Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
Many of the Psalms are headed “A song of degrees.” What does this mean?
The New English Bible treats this and similar headings to the Psalms as later interpolations of which the meaning is uncertain and so does not give them at all. Such a procedure seems unwarrantable to me. After all they are in the Hebrew, however they came to be there. The Hebrew here is shir (a song of) hamaalot. Maalot can mean “degrees” or “steps” or “ascents.” Of the suggestions made, the best-known are: “A song (sung) on the steps (leading to the altar)” or “A song (sung by the pilgrims) of ascent” (to the Temple).
It has also been suggested that in these Psalms an idea mentioned in one verse is taken up again in a later verse, hence the meaning would be: “A song of ascent” (of ideas).
In next week’s portion of the law, “Terumah” (Exodus 25), in which the Children of Israel are told to bring offerings for the Ark of the Covenant, the offerings include “ram-skins dyed red.” What is the significance of dyeing the ram-skins red?
First, it is not certain that the word meaddamim means “dyed red.” An alternative translation (used in the New English Bible and given as a possibility in the American Jewish translation) is “tanned,” i.e., “tanned ram skins.”
But the weight of scholarly opinion today is that it does, indeed, mean “dyed red,” since we know that the Bedouins, for example, do spread red coverings over their tents and probably did this in ancient times.
I can do no better than quote Professor Cassuto (“A Commentary on the Book of Exodus,” translated by I. Abrahams, Jerusalem, 1961, p. 353): “Over the tent there was to be another cover: And you shall make for the tent a covering of rams’ skins dyed red. To this day the Bedouins sometimes spread skins over their tents. Among Gentile peoples, too, it was customary to use red, which is visible from a distance, to distinguish the sacred tents.”
In Exodus, Chapter 33, verse 11, it is said: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speakes to his friend.” And yet, in the same chapter, verse 20, it is said: “Thou canst not see My face; for no man can see Me and live.” How can one reconcile these two statements?
The first verse you quote does not say that Moses saw God face to face, but that God conversed with him face to face. The verse continues: “as a man speaks to his friend.” A man can speak face to face with his friend without the friend looking at him.
The meaning of it all would seem to be something like this: No human being can ever have a direct vision of God while he is alive in this world. Not even Moses could have this kind of vision. Nevertheless, God conversed with Moses in a far more direct manner than with all other prophets.
29 May 1970:
According to rabbinic tradition, the Patriarchs knew and observed the Torah. How, then, could Jacob marry two sisters, or Abraham marry the daughter of his father? (See Genesis 20, 12).
First, it should be noted that not all the rabbis held that the Patriarchs observed the Torah before it was given. Many rabbis held that the Patriarchs only kept the “seven laws of the sons of Noah” (see Ginzberg: Legends of the Jews, Vol. V, p. 259). According to the view that the Patriarchs did keep the Torah, certain exceptions were none the less made “for the sake of heaven.” There was much discussion on this in the Middle Ages; for instance, does Genesis 18, 7-8, mean that Abraham gave his visitors first milk and then meat, and not both together? (See Ginzberg, p. 235) Modern scholars have detected in the statements about the Patriarchs keeping the Torah an anti-Christian polemic, the Christian claim being that one could be a good man without the Law as evidenced by the Patriarchs. Incidentally, according to one rabbinic interpretation of Genesis 20, 12, Sarah was not Abraham’s half-sister, but his brother’s daughter (see Rashi to this verse).
5 June 1970:
How can the God of justice “visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20, 5)?
The Talmudic rabbis were bothered by this question and pointed to Deuteronomy 24, 16 : “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (see also Ezekiel, chapter 18). In one Talmudic passage (Berachot 7a) the contradiction is solved by suggesting that the verse in Exodus refers only to children who persist in perpetuating the wicked deeds of their parents. In another passage (Makkot 24a) the striking observation is made that, in fact, the prophet Ezekiel cancelled this decree of Moses!
The modern Jew, seeking to make sense of the Exodus verse, will refer not so much to “punishment” as to the inexorable natural effects of wrong-doers on posterity. It is a fact of experience that men through their viciousness or folly store up disaster for generations still unborn. The use of nuclear weapons, to take an obvious example, would bring terrible suffering not alone upon the original perpetrators but on children yet to be born; the toleration of shoddy building techniques will create a slum problem for the future; the oppression of minorities might result in a rebellion that will greatly harm the offspring of the smug majority; if the fight against disease is undertaken half-heartedly the young of the future will be born sickly, and so on.
11 December 1970:
How did the ancient Hebrews calculate time? Are we to take it, for example in Genesis, that one year corresponds to a present-day month? How otherwise can you account for the hundreds of years the Genesis characters lives?
Some of the medieval Jewish commentators to Genesis did try to solve the problem on the lines you mention that the “years” are really much shorter periods. But the trouble with this kind of explanation is that it distorts the texts. The word for “years” (shanim) is that used elsewhere in the Bible where it clearly means what we mean by a year, e.g. “The days of our years are threescore years and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore years” (Psalms 90, 10).
A different medieval explanation is that before the Flood the climactic conditions were more conducive to health and longevity. A good modern understanding of the problem is provided by Professor U. Cassuto in his commentary to Genesis. Cassuto notes that the ancient peoples of the Near East had traditions about mythical heroes at the dawn of history who lived do much longer than ordinary mortals because they were semi-divine beings.
The Torah does not reject such legends but transforms them by dissociating from them any suggestion that these fabulous men of old were in any way divine. Consequently, in the Torah version, even Methuselah, who lived for 969 years (Genesis 5, 27), the longest of them all, did not reach a thousand years, a “day” of God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” (Psalms 90, 4).
Man can be God-like but he can never be divine. Thus the ancient narrative strikes a blow indirectly for the pure monotheistic view and the refinement of man’s ideas about God. Some people no doubt find it shocking to be told that Genesis contains legend as well as fact. But why should it be considered offensive that the Torah used a piece of ancient folklore in such a way as to contribute to a deeper understanding of the truth?
15 January 1971:
Can you elucidate two passages from Isaiah—7, 14 and 9, 6—which, in some translations, have apparent Christological associations?
The Hebrew word alma in Is. 7, 14 simply means a “young woman,” not “a virgin” for which the word betula is used. The New English Bible, for instance, renders the word as “young woman.” In the Jewish tradition Isaiah 9, 6 refers either to King Hezekiah or to the Messiah.
A general observation is in order here. It is now held by the majority of Biblical scholars, Christian as well as Jewish, that whatever the Hebrew prophets were they were not a kind of ancient Old Moore’s Almanach foretelling the remote future in detail. Thus all attempts at searching the words of the prophets for detailed forecasts of events which actually occurred, or are said to have occurred, long after their day is seen to be an exercise in folly. This is why only the most fundamentalist of Christians would dream nowadays of quoting verses such as those to which you refer as prophetic anticipations of the Christian faith.
26 March 1971:
If Adam and Eve were the first two people on this earth and their sons were Cain and Abel, how did Cain, after killing his brother, go out and find himself a wife?
The critical answer to this perennial question is that the Cain and Abel story is from a different ultimate source than the Adam and Eve story. Naturally this kind of solution was not open to the rabbis who suggested that Cain and Abel had twin sisters, one of whom Cain married (See Ginzberg: Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1, p. 108 and notes).
22 March 1985:
Isaiah chapter 53 is never used as a scriptural reading in the synagogue. If the omission is deliberate, does this not appear to contradict the validity of the Scriptures, that all the words therein are of truth and are to be used?
Yes, it does seem to have been a deliberate omission on the part of those who drew up the public scriptural readings and we can see why they omitted this chapter, which deals with the “suffering servant.”
Jewish commentators explain the “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah as referring to the Messiah or Jewish people as a whole.
When Christians came to interpret the passage as referring to Jesus, it was evidently thought best not to give faintest impression that Jews, too, attached special significance to the passages.
I may be wrong, but from the tone of your letter (you do not sign your name) I imagine that you are a Christian reader and are implying that, by the omission, Jews are being selective as to which passages in Scripture they accept.
The truth is that, while Jews do accept the Scriptures as true (as you say), they see no harm in omitting passages which have been misinterpreted. Do not forget that, in any event, it is impossible to read all the prophets in a single year.