watching for humans to leave their towns and become its prey,4 and people who stay awake at night.5


Lamps are symbols of enlightenment, divine inspiration that casts light so we can see something more clearly.  The menorah in the sanctuary is the size of a human for practical reasons—but perhaps also because it is humankind’s job to receive and spread enlightenment.

It may be shaped like a tree in recollection of in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad in the garden of Eden.  After all, enlightenment is a spark of insight that blooms into new knowledge.

Why is the design of the menorah taken from the almond tree?  I think this is a double symbol, from the double meaning of meshukadim: “being made like almonds” and “from those who are vigilant, watchful, awake, alert”.  Almond trees flower before any other useful tree.  They wake up and bloom when it is still winter.  Similarly, enlightenment can bloom even in the winter of our souls—but only if we keep watch for it, if we stay alert to any sign of holiness.

We can be shokeid, vigilant, by serving as our own high priests, tending the lamps of our own inner menorah.  We human beings are all too liable to sink into a semi-conscious state in which we operate automatically, making habitual assumptions instead of asking ourselves questions.  Yet when we do pay close attention to our own minds, to the people we encounter, and to the teachings we receive, we create our own menorah and find our own enlightenment.

(I published an earlier version of this essay on January 30, 2011)

  1. Aaron, the first high priest, has the duty of tending the lamps.  See Exodus 30:7-8, Leviticus 24:3-4, Numbers 8:1-2.
  2. Jeremiah 31:28, Jeremiah 44:27, Daniel 9:14.
  3. Isaiah 29:20.
  4. Jeremiah 5:6.
  5. Psalm 102:8, 127:1, Job 21:32.

Mishpatim: The Immigrant

February 7, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Posted in Mishpatim | 6 Comments

Aramean Immigrants in Canaan

The first immigrant in the Bible is Abraham.

And God said to Abraham: “Go for yourself, away from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:10)

Abraham, his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and all the people who work for them leave the land of Aram forever and immigrate to Canaan, where they become neighbors, allies, and trading partners with the natives.

Just as most Americans who were born in the United States are descended from immigrants, the “native citizens” of the two Israelite kingdoms traced their descent to the immigrants Abraham and Sarah.

Israelite Immigrants in Egypt

Abraham and Sarah’s grandson Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, immigrates to Egypt with his entire family.

According to the Torah the Israelites (“the Children of Israel”) live there for 430 years1—but the Egyptians still view them as foreigners.  Two pharaohs worry that if the Israelites become too populous they might rebel and fight against Egypt.2

They finally do rebel, but without fighting.  The Israelites and some fellow-travelers walk away from slavery and out of Egypt, following Moses and God’s pillar of cloud and fire.

God’s plan is to “give” the Israelites the land of Canaan, where their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were once resident aliens.

Immigrants in Israelite Kingdoms

At Mount Sinai, after the revelation with the ten commandments, God gives the people a series of more specific laws in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”).  One law becomes a theme in the Hebrew Bible:

You may not oppress a geir, nor may you push him around3, for you yourselves were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus/Shemot 22:20)

geir (גֵּר), plural geirim (גֵּרִים) = immigrant, resident alien; (or) a foreign man who has settled down in ancient Israel, has been circumcised, and observes the state religion.  (From the root verb gur, גוּר.)

As far as we know, no other country in the Ancient Near East had a law against oppressing immigrants.  From Exodus to Malachi, the Hebrew Bible tells us 13 times not to oppress, push, wrong, or exploit a geirFour of those times the bible adds that we were geirim in Egypt.4

Later in this week’s Torah portion, God elaborates:

You may not push around a geir; and you know the nefesh of a geir, since you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Exodus 23:9)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = soul that animates the body, state of mind, inclination, appetite.

Does knowing the state of mind of an immigrant help people to treat new immigrants fairly?

Twentieth-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz has pointed out that many people who were oppressed in the past become tyrants themselves if they come into positions of power.5  This, she wrote, is why Ramban interpreted the phrase “you were geirim in the land of Egypt” as a reminder that the Egyptian oppressors thought there was no one to help the Israelites, but God responded to their cries—and destroyed much of Egypt in the process.6  The implied warning is: When you have your own land, don’t imagine that the strangers living among you will be helpless.  God will respond to the cries of any immigrants you oppress, and then you’ll be sorry.

The bible distinguishes between a visiting foreigner, who is not expected to observe Israelite religious law, and a geir, a resident alien who has no other home.  A geir must follow the same rules as a native about holy days,7 burnt offerings to the God of Israel,8 blasphemy9, child sacrifice,10 and procedures regarding dead animals11.

Natives and geirim get equal rights as well as equal responsibilities.  Judges are forbidden to wrong a geir12, and the cities of refuge are available to a geir as well as a native who commits accidental manslaughter.13

Furthermore, employers must let the geirim who work for them take a day off every week, just like the Israelites.14  One law in the portion Mishpatim states:

Six days you shall do your jobs, but on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and the son of your slave-woman and the geir yinafeish.  (Exodus 23:12)

yinafeish (יִנָּפֵשׁ) = he shall refresh his nefesh, recover himself, reanimate himself.  (See my post Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim, and Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery.)

The Gleaners,
by Jean Francois Millet

The bible considers geirim a disadvantaged group, like widows, fatherless children, and the very poor, so there are many reminders that the rest of society must help them.  Every year, land owners must leave behind gleanings for the poor, widows, orphans, and geirim.15  Every third year, they must give a tithe to feed several groups of people who do not own land, including geirim.16

Why were geirim at a disadvantage?  Modern scholars have noted that resident aliens were especially vulnerable to being cheated and taken advantage of, because unlike ordinary Israelites, they had no clan network to protect them, and unlike visiting foreigners, they could not call on their own countries for succor.17  Furthermore, they had no hereditary land in either of the two kingdoms of Israel.  They could buy land, but every fiftieth year the land reverted to the Israelite clan that originally owned it.18

When Immigrants Are Fellow-Travelers to Canaan

All the biblical laws about not oppressing geirim and making sure they have enough to eat apply to geirim who arrive after the Israelites have established their own country in the land formerly called Canaan.

But three times in the bible, when Israelites are preparing to seize the land of Canaan, the geirim who chose to travel with the Israelites are included as regular citizens of the new kingdom-to-be.

In Deuteronomy, Moses declares that all the geirim who traveled with the Israelites from Egypt will be included in the covenant with God.19  Joshua then seizes much of Canaan through war, killing or subjugating the native population (as Europeans did to the native populations in America in order to seize their land).  But when Joshua holds a covenantal ceremony for the new owners of the land, he asks the children of the geirim who traveled with the Israelites from Egypt to join the Israelites in the ritual blessing at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval.20

During the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.E., the prophet Ezekiel tells the Israelites that when they finally return to their old land, they will be allotted land-holdings along with the geirim among them.  And they will be for you as native-born citizens, along with the Children of Israel … (Ezekiel 47:22)


In short, the bible dictates that people from other ethnic groups who joined the Israelites in Egypt or Babylon will become citizens just like the descendants of Jacob.  People who immigrate separately to the land of Israel must receive the same rights and responsibilities as native-born citizens.  God decrees that these geirim must not be cheated or oppressed.  They have to be treated with justice and kindness, and if they are poor they must be fed the same way as the poor among the Israelites.

These laws about treating immigrants as equals were so important that they were repeated again and again in the Hebrew Bible.

If the relatively primitive culture of ancient Israel held this standard, I wonder why the United States of America cannot do the same today?

  1. Exodus 12:40.
  2. Both the first and the second pharaoh in the Exodus story enslave the Israelites by assigning them to corvee labor making bricks, building cities, and doing fieldwork (Exodus 1:8-14, 5:4-9), on the theory that if they have no free time, they cannot rebel. The first pharaoh also tries to reduce the Israelite population through infanticide (Exodus 1:15-22).
  3. The verb lachatz (לָחַץ) can mean press toward, crowd, oppress, push toward, or push around.
  4. We are told not to oppress (inah, עִנָּה) or push around (lachatz, לָחַץ) or subvert the rights of (hitah mishpat, הִטָּה מִשְׁפַּט) or exploit (ashak, עָשָׁק) a geir in Exodus 20:20 and 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 1:16, 24:14, 24:17-18, and 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6 and 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7 and 22:29; Zecharaiah 7:10, and Malachi 3:5. A reference to the Israelites being geirim in Egypt is included in Exodus 20:20 and 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, and Deuteronomy 24:17-18.  God tells native citizens to love the geir in Leviticus 19:33-34 and Deuteronomy 10:19.
  5. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Part II, translated by Aryeh Newman, Joint Authority of Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 384-6.
  6. 13th century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, or Nachmanides.
  7. Exodus 12:19 and 12:48-49; Leviticus 16:29; Numbers 9:14; and Deuteronomy 16:11-12 and 16:14.
  8. When geirim make burnt offerings to the God of Israel, they must follow the same rules as natives in Leviticus 17:8 and 22:18, Numbers 15:14-16 (which adds “you are alike before God”), and Numbers 19:10. Geirim are also included in the community that God forgives when it unknowingly makes an error in observance (Numbers 15:16 and 15:29).
  9. Leviticus 24:16 (using God’s name in blasphemy) and Numbers 15:30 (reviling God).
  10. Geirim, like native citizens, are forbidden to offer their children to Molech (Leviticus 18:26 and 20:2).
  11. Geirim as well as natives are forbidden to eat the blood of slaughtered animals (Leviticus 17:10-13) or animal carcasses killed by predators (Leviticus 17:15).  Leviticus 24:21-22 says the law about making restitution if you kill someone else’s livestock also applies to geirim.
  12. For example, see Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 14-16, Deuteronomy 1:16, and Jeremiah 22:3.
  13. Numbers 35:15 and Joshua 20:9.
  14. Shabbat for geirim is mandated in Exodus 20:10 (one of the Ten Commandments), Exodus 23:12 (translated above), and Numbers 5:14.
  15. Leviticus 19:10 and 23:22.
  16. Deuteronomy 14:29 and 26:11-13.
  17. James L. Kugel, The God of Old, The Free Press, New York, p. 109; and W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 582.
  18. See my post Behar: Owning Land.
  19. Deuteronomy 29:10.
  20. Joshua 8:33-35.

Yitro: Rejected Wife

January 31, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Posted in Yitro | 4 Comments

Moses, the Israelites, and their fellow-travelers are camping in the wilderness of Sinai when visitors arrive at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.

And Yitro, priest of Midian, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses and for his people, Israel: that God had brought Israel out from Egypt.  So Yitro, father-in-law of Moses, took Tzipporah, wife of Moses, after her shilluchim, and her two sons … (Exodus/Shemot 18:1-3)

shilluchim (שִׁלּוּחִים) = dismissal of a wife to her father’s house; dowry or farewell gift when a woman leaves her father’s house to marry.  (This noun is derived from the verb shillach (שִׁלַּח) = send away, set free, let go—which is the piel form of the root verb shalach (שָׁלַח) = send, let go.)

After Moses received orders from God at the burning bush, he took his wife and sons on the first leg of his journey back to Egypt.  They spent the night at a lodging place where God came to kill Moses, and Tzipporah saved his life by circumcising one of their sons and smearing the blood on her husband, calling him a “bridegroom of blood”.1  (See my post Va-eira & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.)

Tzipporah’s decisive action indicates she would be a good person to have by his side in a dangerous situation.2  Yet something about that dramatic ritual made Moses change his mind about bringing his wife to Egypt.  Maybe he did not even believe her account of what happened while he was unconscious.  So he sent Tzipporah back to her father’s house after she saved his life, and before he met his brother Aaron on the road.3

Was it merely a separation, or a divorce?  Was he protecting or rejecting her?

Sending away versus casting out

The noun shilluchim appears in only two other verses of the Bible, once as a dowry, and once as a metaphorical farewell gift.4  However, Deuteronomy/Devarim uses the related verb form shillach in three laws about sending away wives.

If a man wants a female war captive, he must take her home and let her mourn unmolested for one month before he takes her as a wife.  “Then if you no longer want her, veshillachtah her soul, and you must certainly not sell her for silver; you must not treat her brutally, since you overpowered her.”  (Deuteronomy 21:14)

veshillachtah (וְשִׁלַּחְתָּה) = then you must set her free, let her go.

If a man tries to return his bride the next morning by claiming falsely that she was not a virgin, “… then she will be his wife; he will not be able to shallechah all his days.”  (Deuteronomy 22:19)

shallechah (שַׁלְּחָהּ) = send her away.

And if a man rapes a virgin who is not engaged, he must pay her father and accept her as his wife.  “… since he overpowered her, he will not be able to shallechah all his days.”  (Deuteronomy 22:29)

In all three of these laws, the verb shillach is used to mean divorce.


Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible does a man send his own wife back to her father’s house temporarily, without divorcing her.  Yet most commentary before the 20th century assumed Moses did this, either so that Tzipporah and their children would not suffer,5 or so that he could “devote himself entirely to the fulfillment of his mission”.6

One piece of evidence for this interpretation is that when Yitro brings Tzipporah back to Moses, she is still called eishet Moshe (אֵשֶׁת מֺשֶׁה) = wife of Moses, and Yitro is still called chotein Moshe (חֺתֵן מֺשֶׁה) = father-in-law of Moses.

The Hebrew Bible uses only two types of words for divorce:  variants of shillach (שִׁלַּח) = send away, set free, let go; and variants of goreish (גֺּרֵשׁ) = cast out, driven out.  In other biblical books a divorcee is called a gerushah (גְרוּשָׁה), a female who has been cast out.7  But Tzipporah is not called a gerushah.  Moses did not “cast out” Tzipporah; he “sent her away”.


by E.A. Girardet, 19th century

And Moses went out to invite his father-in-law, and he bowed down to him, and he kissed him, and they inquired about one another’s welfare, and they came into the tent.  (Exodus 18:7)

Moses greets Yitro warmly, but he does not even acknowledge the presence of Tzipporah and their two sons.  Although there are no instances in the Hebrew Bible of a man kissing his wife or ex-wife in public, men do kiss their kinsmen in front of other people.8  Yet the Torah does not say Moses greets his own sons in any way.  He does not even perform the basic courtesy of inviting them to dismount and rest.

Inside the tent, Moses tells his father-in-law the details of God’s miracles in Egypt and afterward.  Yitro makes a burnt offering to Moses’ God, and feasts with Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel.  No provision for Tzipporah, Gershom, or Eliezer is mentioned.  The next day, Yitro gives Moses advice on how to delegate the legal cases his people bring to him.

And Moses sent off his father-in-law, and he went to his own land.  (Exodus 18:27)

Do Tzipporah, Geirshom, and Eliezer go home again with Yitro, ignored and rejected?  Or do they stay with Moses and the Israelites, ignored and rejected?

The name “Tzipporah” never appears again in the Hebrew Bible.  A wife of Moses is mentioned only once more, when Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses “on account of the Kushite wife that he took; for he had taken a Kushite wife”(Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1)  Elsewhere in the bible, a Kushite is a dark-skinned person from Kush, which may be either Nubia (south of Egypt) or part of southern Midianite territory (near the Gulf of Aqaba).  The commentary is divided on whether this wife is Tzipporah or another woman.  One tradition is that Miriam and Aaron complain because Moses is denying his wife sexual relations.9

Certainly Moses does not share his tent with a wife.  His tent becomes the Tent of Meeting (with God), and only Moses and his apprentice Joshua sleep there.

Moses’ sons, Geirshom and Eliezer, have no role in the rest of the story of Moses’ life.  Joshua inherits Moses’ position as political leader of the Israelites, and Aaron’s son Elazar becomes the high priest.  Geirshom and Eliezer are not mentioned again until the first book of Chronicles, which includes them in genealogical lists of Levites in charge of the temple treasuries.10

So I believe that Yitro does leave his daughter and grandsons behind when he says farewell to Moses and goes home.  Moses lets Tzipporah and their two sons travel with the Israelites, but he has little or no contact with his erstwhile family.  Although they travel with the Israelites, perhaps pitching their tent with the other foreigners on the edges of the camps, Moses maintains his separation from them.

And I think that when Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses “on account of his Kushite wife” in the book of Numbers, they are referring to his neglect of Tzipporah.  (I plan to explore this idea further when we reach Beha-alotkha in the Jewish cycle of Torah portions at the end of May 2018).


After Moses separates from Tzipporah on the road to Egypt, we never see him interacting with a wife or child again.  If he is married to anyone, he is married to God.  If he has any children, they are the thousands of children of Israel that he has become responsible for.  He misses out on the long companionship of marriage partners.

So does Tzipporah.  Her heroic act in the bridegroom of blood scene is ignored, forgotten.  She is treated like excess baggage, passed back and forth between Yitro and Moses.  Her name means “bird”, but she is never allowed to fly.

May we have compassion for all caged birds—and for all great leaders.

  1. Exodus 4:24-26.
  2. Pamela Tarkin Reis, Reading the Lines, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 2002, pp. 101-102.
  3. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) follows the Mekhilta by adding dialogue in which Aaron advises Moses not to bring his wife and sons into Egypt. But the Torah says only that Aaron met Moses at the mountain of God and kissed him; Moses told Aaron what God wanted them to do; and the two brothers went into Egypt and assembled the elders of Israel.  There is no mention of Tzipporah or Moses’ sons.  (Exodus 4:27-29)
  4. 1 Kings 9:16, Micah 1:14.
  5. Rashi, based on the Mekhilta.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century rabbi), The Hirsch Chumash: SeferShemos, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 301.
  7. Leviticus 21:7, 21:14, 22:13; Numbers 30:10.
  8. Jacob kisses his cousin Rachel in front of strangers when he first meets her at the well in Genesis 29:2, 29:10-12. Lavan kisses his daughters and grandsons farewell in front of his men and Jacob’s servants in Genesis 32:1.  Esau and Jacob, long-lost brothers, kiss and embrace in front of Esau’s 400 men and Jacob’s retinue in Genesis 33:4.
  9. Including Exodus Rabbah 46:3, Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10, Midrash Tachuma Tzav 13, Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki).
  10. 1 Chronicles 23:15-17 and 26:24-25.
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