Author Archives: Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen H. Arnoff

About Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.

Seder Toharot (Ritual Purities)

The twelve tractates of the sixth and final order of the Mishnah, Seder Toharot, outline the sources of ritual impurity (tum’ah) and purity (taharah). Avot hatum’ah (the “fathers” or prime causes of impurity) include: human corpses, eight types of creeping creatures (sheratzim), dead animals, issue from human skin eruptions, semen, menstrual blood, and the skin of a leper. 

With the exception of niddah (ritual status relating to menstruation) and contact with human corpses by kohanim (members of the priestly class), regulations described in Toharot have become essentially obsolete since the destruction of the Second Temple. However, close reading of the text provides a window onto the intricate layers of religious practice necessitated by the Temple system, as well as apath to understanding rabbinic conceptions of the interplay between purity and impurity in everyday space–or more specifically, the day-to-day junctures of life and death.

Understanding the Junctures between Life and Death

The fundamental biblical discussions of tum’ah and taharah take place in Leviticusand Numbers. At their core, purity taboos warn against contact with the natural matter representing uncontrolled manifestations of the raw material of life and death. The status of ritual purity delineates where on the scale of life or death a living being or object falls.

ritual puritiesToharot accepts the inevitability of contact with both the symbols and carriers of death. Purification rituals as well as clear principles of separation guide manifestations of death towards integration with those of life, consecrating day-to-day experiences of duality. Death is both embraced and contained with reverence.

Sources of Tum’ah (Ritual Impurity)

All of the categories of tum’ah in the Mishnah are mentioned in the Bible–for example, “He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days” (Numbers 19:11). As mentioned previously, creeping things, dead animals, skin eruptions, semen, menstrual blood, and a leper are among the sources of tum’ah. Leprosy offers a particularly interesting category, linked as it is with spiritual failure, the most famous case being Miriam’s punishment for speaking badly against Moses. “And the cloud was removed from the tent; and, behold, Miriam was snow white, stricken with tzara’at (leprosy)…” (Numbers 13:10). 

Seder Nashim (Women)

The seven tractates of Nashim, the third order of the Mishnah, examine and categorize intimate human commitments, including the bonds of marriage and the special categories created by the taking of vows. It presents discussion of religious law, social custom, historical circumstances, and both directly and tangentially related commentary and narrative. Nashim offers intricate reflection on the rabbinic attempt to create communal standards suitable for the intersection of its members’ public and private life. Seder Nashim, Women


A Blueprint for an Ideal Society

Nashim deconstructs the core values, rituals, and functions of human bonds and obligations. As a guidebook for the social categories and personal decisions bound to affect most members of the community, the text formulates a blueprint for relationships in the Mishnah’s ideal society.

While Nashim presents values contemporary Jews may find sexist and unjust–particularly with regard to the role of women–an overview of the text suggests that its primary concern is ensuring social systems that protect the people participating in them.

Yevamot (Levirate Marriages)

Yibbum (pl. yevamot) is levirate marriage, necessitated by the plight of a woman whose husband dies without leaving a son as heir. Deuteronomy 25: 5-10 and Ruth 4 provide biblical examples of the conditions requiring yibbum and possible implementation of halitzah, a ritual whereby a brother of the deceased husband cancels his obligation to wed the widow and is shamed publicly for this decision. While the obligation of a surviving brother-in-law to marry his dead brother’s wife ostensibly serves the family of the deceased, allowing them to maintain his property and perpetuate his name, it also serves the widow directly.

The world in which the rabbis of the Mishnah live offers few options to the unmarried, mature woman. That a widow must be provided with a useful alternative after she is left without the validation of either partner or son (female children do not fulfill familial obligations in this period) speaks to the recurring theme of protection of the weak in Nashim. Those within the larger circle of the communal crisis of a widow are commanded to aid her cause: “If he would leave his decision undecided…they do not listen to him but they say to him, ‘The duty falls on thee…'” (Yevamot 4: 6).

Methods of Midrash

Midrash negotiates the two forces whose encounter generates the creative tension of rabbinic culture as a whole–change and tradition. Broadly speaking, midrash attempts to secure the Torah’s centrality amidst shifting social and intellectual circumstances and views. 

While midrashic texts and statements can appear illogical and random when taken out of context, they are in fact the products of a holistic system guided primarily by middot (rules of exegesis) within a range of favored genres. The middot, several midrashic genres, and the general tendencies and principles of midrash will be discussed below.

The Role of Torah: Two Views

There are two primary, and at times competing, assumptions about Torah that are at the core of the midrashic enterprise. While scholars tend to doubt the historicity of these schools of thought, tradition holds that second-century figures Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba and their respective followers disagree concerning the very nature of Torah.

Rabbi Ishmael and his school hold that Torah “speaks in the language of people”–that is, the way that people normally speak–and consequently its interpreters should not make too much of every textual quirk or inconsistency. The Akiban view maintains that the Torah is a perfect composition down to every “jot and tittle”–every tiny letter such as the yod, and every calligraphic flourish, such as the tiny “crowns” that appear on the tops of some letters in a Torah scroll–and that only an improperly trained exegete would mistakenly deem even a letter of Torah, let alone a syntactic or grammatical anomaly, superfluous.

The viewpoints of both Akiba and Ishmael repeat throughout the midrashic canon. Despite the debate over “human” versus “divine” Torah language, Akiba and Ishmael share the vital principle that Torah is the only textual source appropriate for the continuing work of revelation. Even as it reworks, reorganizes, and reconceives Torah in radical ways, midrash grants Torah ultimate authority and endless attention.

Feminine Aspects of the Omer

A midrash that appears a number of times in the mystical work known as the Zohar describes seven weeks of purification culminating in the union of all worlds–a holy marriage–consummated on Shavuot. The following article explores this mystical imagery as well as other connections among female symbolism, the counting of the omer, and Shavuot.

As a biblical festival, Shavuot marks an agriculturally based economy moving from the barley to wheat harvest. Rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 19:1–which announces the arrival of the children of Israel in the Sinai desert in the third month after going out of Egypt–establishes the primary liturgical function of Shavuot as a celebration of God’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

By the medieval period, biblical narrative and law become fertile sources for kabbalistic (mystical) understandings of the nature of this reception of divine law, most particularly the feminine aspect of the counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot, or sefirat ha-omer. Each of the 49 days of the counting of the omer emerges not as part of a grid linking a shift in communal Temple practice, but as a metaphor for an incremental cycle moving toward unification of the male and female aspects in the godhead.

Divine Wedding

In the Zohar I:8a, the metaphor of mystical union finds expression in the beloved kabbalistic image of the divine wedding. Immersed in Torah at an all-night study session on the evening of Shavuot, students of Torah serve as the retinue for the bride, Shekhinah (the female aspect of the godhead Malkhut), as she prepares to meet her male counterpart, Tiferet. Likely the origin of the now widely observed custom of Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (staying up all night to learn Torah on the first night of the festival), the Zohar’s vision of ecstatic Torah study consummating the fusion of male and female divine energy marks the crest of the counting of the omer. Unification of the Shekhinah with its male counterpart via Torah study of mystical intent is particularly apt on Shavuot, a festival rooted in Temple sacrifice, because the female presence of the divine is often depicted as having a unique attachment to the Temple because, according to tradition, it sojourned only in the Temple

The Concealed Face of God

Many of the serious messages of Purim are encoded in word play and irony, and the Book of Esther’s seemingly absent God is no exception. The centrality of the concept of hester panim or “the concealed face of God” to Purim is recognized in the fact thatEsther is the only text in the Hebrew Bible, except for the Song of Songs,that does not mention the name of God explicitly.

hidden face of godIn the case of Purim, hester panim’s importance is also intimated by the name of the heroine of the central narrative of the festival, Esther. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Hullin 139B states, “From where does the Torah bring the name Esther? From the verse ‘But I [God] will surely conceal my face [“haster astir panai“] on that day for all of the ill that they have done–for they turned to other gods. (Deuteronomy 31:18).'” The name Esther is interpreted as an extension of the phrase for a “concealed God.”

Discussing the verse in Deuteronomy, the medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra suggests that the term “turned to” or panah should actually be read as “whored with” or zanah. Here, the blame for the broken relationship between God and Israel lies squarely with Israel’s assimilation and worship amongst the gods of the nations, a circumstance apparent in the story of Purim as well. There seems to be no distinction between Esther or Mordechai and the non-Jewish Persians until the Jews themselves reveal who they are.

Furthermore, Esther’s moniker is doubly ironic, because her name is a Hebraization of the name of the Near Eastern goddess Ishtar, and her Uncle Mordechai’s name is a Hebrew version of the name of the Near Eastern god Marduk. Through the lens of a nitty-gritty melodrama of sex, deception, and violence, The Book of Esther openly critiques the possibility of a “secular” world of blind fate and challenges the nature of assimilated Jewish life. Without God at its center, Jewish life and Jewish heroes merely become a poor imitation of the world around them. The Diaspora Jews depicted at Purim’s core can be seen as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy of divine abandonment resulting from Jewish assimilation to the cultural norms counter to a Jewish center.

Trees and their New Year in Rabbinic Judaism

While Tu Bishvat as we know it today came about long after the days of the Talmud, this day and its central concern–trees–are important in Rabbinic literature.

The Four New Years

Rabbinic Judaism teaches that there are four new years. While there is some debate as to the exact date of each one, the consensus holds the following. The first of the month of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of animals; the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) is the new year for calendar years, sabbatical years, jubilee years, planting, and vegetables; and the 15th of Shvat (Tu Bishvat) is the new year for trees (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 2b).

The primary role of a new year for agricultural items is determining what products are certified for tithing. It thus essentially represents a tax on assets that is paid through sacrifices to God and direct offerings to priests and the poor. In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, the system of four new years remains as a marker of the central role that Temple worship and tithing played in the relationship between the Jewish people and God. Each new year marks a key component of this relationship.

The New Year for Kings and Festivals represents a yearly affirmation of the social, political, and religious structure of the nation. The Temple, particularly during festivals, was the vehicle for the masses to recognize and support the leaders responsible for the cycle of sacrifices that kept the Jewish people in good stead with God. The kings ruling over the land of Israel had to ensure that this system was functional and protected. Because ancient Israel was primarily an agricultural society, temple tithing as well as other forms of cultic tribute and sacrifice consisted of the vegetables, fruits, and animals that people cultivated.

The new years of the first of Elul and Tishrei and the 15th of Shvat shared the responsibility for marking the process of generating the resources that quite literally fed the cultic system. These new years determined the larger and smaller scale cycles for planting, harvesting, and offering or consuming Israel’s most valuable goods.

While the rabbis preserved the first of Tishrei as Rosh Hashanah–celebrated today as the beginning of the Jewish calendar year as well as the start of a period of intensive individual and communal spiritual introspection and repentance culminating in Yom Kippur–the other three new years faded from Jewish practice. Nonetheless, rabbinic tradition continued to develop a rich body of texts and ideas about trees, even as the holiday of Tu Bishvat lay all but dormant for hundreds of years.

Trees in Rabbinic Thought

If the cycle of four new years provides a periodic measure for discerning how the Jewish people as a whole relates to God, trees serve as a symbol and metaphor for the spiritual choices of individuals.

A tree stood at the very center of the first human moral dilemma, when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge. One rabbinic tradition holds that this was a fig tree. Even though the fig tree, according to this midrash (interpretive literature), allowed Adam and Eve to doom themselves and their descendants to a life in exile from paradise, the tree also offered them the first step towards spiritual redemption, by providing Adam and Eve fig leaves to cover their nakedness (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 70a-b). Here, and in many other rabbinic stories and interpretations, trees provide a kind of litmus test for human behavior.

According to another midrash, Honi the Circle Maker fell asleep for 70 years, only to discover that a carob tree outlives the one who plants it. Planting trees, a particularly beloved practical and symbolic act in the rabbinic imagination, hence embodies Jewish responsibility for each generation to cultivate resources for the next (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23a). Such deeply practical action within a spiritual framework is magnified by the dictum of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, "If you have a sapling in your hand and are told, ‘Look, the Messiah is here,’ you should first plant the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah" (The Fathers According to Rabbi Natan/Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B 31). Trees are among the most dependable and useful vessels to guide people to be steadfast in the face of challenges both hidden and revealed, particularly in moments of transition.

When they behave properly, people are compared to the lasting physical and spiritual stature of trees, as they are when God fells them with a thundering crash for behaving badly (Babylonian Talmud Bekhorot 45b). The life and example of trees mirror human experience, and trees are provided special protection in times of dispute (Deuteronomy20:19). In a play on one of the Hebrew words for tree or brush–siah–it is said that trees are created as friends and partners for human beings, engaging them (mesihim) in constant dialogue (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 13:2).

In the traditional liturgy for the conclusion of the Torah service, the rabbis insert the verse, "She is a tree of life to them that grasp her, and all who hold onto her are happy" (Proverbs 3:18). This saying epitomizes rabbinic tradition’s most famous metaphorical use of the tree–as a symbol of Torah. Throughout the rabbinic canon, texts refer to the Torah as a tree of infinite knowledge, producing the fruits of new teachings and students over the generations.

Because no Jewish object or concept garners more respect or is more central than the Torah within rabbinic tradition, it is illuminating that the Rabbis choose the tree as a primary symbol for the presence of Torah in the world. If humanity’s failure of the moral litmus test at the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden sets humankind on its journey into the world beyond paradise, the Tree of Life of Torah emerges as the source of protection, sustenance, and proper living that allows humankind to continually reconnect with its highest self.