Author Archives: Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

About Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs

Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs is the spiritual leader of Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, New Jersey. He has served as the publications committee chairperson of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Biblical and Rabbinic Ideas

Reprinted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Jewish Philosophy and Philosophers, published by Jason Aronson Publishers.

Both the Bible and rabbinic literature contain explicit views about God, man, and the world. These views, however, are not presented in any formal systematic way, and thus it is more common to speak of biblical and rabbinic theology rather than philosophy. Nevertheless, Jewish philosophers throughout the ages often use and quote biblical and rabbinic sources in support of their various philosophic views.

Table 1‑1 is a sampling of biblical verses concerning God and human nature that are often cited by Jewish philosophers in their works. Each verse is accompanied by its central message.

Biblical Theology

Table 1‑1.

Biblical Verses Concerning God and Human Nature


1. The One incomparable God [to which Israel should be loyal]


Hear O Israel, the Lord our

God, the Lord is One. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

2. God creates and acts in the world

God said: Let there be light and there was light. (Genesis 1:3)

3. God is imageless

You saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. (Deuteronomy 4:15)

4. Israel is God’s chosen people

If you will listen to Me and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples. (Exodus 19:4)

5. God has attributes

The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering and abundant in goodness and truth… (Exodus 34:6)

6. Moses’ prophecy was superior [to the prophecy of all other prophets]

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom God singled out, face to face… (Deuteronomy 34:10)

7. God punishes wayward behavior

Be careful, lest your heart be deceived and you turn aside and worship other gods. And the anger of God be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven. (Deuteronomy 11:16‑17)

8. The heavens and the earth are finite

…from one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth. (Deuteronomy 13:8)

9. God is omnipotent

I know that you canst do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)

10. Man possesses freedom of choice

I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…therefore, choose life… (Deuteronomy 30:15‑19)

11. Man’s essential nature is reason [one of many interpretations of this verse].

Let us make man in our image. (Genesis 1:26)

12. Man’s final goal is love of God

Love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul… (Deuteronomy 6:5)

13. Man should be modest in his conduct

Righteous eat to the satisfying of his desire… (Proverbs 13:25)

Rabbinic Literature

While the rabbis had some familiarity with Greek philosophic ideas because Greek philosophy had appeared by the time of the Talmud, research has shown that for the most part the rabbis were not familiar with formal philosophy. The names of the major philosophers are absent from the rabbinic writings, and the only philosophers mentioned by name are Epicurus and the obscure second‑century Oenomaus of Gadara.

In rabbinic literature, the term epicurean (apikoros) is used, but it usually refers to a heretic rather than to someone who embraces Epicurus’ doctrines. Jewish philosophers were prone to cite rabbinic sayings in their writings as they did biblical quotations, for support of their views. Table 1‑2 is a brief listing of rabbinic quotations and the philosophic ideas that they represented.

Tisha B’Av Synagogue Services

In addition to the traditions described below, there is a custom of sitting on the floor or low benches during evening and morning services on Tisha B’Av, as an additional sign of mourning. Reprinted from Sacred Celebrations: A Jewish Holiday Handbook with permission from Ktav Publishing House, Inc.

The synagogue services on Tisha B’av are most unusual. The room where the evening service is held often has its lights dimmed, and candles are lit. The prayers are spoken rather than chanted with melody. The reading of the Book of Lamentations is chanted using special musical notations that create a tone of weeping and mourning. Knowledgeable congregants often take turns reading different sections of the book. During the service there may be a discussion related to the themes of tragedy and destruction, often led by the rabbi. 

Tisha B'av service, with people sitting on tthe ground.

The morning service the next day is also unique. The tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) are not worn, as a sign of mourning. Special prayers of mourning, called kinot, are read during this service. There is a reading from the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:25-40) whose theme is the punishment of Israel for its sins, and opportunity and hope for redemption.

In the haftarah [prophetic portion] of the morning (which is chanted in the same mournful melody as Eicha), Jeremiah speaks of the despair of the Israelites, describing Jerusalem as a total wasteland.

During the afternoon Minchah service, the mood of Tisha B’av becomes more hopeful. Tallit and tefillin are worn at this service. Both the Torah reading and the haftarah of this service are the same as on all other public fasts, describing the Thirteen Attributes of God and the promise of salvation. Special prayers of comfort (Nachemta) are also a feature of this service.

The evening service marks the official end of the fast of Tisha B’av.

Picture credit:

The Ten Commandments

Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

The division of the commandments themselves is not at all certain. There are 13 sentences in the accepted Jewish version of the Ten Commandments (17 in the Christian), but it is difficult to ascertain with certainty from the text itself what comprises the first commandment, the second, and so forth. For while there are 13 mitzvot [commandments] to be found in the text, their allocation to the Ten Commandments can be done in a variety of ways. Thus there are different traditions. The prevailing Jewish tradition appears to be as follows:10 Commandments 

First Commandment (Exodus 20:2): I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Second Commandment (Exodus 20:3-6): You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them, for I, the Lord Your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

Third Commandment (Exodus 20:7): You shall not take the name of the Lord Your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that takes His name in vain.

Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11): Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord Your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day. Wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy.

Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:12): Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord God gives you.

Shavuot History: From the Bible to Temple Times

The modern concept of Shavuot developed in the exilic times and became canonized in the post-destruction period. The non-canonical books mentioned in this essay also emphasize the shift in the perception of Shavuot. What was originally an agricultural festival was transformed into a celebration of God’s revelation to Israel. Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

The first thing that one notices with regard to Shavuot in the Bible is the absence of a substantive name for the holiday. Shavuot has several designations in the Bible. The Book of Exodus 23:16 designates it as “Hag HaKatzirtheFestival of the Harvest– which identifies the holiday with an agricultural season. The Book of Numbers 28:26 designates it as “Hag HaBikkurim“-the Festival of the First Fruits, which specified the time on which the custom was to offer first fruits.

The same verse also mentions the name by which the holiday is commonly known today–Shavuot–the Festival of Weeks. This name is not descriptive of the character and substance of the holiday. Rather, it is a chronological tagn that addresses itself to the time lapse between Passover and Shavuot, thus emphasizing the relationship and interdependence of the two holidays.

Passover, in addition to its historical phase commemorating the end of Egyptian slavery, also was a spring festival linked to the beginning of the spring harvest season. The agricultural aspect of the holiday began on the second day of Passover and the ritual of the omer, the offering of a sheaf of barley, the earliest of the new cereal crops, marked the harvest season. The grain ripened 50 days later, thus the beginning of the harvest was marked on Shavuot with the offering of first fruits. This concluded the celebration of the grain harvest, which had begun on the second day of Passover.

Two distinct biblical Shavuot rituals were given symbolic expression. The first ritual provided for the bringing of the wave loaves of bread (“lechem tenufah“), which were to be baked from the new crop of wheat (Leviticus 23: 17). Thus one expressed his or her gratitude to God for the new crop.

Shavuot History: Rabbinic Development

Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

What is most likely the earliest Talmudic statement on the date of the revelation on Mount Sinai may be found in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat (86b). According to the calculations of the sages, the Jews left Egypt on Friday, the 15th of Nisan. The Torah was given on Saturday, the sixth of Sivan, which was the equivalent of the 50th day of the omer, the day on which Shavuot was permanently fixed in the Scriptures. 

Rabbi Jose, a second century sage, offers a dissenting view. He states that the Jews left Egypt on Thursday, the 15th of Nisan, and that the Law was given on Saturday, the seventh of Sivan. Interestingly, the ecclesiastic calendar of the Book of Jubilees corroborates Rabbi Jose’s date of the giving of the Law.

The author of Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim 494) points out that the seventh day of Sivan was the equivalent of the 51st day of the omer, one day after the fixed day of Shavuot. Consequently, Shavuot could not mark the anniversary of the Law.

Shavuot in the Talmud

The first step in the development of Shavuot after the exile was the official establishment of the date of the revelation on Mount Sinai. The date indicated by the ancient sages was the sixth of Sivan, which was accepted by the majority of rabbis. One of the first official rabbinic texts to connect the giving of the Torah with Shavuot was a passage in the midrash [commentary], Exodus Rabbah, chapter 31, attributed to Rabbi Meir. Here, mention is made of the “Festival of the Harvest on which the Torah was given to Israel.”

An entire talmudic tractate, called Bikkurim, deals with the offerings of first fruits in the Temple. The Mishnah of Bikkurim1:6 states that the period for bringing the first fruits was any time from Shavuot to Sukkot. The villagers would first assemble in the large town of the district and would go up together with their first ripe fruits to the Temple where they would be welcomed with song by the Levites. The Mishnah of Bikkurim (chapter 3) graphically describes the scene:

Shavuot Torah & Haftarah Readings

Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

Our rabbis tell us that in every generation, each person should consider himself or herself as having personally received the Torah on Mount Sinai. One of the highlights of the Shavuot morning service is the ritual for taking out the Torah. 

On both days of Shavuot, two Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark. On the first day, in the first scroll, we read Exodus 19 and 20, which tell of the giving of the Ten Commandments. During the reading of the Ten Commandments, the custom in many synagogues is to rise, both to emphasize the importance of the event and to imitate the experience at Sinai when the Jews stood to receive God’s revelation. [This is a tradition that dates back to the Temple service. Those present during the public reading of the Ten Commandments stood for the entire rite.] The section of the Ten Commandments is read to a special melody, called the “ta’am elyon,” which is a more dramatic way of reading.

shavuot torah readingIn the second scroll, we read Numbers 28:26-31, which tells of the special sacrificial offerings for Shavuot in biblical times. [The second scroll is not read in Reform congregations.] The haftarah for the first day of Shavuot is Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12, which contains the prophet’s most astounding vision of God. Ezekiel describes a remarkable vision of God. He sees a Divine Throne-Chariot, whose main feature is a group of four-faced living creatures. His appearance of a manifestation of God connects the haftarahto the Torah reading, where God reveals His will at Mount Sinai.

The reading for the second day of Shavuot is Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17, which deals with the laws of tithing, release of debts in the seventh year, the release of slaves every seventh year, and a detailed description of the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

In the haftarah, from the Book of Habakkuk 2:20-3:19, Habakkuk pleads with God to intervene on behalf of his people. He visualizes his petition as granted in a graphic picture of the march of God and God’s retinue to overthrow the enemy. As in the case of the haftarahfor the first day of Shavuot, this haftarah too is a description of a manifestation of God. For this reason, and because the language in places recalls the revelation at Sinai, it was chosen as the haftarah for the second day of Shavuot.

The Yizkor memorial prayer service takes place on the second day of Shavuot in traditional synagogue settings, and in [most] Reform synagogues and in some Reconstructionist synagogues on the first and only day of Shavuot.

Why Do We Read The Book of Ruth on Shavuot?

Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

In traditional settings, the Book of Ruth is read on the second day of Shavuot. The book is about a Moabite woman who, after her husband dies, follows her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, into the Jewish people with the famous words “whither you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” She asserts the right of the poor to glean the leftovers of the barley harvest, breaks the normal rules of behavior to confront her kinsman Boaz, is redeemed by him for marriage, and becomes the ancestor of King David.

The custom of doing this is already mentioned in the talmudic tractate of Soferim (14:16), and the fact that the first chapter of the Midrash of Ruth deals with the giving of the Torah is evidence that this custom was already well established by the time this Midrash was compiled. [Tractate Soferim is one of the latest books of the Talmud, probably dating no earlier than the eighth century.]

There are many explanations given for the reading of Ruth on Shavuot. The most quoted reason is that Ruth’s coming to Israel took place around the time of Shavuot, and her acceptance into the Jewish faith was analogous of the acceptance of the Jewish people of God’s Torah.

A second explanation relates to genealogy. Since the Book of Ruth ends with the genealogy of David, whose forebearer Ruth was, it has been suggested that it is read on Shavuot because there is a legend that David died on Shavuot.

Another reason for the reading of Ruth on Shavuot is that its story takes place at harvest time, and Shavuot also occurs at the time of the spring harvest.

Counting the Omer

Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Shavuot (Jason Aronson, Inc).

The special period between Passover and Shavuot is called sefirah, meaning “counting.” The name is derived from the practice of counting the omer, which is observed from the night of the second seder of Passover until the eve of Shavuot. The counting of seven weeks from the 16th day of Nisan (i.e., the second day of Passover), on which the omer offering of the new barley crop was brought to the Temple, until Shavuot, serves to connect the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt with the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Tradition has it that it was announced to the Israelites in Egypt that the Torah would be given to them 50 days after the exodus. As soon as they were liberated, they were so eager for the arrival of the promised day that they began to count the days, saying each time, “Now we have one day less to wait for the giving of the Torah.”

Thus, it is explained, the Torah prescribes that the days from Passover to Shavuot are to be counted, symbolizing the eagerness with which the Torah was received by the Israelites. In a similar vein, Maimonides points out that the counting of the omerbetween the anniversary of the liberation from Egypt and the anniversary of the Torah gift is suggestive of one who expects his or her most intimate friend on a certain day. That person counts the days, and even the hours.

The period of the counting of the omer between the two spring festivals of Passover and Shavuot has long been observed through certain restraints, because many massacres recorded in Jewish history purportedly took place in the spring months, beginning with the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva and his students and continuing through the three Crusades (1096-1192).

Another reason for sadness has been added in modern times. While the crematoria and gas chambers of the Nazis operated all year round, some notable tragic events took place in the period of the counting of the omer. The Israeli Parliament fixed the 27th day of Nisan as a Memorial Day for those slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II. In addition, the day before Israel Independence Day is called Yom Hazikaron [Memorial Day]for those who died in the War of Liberation. The last great deportation to the gas chambers, that of the Hungarian Jews, took place during the period of the counting of the omer.

The Prayer for Dew

Some liberal congregations may vary slightly from the description in this article. In a number of congregations both rabbi and cantor wear a white robe for the services. In the Reform prayer book, only the last paragraph of this prayer for dew is included and is recited as part of the regular morning service. Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Passover (Jason Aronson, Inc).

Israel’s rainy season formally ends on Passover. The forthcoming dry season is long and hot, but it is lessened by breezes that come in from the Mediterranean Sea and bring dew at night. This bit of moisture is very important, and so Jews say this prayer, wherever they are. Because dew appears at night and helps plants to grow though there is no rain, it is a symbol of revival, and thus the prayer for dew also speaks of the hopes for a fully rebuilt Jerusalem and Land of Israel. grass with dew

The special prayer for dew (“tefillat tal“) injects into the festive mood of the Passover liturgy a mood of solemnity, normally associated with a period of judgment. Passover, according to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a), is the time when God blesses the crops. In keeping with the spirit, it is customary for the Cantor to don a white robe for the Musaf Additional Service of the First Day of Passover.

Here are some excerpts from the Prayer for Dew:

“Give us dew to favor Your land, grant us a blessing of Your joy. Make us strong with plentiful grain and wine. Restore Jerusalem, Your delight, as flowers are renewed by dew. Let this be a good year for dew, crowned with proud and beautiful fruit. May the city of Jerusalem, once empty, be turned into a crown that sparkles like the dew.

“May dew fall upon the blessed land. Fill us with heaven’s finest blessings. May a light come out of the darkness to draw Israel to You as a root finds water from dew.

“May You bless our food with dew. May we enjoy plenty with nothing lacking. Grant the wish of the people that followed You through the desert like sheep–with dew.

“You are Adonai our God, who causes the wind to blow and the dew to fall.

For blessing and not for curse. Amen.

For life and not for death. Amen.

For plenty and not for lack. Amen.

From Three to Four Questions

Excerpted with permission from Every Person’s Guide to Passover. (Jason Aronson, Inc).

The questions asked by the child during the course of the seder meal have been changed over the centuries. The earliest version of these questions was preserved by the Jerusalem Talmud (Chapter 10 of Pesachim). This text contains only three questions, the first one begin­ning with the Hebrew phrase “mah nishtanah“–why is it different?–which is used in our day as well. In the three questions as reported in the Jerusalem Talmud, the child lists three practices that distinguish Passover night from all other nights:

On all other nights, we dip only once, and on this night, twice.

On all other nights we eat hametz, and on this night, only matzah.

On all other nights we eat roasted or boiled meat, but on this night only roasted. 

The first question related to the practice of eating (dipping) herbs twice on the night of Passover. It was an ancient custom to eat herbs after they had been dipped as a type of appetizer. In the Passover ritual, the herbs were dipped twice, once right after the blessing over the wine, in commemoration of the dipping of the hyssop in blood, and the second dipping referring to the bitter herbs that were eaten with the paschal lamb at the conclusion of the meal. Serving the first herbs as a separate dish and not as a course of the meal was an indication to the child that there was something “differ­ent” about Passover night.

The second question related to the eating of unleav­ened bread, and the third question to the paschal lamb, the last dish to be placed on the table.

As of this time, there was no traditionally fixed answer to these questions as was formulated later in the Pass­over Haggadah. According to the Talmud (Pesachim 116a), the father’s answer was intended to fit the knowl­edge and understanding of the child.

[When the seder as we know it today took shape, the pattern of this new seder also resulted in the addition of a fourth question and a change in their sequence.] Rabban Gamliel had issued a dictum calling for the interpretation at the seder of the paschal lamb, matzah, and maror. The questions were therefore addressed to these three rituals. Since the paschal lamb was no longer available, preference was given to a new version of the questions:

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