Author Archives: Jeffrey Spitzer

About Jeffrey Spitzer

Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.

After the First Temple

The physical destruction wrought by the Babylonian troops was tremendous. The Temple, the palace, and all of the houses of Jerusalem were burnt, the walls of the city were torn down, and the remaining treasures from the Temple were taken to Babylon (II Kings 25:8-17).

Archaeological evidence shows that the destruction extended beyond Jerusalem to as far as Ein Gedi in the east, Arad in the south and Lachish in the west. These cities, as well as Ramat Rachel, Bet Shemesh and Bet Tzur were reduced to subsistence level villages. The population was diminished through military action and forced relocation; II Kings and Jeremiah differ on the numbers, but they both present a sense of economic and political disruption.

Other evidence, however, argues against seeing the destruction of 586 as a major upheaval. While the book of Kings says “only the poorest people of the land” remained (II Kings 25:12), even according to the larger report, the 10,000 people deported would have been a small portion of the population as a whole, albeit a wealthy and socially significant one. Unlike the Assyrians before them, the Babylonians did not settle new people in the destroyed areas; the Babylonian chief Nevuzaradan apparently redistributed some of the land of those exiled (Jeremiah 39:10) to those who remained. Enough people remained to maintain the harvest.

Some Locals Leaders Remain

Although the Babylonians exiled much of the leadership, some of the local leaders remained. The Babylonians appointed Gedaliah the son of Ahikam to serve in some administrative role over the people (II Kings 25:22); Ahikam had earlier demonstrated his sympathy to Jeremiah, and presumably to Jeremiah‘s pro-Babylonian politics when he saved the prophet from a death sentence pronounced by the priests and prophets after his “Temple Sermon” in the year 609 (Jeremiah 26:24). Gedaliah probably was appointed because he shared his father’s pro-Babylonian sentiments.

From his capital of Mitzpah, north of Jerusalem, Gedaliah continued or at least supported the redistribution of land to the poor and those who had fled (Jeremiah 40:9-11). Jeremiah’s report that they “gathered a great abundance of wine and summer fruits” (v. 12) may be historical, but also represents the prophet’s not-so-subtle claim that Gedaliah’s efforts met with God’s favor. Furthermore, the presence of wine and fruit in the harvest indicates that delicate agricultural resources like vineyards and orchards had not been destroyed by the Babylonians.

God as a Wife-Beater

In his article on "troubling texts," Aryeh Cohen does not include the source citation for the problematic parable to which he refers. Here is the original text in translation, along with a commentary reading the text in the context of the Biblical texts it purports to interpret.  The Tanhuma dates from approximately the 6th-7th century CE.

Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Mishpatim: 11

A parable to a king who beat his wife. Her guardian said to him: “If you want to divorce her, beat her until she dies. But if you plan to return to her, why are you so beating her so harshly?”
He said to him: Even if my palace were to be destroyed, I would not divorce her
Thus Jeremiah says: “If you want to divorce us, beat us until we die, unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure" (Lamentations 5:22). "But if not, why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?" (Jeremiah 14:19).
The Holy Blessed One responded to him: "Even if I destroy my world, I will not divorce Israel, as it says, “Thus says the Lord: If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth can be explored, then I will reject all the offspring of Israel because of all they have done, says the Lord”" (Jeremiah 31:36). "Rather, even so, I have set a condition with them, that if they sin, the Temple will provide surety for them, as it says, ‘I have placed my Tabernacle (mishkani) in their midst’" (Leviticus 26:11), [read this as] I have placed my surety (mashkoni).


This text is certainly troubling. Cohen presents a three-step approach to evaluating difficult texts. His second-step asks “Is this mashal, this parable, representing a relationship between man and woman that is consonant with that found in rabbinic literature in general, or is this text an aberration?”
Clearly the language of the guardian, who stands for the Israelite prophet Jeremiah, indicates that God’s behavior in punishing the people with the destruction of the Temple, the death of thousands, and the exile of the people to Babylon, is aberrant.  Sometimes the artist needs to choose the most potent and oppressive image in order to express his point.

Who is the Messiah?

The idea that a human being–the Messiah–will help usher in the redemption of the Jewish people has roots in the Bible. However, Jewish sources have not, as a general rule, focused attention on the specific personal qualities of the Messiah. Images of the Messiah as humble or as a child are juxtaposed with images of a victorious and wise ruler–perhaps contrasting Israel’s current, unredeemed state and the prophetic vision of the future. In recent times, some Jews have “democratized” the concept of the Messiah, seeing the process of, or the preparation for, redemption in the actions of regular people.

A Child Who Grows Up to Rule in Peace

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government is upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called “wonderful counselor of the mighty God, of the everlasting Father, of the Prince of peace.”

–Isaiah 9:5

Judge and Descendant of King David

And there shall come forth a rod from the stock of Jesse [King David’s father], and a branch shall grow from his roots; and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord; and he shall not judge by what his eyes see, nor decide by what his ears hear. But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the humble of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

–Isaiah 11:1-4

King David

Great Warrior

How great was the strength of Ben Koziva [a.k.a. Bar Kokhba–the leader of the 132-135 CE Judean revolt against Rome]? He would intercept the stones shot by Roman catapults with one of his knees, heave them back, and thus slay ever so many Roman soldiers. When R. Akiba beheld Ben Koziva, he exclaimed, ” ‘A star (kokhav) has risen out of Jacob [Numbers 24:17]’–Koziva has risen out of Jacob!  He is the king Messiah.” 

Lamentations Rabbah 2:2 §4

The Innovative Spirit and Jewish Tradition

The standard rabbinic understanding that God revealed to Moses a written Torah and an oral Torah has often come under criticism: If it all goes back to Moses, then why state that something is the opinion of Rabbi Akiva or Rabbi Ishmael? Clearly, while the rabbis saw the authority for their interpretations as going back to Moses, they had to recognize that much of their work was innovative. Indeed, if they did not innovate, they would have risked becoming the stewards of an irrelevant body of law rather than the authoritative guides for a dynamic, living Judaism. During the times of the Hasmoneans, the sages innovated and allowed for raising arms in self-defense on the Sabbath; they also innovated in creating the holiday of Hanukkah. Later rabbis, recognizing that Hanukkah was established after the Bible, ask a very basic question that addresses the larger issue of rabbinic innovation.
 "What blessing do we say [on Hanukkah candles]? ‘…who has sanctified us through mitzvot and commanded us to light Hanukkah candles.’
But where were we commanded?
Rav Avya says: From the verse ‘Do not deviate [from the judgment that they tell you either to the right or to the left]’ (Deuteronomy 17:11).
Rav Nehemiah says: From ‘Ask your father and he will tell you, your grand-parents, and they will say to you’ (Deuteronomy 32:7)’" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 23a).
Without biblical authority for the holiday, how indeed can we claim to be "commanded" to light Hanukkah candles? Rav Avya’s approach quotes a crucial text from Deuteronomy that, in many ways, provides a context for rabbinic self-understanding.
"If a case is too difficult for you to decide…you shall go to the place that the Lord your God has chosen and you shall appear before the levitical priests and the judge that is there in those days. You are to inquire, and they are to tell you the word of judgment. You are to do according to the judgment that they announce to you from that place that the Lord chose, observing scrupulously all their instructions to you. You shall act according to the law they shall teach you and according to the judgment that they shall tell you; do not deviate from the judgment that they announce to you either to the right or to the left" (Deuteronomy 17:8-11).

Jewish Pseudepigraphy

Writing under a pseudonym usually protects the identity of the author, but pseudepigraphy is more like identity theft. By attributing one’s works to an earlier, well-known character, the pseudepigrapher not only establishes a narrative setting for the work, but also imbues the text with added authority. In Jewish literary history, most pseudepigraphs provide that authority for works of an apocalyptic or mystical nature. This article was written by Jeffrey Spitzer. Really. I promise.

In a literary culture that asserts that everything of worth was already revealed by God to Moses (Talmud Yerushalmi Peah 2:4), little room is made for originality. That, ultimately, is the reason that Jews who wanted other Jews to pay attention to their highly original work frequently attributed their works to people of great antiquity, establishing the custom of Jewish pseudepigraphy or false attribution.

jewish pseudepigraphyMuch of Jewish pseudepigraphy either draws on Jewish mysticism or comes from circles that had an emphasis on mystical speculation and experience. This is not really surprising; the kinds of “original works” that would need the added “authority” of an early author were frequently speculative and included claims of divine revelation or extraordinary authority. The term “the Pseudepigrapha” is a scholarly category referring to works roughly from the Second Temple period (sixth century BCE-first century CE), most of which are falsely attributed to biblical characters, and most of which include prophetic or mystical revelations.

The last half of the biblical book of Daniel was already identified in the third century CE as being a pseudepigraph. This part of the book retells what are purported to be revelations of future events during the second century BCE with uncanny accuracy, until the events of winter 164, during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. In the words of the pagan philosopher Porphyry, who identified Daniel as pseudepigraphic (as quoted by the Church Father Jerome), “[Daniel] was composed by someone who lived in Judea in the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, and he did not foretell the future but retold the past. Therefore, what he says down to Antiochus is accurate history; but if he added any guesses about the future, he just invented them, for he did not know the future.”

Jeremiah 7:  The Israelites’ "Edifice Complex"

In the year 609 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah rebuked the people of Israel in Jerusalem for their misplaced sense of confidence that the merit of the Temple would somehow prevent God’s wrath against their unacceptable behavior. Chapter 7 of Jeremiah includes what is known as Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (7:1-15) as well as a series of thematically connected material (7:16-8:3) which some modern scholars consider separate from the original sermon. The chapter as a whole presents a stunning prophetic censure of a misplaced emphasis on forms and structures (literally) instead of appropriate ethical and ritual behavior.

Jeremiah is commanded by God to speak these words at the Temple gates:

"Hear the word of the Lord, all of you of Judah who enter through these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Fix your ways and your acts and I will cause you to dwell in this place. But do not trust in deceitful words saying ‘The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, these are the Temple of the Lord" (7:1-4).

Apparently, the Jerusalemite audience that Jeremiah addresses is skeptical about the prophet’s warnings of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. How could God destroy God’s own house!? Why should we not assume that the Temple worship will continue to atone for our sins?

"The Temple of the Lord"

Traditional commentators provide different explanations of Jeremiah’s dramatic, threefold repetition of the phrase "the Temple of the Lord." The thirteenth century Italian commentator Isaiah ben Elijah di Trani understood the threefold reference as alluding to the three pilgrimage festivals: even if you come to Jerusalem three times a year, do not count on being saved if you have not reformed your behavior. Less creative, but perhaps more to the point, Moses Alshikh (early seventeenth century Safed) reads the final repetition, "these are the Temple of the Lord" as referring to the people:

"Do not think that the Blessed One calls it the Temple of the Lord, that God actually dwells in a house; God dwells in people who, by acting righteously are themselves the Temple. That is to say, since you are not righteous, God has no Temple, so what does it matter if the building called the temple is destroyed, since it is not God’s true dwelling."

Jeremiah continues his rebuke with specific, although perhaps hyperbolic, claims against the iniquity of the people:

"Look, you are putting your trust in a worthless lie. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn sacrifices to Baal, and follow other gods to your own detriment, and then come and stand before Me in this house which bears my name and say ‘We are safe!,’ in order to go on doing all of these abominations?!" (7:8-10)

The prophet’s language clearly hearkens back to the Ten Commandments, "Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not testify falsely…" (Exodus 20:13). The eighteenth century Galician commentator R. David Altschuler, noted the strange phrase "in order to go on doing…" and claimed that the Temple had become a reason for doing the abominations, since the people "knew" they would be forgiven (Metzudat David).

A century later, R. Meir Loeb ben Yechiel Michael, the nineteenth century Rumanian bible exegete also known as Malbim, puts a more subtle edge on Altschuler’s comment:

"You will rely on the merit of the Temple in order to do these abomination until you reach the point that you say that the Temple not only affords forgiveness for your past acts, but also, "in order that you do all of these abominations" in the future. Until [you claim] that through the Temple you will ‘permit to yourselves’ the performance of any abomination."

The Temple was, in general, not an excuse to sin, but relying on the Temple’s "guarantee" of forgiveness could contribute to people become more inured or habituated to these kinds of acts.

An Earlier "House of the Lord" That Was Not Saved

The prophet continues with a clear, historical demonstration of how mistaken the reliance on atonement is:

"So go to My place that used to be in Shiloh, where I first caused My name to dwell, and see what I did to it because of the evil of My people Israel. And now, because you have done all of these things–says God–and did not listen, even though I spoke to you earnestly and often, but you didn’t listen, therefore, I will do the same thing that I did to Shiloh to this house which is called by My name and in which you trust. I will cast you out of my sight…" (Jeremiah 7:12-15).

God was not concerned about Shiloh. When the house of Eli sinned and acted corruptly, the ark of the Lord was lost to the Philistines; what should stop God from acting in the same way again? Malbim points out the subtle switch in the descriptions of Shiloh and Jerusalem:

"At Shiloh, ‘I caused My name to dwell,’ but with the Temple, it says, ‘which is called by My name.’ This is to say that God’s name does not dwell [in the Temple], but rather, it only is called by God’s name, for God’s presence already has departed from the Temple, due to the people’s sins."

"Do Not Pray for This People"

At the conclusion of the sermon, God commands Jeremiah to abandon the standard role of the Israelite prophet. Usually, the prophet is not an oracle, but rather, God’s voice of rebuke to the people and an intercessor and advocate for the people with God. God commands Jeremiah:

"As for you, do not pray for this people; do not offer petitions or prayers on their behalf. Make no intercessions, for I will not listen to you."

This command demonstrates the extent of the people’s sins; at this point, the people are beyond help. God’s attitude reverses the Israelite refusal to listen to God’s command, as quoted above, "you did not listen even though I spoke to you earnestly and often" (7:13), so I, God, will not listen to your petitions. Nevertheless, Jeremiah apparently continued to ask God to forgive the people, because God had to repeat the admonition not to pray for Israel two more times (Jeremiah 11:14 and 14:11).

Jeremiah 26 retells the Temple sermon and includes the details of the response:

"Now it came to pass, when Jeremiah had finished speaking…that the priests and the prophets and all the people grabbed him and said, ‘You shall surely die! Why have you prophesied in God’s name that this house will be like Shiloh…’"

This is not the only time when Jeremiah’s life is threatened; one can only wonder what would motivate him to continue to try to intercede for Israel.

Bitter Rebuke, Then Consolation

Chapter 7 concludes with a series of brief statements condemning Israel’s behavior, and, in particular Israel’s idolatry and disregard of God’s message. The final verse presents a particularly bitter image:

"Then will I cause to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall be desolate" (7:34).

This image becomes a trope for Jeremiah. Twice more in the book is the image repeated negatively; the first time, when Jeremiah is commanded himself not to marry since any resulting children would have to suffer through the coming disaster (16:9), and the second time when the seventy years of captivity is foretold (25:10). The third time, Jeremiah repeats the image in the positive, establishing the language which is adopted by Jewish liturgy as the final of the seven blessings of the wedding ceremony:

"Once again will it be heard…in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem…the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of bride…For I will cause the captivity of the land to return as in the beginning, says the Lord" (33:10-11).

This image of consolation seems strange after reading the harsh condemnations of chapter seven. Indeed, some scholars have even questioned whether all of the consolatory materials in Jeremiah are original to the book and not later accretions. On the other hand, perhaps Jeremiah’s ongoing prayers on behalf of the people of Israel actually had some positive result. Or perhaps the assumption of the people in the Temple courtyard that some kind of forgiveness would come was correct, but misplaced. The Temple cannot be counted on as a source of forgiveness and restoration, but God can be.

Seder Kodashim (Holy Things)

The fifth order (seder) of the Mishnah, Kodashim, or “Holy Things,” deals with rules of the Temple worship, and, in particular, the rules for the various kinds of offerings sacrificed in the Temple. Although the Mishnah’s description probably reflects some aspects of the way the actual Temple functioned, most of Seder Kodashim was developed after the destruction of the Temple. With one notable exception, most of Seder Kodashim was seen by later generations to have little practical application; there is no Palestinian Talmud on any of Kodashim, and the Babylonian Talmud on this seder is briefer than on others. 

The Themes of Seder Kodashim

Seder Kodashim primarily deals with various kinds of sacrifices of animals, birds, and grain. The first two (and longest tractates) deal with the preparation and actual offering of the sacrifices. The first tractate, Zevachim, “Animal Sacrifices”–which the Talmud also calls Shechitat Kodashim, “The Slaughter of Consecrated Animals” (Bava Metzia 109b)–discusses various rules concerning the slaughtering of the animals, the receiving of the blood, and the sprinkling of the blood on the altar. It also describes, at great length, the various ways in which the sacrifice may become invalid and whether the priests receive a portion of the sacrifice.  The second tractate, Menachot, “Grain-offerings,” addresses the ingredients of the grain-offering, the different amounts to be placed upon the altar, as well as the showbread and drink offerings.

lambs for sacrificeSeder Kodashim also covers the rules for providing for the maintenance of the sacrificial system. This includes providing animals for sacrifices, whether they are first-born animals (Tractate Bekhorot, “Firstborns”), or from guilt or sin offerings (Tractate Keritot, “Excisions”); it also includes offering pigeons (Tractate Kinnim, “Birds Nests”) by women after giving birth or by the poor. This also includes paying vows for the upkeep of the sanctuary (Tractate Arakhin, “Evaluations”), substitutions for different kinds of offerings (Tractate Temurah, “Exchange”), and the inappropriate use of consecrated items (Tractate Me’ilah, “Embezzlement”).

The Way of the Gentiles

Being Different

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?…If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” (Merchant of Venice III:1) 

Though Shylock asserts the common humanity of Jew and Gentile, the Torah proclaims that the Jew should, in fact, be different. God tells Moses to teach the people:

“I am the Lord, your God. Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan to where I am bringing you. Do not follow their customs (be-hukotehem lo teileichu)” (Leviticus 18:1-3, cf. also, 20:23).

Deuteronomy suggests that this prohibition is intended to prevent idolatry:

“Take heed to yourself lest you be trapped by following them, after they are destroyed from before you; and lest you inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?’ that I may also do likewise” (Deuteronomy 12:30).

Avoiding Social and Cultural Practices

The language here is notably limited. The prohibition against “following them” applies specifically to the nations that will be destroyed upon Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Maimonides (1135-1204), on the other hand, understands the prohibition as a sweeping law that prohibits any kind of assimilation to the customs of non-Jews.

“We do not walk after the ways of the idolaters. We do not assimilate ourselves to them; not in our clothing and not in other things like this, as it says, ‘do not walk after the ways of the gentiles’ (Leviticus 20:23)…Rather, a Jew should be distinct from them and recognizable through one’s clothing and one’s other actions, just as one is distinct from them in one’s thoughts and characteristics” (Laws concerning Idolatry, 11:1).

Maimonides specifically mentions a diverse range of prohibited Gentile customs, including haircuts and using non-Jewish architectural models for Jewish buildings. In his laws concerning prohibited sexual relationships, Maimonides also considers sexual relations between women to be a violation of this law:

The Noahide Laws

“God speaks to Noah and his children as they exit the ark: ‘Behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you’ (Genesis 9:9).” 

Although rabbinic texts preserve various traditions about the details of this covenant, the Talmud reports the following:

“The children of Noah were commanded with seven commandments: [to establish] laws, and [to prohibit] cursing God, idolatry, illicit sexuality, bloodshed, robbery, and eating flesh from a living animal (Sanhedrin 56a; cf. Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8:4 and Genesis Rabbah 34:8).”

The Details

The prohibition against idolatry refers specifically to idolatrous worship, and not to beliefs. In later generations, Jews had to determine whether the prevailing religious cultures in which they lived were idolatrous. Since Islam is strictly monotheistic, Muslims have always been considered Noahides. Since the later Middle Ages, Jews have acknowledged that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was not the same as idolatry, and they were also recognized as Noahides.

The prohibition against theft includes kidnapping, cheating an employee or an employer, and a variety of similar acts. 

The prohibition against illicit sexuality includes six particular prohibitions, derived from a single verse:

idolatry“Noahides are prohibited from engaging in six illicit sexual relationships: with one’s mother, with one’s father’s wife, with another man’s wife, with his sister from the same mother, in a male homosexual union, and with an animal as it says, ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father…’ this refers to his father’s wife; ‘and his mother…” refers to the mother; ‘and cling to his wife…’ and not another’s wife; ‘wife…’ and not a homosexual union; ‘and become one flesh‘ (Genesis 2:24) excluding animals…” (Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 9:5).

Eating flesh from a living animal is how the rabbis understood “But flesh with its life, which is its blood, you shall not eat” (Genesis 9:4). It has been suggested that the custom of eating an amputated limb of an animal was a way to keep the rest of the meat fresh in the days before refrigeration.

The Non-Jew in Jewish Law

The Talmud reports the following story:

“The Roman government sent two officers to the sages of Israel to learn the Torah. They read it, they read it again, and then a third time. As they left they said, ‘We have studied all of your Torah carefully, and found it to be the truth, with this exception: if a Jew’s ox gores a gentile’s ox, there is no liability, but if a gentile’s ox gores a Jew’s ox, whether the ox has a history of goring or not, full compensation has to be paid…”  (Bavli Bava Kamma 38a).  

The story of Romans visiting the Jewish sages is a typical narrative device designed to present how the Talmudic authors felt they ought to be seen by outsiders. In this story, the Roman officers see Jewish law as generally fair. The Talmud, however, places a sharp criticism into the mouths of the Romans. The Torah says, “If one man’s ox gores his neighbor’s and it dies…” (Exodus 21:35). The Romans argue:

“If the word ‘neighbor’ excludes gentiles, then when a gentile’s ox gores a Jew’s ox, he should be exempt from damages. If ‘neighbor’ includes gentiles, then the Jew should be obligated to pay damages when his ox gores one belonging to a gentile.”

In a parallel story in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Rabban Gamaliel responds to the criticism (there concerning whether property stolen from a non-Jew could be used) by reversing the law–and forbidding the use of an object stolen from a gentile–lest the law cause God’s name to be profaned (Talmud Yerushalmi Bava Kamma 4:3, 2c).

In general, when the Torah states a law applying to one’s “neighbor,” the rabbis understand the law as applying to Jews and not to non-Jews. This, then, is the underlying question: when do Jews relate to non-Jews as neighbors, and when do they not?

Laws to Separate Jews from Idolatry

Jewish law tries to separate Jews from gentiles, in order to prevent Jews from adopting idolatrous behaviors. Extensions of the dietary laws limited social interactions. Jews are not allowed to leave their wine with idolaters, lest it be used for idolatry (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 128:1), and food cooked by non-Jews is also prohibited (Yoreh Deah 113:1ff.). There are exceptions and loopholes, but the general force is to discourage interaction between Jews and non-Jews.

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