Project Genesis

Literacy at the Time of the Patriarchs

Filed under: Jewish History

Question: In the time of Abraham did people read and write and if so who? What was the level of education for a poor 15 year old girl?

Answer: Historically very few women were literate before the last 200 years. It is hard to know who was literate during Abraham’s time. It is interesting to note that Jewish women were often literate. The French medieval monk, Peter Abelard (1079-1142), wrote about Jewish education:

“A Jew, however poor, even if he had ten sons, would put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for understanding of God’s law. And not only his sons, but his daughters.” (Peter Abelard, Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, ch. 6)

Also see:

All the Best,

Rabbi Meir Goldberg,
Maimonides Leaders Fellowship,
Rutgers Jewish Xperience – Meor campus affiliate

Miracles in the Torah

Question: I have heard there were several constant miracles when Israel was in the wilderness. Examples are that the staves of the ark were longer than the Holy of Holies but when they were placed in the room, they just fit. And also one when the High Priest garment crossed the path of the red heifer, there was a miracle. I was wondering if you could clarify this and list any others you know of.

Answer: Let’s begin by explaining the miracles you mentioned. The Torah describes the measurements of the Holy of Holies as well as the measurements of the ark, and the ark is larger than the room it is housed in. How can this be? The answer lies in the fact that the laws of nature (time and space) only exist in physical surroundings. The Holy of Holies, on the other hand, is a place that is spiritual in nature, and is therefore not restricted by the laws of nature. The limitations of space have no bearing at all.

Regarding the second miracle that you mentioned concerning the garments of the high priest crossing the red heifer, I am not aware of any miracle that took place under such circumstances. Please send me this information if you can find it.

One of the more well known miracles that constantly took place in the wilderness was the falling of Manna (see Exodus 16:4). This “wonder bread” fell from the sky every day except for the Sabbath. The food for the Sabbath was allotted in Friday’s double portion of Manna. Why was this miracle food necessary? The Sages of the Talmud write that, “The Torah (i.e. the giving of the Torah at Sinai) was only given to the generation that ate Manna”. Some of the commentators explain that this spiritual entity called the Torah could only be received by a nation that was separated from the daily concerns of life, most notably the need to work. Hence, they were fed the Manna from heaven during their stint in the wilderness. (more…)

Ritual Purification Without a Temple

Question: Can you direct me to a treatise on the evolution of the practice of ritual purification (childbirth, skin diseases, and secretions) following the destruction of the Second Temple?

Answer: Hi! The Talmud Shabbat says that the laws of ritual purification have “that on which to rely”, as opposed to the laws of the Sabbath, for example, which are “mountains hung by a hair”. Meaning, some things have much more explicit sources in the written Torah, and others were mostly taught through the oral Torah. Ritual purification (“tum’ah” and “taharah”), then, is one of the ones where there is a wealth of information in the written Torah. As such, its observance goes back to antiquity, and we have numerous verses in the bible touching on it.

However, after the destruction of the second Temple, much of the impetus for observing those laws was lost, since the main impacts of being tahor were (a) the ability to go into the Temple and (b) to eat sacrifices. Further, the very ability to become pure became more and more limited, as anyone who came into contact with the dead, even being in the same building as a dead person, became tamei in a way unfixable except with the ashes of the red heifer. Since that could not be brought in the absence of the Temple, it eventually became impossible to observe most of these laws, until the Temple is rebuilt.

The sages of the Mishnah and the Gemara nonetheless faithfully recorded their traditions on how to keep these laws, even though they were not able to do it themselves (they did the same for the laws of bringing sacrifices.) Two good places to see their descriptions are Tractate Chagigah and all the Mishnayos in the Seder of Taharos.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Miriam’s Well and Leaving the Supernatural

Question: How does the stopping of the well of Miriam relate to faith?

Answer: You do mention that the episode describes a lack of faith on the the part of the Jewish people. That is certainly true. The Jewish people are about to enter the land of Israel. This transition was actually quite a momentous one. In the desert, the Jewish people lived a life within a bubble, sheltered by Hashem. All of their needs were taken care of in a supernatural way. It was a very spiritual life. In the land of Israel, in contrast, they would need to live within the confines of nature, and find God through the physical world. This is in fact, God’s plan for the Jewish people, and the ultimate mission of the Jewish people. The bubble of the desert was meant to be temporary, to give the Jewish people the spark they would need to live within the confines of nature and the physical.

The cessation of the well of Miriam was part of this transition from the supernatural to the natural. The Jewish people panicked however. They were so accustomed to the life of the supernatural they did not know how to react when confronted with the world of the natural. Their failing was certainly a lack of faith—that even within the world of the natural, God could, and would provide from them.

Rabbi Yoel Spotts

Korach and the New Month (Rosh Chodesh)

Question: Is there any connection between Korach and Rosh Chodesh (the new Jewish month)?

Answer: Hmm – interesting. Korach and Rosh Chodesh don’t seem that obviously connected, but the Torah is one; every part is connected to every other. So I asked some others, and my daughter suggested the following, which I thought was a beautiful idea:

Rosh Chodesh was actually the first commandment given to Israel at the very creation of the nation, in Egypt: “This month shall be for you the first of the months… (Exodus 12(2))” Our sages understand that this verse includes the mitzvah of arranging the months and the calendar.

Chodesh in Hebrew means New (“chadash”). Every month we have a new moon, every month represents a new beginning with new opportunities. Rosh Chodesh is a good time to make plans, new resolutions: there are those who say special prayers Erev Rosh Chodesh, to take note of the chance to restart and redirect. Ambitious people want to grow; they don’t want to stand still.

Newness is an exciting opportunity, but one that carries risks as well. We also want to hold on to what we have accomplished already. Unless things are so disastrous that a brand new start is the only way, we generally want the growth to work within the framework of what we have.

On to Korach. Korach was a great person. The Midrash says that he was one of the nos’ei ha’aron, one of the group of Levites that carried the Ark of the Covenant! A very select group indeed. But, spiritual as he was, Korach felt that he could do more. He wanted to rise higher still.

That’s not a bad thing at all. But it has to take place within a framework. Holiness means, to connect to G-d. It’s not just about me.

Korach couldn’t handle that. He couldn’t see any room for further growth in the system, so he demanded that the system get out of his way. If he’s holy enough to be a Levi, why can’t he be a Cohen as well? His desire to grow blinded him to the fact that there are rules, that a relationship based on G-d is going to depend on G-d’s wishes.

The remarkable thing is that there was a way for him to achieve his goals. Rashi’s commentary quotes the Midrash: Korach, keenly perceptive, knew that a descendent of his was going to be successful. That was Samuel, the prophet. Our sages make an amazing statement about Samuel: that he was equal to Moses and Aharon put together (Berachos 31b).
Those sages also say that Samuel was a nazir, a nazir for life. Now a nazir is something like a high priest (see Ramban). He is forbidden to drink wine, as a cohen may not drink wine and serve in the Mishkan. He is forbidden to ever touch the dead, even very close relatives – exactly like the high priest.

And Samuel was also a Levi, but he grew up as a servant of Eli, the high priest. He had that intense drive for holiness and for growth, but it came through working within the system.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

Who Wrote Psalms?

Question: Who are the authors of psalms?

Answer: The Talmud (Bava Basra 14b) mentions ten people, in addition to David, who authored Psalms: Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heiman, Yedusun, Asaf, and the three sons of Korach. Rashi explains that these were (respectively) Psalms 139, 110, 89, 90, 88, 62 and 77, 50ff, and 42ff.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schrieber

Hebrew Synonyms - Kahal and Edah

Filed under: Jewish Texts

Question: The people of Israel are sometimes called collective Kahal (קהל), sometimes Edah (עדה ,עדת) and sometimes plain Israel, and although they probably point to the exact same group of people they seem to be well chosen. What’s the nuance between the usage of Kahal and Edah?

Besides refering to Israel, it’s also used for example in Bamidbar 16:6 to describe the group of people of followers of Korach as an Adas (עדת), while another group of people in Ezra 10:1 is called Kahal (קהל). And Bamidbar 20:2 seems to clearly distinguish between these two words.

So when do we refer to a group of people as an Edah or Adas, and when as a Kahal?

Answer: I really love the question! This brings me right back to my first days at Yeshiva Ner Yisroel, where my rebbi, Rabbi Ezra Neuberger, gave one of his “homework assignments” in studying Chumash (not part of the regular Yeshiva curriculum): Pick two Hebrew words that seem to be synonyms – say two words for sheep, Keves and Kesev – find the places they appear in the Torah, and figure out what they really mean and how they differ. I learned a lot when I did it.

You seem to have made a great start on your assignment! I really don’t want to do it for you, you’re doing fine. I did see that Bamidbar Ch. 14 has a lot of interesting references, including 14:5 which mentions both words.

A few good places to look – though I can’t tell you where in this particular case: Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, the Malbim, the Netziv in his Emek Davar. Each of these very frequently tries to figure out the meaning of Hebrew words, or compares similar ones, by looking through the examples where they appear.
Maybe helpful:

Looking at some words with the same structure (shoresh), Kahal seems to mean “gather everyone together”, “form into a big group”. For instance, see D’varim 31:12 for the Mitzvah of “Hakhel”, gathering all of Israel to hear the Torah read.
And “Edah” has the same Shoresh (root) as “Va’ad”, a meeting. See Bamidbar 16:11, “Noadim al Hashem” – gathered (against) Hashem. Shmos 25(22): “V’noadti L’cha Sham” – I will meet with you there.
So I would assume that Kahal is the word that refers to the gathering process, and Edah the word that refers to the result of the gathering, the meeting. If that’s right, you’d have to see how it plays out in the various cases.

But please continue with your very worthy investigation.

All the Best, Michoel Reach 

The Shamir

Filed under: The Temple

Question: What was the shamir, and why was it used in building the Temple?

Answer: The shamir is one of the things created at sundown on the sixth day of Creation (Mishnah Avos 5:6). The Talmud (Pesachim 59a) tells about its power to cleave stone, but doesn’t describe the process in detail; the commentators (Rashi on Pesachim, Rambam on Avos) explain that it was a worm that could cleave stone by looking at it. Solomon used it to build the Temple because using metal implements was forbidden (Ex. 20:22; Deut. 27:5); see Tosefta Sotah 15:1 and Talmud Sotah 48b. For more details about the shamir see Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews, Vol.1 pp.33-4; Vol.4 pp.166,168; Vol.5 pp.53,109; Vol.6 pp.282,299.

All the Best,
Rabbi Azriel Schreiber

The Blessings from the Kohanim

Filed under: Prayer and Blessings

Question: We learn in the Torah portion of Naso about the 3 blessings that the Kohanim (the Jewish priestly class) gave to the Jewish people. Why is there no blessing for health and physical well being? It seems that the 1st blessing is for material success and prosperity, the second is a blessing to understand the “Meaning of Life” and the 3rd is a blessing for contentment and tranquility through the understanding of Hashem’s laws. It seems to me that logically if I was to offer only one blessing to someone the first and utmost important blessing would be for Health.

Answer: The Torah, like Australia and America, believes in private health coverage….

All kidding aside, in my opinion, the first blessing does indeed include health: “Yivarechecha Hashem Vishmerecha” What’s “Yivarechecha?” The Midrash links this to all the blessings promised the Jewish people if we do what is right, such as those listed in Deut 28. It seems to me that these include health.

Rabbi Seinfeld and

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