Author Archives: Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

About Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.

Genesis As Allegory

Reprinted with permission from Conservative Judaism Journal.

In showing that the Universe had a beginning, science has come closer to the teachings of the Bible than ever before. Nevertheless, there is still a considerable distance between current scientific thought and the details of the biblical account of creation.

According to the latter, the physical world and the many species of living things were created essentially as we know them less than six thousand years ago over a period of seven days. Astronomy, geology, biology, and related sciences indicate that the process was a gradual one that took billions of years. 

Earlier geological strata of the earth’s surface show the different stages through which the earth passed and approximately how long they lasted, while fossils and remains of extinct species such as dinosaurs show that the different species of living creatures evolved slowly from a common ancestor.

These conclusions are denied by adherents of a doctrine known as "scientific creationism," who are campaigning to require that any public school which teaches evolution must also teach what they call "creation science" as a scientifically respectable alternative to evolution.

The feverish concern of the "scientific creationists" to protect a literal reading of the story in Genesis 1 reflects a conviction that devotion to the Bible requires one to interpret its words–particularly Genesis–literally and to accept it in its literal sense.

But, as Steven Katz notes…, "In Jewish religious thought Genesis is not regarded as meant for a literal reading, and Jewish tradition has not usually read it so." In fact, as we shall argue below, even the compilers of the Bible do not seem to have been concerned with a literal reading of the text. They were prepared to have at least parts of it read non-literally.

Sensible Interpretation

In the Middle Ages, Saadia Gaon argued that a biblical passage should not be interpreted literally if that made a passage mean something contrary to the senses or reason (or, as we would say, science; Emunot ve-Deot, chapter 7). Maimonides applied this principle to theories about creation. He held that if the eternity of the universe (what we would call the Steady State theory) could be proven by logic (science) then the biblical passages speaking about creation at a point in time could and should be interpreted figuratively in a way that is compatible with the eternity of the universe.

The Golden Calf

Reprinted from The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy with permission of the

Jewish Publication Society


What Did the Golden Calf Represent?

The story of the golden calf, the greatest scandal of the wilderness period, is recalled in Deuteronomy 9:9‑21, based on the fuller account in Exodus 32. What the calf represented is debated by scholars. Images of bulls and calves were common in Near Eastern religions. In Egypt, a bull, Apis, was sacred to the god Ptah and emblematic of him. In Canaanite literature, the chief god El is sometimes called a bull, although this may be no more than an epithet signifying strength, and the storm god Baal sires an ox in one myth.

golden calfA relief from Asia Minor shows two individuals worshiping at an altar before a bull. Figurines of bulls and calves have been found at several Canaanite sites. At least one was also found at an Israelite site, in the Samaria hills. In some of these, the bull or calf represents a deity–usually a storm god–directly. At other times it represents the deity’s mount, signifying the deity indirectly.

Aaron’s Motivation and the People’s Request

It is unlikely that Aaron intended the calf to represent another deity, since he proclaimed a festival in honor of YHVH [God] when he finished making it (Exodus 32:5). At first glance the people’s declaration, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4), seems to imply that they took it as a depiction of YHVH.

But in their request to Aaron to make them a god, they explained that they wanted a god to lead them because they did not know what had become of Moses, who led them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:1). This seems to imply that they wanted the calf to replace Moses, apparently in his role as mediator of YHVH’s presence to the people.

In other words, they did not intend the calf to depict YHVH but to function as the conduit of His presence among them, as Moses had functioned previously. Many scholars believe that the calf did so by serving as the pedestal or mount on which YHVH was invisibly present, as did the cherubs in the Holy of Holies. This conception of the calf is illustrated by ancient images of a god standing on the back of a bull or another animal.

Deuteronomy 6:4–The Shema

This article explores three possible interpretations of the Hebrew words and syntax of Deuteronomy 6:4. Some scholars disagree with the author’s tentative conclusion regarding the most likely meaning of this verse. For example, Dr. Stephen Geller of the Jewish Theological Seminary understands the word “one” to imply superiority of power–as in, “YHVH is #1”!–rather than as a statement regarding monotheism. Reprinted from The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy with permission of the Jewish Publication Society.

What Do the Words Mean?

The precise meaning of the Shema is uncertain. The four Hebrew words “YHVH eloheinu YHVH ehad” literally mean “YHVH our God YHVH one.” Since Hebrew does not have a present‑tense verb meaning “is” to link subject and predicate, the link must be supplied by the listener or reader. Where to do so depends on context and is sometimes uncertain. Grammatically, “YHVH our God YHVH one” could be rendered in several ways, such as (1) “YHVH is our God, YHVH alone”; (2) “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (lit. “YHVH our God, YHVH is one”); (3) “YHVH our God is one YHVH.” 

(1) YHVH is Our God, YHVH Alone

The first possibility, which is followed in the NJPS (new Jewish Publication Society) translation, is based on [the interpretations of medieval commentators] Ibn Ezra and Rashbam. One difficulty with this interpretation is that Hebrew normally expresses “alone” with levad, as in “You alone [levadekha] are God of all the kingdoms of the earth” (2 Kings 19:15, 19; and Psalm 86:10). A few passages have been found in which ehad seems to have this meaning, but the usage is at best rare.

the shemaThere is also a serious syntactic difficulty with this interpretation: it interprets the words “YHVH our God” (YHVH eloheinu) as a subject and a predicate, meaning “YHVH is our God.” Although this usage is grammatically possible (see 2 Chronicles 13:10), it is rare in the Bible and absolutely anomalous in Deuteronomy, where YHVH eloheinu occurs nearly two dozen times, consistently as a fixed phrase meaning “YHVH our God.” Still, this interpretation seems to be presupposed by Zechariah 14 [Zechariah 14:9 reads: “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one Lord with one name.”]. If so, it is the only interpretation that was demonstrably held in biblical times.


Excerpted with the permission of the Rabbinical Assembly from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (© 2001 by The Rabbinical Assembly, published by the Jewish Publication Society ).

The Names of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy has two Hebrew names: Sefer Devarim, short for (Sefer) ve’eleh hadevarim, “(The Book of) ‘These are the words,'” taken from its opening phrase; and Mishneh Torah, “Repetition of the Torah” (source of English “Deuteronomy”), taken from 17:18. It consists of five retrospective discourses and poems that Moses addressed to Israel in Moav shortly before his death (1:6‑4:43, 4:44‑28:69, 29‑30, 32, 33), plus two narratives about his final acts (Chaps. 31, 34). The book’s core is the second discourse, in which Moses conveys laws that the people commissioned him to receive from God at Mount Sinai 40 years earlier.

Exclusive Loyalty to God

Several themes in Deuteronomy stand out. Among the Torah‘s books, it is the most vigorous and clear advocate of monotheism and of the ardent, exclusive loyalty that Israel owes God (4:32‑40, 6:4‑5). It emphasizes God’s love, justice, and transcendence.

This book stresses the covenant between God and Israel, summed up in 26:16‑19. Established with the patriarchs, affirmed at Sinai and in Moab, it is to be reaffirmed as soon as Israel enters its land (4:31, 5:2, 28:69, 27).

Life in the Land of Israel

Deuteronomy looks toward Israel’s life in the land of Israel, where a society pursuing justice and righteousness, living in harmony with God and enjoying His bounty, can be established (4:5‑8, 7:12‑13). The promise of this land is conditional (11:8‑9, 21); Israel’s welfare depends on maintaining a society governed by God’s social and religious laws. These laws are a divine gift to Israel, unparalleled in their justice and their ability to secure God’s closeness (4:5‑8). The Torah’s humanitarianism is most developed in Deuteronomy’s concern for the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged.

Centralized Worship

Deuteronomy proclaims the unique rule that sacrifice may take place only in the religious capital, in a single sanctuary (chapter 12). Its aim is to spiritualize religion by freeing it from excessive dependence on sacrifice and priesthood. It urges instead studying God’s law and performing rituals that teach reverent love for Him. These teachings probably laid the groundwork for nonsacrificial, synagogue-based worship.

Shabbat in the Bible

Reprinted from Harper’s Bible Dictionary, by Paul J. Achtemeier, et al., pages 888-889. Copyright (c) 1985 by The Society of Biblical Literature. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Origins–Creation, and (maybe) Babylonians

Shabbat is the weekly day of rest and abstention from work enjoined upon the Israelites.

An etiological origin for the Sabbath is supplied in Genesis 2:1-3, which speaks of God ceasing from the work of creation on the seventh day, blessing the day, and declaring it holy. Scholarly explanations of the Sabbath’s origins have focused on certain days in the Babylonian monthly calendar on which normal activities of the king and certain professions were restricted. These days, known as “evil days,” were determined by the lunar cycle, corresponding with the quarters of the moon.

biblical origins of shabbatWhile the postulating of a dependence on the Babylonian calendar is tempting, it cannot be objectively sustained. The biblical Sabbath was ordained as a weekly institution with no relation whatsoever to the lunar cycle. Moreover, the somber nature of the Babylonian “evil days” stands in stark contrast to the joyous nature of the Sabbath.

Of uncertain relation to the lunar “evil days” was the day of the full moon on the fifteenth of the month, known as shapattu, a term possibly related to sabbath. This day was described as a “day of pacifying the heart [of the god]” by certain ceremonies. No significant similarities between this day and the Sabbath are known, however.

The closest analogy between the biblical Sabbath and Babylonian culture is the shared literary motif of the god(s) resting after having created humans (see Enuma Elish 7.8, 34). Even here, the parallel is distant: the biblical God rests at the conclusion of his creative efforts, while the Babylonian gods are freed from the labors required to feed themselves since humans were created to relieve them of that task.

The Sources Are Full of the Sabbath

The Sabbath was a cornerstone of Israelite religious practice from earliest times. This can be seen from the consistent mention of the Sabbath throughout all the strata of Pentateuchal and extra-Pentateuchal sources, with the exception of wisdom literature. In the Pentateuch, Sabbath observance is legislated repeatedly in general terms (Exodus 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 5:12-15), though the types of work prohibited are relatively limited; those mentioned include gathering food, plowing and reaping, kindling a fire, and chopping wood (Exodus 16:29-30; 34:21; 35:3; Numbers 15:32-36). The positive specifications of Sabbath observance include giving rest to one’s servants and animals (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14).


 Reprinted with permission from The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Deuteronomy 4:32-40 touches upon the part played by Moses in the development of monotheism in Israel. For the sake of clarity it is important that we define the terminology that is used in discussing this issue. The term monotheism refers to the belief that there is only one God. It is sometimes contrasted with monolatry, namely “the worship of but one god when other gods are recognized as existing” (Random House Dictionary). 

These terms figure in the following discussion because scholars debate whether Moses, when he first prohibited the worship of other gods, simultaneously proclaimed that they did not exist; in other words, whether he proclaimed the doctrine of monotheism or only monolatry.

Although Moses tells the Israelites in 4:32-35 and 39 that the events of the Exodus and Mount Sinai show that there are no gods but the Lord, that passage is the first in the Torah to make this point (see also 7:9). None of the narratives about those events in Exodus, nor any passage in Leviticus or Numbers, states that those events taught the lesson of monotheism. Deuteronomy 4:35 could be taken as implying that Israel realized this lesson as soon as the events occurred, but the earlier books do not support such an interpretation.numbers

The book of Exodus frequently points out the lessons that were taught immediately by the events of the Exodus and Sinai, such as the fact that the Lord is incomparable and reliable and that Moses is an authentic prophet; nowhere does it say that the Lord is the only God. The laws of Exodus infer from those events only that Israel must not worship other gods; since laws do not normally deal with theological matters, they do not discuss the question of whether other gods exist.

From the perspective of the Torah, then, it could be argued that Moses may not have taught the full monotheistic implications of the Exodus and Sinai to the generation that experienced those events, but only to their children forty years later.

Jonah: Following God’s Example

Reprinted with permission from Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Yom Kippur, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins and published by Jason Aronson Inc.

“O Lord, this is precisely what I predicted when I was still in my own land; I therefore hastened to run away to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and merciful God, patient, abundant in kindness, and relenting of evil.” (Jonah 4:2 )

 “The Lord, the Lord is a merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth; He keeps mercy for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and pardoning.” (Exodus 34: 6-7)

The Book of Jonah has been assigned a climactic role in the liturgy of the Days of Awe by being selected as the Haftarah [prophetic reading] for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur. In other words, it is the final biblical reading of the Ten Days of Penitence. Why?

Jonah is commanded by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and to proclaim judgment upon it because of Nineveh’s wickedness. But Jonah boards a ship and flees westward to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. God thwarts his escape by whipping up a violent storm which threatens the boat. When the passengers cast lots to discover on whose account the storm has arisen, Jonah owns up that he is fleeing from the service of the God of Heaven and suggests that they throw him overboard in order to quiet the storm. They finally comply and there follows the famous episode of Jonah’s survival in the belly of the Big Fish.

Having learned the lesson that he cannot avoid the Lord, Jonah arrives in the city of Nineveh and proclaims: “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned.” When he is no more than a third of the way through the city, the people believe God’s word and go into mourning. The king himself proclaims comprehensive rites of penitence and commands all to turn back from their evil ways and the injustice of which they are guilty.