Author Archives: Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

About Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

Hermeneutics (Drash)

Hermeneutics (drash) is the science of biblical exegesis by the early Talmudic rabbis in accordance with certain rules. The idea behind the system is that the full implications of the biblical laws can only be ascertained by a close scrutiny of the text for which the hermeneutic principles provide the key. A question much discussed in modern scholarship is whether the application of these rules was believed by the rabbis to convey the true meaning of the law, so that the laws were seen as actually derived from the texts examined, or whether the laws were arrived at by other means, either by tradition or by independent reasoning, and the hermeneutical rules were intended to show that the laws have a basis in the Torah.

One way of absorbing knowledge:
straight to the head.

It is impossible to provide a simple solution to this extremely complicated question. It often seems that when the rabbis engaged in detailed exegesis in order to arrive at the law to be followed, they saw their conclusion as actually one demanded by the exegesis.

On the other hand, where the exegesis was too unlikely for it to be believed to be the actual source of the law, it seems probable that the rabbis knew this and were really saying, this is what the law must be and we can attempt to show that our understanding has a basis in Scripture. The Karaites, in their opposition to the Talmud, alleged that the hermeneutical principles were a foreign importation into Judaism and were no more than Jewish adaptations of Greek reasoning methods.

The employment of seven hermeneutical principles is attributed in the sources to Hillel. But the formulation of thirteen principles by the first- to second-century teacher, Rabbi Ishmael, is the usually accepted formulation, appearing in the standard Prayer Book as part of the morning service. This inclusion in the Prayer Book is based on the idea that every Jew, in addition to his prayers, should study each day something of the Torah, which the rules provide in capsule form, although it cannot be imagined that the average worshipper has an inkling of what he is saying when he recites these difficult rules.

Hunting in Judaism

The Bible refers to hunting for food (in Leviticus 13 for example) and sees no objection to this. The principle, as established by the Rabbis, is that while wanton cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden, it is permitted to kill animals for food or for their skins and the same would apply to hunting animals for this purpose.

Nevertheless, the only two persons mentioned in the Bible as hunters are Nimrod (Genesis 10: 9) and Esau (Genesis 25: 27), neither of whom is held up for admiration in the Jewish tradition. There is no reference at all in the whole of the biblical and Rabbinic literature to hunting for sport. There are, however, two frequently quoted responsa on the question of hunting for sport.

The Italian physician and Rabbinic scholar, Isaac Lampronri (1679-1756) discusses, in his encyclopedia of Jewish law entitled Pahad Yitzhak, whether it is permitted to hunt animals and kill jewish huntingthem when they are caught. Lampronti forbids this on the grounds that it is forbidden to waste anything in God’s creation. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague, in a Responsa (second series, Yoreh Deah, no. 19), argues that, in addition to the reason given by Larnpronri, hunting for sport is forbidden because it involves unnecessary cruelty to animals and the hunter risks life and limb in the pursuit.

Landau points out that the Talmudic discussion on the duty to kill wild animals even on the Sabbath (Shabbat 121b) only applies to wild animals that come among men and endanger human life and not to pursuing the animals in their own haunts. Walter Rathenau’s remark has often been quoted in this connection: “When a Jew says he’s going hunting to amuse himself, he lies.’

There are Jews, of course, perhaps even some religious Jews, who do enjoy taking part in the hunt, advancing the usual arguments for why this is thought to be desirable. Yet there is no record of Rabbis in any age hunting animals for sport. There is no logical reason for distinguishing between hunting animals and catching fish, apart from the question of risk to human life, yet some Jews who would not hunt animals see no harm in angling as a hobby. Perhaps they hold that the fish caught will be eaten and fishing therefore is not purely for sport, or perhaps they believe that fish feel less pain than animals.

Ordination (Semihah)

Ordination is the appointment of a disciple as a rabbi, or teacher of the Torah. The Hebrew term, semikhah, is based on the verse: "And he laid his hands (va-yismokh) upon him, and gave him a charge, as the Lord spoke by the hand of Moses" (Numbers 27: 23).

In the verse, Moses, at the command of God, lays his hands on his disciple Joshua so that the latter can function in Moses’ stead as the spiritual leader . In the early Rabbinic period, only scholars who had received ordination, in the chain reaching back to Joshua, could act as judges and this was reserved for scholars in the land of Israel, the Babylonian scholars being given a minor form of authority as agents of the Palestinian scholars.

After the close of the Talmud, full ordination came to an end . Although the term semikhah is still used for the ordination of rabbis, this is not the full ordination but is only convention by which a scholar does not render decisions in Jewish law unless he has been authorized so to do by a competent Halakhic authority who has himself been ordained. There is no special ceremony for this type of Rabbinic ordination. The usual practice in Orthodox Judaism is for a student, after having mastered the texts, to present himself to a rabbi for examination. If the rabbi believes that the student is competent he gives him a document stating that he is qualified to render decisions and that he is now given permission so to duo Nowadays, even among many of the Orthodox, ordination takes place after a course of Rabbinic studies in a seminary and the certificate of ordination is given by the principal and other teachers of the seminary.

This Rabbinic diploma is the usual form of ordination in Reform and Conservative seminaries. The major technical difference between the older semikhah and the later, simple ordination is that in the latter the ordinand cannot become a member of a court to inflict capital and corporal punishments.

Since these were abolished, in any event, in early Rabbinic times, the distinction, nowadays, has no significance. Modern seminaries train their students in many disciplines other than that of pure Jewish law, so that ordination in these seminaries is a mailer of attesting to the proficiency of the graduates to carry out all the other functions of a modern rabbi such as preaching, counselling, and pastoral work, and there is often a service of ordination and a celebration with pomp and ceremony, rather like a university graduation ceremony, from which, in fact, it seems to have been copied.

Compassion & Tzedakah

Compassion is fellow-feeling, the emotion of caring concern; in post-biblical Hebrew rahamanut, interestingly from the word rehem, ‘womb’, originating in the idea of either motherly love or sibling love (coming from the same womb); in biblical Hebrew rahamim. The Talmudic rabbis (Yevamot 79a) considered compassion to be one of the three distinguishing marks ofJews. A Talmudic term frequently used for God, particularly in legal discussions, is the Aramaic Rahamana, ‘the Compassionate’, denoting that the Torah, the Law, is God’s compassionate gift to Israel.

In Jewish teaching compassion is among the highest of virtues, as its opposite, cruelty, is among the worst of vices. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of the people from the north country who ‘lay hold on bow and spear, they are cruel, and have no compassion’ (Jeremiah 6:21). The people of Amalek, in particular, are singled out in the Jewish tradition as perpetrators of wanton cruelty and an uncompassionate Jew is called an Amalekite. Compassion is to be extended to animals as well as to humans. It is strictly forbidden to cause unnecessary pain to animals. There is a Talmudic rule (Gittin 62a), still followed by pious Jews, that before sitting down to a meal one must first see that the domestic animals are fed. The Midrash remarks that Moses proved his fitness to be the shepherd of Israel by the tender care with which he treated the sheep when he tended the flock of his father-in-law.

Commenting on the law against killing an animal and its young on the same day (Leviticus 22: 26), the Zohar (iii. 92b) says: ‘Thus if a man does kindness on earth, he awakens loving-kindness above, and it rests upon that day which is crowned therewith through him. Similarly, if he performs a deed of mercy, he crowns that day with mercy and it becomes his protector in the hour of need. So, too, if he performs a cruel action, he has a corresponding effect on that day and impairs it, so that subsequently it becomes cruel to him and tries to destroy him, giving him measure for measure. The people of Israel are withheld from cruelty more than all other peoples, and must not manifest any deed of the kind, since many watchful eyes are upon them.’

Electricity on Shabbat

The Hebrew word hashmal, used in Ezekiel‘s vision of the Chariot (Ezekiel 1:4, 27), is usually translated as ‘amber’ or ‘electrum’ and may be based on the recognition by the ancients that rubbing amber produces sparks.

This word is, in fact, used for ‘electricity’ in modern Hebrew. Israeli children are astonished to find, as they think, that the prophet knew of electricity! Once this mysterious power was discovered and harnessed to cater to human needs, a host of problems became acute in connection with Jewish religious law. With regard to the Sabbath, for instance, on which the law forbids kindling fire (Exodus 35: 3), the question arose of whether this meant that it was wrong to switch on an electric light on the Sabbath.electricity on Shabbat

In the early days, some Rabbis tried to argue that electric lights may be switched on on the Sabbath, since there is no combustion in the filament and, in any event, the electric power is already present, the switching-on of the light being only an indirect cause. Conservative Jews accept this argument and permit the swittching-on of electric lights but do not allow cooking by electricity on the Sabbath, since to cook food is a separate prohibition. In the Reform system there is generally a relaxation of the strict Sabbath laws. Orthodox Judaism today does not permit any use of electricity on the Sabbath. Orthodoxy sees it as wrong not only to switch on electric lights but even to open the door of a refrigerator so that the light will come on.

Most Orthodox authorities today also ban the use of a microphone or a telephone on the Sabbath on the grounds that sparks are produced and that the flow of the current is chanced through the speaking voice.

The Great Assembly (Anshe Kenesset)

The body of sages said to have flourished during the early days of the Second Temple. The Men of the Great Synagogue or Great Assembly are mentioned as belonging to the chain of tradition at the beginning of Ethics of the Fathers: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets delivered it to the Men of the Great Synagogue.

anshe kenessetThey said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, and raise many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.’ This sets the date of the institution in the time of Ezra and, indeed, in some Rabbinic sources, Ezra is said to have been a member of the body. But in the following section of Ethics of the Fathers it says that Simeon the Just was one of the survivors (or remnants) of the Men of the Great Synagogue. Now Ezra’s date is around the year 444 B.C.E., while Simeon the Just died around the year 270 B.C.E. How, then, could Simeon have been a survivor of the Men of the Great Synagogue?

As a result of this kind of chronological problem and the evident legendary elements in many Rabbinic accounts of the Men of the Great Synagogue, some Christian scholars used to assert that the whole institution is fictitious, an idealized source for later Rabbinic Judaism. Many modern scholars, however, Jewish and non-Jewish, tend to see the references to the Men of the Great Synagogue as allusions not to a body that existed only at a particular time but to an ongoing activity extending over the first two centuries of the Second Temple. On this view, that they ‘said’ three things has to be understood as meaning that their activity can be summed up as establishing a successful administration of justice, teaching the Torah to as many students as possible, and protecting the laws of the Torah by building a fence around them, that is, by introducing safeguards against encroachment on the forbidden realm; they forbade, for instance, the handling of an axe on the Sabbath lest it be used to chop wood.

In any event, references in the Rabbinic literature to the Men of the Great Synagogue can be taken to mean that ideas, rules, and prayers, seen to be pre-Rabbinic but postbiblical, were often fathered on them.

Mixed Dancing in Judaism

Mixed dancing was severely frowned upon by the Talmudic rabbis. The Rabbinic interpretation of the verse: “Hand to hand shall not go unpunished” (Psalms 11: 21) was to prohibit a man and woman not married to one another to hug or kiss, and ‘hugging’ was held to apply to any touching of hands or other parts of the body; this was quite apart from the conviction that mixed dancing leads inevitably to lewd conduct.

At weddings the men danced while the women looked on. The sole exception was the practice of some tzaddikim, or saintly men, (following the Talmudic precedent) to dance with the bride mixed dancingbut, even here, there was no actual touching. The bride would hold a handkerchief at one end while the man held the other end without ever actually touching the bride herself.

In many communities, especially among the Hasidim, this practice continues to the present day. In the Kabbalistic teaching, to dance with the bride was to dance with the Shekhinah, of whom the bride is the representative on earth.

Many medieval Jewish communities had a specialized dancing-house (Tanzltaus), chiefly for use when marriages were celebrated, but voices were sometimes raised against the dancing-house because of the mixed dancing which often took place there. Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschirz writes that he was once asked by a bishop of the Church why Jews object to mixed dancing, since the verse says: “Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old together” (Jeremiah 31: 13). The rabbi replied that, on the contrary, the verse implies that there will no mixed dancing, since the virgin is said to dance apart from the youth and old men who dance together.

The prohibition of mixed dancing is still applied rigorously by most Orthodox Jews, although a few see no harm in the practice nowadays, evidently because such a widely accepted form of social behavior in the West hardly involves the kind of embrace forbidden because it is the prelude to sexual intercourse.

Satan, the Adversary

Satan is the Devil, the prosecuting angel. The word Satan simply means an ‘adversary’ and is used in the Bible of any opponent or enemy, the root meaning of the word being ‘to oppose’, with no supernatural overtones. In the opening chapters of the Book of Job, however, ‘the Satan’ (with the definite article, so the meaning is ‘the Adversary’ and Satan here is not a proper name) is an angel who appears in the council of the angels in order to challenge God to put Job to the test.

Similarly, in the book of Zechariah (3:1-2) the angel whom God rebukes for his evil designs upon Jerusalem is ‘the Satan’. In the book of I Chronicles (21:1) ‘Satan’ (without the definite article) is used as a proper name. Interestingly, in the parallel story in the book of Samuel (2 Samuel 24:1) it is God, not Satan, who entices David to count the people. The later book of Chronicles, reluctant to ascribe the temptation to God, substitutes Satan. In subsequent Jewish literature Satan is personification of both a demonic power outside man and the urge to do evil in the human psyche. Very revealing of the demythologizing tendency in rabbinic thought is the saying (Bava Batra 16a) that Satan, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and the Angel of Death are one and the same. Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:22) praises highly this saying as indicative of what he considers to be the only possible way of understanding the figure of Satan. Maimonides is hardly correct in this, so far as the rabbis are concerned, since many other passages in Rabbinic literature do conceive of Satan as a supernatural figure who hates the Jews and brings their faults before the heavenly throne.

This is certainly how Satan is depicted in Jewish folklore in which numerous superstitious practices are based on belief in Satan and his demonic hosts bent on doing harm. On the whole, it can be said that the figure of Satan does not occupy any prominent role in Jewish theology, though it would be incorrect to say that Satan is entirely ignored. In modern Jewish theology, even among the Orthodox, Satan, as a baneful force outside man, is relegated to the background if he is considered at all.


Chutzpah is arrogance, impudence; a Talmudic word that made its way into Yiddish from which it was adopted into American slang and has now entered the English language and is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as an English word. It comes from a root meaning ‘to peel’ and hence ‘to be bare’; chutzpah means barefacedness, sheer cheek. The classical definition of chutzpah is given in the story of the boy who killed his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he was an orphan.

chutzpahChutzpah is seen on the whole as as undesirable trait. The Talmud, interpreting events in its own day in Messianic terms, observes that just before the advent of the Messiah chutzpah will be found in abundance–the young will show no respect to the old. In a later Talmudic source, when a boy was exceedingly disrespectful to venerable rabbis, the rabbis concluded that since he had so much chutzpah it was obvious that he was a bastard. In another Talmudic passage chutzpah is said to be royalty without a crown; it possesses regal power even though it has no regal backing and can prevail even against kings.

Yet, as in other cultures, there is often a grudging admiration for chutzpah in the Jewish tradition. The rabbis ironically remark that chutzpah seems to be effective even when directed against God Himself in the case of Balaam, who was at first told by God not to go on his mission to curse Israel, but when he persisted was told by God to carry on (Numbers 22: 12, 20). Chutzpah is particularly admired when it consists of standing up bravely against the powerful or when it is an expression of sheer determination to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The many tales of the saints arguing with God on behalf of their people, with their basis in the story of Abraham bargaining with God on behalf of the men of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-32), have been seen as a kind of holy chutzpah.

Reprinted from 
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.

Bat Kol – A Divine Voice

Literally, “Daughter of a voice,” an echo, the term given in the Talmudic literature and Jewish mystical thought to a communication from heaven, the lowest form of direct divine inspiration. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states that for three years the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai debated whose authority was to be accepted in Jewish law until a Bat Kol decided that, while the words of both schools were ‘the words of the living God‘, the actual rulings in practice were to be in accordance with the school of Hillel. On the other hand, in the Talmudic tale (Bava Metzia 58b) where a Bat Kol bat koldecides that the ruling is in accordance with the view of Rabbi “Eliezer against that of the sages, Rabbi Joshua protests that the Torah is not in heaven (Deuteronomy 13: 12), and so a heavenly voice must not be allowed to overturn the clear ruling of the Torah that the majority opinion of the sages is to be adopted.

The medieval commentators discuss at length why in the one case the Bat Kol is heeded but ignored in the other. Some argue that a Bat Kol is only ignored, as in the case of Rabbi Eliezer and the sages, where it runs counter to a definite ruling of the Torah. In any event, the consensus in Jewish thought is that no appeal to a heavenly voice can be made to decide matters of halakhah where human reasoning on the meaning of the Torah rules is alone determinative. In non-legal matters, however, a Bat Kol is to be heeded.

Occasionally the term Bat Kol is used in a purely figurative manner, as when the early third-century Palestinian teacher, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, said (Ethics of the Fathers 6:2): ‘Every day a Bat Kol goes forth from Mount Sinai to proclaim: “Woe to mankind for contempt of the Torah” a way of declaring that the very fact of the revelation of the Torah at Sinai is a permanent protest against those who hold the Torah in contempt. But the belief persisted in the Middle Ages that the saints can actually attain to the mystical state known as the Bat Kol. Judah Halevi (Kuzari, iii. 1I) observes that the truly religious person sees himself always in God’s presence and then he can, at times, see the angels and hear the Bat Kol, as did the most prominent of the sages during the period of the Second Temple. But Judah Halevi qualifies this by saying that the place in which the saint stands has to be a holy place, in this context the Holy Land, which is why there are few references to later saints hearing a Bat Kol. In modern Jewish thought, even among the Orthodox, claims to have heard a Bat Kol would be treated with extreme suspicion and dismissed as chicanery or hallucination.

Reprinted from 
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.

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