For modernity, a really influential moment is the year 1205, which saw the emergence of a racialization of Jewish identity or Jewish status in Christian theology and law. In 1205, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter called Etsi Judeaos, in response to a problem in France where the Jews were not behaving in the way that the Pope thought was appropriate. He brought in the biblical commentary idea—that the Jews have been confined to perpetual servitude to Christians because of this alleged crime against Jesus—as a justification for social and legal subordination of Jews to Christians. The idea emerges out of medieval ideas about Jews, earlier Christian ideas about Jews and medieval commentaries on the Bible that use the examples of Ham and Cain and Ishmael to argue that they’re actually allegories signaling the forced submission of Jews to Christians through enslavement, even though those texts in the Hebrew Bible don’t have anything to do with crucifixion or the Jews. The Pope’s letter says that the Jews, by their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they crucified Jesus. It says that Jews should understand that they are slaves rejected by God, and by the effect of their alleged participation in the crucifixion should recognize themselves as the slaves of those whom Jesus’ death set free.
This letter was incorporated into the larger code of international church law, which governed all of Western Christianity. It meant that all Jews in all of the areas over which the church had authority were liable to legal punishment if they somehow behaved in a way that put them in a position of power over Christians, and that they were inherently inferior and needed to visibly occupy that inferior status or be forced into it. This resulted in the gradual expulsion of Jews from Western Europe.
Once this construct of inherent hereditary inferiority enters into the ecclesiastical legal system, it can be transferred to other groups. The same idea is used to punish Muslims for the crime of the crucifixion, even though Islam didn’t exist at that time. It is also used to justify the idea of Muslims as slaves, and to justify and describe the relationship of Africans to Christians, even though there were Africans who were already Christian. The curse of Ham is originally developed around Jews, but once there’s expansion into Africa in the 15th century, it translates into justifying the actual enslavement of Africans.
M. Lindsay Kaplan is an English professor at Georgetown University. Her latest book is Figuring Racism in Medieval Christianity.
Neither Jewish law, lore nor history addresses race in any way that can be construed as problematic. In fact, the ancestor of the Jewish people, Shem son of Noah, is described by the midrash as having been black (Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer, beginning of Chapter 24). The most fundamental teachings of Judaism clearly dismiss racism altogether, such as “You shall love the stranger like yourself” (Leviticus 19:34), or the reminder in Genesis that all of us—regardless of race, color or belief system—were born of the same mom and dad: Adam and Eve. “Why did God create swarms of bees, prides of lions, herds of deer, schools of fish, and flocks of birds, and only one human couple? So that no one can say to another ‘My ancestry is superior to yours’” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler Walking Stick Foundation Fontana, CA
The question of Jewish law and racism cannot be separated from that of anti-Semitism. Distrust and hatred of Jews played an important role in the attitudes that Jews formed about others. With our history of suffering, we should not be surprised that our literature (law and lore) records feelings of animosity toward others and even outsized claims of Jewish superiority. Even so, any expressions of hostility sit right alongside higher moral expectations. The Torah repeatedly urges us to engage our empathy, commanding us 36 times to show our concern for strangers among us. Our creation myths and midrash remind us of the common origin of all human beings.
Jewish tradition is old and broad enough to include contradictory teachings; some condone bigotry and racism, others promote solicitude for all people. As Humanistic Jews, we are always delighted to encounter the more enlightened passages and practices. Yet they are not the source of our beliefs. A commitment to furthering human dignity and universal human rights stands at the center of our ethical concerns irrespective of Jewish attitudes from the past.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism Farmington Hills, MI
I don’t think racism is a term recognized in Jewish law, although a few remarks in Jewish tradition about people of color have been understood in disparaging ways. More essentially, the Torah insists that we treat both neighbors and strangers with ahavah, love—a recognition that we are in relationship with one another. Jewish law forbids reminding converts to Judaism of their earlier background; we might extrapolate from that to a prohibition on, for example, asking Jews of color in shul whether they are actually Jewish, which seems to go on all the time. The larger question is how Jewish tradition bids us view the relationship between Jews and non-Jews, which can sometimes take on a “racist” or essentialist disparagement of the other. We have in our background both glorious universalist sentiments and virulent hostility to non-Jews. In that we are no different from other religions or cultures; the urge to define “us vs. them” is, ironically, one of the most universal principles of humankind. The contradiction plays out in two books of the Bible—Ezra, which advances a quasi-racial opposition to the non-Jews living in the land of Israel after the Exile, and Ruth, which makes the case for a much more positive view of non-Jews. Nothing keeps one safe from “othering” except perpetual vigilance and a constant choosing of our yetzer ha-tov or good inclination (unity) over our yetzer ha-ra or evil inclination (separation).
Rabbi Gilah Langner Congregation Kol Ami Arlington, VA
In 1963 the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. convened a conference on “Religion and Race.” The second speaker was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who suggested that perhaps the conference should have been called “Religion or Race,” for true religion and racism are antithetical. Racism is a “treacherous denial of the existence of God,” he said.
Judaism’s foundational story is about God’s taking the side of the victims of racism and economic oppression. “At the first Conference on Religion and Race,” Heschel began his speech, “the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.” Egyptians were racist: Though Joseph was second only to Pharaoh, he ate by himself, “for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Gen. 43:32). It was racism that led to such brutal oppression by Pharaoh that God broke through nature and history to hear the Israelites’ cries. Judaism teaches that God is on the side of those who struggle for freedom; the Torah’s great principle is that every human being is created in the image of God. These are the principles on which all of Judaism rests. Jewish law is and should be an expression of those principles, and therefore I believe that racism is absolutely against Jewish law.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman Martha’s Vinyard Hebrew Center Vineyard Haven, MA
The Talmud teaches that all people are descendants of a single person so that no person can say, “My ancestor is greater than yours.” This foundational belief in the equality of all humanity was established in the opening chapters of the Torah. Regardless of whether we believe this creation story, its position as one of the very first lessons of the Torah gives it a place of high priority: All human beings are created equal. This belief in equality compels action in response to discrimination, racism and racial injustice.
In the Reform movement, the work of racial justice reaches back before the civil rights movement. We have an obligation to learn about racial diversity, confront our implicit biases, challenge the deep systemic and cultural sources of those biases and address the racial disparities that plague our society. To create racial justice in America, we must look deeply into and change our own beliefs about our neighbors. And we must change the systems and structures that perpetuate racial injustices. This is not easy work to do. It is our sacred obligation.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer Fresno, CA
The Torah teaches the equality of all human beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and is positive toward non-Israelites. Rabbinic literature similarly contains numerous positive statements about gentiles. We can’t deny that there are passages in rabbinic literature, kabbalah and medieval philosophical works that depict gentiles as inferior to Jews and sometimes even as less than human. Some can be explained as normal reactions to the cruel treatment of Jews by non-Jews, be it the Roman Empire, the Church or others. Some, however, go far beyond that, positing an exclusivist theology.
In the 21st century, though, there is only one correct answer to this question: Yes. Leviticus 19 begins, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The halachic authority Nachmanides (1174-1270) says this means Jews must obey not just the letter but the spirit of the law. The spirit of Torah is clearly conveyed in Genesis 1:27: If all humanity is made in God’s image, then clearly any kind of prejudice or racism is forbidden. Nachmanides introduces the phrase naval b’rshut ha-Torah—being despicable within the permitted boundaries of Torah. Loosely defined, this means that being holy means not engaging in disgusting behaviors that are not specifically forbidden but are not right either.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz Temple Beth El Springfield, MA
The Talmud makes clear that every human, as an image of God, is endowed with three intrinsic dignities: infinite value, equality and uniqueness (Sanhedrin 37a). This completely demolishes racism. However, over millennia of gentile persecution, a lot of antagonism crept into Jewish attitudes. Thus, one rabbi in the Talmud lashes out, “You [Jews] are called Adam [that is, the image of God] but idolaters/gentiles are not.” Considering ongoing Christian and Islamic denigration of Jews as less than human, such backlash is understandable. In modern times, though, great rabbis such as Rav Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook in Israel and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in the United States reaffirmed the universal dignity of all people.
Still, narrow-minded, socially isolated fundamentalist Orthodox rabbis often seize upon past texts of anger and rejection and seek to apply them to gentiles today. Recently, Channel 13 in Israel broadcast videotapes revealing that important rabbis at a pre-army Mechina (training program) openly endorsed racism. They claimed that racial theory proved Jewish superiority. They justified permanent annexation of the West Bank on the grounds that the Arabs are an inferior race and would welcome being subservient to Jews. Such comments are especially disgusting coming after the Holocaust and the evidence that racism leads to hatred and genocide. The prophet’s cry “We have one father: One God created all of us” (Malachi 2:10) rebukes such vicious attitudes. Sadly, Orthodoxy has a lot of work to do to root out racist and anti-other attitudes in its religious leadership and culture.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg Riverdale, NY
If I had to make a strong halachic argument for some provision attached to one of the preexisting categories of the Torah forbidding racism, I’d be hard pressed. I don’t think I could make the halachic guidelines that plastic. Rabbi Shlomo Luria, nearly 500 years ago, argued that with the exception of great moral deficiencies like murder, stealing and deception, the Torah mostly describes behavior between Jews and relies on secular law for the rest. So it’s not so surprising that there’s no outright prohibition against being a bigot. Nonetheless, I think racism violates some important meta-principles of the Torah, particularly the thinking of Maimonides, for whom there is a 614th commandment, Thou Shalt Not Be an Idiot. Racism is objectionable for two reasons. One is that it’s just stupid. We are taught as Jews to notice differences rather than group things together. Racism is by its nature a failure to take note of the great differences between people within a group, and as such it is intensely anti-Jewish. Second, in practice, it creates a chillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name, when people who are charged with keeping God’s word alive ignore those fundamental distinctions in their dealings with other people.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein CrossCurrents Los Angeles, CA
As per the Torah, I am a creationist, and thus for me the answer is yes. If we agree that G-d is everything, then He is every color. Anything less would be a limitation, and He is unlimited. One is anti-Semitic not when one dislikes someone Jewish, but when one dislikes them merely because they are Jewish. Likewise, disliking someone of another race because of something they did is one thing; judging them or treating them poorly merely because of their race is racism, upon which the Torah frowns. People of any color may convert to Judaism if they choose to accept the Torah and its guidelines for life. If you believe G-d created and sustains the world and everything in it, then there is no place for hate or discrimination merely because of skin color.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov Vice President, American Friends of Lubavitch Washington, DC
To ask if Jewish law forbids racism is to ask if you have ever read the first chapter of Genesis. In it, the Torah presents the most revolutionary idea of ancient times, which, judging by the xenophobia, racism and bigotry that are still prevalent, remains one many cannot easily digest. That idea is contained in two Hebrew words: B’tselem Elohim, the image of God, and it is very carefully inserted into the larger context of the creation story: “Elohim created man in His image, male and female He created them” (1:27). The Torah emphasizes that the image of God is a concept embedded in men and women equally. The idea is reinforced in Genesis 5:2: “Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and He named them Adam.” The woman is Adam—created in the image of God—just as the man is.
The message of these verses is much greater than equality between men and women. It is about the equality of all humankind. The binary difference between men and women is one’s first instinctive reaction upon seeing a human being (the inability to clearly define a non-binary person is probably the reason why there is so much bigotry towards them). By equating men and women, the Torah states that the image of God is not expressed physically. Racism is therefore a rejection of the very foundation of the Torah. This is not to say, however, that there are no racist Jews.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are like an ancient puzzle that researchers and scholars are trying to piece together, but multiple obstacles block the way. Now, a new study has suggested a potential aid in finding the way these puzzle pieces fit together: animal DNA from the skins used to make the scrolls.
The 2,000-year-old scrolls are actually represented by more than 25,000 fragments that make up about a thousand ancient manuscripts. These ancient texts include the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible’s books. The discovery of the scrolls “had an incomparable impact on the historical understanding of Judaism and Christianity,” according to the study.
They were found at different sites in the Judean Desert in Israel and the West Bank leading toward the Dead Sea, largely between 1947 and the 1960s. A large number of them were found in 11 different caves near the Qumran archaeological site, which is along the Dead Sea’s northwest shore. More were found in the ancient fortification of Masada, as well as other sites.
The passage of time and the way they’ve been handled has made them more difficult to study. Many were not excavated in an orderly way to preserve
their composition and have been acquired through antiquity dealers, which makes their origin more difficult to trace.
“The discovery of the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made,” said Oded Rechavi, study author, molecular biologist and associate professor in the School for Neurobiology, Biochemistry and Biophysics in the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience of Tel Aviv University in Israel, in a statement.
Researchers and scholars have attempted to put them together based on visible aspects of the fragments that suggest they are related to each other.
But a team of researchers decided to test the animal skins containing the texts as a way to understand their DNA “fingerprints” and use an analysis similar to forensics to find how the fragments relate to each other. The researchers refer to some of these tiny samples as scroll “dust.” They also tested samples from other leather artifacts.
The study published in the journal Cell on Tuesday.
Sheepskin vs. cow hide: What the differences reveal
The DNA sequences were able to tell them which animals provided specific skins. Many of those they tested came from sheep — a previously unknown fact about the Dead Sea Scrolls. When they found that some fragments came from the same sheep, they reasoned that these pieces may fit together, rather than those from different sheep or even species.
They also analyzed the language on these fragments to see if they would indeed fit together like puzzle pieces.
Two pieces previously thought to belong together were actually made from a sheep and a cow, which caused them to question if the pieces truly “fit.” They belonged to some of the oldest known scrolls representing the book of Jeremiah. Based on their evidence, cows weren’t raised in the Judean desert.
“Analysis of the text found on these Jeremiah pieces suggests that they not only belong to different scrolls, they also represent different versions of the prophetic book,” said Noam Mizrahi, study coauthor and an associate professor in Tel Aviv University’s department of biblical studies. “The fact that the scrolls that are most divergent textually are also made of a different animal species is indicative that they originate at a different provenance.”
This suggests that different versions of the book of Jeremiah existed and circulated at the same time with different wordings.
“This teaches us about the way this prophetic text was read at the time and also holds clues to the process of the text’s evolution,” Rechavi said.
Many scholars have agreed that the scrolls have diverse origins, but this research allows for more pinpointing of which ones were brought in from the outside, and which were produced locally, Mizrahi said.
Another non-biblical work called the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice was found in both Qumran and Masada. The Qumran copies were similar genetically, but the Masada copy was distinct.
“What we learn from the scrolls is probably relevant also to what happened in the country at the time,” Mizrahi said. “As the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice foreshadows revolutionary developments in poetic design and religious thinking, this conclusion has implications for the history of Western mysticism and Jewish liturgy.”
The fragments also suggested a previously unknown source. The DNA evidence of a fragment from the book of Isaiah supported that it came from another site that has yet to be determined.
Scroll DNA could unlock more secrets
“It is remarkable that we were able to retrieve enough authentic ancient animal DNA from some of these 2,000 year old fragments considering the tough history of the animal hides,” Mizrahi told CNN in an email. “They were processed into parchment, used in a rough environment, left for two millennia, and then finally handled by humans again when they were rediscovered.”
The researchers cautioned that DNA evidence, while affording some clarity, can only “reveal part of the picture and not solve all the mysteries,” Rechavi said. Many of the scrolls haven’t been sampled and some won’t be in the near future because it could cause damage.
The research was conducted in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, official custodian of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Israel, Mizrahi said.
“Our research enabled us to shed new light on many old mysteries basically by allowing the materiality of the scrolls to speak for its own right — and it has surprisingly a lot to tell us,” Mizrahi said. “Each such fragment holds its own riddles, and we plan to investigate many more samples that would allow us to shed light on a variety of enigmatic issues.
When a biblical heroine comports herself differently from our modern expectations of whom we should emulate, is she still a heroine? 3 approaches
About a year ago, a Midreshet Lindenbaum alumna posed a thought-provoking question to me over WhatsApp about the character of Ruth. Her query unsettled me because it hit on a troubling issue which I didn’t know how to make sense of in a way that would satisfy her or myself. The student wrote that Ruth left her feeling confused. She is extolled for her extreme acts of kindness and self-sacrifice, abandoning her home to cling to her penniless, bereft mother-in-law, selflessly devoting herself to provide sustenance for both of them, and humbly doing anything that might vouchsafe for them a secure future. However, as the student wrote to me, it seems as though Ruth “is so committed to helping Naomi that her own identity is erased, and to me at least it seems to be contrary to the type of person that we’re supposed to strive to be.” In other words, she was asking, Is Ruth really a role model? Is she the type of character we should put on a pedestal for ourselves, our daughters, our students to strive to emulate? Chesed, generosity, self-sacrifice, devotion, and commitment are all laudatory traits, but Ruth seems to take them to extremes, perhaps one might even say unhealthy extremes.
The most disturbing scene in her short, four-chapter scroll, is when Naomi bids her to wash and beautify herself, surreptitiously slip into Boaz’s threshing floor at night, lie down next to him, and submit herself to whatever Boaz will instruct her to do. Surely, Naomi and Ruth must have desperately hoped and prayed for the fortunate ending that in fact transpires, but both of them must have been aware that the provocative scene could easily have ended very differently. Do we seek to become the types of people who would so lose our own sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth that we would meekly acquiesce to be a pawn in such a plot, as Ruth does with her response “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה” – whatever you say, I will do? 
Approach #1: Ruth is more self-effacing than we ought to be, yet she remains a role model
The first approach accepts that in fact Ruth has self-effacing qualities that are more extreme than what we should aspire to ourselves; this does not, however, detract from her standing as a heroine and role model. How so?
There are several possible answers. The same student who proposed the question initially herself suggested a particularly insightful one. She pointed out that the megilla opens by highlighting its historical context – “ויהי בימי שפט השפטים” (and it was when the Judges judged) – indicating that this is a critical nugget of information. The era of the Judges was a disastrous one for the Jewish people, steeped in repetitive cycles of idol worship and then oppression by other nations in punishment for their abandonment of God. The most oft-repeated phrase throughout the Book of Judges, the line that best encapsulates the era is “איש הישר בעיניו יעשה” — each person did whatever was right in his own eyes. It was an era marked by selfishness, insularity, and a lack of concern for anyone outside of oneself. In such a time period, there could not have been a more perfect heroine or role model than Ruth.
The Rambam writes in Hilchot De’ot 2:2 that the best method for an individual to correct a character flaw is to go to the opposite extreme. For example, if he suffers from arrogance, writes the Rambam, he “should sit in the least honorable seat and wear worn-out clothes which shame their wearer.” The Rambam explicitly writes that he does not believe it is ideal to subject oneself to humiliation; he recommends it only as a temporary corrective for someone suffering from arrogance. He concludes, “So too should a person behave regarding all character traits. If he is on one extreme he should move to the opposite extreme and accustom himself to such behavior for a good while until he may return to the proper middle path.”
Perhaps Ruth demonstrates to us that the Rambam’s prescription for correcting an individual’s character traits is equally applicable on the national level. As a nation, Bnei Yisrael during Ruth’s time were falling prey to excessive selfishness; Ruth emerged on the scene and modeled unreserved self-sacrifice because that was precisely what was needed as a corrective measure. Ruth’s contemporaries trampled on others’ identities in order to assert their own; Ruth muted her own identity in order to restore Naomi’s. The people at Ruth’s time needed to behave selflessly not merely in appropriate amounts but precisely to Ruth-esque excessive degrees to serve as an antidote to their self-centeredness, and help them eventually achieve the “proper middle path.”
Approach #2: Ruth is a role model of trust and faith
A second approach was suggested to me by a wise mother-in-law, who pointed out that Ruth is not blindly heeding the instructions of just anyone; the disturbing command to seek out Boaz in the middle of the night has been issued by none other than Naomi, whom Ruth has learned to trust deeply and unconditionally through many years of living, breathing, eating, sleeping, suffering, and surviving side-by-side. From all these experiences, Ruth has developed unswerving faith and confidence both in Naomi’s goodness and in her utter devotion to Ruth’s well-being. Within the context of this relationship, Ruth’s blind obedience to Naomi’s plan is transformed from troubling docility to a praiseworthy act of trust and faith. A trusted, beloved parent asking us to embark on a questionable mission or to perform an arduous favor is entirely different than a random stranger requesting the identical thing.
This point resonated deeply with me. Yet, I was still somewhat unsettled, largely because of recent alarming incidents in which trusted figures, including rabbinic ones, have manipulated and abused unsuspecting congregants. Did I really want to convey the message to my students that they should unquestioningly agree to anything a trusted figure in their life asks of them?
A fascinating twist emerges from noting the specific time that Chazal selected for the reading of the Book of Ruth, the holiday of Shavuot. Numerous commentators have pondered the connection between the two. Perhaps the key lies in the fact that it was at Mount Sinai that Am Yisrael declared, “נעשה ונשמע!” – we will do and we will hear, placing submission to God’s will prior to, and not predicated upon, understanding it. Perhaps Ruth and Noami’s relationship is meant to be a metaphor for our relationship with God. Just as Ruth had developed unwavering trust in Naomi, leading her to ultimately submit to whatever Naomi would suggest, so too had Am Yisrael acquired steadfast faith in God over the course of the Plagues, the Exodus, and the Splitting of the Sea, culminating in their declaration of absolute commitment to His commandments at Mount Sinai. No human being deserves the kind of blind trust that Ruth places in Naomi, but God does. On the holiday of Shavuot when we relive our acceptance of God and His Torah, Ruth is the perfect heroine. Her traits of faith, obedience, and submission are precisely the ones to emulate in the realm of our relationship with our Creator.
Approach #3: Ruth is not as self-effacing as she appears
This final approach goes in a completely different direction than either of the first two. It suggests that a close reading of the text of the Megilla reveals that Ruth is a much stronger, more proactive character than she appears at first glance. First, it is Ruth’s own decision, and her decision alone, to cling so determinedly to Naomi. In fact, Naomi repeatedly attempts to dissuade her, yet Ruth tenaciously holds fast.
More significantly, a neighbor of mine, Micah Gimpel, suggested the following fascinating read: The most disturbing scene of the Megilla is Ruth’s rendezvous with Boaz on his threshing floor. There are many troubling aspects but for our purposes, the most problematic is Ruth’s obedient acquiescence to be a pawn in such a potentially humiliating, degrading plot. Wouldn’t we want to teach our daughters and students to have the confidence and self-respect to resolutely refuse to participate in such a plan? How can we possibly view Ruth as a heroine and role model?
What Micah pointed out is that Ruth may not be as passive and docile as she appears. When Naomi describes the plan, she essentially instructs Ruth to be merely a puppet, first her own and then Boaz’s, with no agency of her own. Naomi directs her to bathe, anoint, dress attractively, descend to the threshing floor, lie down next to the satiated and perhaps inebriated Boaz, uncover his feet, and then await his instructions for what to do next. In other words, in Naomi’s plan, Ruth is to pass directly from following her (Naomi’s) explicit, detailed instructions to following Boaz’s without a moment to think or act on her own. And Ruth dutifully assents, “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה” – all that you say I will do.
Everything begins exactly according to plan. Verse 5 informs us, “ותעש ככל אשר צותה חמותה” – Ruth does everything that her mother-in-law commanded her. She goes down to Boaz’s threshing floor, uncovers his feet, and lies down beside him to await the unfolding of events. Boaz in fact awakens and is shocked to discover a woman at his feet. He inquires as to her identity, and Ruth responds, “אנכי רות אמתך” – I am Ruth your maidservant. What happens next is the critical turning point. According to Naomi’s plan, Ruth ought to be silent at this point and await Boaz’s instructions. But that is not what Ruth does! She continues speaking, and seizes the opportunity to voice her own hope, nay her own demand: “ופרשת כנפך על אמתך כי גואל אתה” – spread your wing over your maidservant for you are a redeemer. Rather than silently, passively await Boaz’s response to discovering a woman at his feet as Naomi had instructed her, Ruth veers from the script and takes matters into her own hands, demanding that Boaz do something to protect her and secure her future. Just as Esther has her transformative moment in her megilla when she ceases to follow everyone else’s commands and pronounces one of her own, this is Ruth’s moment of transformation.
Precisely at the moment when she might appear weakest and most submissive is exactly the moment when she charts her own future and directs the course of how it will play out. Remarkably, Boaz endorses Ruth’s newfound bold, assertive voice by declaring “ברוכה את לה’ בתי” – blessed are you to Hashem, my daughter. He then completes the role reversal by declaring that he will do all that Ruth says – “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה לך”, a remarkable turnaround from Naomi’s plan in which Ruth was supposed to do all that Boaz instructed. Even more striking is that these words echo almost verbatim the very language with which Ruth initially expressed her submission to Naomi’s plan – “כל אשר תאמרי אעשה”. The fact that Boaz now employs the identical phraseology to affirm his submission to Ruth underscores the stunning reversals that have taken place between the lines of this brilliant megilla.
We have explored three different approaches to understanding why Ruth’s seemingly self-effacing character is in fact a role model: that Ruth was in fact overly meek but she was a role model and corrective for her specific era; that Ruth’s blind faith in Naomi models for us the kind of deep trust and obedience we should strive to develop in our relationship with God (perhaps other trusted figures in our life as well); and that a close read indicates that Ruth is in truth a much more assertive character than she appears. Whichever approach resonates most with you, I hope you feel as I do – that delving into the character of Ruth has enriched and deepened my appreciation of her, her megilla, and the myriad lessons hidden within its four chapters.
 “ורחצת וסכת ושמת שמלותיך עליך וירדת הגורן אל תודעי לאיש… ושכבת והוא יגיד לך את אשר תעשין” (רות ג:ג-ד)
 In theory, another approach could suggest Ruth is not meant to be a role model at all. Not every character who appears in Tanach is a hero meant to be emulated. However, to me it seems clear that she is portrayed as a positive character from whom we are supposed to learn how to behave ourselves in at least some way. After all, the megilla ends by delineating the direct line of descent from Ruth to King David.
 Naomi’s loss of identity is highlighted by her insisting on a name change for herself. As she and Ruth are returning to Israel from the fields of Moav, Naomi tells the townspeople, “אל תקראנה לי נעמי קראן לי מרא כי המר שקי לי מאד” (א:כ) – Do not call me Naomi; call me “Bitterness (Mara)” for God has done bitter things to me. It is incredibly significant then that at the end of the Megilla (4:17), the townspeople proclaim that Ruth’s baby should be to Naomi a “משיב נפש” – restorer of her spirit, and they (the women of the town) are the ones who bestow upon him a name, declaring that a son has been born to Naomi – “ותקראנה לו השכנות שם לאמר ילד בן לנעמי”. Through Ruth and her son, Naomi’s spirit, her name, and her family line have been restored.
 Along similar lines, Dr. Yael Ziegler also posited that Ruth’s historical context provides the key, but she focused on Ruth as the prelude to the era of Kings, rather than as an antidote to the period of the Shoftim. She suggested that since monarchs are at such high risk of arrogance and utilizing their power to subjugate others, the Torah inserted the story of Ruth immediately prior to the inception of that era as a powerful message to maintain humility and a deep sense of service to others.
 The specific language that Ruth employs amplifies the chutzpah thinly veiled in her request. In their first interaction, Boaz praises Ruth for her devotion to Naomi and blesses her that she should be recompensed by God under whose wings she has sought refuge – “ישלם ה’ פעלך ותהי משכרתך שלמה מעם ה’ אלקי ישראל אשר באת לחסות תחת כנפיו” (ב:יב) . In her transformational moment, Ruth expresses her demand utilizing strikingly similar imagery – “ופרשת כנפך על אמתך” – spread your wing over your maidservant. Her bold message seems to be, “If you really believe I am so praiseworthy, do not leave it to God to protect me under His Divine wings; take action yourself and protect me under yours!”
 Interestingly, Megillat Esther contains almost an identical role reversal. Initially, Esther does everything Mordechai commands her, even when she is queen of the land – “ואת מאמר מרדכי אסתר עשה כאשר היתה באמנה אתו” (אסתר ב:כ). Yet, once Esther undergoes her transformation and issues a command to Mordechai, the Megilla relates: “ויעש ככל אשר צותה עליו אסתר” (אסתר ד:יז) – Mordechai did everything Esther commanded him.
ABOUT THE AUTHORDena Freundlich teaches Gemara and Halachah at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. She also teaches Halachah at Midreshet Torah v’Avodah, and has lectured in many schools and institutions on topics related to Tanach, Halacha, and Gemara. Prior to making aliyah in 2010, she served as Talmud Department Chair at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ. She holds a BA in Biology and Jewish Studies from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, an MA in Bible from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and was a member of the first graduating class of YU’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS). She lives in Efrat with her 3 children.
El 8 de Tebet, aproximadamente en el año 260 aec, en Alejandría, Egipto, el rey Ptolomeo ordenó a 72 eruditos judíos, seis por cada tribu de Israel, traducir la Torá al Griego. El Rey Ptolomeo intentaba demostrar la inexistencia de una interpretación judía unificada de la Torá, y por lo tanto tener una excusa para delegitimizar la tradición judía y humillar al pueblo de Israel. Para este efecto, los sabios judíos fueron colocados en cuartos de trabajo separados. Así, pensó el monarca griego, sería imposible que todos tradujeran de la misma forma el texto bíblico. Sin embargo, milagrosamente, todos los sabios tradujeron cada palabra de la Tora de la misma forma.
Esta traducción de la Torá es conocida como la Septuaginta (que en latín significa, «setenta»). A pesar de que fue hecha por destacados Sabios de Israel, la Septuaginta no se considera una traducción que sigue la tradición rabínica (La única traducción judía oficial de la Torá es la aramea «Targum Onqelos», realizada bajo la supervisión de rabbi Eliezer haGadol ca. 100 de la era común). Como se explica en el Talmud Yerushalmí (Meguilá 9), en muchos casos los autores de la Septuaginta se desviaron deliberadamente de la interpretación tradicional de la Torá y adaptaron el texto bíblico a la mentalidad griega y sus sensibilidades para evitar una situación de peligro para los judíos. Un ejemplo: En lugar de traducir «En el principio creó Dios…», tradujeron: «Dios creó en el principio». ¿Por qué? Porque para la mentalidad griega, la primera palabra de una oración se considera el sujeto de la oración. Si hubieran traducido «En el principio creó Dios», los griegos lo hubieron entendido como si un dios mitológico llamado «Bereshit», («En el principio», es decir, un dios que gobierna el tiempo, como el mitológico «Cronos» ) fue quien engendró a Eloqim, D-s ח»ו
La traducción de la Torá al griego fue considerada por la historiografía judía como un evento negativo. ¿Por qué? Porque la Biblia hebrea pasó a ser desde ese momento un libro que los gentiles se jactaban de comprender plenamente, incluso cuando ignoraban por completo el idioma original de la Torá, el hebreo, y la tradicional interpretación judía de la Biblia.
La Septuaginta fue también ampliamente utilizada por los judíos asimilacionistas para avanzar sus planes de sincretizar (combinar) los valores griegos y los judíos. Tres siglos más tarde, la Septuaginta allanó el camino para el avance de religiones «bíblicas» no-judías. Como lo explica Timothy McLay, «las Escrituras judías tal como fueron estudiadas, leídas e interpretadas en la lengua griega, fueron la base de gran parte, si no de la mayoría, del contexto interpretativo del Nuevo Testamento.» A diferencia de los cultos paganos, que eran claramente antagónicos a la Torá, estas nuevas religiones estaban supuestamente basadas en la Torá! Irónicamente, la Biblia se interpretaba a voluntad y capricho para justificar ideas o creencias no-judías o incluso anti-judías ¡»en el nombre de la Biblia»! Toda esta nueva tendencia causó tragedias incontables para el pueblo judío durante siglos o milenios.
Hay dos tipos de letras, letras escritas y letras grabadas. ¿Cuál es la diferencia entre ellas? En lo más superficial: una letra escrita se puede borrar mientras que una letra tallada no se puede borrar (sin destruir la piedra en la que se encuentra). Esa diferencia se debe a una diferencia más profunda y esencial: una letra escrita se forma por medio de juntar dos cosas separadas —y así como se unieron, se pueden volver a desunir— mientras que la letra tallada proviene de la propia piedra. En otras palabras: la letra escrita es algo foráneo impuesto mientras que la letra tallada es algo autóctono expuesta.
O como lo habrá dicho el famoso escultor Miguel Ángel Buonarroti: “esculpir es fácil, sacas lo que sobra y así se libera la escultura atrapada”.
¿Qué tiene que ver todo esto con la ansiedad y la depresión?
Suele suceder que la ansiedad y la depresión son el resultado de una disconformidad o confusión en cuanto a la identidad personal. ¿Quién soy y qué es lo que realmente quiero, más allá de lo que me parece que quiero?
La gente gasta fortunas en la búsqueda de quién le pueda ayudar a descifrar dicha enigma.
Tener presente la diferencia entre letras escritas y letras talladas nos puede ayudar a identificar cuál es el mensaje tallado en la profundidad y esencia de nuestro ser y cuál es meramente nada más que algo extraño agregado que en vez de expresarnos, nos tapa y nos sofoca.
En su descripción de las tablas conteniendo los Diez mandamientos, la Torá dice1 : “Las tablas habían sido hechas por Di-s y la grafía era la grafía de Di-s, grabada sobre las tablas”. Referente a la palabra Jarut —grabada— utilizada en este versículo, dice Rabi Iehoshúa ben Levi2 : “No leas la palabra [solo] como Jarut (grabada) sino [también] como Jerut3 (libertad), ya que no hay alguien libre sino aquel que se dedica a la Torá.”
A primera vista parecería totalmente lo contrario: con sus tantas obligaciones y prohibiciones, ¿cómo podemos considerar que el libre es aquel que se dedica a la Torá? ¿No será más libre aquel que hace lo que quiere en vez de lo que le imponen, on sea justamente aquel que no se dedica a vivir de acuerdo a las limitaciones e imposiciones de la Torá?
En base a lo que explicamos sobre las letras escritas y las letras grabadas, podemos entender el tema. La normas de la Torá no son algo externo impuesto sobre nosotros como la tinta de la letra escrita; más bien nos permiten identificar, revelar, acceder y activar lo que se halla en lo más profundo de nuestra esencia. Tal como la letra tallada, nunca se borra. Puede suceder que la letra tallada se tape con polvo u otro sedimento. En ese caso, únicamente hace falta remover lo acumulado para restaurar el brillo original de nuestra propia esencia y nuestra conexión con ella.
En el Éxodo de Egipto nos liberamos de la esclavitud a un tirano externo, el Faraón, pero todavía seguimos esclavizados a un tirano peor: nosotros mismos. Nuestros instintos nos esclavizan de una manera que nadie ni nada podría hacer. Muchas veces nos convencemos que queremos seguir los dictámenes de nuestro instinto, que es lo que realmente queremos y al hacerlo estaremos libres. Al pie del Monte Sinaí aprendimos el gran secreto de la satisfacción y felicidad humana: a diferencia del animal cuya libertad y poder dependen de la posibilidad de satisfacer sus instintos libremente, el hombre verdaderamente libre y feliz es aquel que puede dominar a sus instintos y canalizarlos hacia un objetivo más allá de su mera satisfacción inmediata y efímera que no deja huella.
Si bien gastar produce satisfacción, no se compara con la satisfacción de una buena inversión.
Así que la herramienta de esta semana es: para poder definir qué es lo que realmente quieres, pensá si es algo que apunta a lo que eres o lo que solo pareces ser.
NOTAS AL PIE
2. Pirkei Avot, 6:2
3. Dado que en la Torá las palabras aparecen únicamente con letras sin las vocalizaciones, en muchos casos es posible leer la misma palabra de distintas maneras, dando lugar a errores (Véase un ejemplo en Ialkut Shimoni al Hatorá, 938:34) o a interpretaciones más amplias (como en nuestro caso).
¿Con qué frecuencia deseamos ser más amables y más amorosos? ¿Quién no ha deseado poder frenar sus impulsos hacia la satisfacción de necesidades momentáneas? ¿Quién no quiere que sus buenas acciones eclipsen a las egoístas?
Todos tienen el poder de convertirse en la “mejor persona” que saben que son capaces de ser. Hacer cambios positivos es una parte continua del crecimiento espiritual. La pregunta es, ¿cómo?
Una perspectiva judía puede ayudar a responder eso.
Nuestros Sabios enseñan1 que cada uno de nosotros tiene dos ietzers (inclinaciones) dentro de sí, uno que busca servir al alma e impulso espiritual, y otro que satisface el ego y apetitos físicos. Nuestro mayor potencial se logra cuando podemos canalizar ambas energías internas en la dirección de la mayor salud y santidad posibles. Esto requiere que participemos activamente en la inclinación positiva y trabajemos para transformar la inclinación negativa.
Con este fin, los pensadores judíos han debatido durante mucho tiempo el enfoque más ventajoso para el autorrefinamiento: ¿Debería una persona mejorarse a sí misma principalmente luchando o solucionando los impulsos negativos dentro de sí? ¿o centrando principalmente sus esfuerzos en hacer el bien, servir a Di-s y apoyar a otros? ¿Un enfoque lleva al otro? ¿Cuáles son sus respectivos beneficios y lógicas?
La mejor defensa es una buena ofensiva
En respuesta a esta pregunta, dos grandes maestros jasídicos del siglo XVIII, R. Aryeh Leib de Shpole (conocido como “Shpoler Zeide”) y R. Schneur Zalman de Liadi, fundador de Jabad-Lubavitch, discutieron sobre la mejor manera de cambiar positivamente el equilibrio en la lucha constante entre las inclinaciones negativas y positivas de uno. Esencialmente, sus enfoques respectivos pueden entenderse en la terminología clásica de conflicto: ¿Debería uno invertir su energía en asegurar primero una línea de defensa buena y sólida, o en lanzar una ofensiva temprana y audaz?
R. Aryeh Leib abogó por una postura más defensiva. Según esta perspectiva, la forma más efectiva de silenciar la voz interna de la negatividad es terminar cualquier relación con ella. Solo después de expulsar cada pensamiento, palabra y acción impíos, dijo, se puede dedicar energía a la realización del bien. Paradójicamente, este enfoque requiere que uno se concentre fuertemente en sus impulsos inferiores y rasgos negativos para identificarlos y deconstruirlos.
Para respaldar su posición, R. Aryeh Leib citó al Rey David: “Apártate del mal y haz el bien”,2 lo cual, explicó, significa que deben estar en ese orden: primero alejándote del mal y solo luego concentrándote en hacer el bien. Además, reforzó esta prueba de las escrituras con una analogía simple: “¿Tiene sentido traer muebles adornados a un hogar sin limpiarlo primero? ¿Cuál es el punto de los hermosos muebles si se colocan en la suciedad?”3
R. Schneur Zalman no estuvo de acuerdo; argumentó en apoyo de una estrategia más “ofensiva”. Él enseñó que, al enfocarnos y construir sobre las buenas cualidades ya presentes dentro de nosotros, podemos cambiar el impulso y disminuir la atracción magnética de nuestros sentimientos negativos. En lugar de poner el ego bajo el microscopio, lo que solo nos pone en contacto más cercano con la inclinación al mal, R. Schneur Zalman sugirió, en cambio, que deberíamos ir directamente al alma, por así decirlo. Como escribió claramente en el Tanya: “Quien lucha con un oponente sucio se ensucia”.4 La mayoría de los activistas políticos pueden dar fe de esto.
No te enfoques en ti mismo
El Rebe llevó este enfoque aún más lejos. De acuerdo con la enseñanza de Jabad, él estaba inequívocamente del lado de cuidar la bondad a través de la inmersión en la positividad y la luz, en lugar de en la deconstrucción de la oscuridad hasta el infinito. Él enseñó que al enfocar la atención en los demás, uno puede elevarse por encima de los pequeños reclamos y antojos del ego.
Cuando un hombre pidió consejo para vencer un impulso negativo que lo preocupaba, el Rebe le escribió esta carta:5
Ciertamente, este es solo el diseño del ietzer hará (inclinación al mal). [En general,] sería bueno para usted minimizar sus pensamientos sobre usted mismo, incluso sobre aquellos asuntos que parecen necesitar corrección, e intercambiar estos pensamientos por asuntos que involucren a otros. Qué bueno sería si esos pensamientos se enfocaran en Di-s.
Este cambio de enfoque está destinado a corregir nuestra tendencia natural a ser autoabsorbidos. Según el Rebe, incluso cuando ese enfoque egocéntrico se dirige a fines positivos, como el refinamiento del ego, todavía se está fijando en el yo y, por lo tanto, la persona no se conecta a Di-s ni a los demás. El Rebe buscó liberarnos de los estrechos confines del yo aislado activando nuestras naturalezas espirituales superiores al amor, al servicio y la conexión tanto con el Creador como con la creación para el bien de todos.
El poder de hacer el bien
Cuando las personas no toman medidas positivas, corren el riesgo de quedar atrapadas en el fango del pensamiento negativo. La mayoría de las personas han experimentado la frustración de tratar desesperadamente de no pensar en algo, creyendo que, si lo ignoran, simplemente desaparecerá. No lo hace; todo lo contrario, en realidad.
Sin embargo, al cambiar conscientemente su enfoque de los pensamientos negativos a la realización de buenas acciones, la persona puede hacer que sus impulsos negativos retrocedan gradualmente o incluso cesen por completo. ¿Por qué? Porque se ha pasado a algo mejor.
Cuando uno se enfoca en lo positivo, hay un suministro interminable de buenas actividades: trabaja como voluntario en la comunidad, da tutoría a un niño, dona comida y ropa a personas necesitadas, estudia, reza o recauda dinero para una causa digna. La lista de formas de tener un impacto positivo es interminable.
Las inclinaciones negativas se presentan en muchas formas diferentes: materialismo, avaricia, ansia de poder, arrogancia, distracciones, adicciones, ira e incluso impaciencia con los demás. Trabajar para analizar y reducir cada aspecto de la inclinación al mal puede llevar toda una vida. Actuar con intenciones amorosas y conscientes puede tomar solo un momento.
Cuando una persona se enfoca en “hacer el bien”, inevitablemente “se apartará del mal” como consecuencia natural.
La noche es desterrada a través de la iluminación, no de la eliminación.
No arregles el pasado, construye el futuro
Un joven vino una vez al Rebe, avergonzado de haberse distanciado de la observancia judía. Ahora estaba de vuelta y buscaba un camino de penitencia por desviarse. El Rebe dijo: “No te concentres en tu pasado en este momento; más bien, preocúpate por servir a Di-s a través de la alegría, y te preocuparás del pasado en un momento diferente”.7
No comiences un nuevo viaje recordando todos tus pasos en falso anteriores, ya que es muy posible que te asuste cualquier progreso futuro. Comienza con movimientos pequeños pero tangibles en la dirección correcta. Estos primeros éxitos te ayudarán a generar impulso hacia tu meta, al mismo tiempo que te abren el apetito del alma por los frutos espirituales de la bondad y la positividad.
Levántate por encima de eso
La respuesta del Rebe para aquellos preocupados por sus impulsos o inclinaciones negativas fue: “¡Levántate por encima de eso!”. Esta no era una forma de decir: “¡Supéralo!” Más bien, quiso decir “levántate por encima de él (el impulso)” literalmente, en el ámbito espiritual.
Esto, él sabía, podría ser especialmente desafiante para los adolescentes inquietos. Cuando era adolescente de yeshivá, R. Leibel Kaplan se iba a casa después de cenar en la escuela. Aunque había comido, tenía la costumbre de dirigirse al refrigerador cuando llegaba a casa. No tenía hambre; solo quería ver qué había hecho su madre para la cena.
Fue al Rebe para ver si podía eliminar este hábito. Ahora, en la escala de impulsos e inclinaciones negativas, esto no ocupa un lugar destacado en la lista de “pecados terribles” de nadie, pero le preocupaba y estaba decidido a superarlo. El Rebe le aconsejó que se imaginara a sí mismo como el decano de un gran seminario rabínico o como CEO de una gran empresa, un puesto en el que su influencia sería tal que exigiría el respeto de sus compañeros. Si este fuera el caso, sugirió el Rebe, revisar la nevera después de haber comido estaría por debajo de su dignidad.8
Aquí, el Rebe le enseñó al estudiante a dejar un hábito negativo al proyectarse en un ámbito donde el hábito negativo estaba por debajo de él. El Rebe no se centró en el joven ni en la falta de refinamiento, y como resultado tampoco lo hizo el estudiante. El Rebe simplemente le pidió al estudiante que participara en una visualización que revelara su naturaleza superior.
No te dejes influenciar. Sé influyente
Dov Lent, un joven estudiante, temía que las distracciones y las tentaciones de su nueva universidad lo descarrilaran de vivir una vida observante de mitzvot. El Rebe lo alentó a que no permitiera que el ambiente secular del campus consumiera demasiada atención de él. “La mejor manera de lidiar con la inclinación al mal, y con un entorno desafiante en particular, es no pelear con ellos”, dijo el Rebe. “En primer lugar, ¡no te metas en un encuentro con ellos! Más bien, aleja tu mente de toda la tentación diciéndote a ti mismo: ‘¡Estoy ocupado! ¡No tengo tiempo para tales cosas! Tengo que aprender a hacer una mitzvá, tengo una mitzvá que cumplir, estoy ayudando a alguien”.
Años más tarde, R. Dov Lent informó que había pasado su tiempo libre en la universidad aprendiendo Torá con un compañero de estudio preocupado de manera similar. Además, ayudó a organizar Shabatones en el campus para toda la comunidad. “En lugar de que el entorno secular me influyera de manera negativa, pude influir espiritualmente de manera positiva”.9
No hay tiempo para el pecado
El famoso Rebe jasídico, R. Menachem Mendel de Kotsk (1787-1859) dijo una vez: “No espero que mis jasidim no pequen. Espero que no tengan tiempo para pecar”. Como su consejo para Dov Lent, el Rebe también fue un gran creyente de que no hay tiempo para pecar.
Para resaltar este punto, a menudo compartió10 una historia sobre el gran Sabio Talmúdico, R. Yojanán ben Zakai. En su lecho de muerte,11 con sus estudiantes reunidos a su alrededor, lloró, diciendo que había dos caminos delante de él, y que no sabía qué camino tomaría. Había estado tan ocupado en la vida que nunca había tenido tiempo de contemplar y evaluar su estado espiritual. Las buenas obras literalmente habían ocupado todo su tiempo.
No pelees, fluye
En algún momento, todos nos hemos encontrado ocupados e inmersos en lo que estamos haciendo que entramos en un estado de “fluir”. Este estado puede atrapar a un abogado que se prepara para un juicio, a un autor ansioso por terminar de escribir una novela, o a un nuevo padre bañando a su hijo. Tal compromiso intenso puede silenciar nuestra conciencia física hasta el punto de hacernos ignorar las necesidades corporales como el hambre o la fatiga. Cuando movilizamos nuestras energías para lograr una causa superior, estamos inmersos de forma natural y alegre en una positividad abrumadora.
Entonces, ¿luchar contra el mal o hacer el bien? ¡Hacer el bien! Siempre y en todos los sentidos.
3. Curiosamente, el movimiento Musar, que surgió entre los judíos ortodoxos lituanos en el siglo XIX, sostuvo la misma opinión: que los judíos deben examinar sus deficiencias e inclinaciones negativas de cerca, en un pensamiento profundo, para corregirlas.
Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, is reported by Plato to have declared: “If I know one thing, it is that I know nothing.” This absurd statement is often referred to as the Socratic Paradox, but would more correctly be defined as an oxymoron, or a self-refuting statement.
In fact, Socrates reveled in making such confounding statements, and also enjoyed making his disciples feel uncomfortable by challenging anything and everything they ever said with clever refutations and pithy rebuffs. He single-handedly turned incisive rational thinking and logical argument into a sport — but with this most famous of his quotes, he readily admitted that it was all just a front. Ultimately, he knew nothing — or as he might have put it: he was constantly at the beginning of a new learning curve.
It has always struck me that the Socratic Paradox has a parallel in Jewish tradition. The Talmud records the dramatic moment when the Jewish nation received the Torah at Mount Sinai: “Rav Simai said, when the Jewish nation declared נַעֲשֶֹה — ‘we shall do’, before saying וְנִשְמַע — ‘we shall listen’, 600,000 heavenly angels came down to every member of the Jewish nation and crowned each of them with two crowns, one of them to correspond with ‘we shall do’ and the other with ‘we shall listen’” (Shabbat 88a).
There is no greater paradox in Jewish history than this blind acceptance of Torah whilst at the same time declaring that it needs to be understood, albeit only once the Jews had already agreed to be bound by its requirements and restrictions. After all, if they were admitting that they “know nothing” by saying “we shall do,” why was there any need to later seek an understanding of the Torah by saying “we shall listen”? What would be the point?
Jewish tradition informs us that Torah is the ultimate expression of God’s will on Earth. In reality, as Maimonides makes clear, God and His will are entirely inseparable, which means that if God is infinite, the Torah must also be infinite. A human being possesses limited intellect; consequently, had the nation initially said “we shall listen” before saying “we shall do,” this would have indicated that they wanted to make a decision about their commitment to Torah based on what would have been by definition limited comprehension — as if it was possible for them to cogently opine on God’s infinite wisdom, and only then to accept it.
But by saying “we shall do” before saying “we shall listen,” they indicated their unconditional acceptance of God’s Torah, acknowledging their own inability to ever truly comprehend it fully. The question this forces us to ponder is where exactly the Jewish nation had acquired their ability to do this.
Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933), legendary founder of the Chachmei Lublin yeshiva, suggests that this incredible national characteristic originated with our patriarch Abraham. When God assured Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, He told him to go outside and “look toward the heavens and count the stars.” Without thinking twice, Abraham went out and began counting the stars. The verse continues with God asking Abraham: “Are you able to count them? So shall be your offspring” (Gen. 15:5).
What was going through Abraham’s mind as he attempted to count the stars? It is totally impossible for a human being to count all the stars in the sky.
The answer would appear to be — that is just who Abraham was. If God asks you to do something, you do it — because God is God, and if He asks you to do something, you do it. Similarly, when the Jewish nation was told that they were about to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, they immediately indicated that they were ready to receive it without going through a prolonged process of consideration and reflection to see if it all made sense.
That is what the verse means when it says: “so shall be your offspring” — God was telling Abraham: your descendants will also possess this trait of devoted loyalty to Me, so that when they are about to receive the Torah, they will declare “we shall do” before saying “we shall hear.”
The sheer magnitude of the Torah at every level means that if we are only willing to accept the Torah if we grasp it intellectually, our intellectual limitations will prevent us from ever understanding it. It is only by knowing that we know nothing that we can ever begin to know anything at all. In other words, “we shall do” has to come before “we shall listen.”
Meanwhile, the even greater paradox is this: if we are willing and ready to accept God’s Torah without first understanding everything, then we just might merit to understand it. I think that is a paradox worthy of Socrates himself, or, as he might have said, “Naaseh Venishma!”
Rabbi Pini Dunner is the senior spiritual leader of the Beverly Hills Synagogue.
If there are 613 commandments, why were ten commandments specifically given at Sinai, and in what way are they different from the other 603?
To understand this, we first need to clear up a very common misconception. Although in English (and for clarity’s sake, here as well) they are commonly referred to as the “Ten Commandments,” in Hebrew they are called the Aseret Hadibrot, the “Ten Statements.” Thus, the less common English name “Decalogue,” derived from the Greek words meaning “ten sayings,” is more accurate.
This isn’t mere semantics.
At Mount Sinai, contrary to common misconception, the Jews received the entire Torah, including all of its 613 mitzvahs, not just the Ten Commandments. The Midrash1 and classic commentators of the Torah explain how each of the Ten Commandments is really a general mitzvah, and they describe how each of the 613 mitzvahs is included in one of the ten statements.2
Furthermore, as the Midrash points out, there are 620 letters that make up the Aseret Hadibrot. This corresponds to the 613 mitzvahs plus the seven days of creation,3 seven Noahide Laws4 or the seven rabbinic mitzvahs.5
Even on a more basic level, the Ten Commandments contain more than just ten specific mitzvahs. For example, according to Maimonidies, the second statement actually contains four separate mitzvahs: (1) not to believe in any other god; (2) not to make graven images; (3) not to bow down to idols; and (4) not to worship an idol in the way it is customarily worshiped.
Yet the Torah itself in a number of places explicitly calls them the “Ten Statements.”6 So what is the significance of specifically ten statements?
The Covenant of Ten
When referring to the Ten Commandments, the Torah calls them the words of the covenant: “…and He inscribed upon the Tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”7 In turn, the Tablets are called Shnei Luchot Habrit, “the Two Tablets of the Covenant.” Thus these Ten Commandments are meant as a covenant between G‑d and the Jewish people.
The Midrash explains that the Ten Commandments correspond to the Ten Utterances with which G‑d created the world (e.g., “Let there be light”), as well as the ten sefirot(Divine attributes or emanations), which are also the source of the corresponding ten faculties (kochot) of the soul.8
Additionally, the Midrash9 explains that the Ten Commandments are connected to the many other things in the Torah that are associated with the number ten: the ten generations from Adam to Noah, the ten generations from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham, the ten tests with which G‑d tested Abraham, the ten blessings our forefathers received, the ten plagues, the ten curtains of the Tabernacle, etc.
The number ten represents wholeness and completeness; thus, all of these ideas are interconnected, reflecting a common purpose.
Purpose of Creation
The Zohar states that “G‑d looked into the Torah and created the world.10” In other words, the Torah is the blueprint for creation.11
The mystics explain that the purpose for creation was that G‑d desired that we make a dwelling place for Him down here in this mundane, materialistic and physical world.12
Thus, our purpose is to refine ourselves and the world around us by using the physical world to serve G‑d, thereby uplifting the mundane and transforming it into something holy.
This is why the number ten is associated with the Torah as well as the creation of the world and the ten sefirot. Through the fulfillment of the Torah and its mitzvahs, we reach the completion of the purpose of creation.13
The narratives of Jesus’ conception and birth as presented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke echo Jewish history and cite Jewish prophecy. In that sense, the Christmas story can be said to have Jewish origins.
When the stories of Jesus’ origins were first told, there was no separation between Jewish followers of Jesus and other Jews: Peter and Paul and Mary Magdalene did not cease to be Jews on Easter Sunday. Jewish followers of Jesus did not cease to be Jews, or to be recognized by others as Jews, for the next several centuries.
I appreciate the history behind and the artistry within the Christmas stories, even though I am not a Christian and I do not worship Jesus. If we Jews read these texts for ourselves, rather than have them filtered through shopping frenzies or sappy TV dramas, we can better understand why our Christian neighbors find them inspirational even as we recover connections to our own history. If we get some personal joy in recognizing that the Nativity narratives, which are magnificent pieces of literature, are substantially also Jewish stories told by Jews, so much the better.
New Testament Gospels
The New Testament opens with four “gospels” (a word derived from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, “good news”) that tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The oldest account, the Gospel according to Mark, opens not with stories of Jesus’ birth but with Jesus coming to a man named John (the Hebrew would have been Yoḥanan), who was immersing (Greek: βαπτίζω) people in the Jordan River as a public testimony that they had repented of their sins. He is known as “John the Baptizer” or, more conventionally, “John the Baptist.”
Mark (1:3) describes him as “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” The citation is to (Deutero-)Isaiah, though the parallelism in the Hebrew shows that the verse should be punctuated differently:
Isa 40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
In the Hebrew, the voice crying out tells the exiles in Babylon build a highway for their return to Jerusalem. Mark repurposes the quote, the first of many ancient prophetic texts that take on new meaning for Jesus’ followers.
According to Mark’s account, when John immerses or “baptizes” Jesus, Jesus hears a voice from heaven announce that he is God’s son. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, both dependent on Mark as a source, begin differently by backdating the announcement that Jesus is God’s son to the time of his conception. Matthew begins with a genealogy starting with Abraham, continuing to David, and culminating with “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Matthew 1:16).
Luke, reserving the genealogy to chapter 3, begins with the conception and birth of John to Zechariah and Elizabeth, an elderly, pious, and previously childless Jewish couple. Only after telling about this miraculous conception, modeled on the various stories of infertility followed by a birth in the earlier Scriptures, does Luke report that something more miraculous than a post-menopausal conception will occur, and that will be a virginal conception.
These narratives were told to show that Jesus’ story is in continuity with the story of Israel, and to demonstrate that the events surrounding his conception, birth, and early childhood fulfilled texts from the Prophets that Jesus’ followers took to be about the Messiah. The following are a few examples of how Jesus’ followers understood his role as Messiah in light of Jewish texts.
Jesus as a Son of David
In the Second Temple period, there were multiple speculations about the Messiah. One dominant view was that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David, to whom God promised:
2 Sam 7:12 I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 7:13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
Although this verse refers to Solomon, it does promise a perpetual line of Davidic kings.
The New Testament authors present Jesus as David’s heir. For instance, the Gospel of Luke recounts:
Luke 1:26 …the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Both Matthew and Luke list Joseph, the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus, as a Davidic descendant. However, their genealogies do not agree in certain specifics. According to Luke (3:23–38), the line goes through David’s son Nathan, and Joseph’s father is named Hiel. According to Matthew (1:2–16), the line goes through King Solomon, and Joseph’s father is named Jacob.
Matthew’s genealogy—the opening chapter of the New Testament—starts with a general statement:
Matt 1:1 An account of the genealogy (γενέσεως, cf. “Genesis”) of Jesus the Messiah (Χριστός, whence “Christ”), the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Matthew then presents the genealogy beginning with Abraham and including other references to Jewish history as well as to four unexpected women. For example, Matthew explicitly notes that there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the deportation to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Jesus (Matthew fudges the numbers, and that last set actually has only thirteen names).
Hebrew readers would recognize that the number 14 equals David in gematria, in the system where each letter represents a number (ד=4 ו=6, ד=4). Greek readers had a similar system, called isopsephy, but the connection of the number 14 to David does not work in the Greek.
Next, by referring to “Jacob the father of Joseph” (Matt 1:6), the genealogy foreshadows the plot, for, as we will see shortly, this second Joseph, like the original Joseph son of Jacob in Genesis, will dream dreams (Matt 1:20–21, 2:13) and protect his family by resettling them in Egypt (Matt 2:14–15).
Matthew’s genealogy offers another important foreshadowing by naming four women. Instead of the expected Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Matthew mentions:
Tamar, the Levirate widow, who conceives twins when she tricks her father-in-law, Judah, into having sexual relations with her (Genesis 38).
Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho (Joshua 2,6), whom the genealogy takes to be the mother of Boaz.
Ruth, who convinces Boaz to marry her after she spent the night with him on the threshing floor.
“The wife of Uriah,” better known as Bathsheba, who at the time she enters the genealogy is actually Uriah the Hittite’s widow and the wife of King David.
These women have several functions in the genealogy. First, Rahab and Ruth and possibly Tamar mark the presence of gentiles in the Davidic line and so anticipate the turning of pagans to the God of Israel. Second, they show a higher righteousness than the men with whom they are paired (see Gen 38:26, where Judah says of Tamar, צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי, “She is more righteous than I”). Finally, their stories, with unusual sexual markers, anticipate the story of Jesus’ conception
A Miraculous Conception
Despite the genealogical connection between Joseph and David, the Gospels present Jesus’ descent from David as legal rather than biological, since Joseph is not his biological father.
Claims that the Incarnation (becoming “flesh”) of the divine is a pagan import connected to stories of the births of Achilles to the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus (Iliad 20.206-07; 24.59), Aeneas to the goddess Aphrodite and the mortal Anchises (Iliad 2.819-22; 5.247-48), Asclepius to the god Apollo and the mortal Coronis (Didiodorus of Sicily 4.0.1, 3), Pythagoras to Apollo and the mortal Pythias (Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 2), and so on, miss Jewish sources that also recount miraculous conceptions.
That angels can father children is explicit in Genesis 6:1–4, and “knowledge” of this phenomenon is what makes Lemach panic in some non-biblical sources about the divine look of his son Noah (1 Enoch 16, Genesis Apocryphon col. 2). The Samson story also implies that the unnamed angel and not Manoah is Samson’s real father. Philo of Alexandria hints that God was involved in the conception of Isaac (though not necessarily in a sexual way). Some Jewish sources also suggest that the priest-king Melchidezek of Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 as a product of a divinely assisted conception.
In none of these Jewish accounts, however, is the mother a virgin.
A Virgin Mother
In Luke’s Gospel, as we have seen, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will have a child:
Luke 1:34 And Mary says to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”1:35 The angel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Matthew’s Gospel includes the reason why Mary’s virginity is essential to the story:
Matt 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
To understand how Matthew finds a virginal conception in the Prophets, we need to compare the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) versions of Isaiah 7:14. In the Hebrew, Isaiah states,
Isa 7:14 Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman (ʿalmah) is pregnant and shall bear a son, and she will call his name Emanu-El.”
When Isaiah was translated into Greek, centuries before Matthew, ʿalmah was rendered as parthenos (παρθένος), which, at the time, meant both “young girl”—the Greek of Genesis 34 describes Dinah as a parthenos after she and Shechem had sexual relations—as well as “virgin,” as in the Parthenon, the temple to the virgin Athena. By Matthew’s time, parthenos was generally taken to mean “virgin.” Matthew, reading Isaiah in Greek, finds a virginal conception; other Jews, reading the Hebrew, do not.
Charges of Illegitimacy
Whether these nativity stories prompted charges that Jesus was the child of an illegitimate relationship, or whether they are responding to such charges, cannot be determine. We do know that such charges were made. For example, in his On the True Doctrine, Celsus, a 2nd century C.E. pagan philosopher whose work was preserved by the Christian writer Origen, suggests that Jesus’ mother “invented his birth from a virgin”:
[Jesus was] born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God. (Contra Celsum 1.28; Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4.1, trans. Frederick Crombie)
The Babylonian Talmud, similarly, refers to the idea of Jesus’ illegitimate conception twice, in passages expurgated from the standard Vilna printing. This version discusses someone called Ben Stada, who brought sorcery with him from Egypt (b. Shabbat 104b, Venice printing [also b. Sanhedrin 67a]):
בן סטד[א] בן פנדירא הוא אמר רב חסדא בעל סטדא בועל פנדיר[א] בעל פפו[ס] בן יהוד[ה] הוא אמו סטדא אמו מרי[ם] מגדלא נשי[א] הואי[ה] כדאמרי בפומדיתא סטת דא מבעלה.
[You call him] Ben Stada, but he is Ben Pandera (=Jesus)! (How could his father have two names?) Rav Hisda said: “The husband was Stada and the lover was Pandera.” But the husband was Pappos (=Joseph) son of Judah! Rather, his mother’s name was Stada. But his mother was Miriam Megadla Nashi! Rather, as they say in Pumbeditha “She strayed (satatda) from her husband.”
We can see in such comparatively late Jewish texts an anti-Christian polemic. (Just as many Christians have rejected the anti-Jewish polemics of the Church Fathers, I think it is time for us Jews to show similar graciousness.)
The Heavenly Portent
Matthew tells of a heavenly portent accompanying the birth of Jesus:
Matthew 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
This story is the origin of the famous “star of Bethlehem,” which inspired the Magi, sometimes (incorrectly) called “wise men” or identified as “three kings,” to travel to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1-2). Magi, who today are Zoroastrian priests, were for Matthew pagan astrologers. The star was not Haley’s comet (seen in 12 B.C.E.), not a supernova (in the constellation Capricorn in 5 B.C.E.), and not a planetary conjunction (Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C.E.; Venus and Jupiter in 2 B.C.E.).
Stars do not function like GPS systems. Moreover, a heavenly body does not, as Matthew states, ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον, “stop over the place where the child was” (2:9). Had it done so, the house, and the earth, would have been incinerated. The “star” for Matthew is a being, like an angel. Philo, for example, defined stars as “living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind” (Dreams 1.135).
Matthew is likely here alluding to Numbers 24:17, where Balaam predicts, דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, “A star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Allusions to this verse resurface in the second century C.E. when Rabbi Akiva refers to Simon ben Kosiba, the leader of the second revolt against Rome, as Bar Kokhba, “son of the star” (j. Taanit 4:5):
תני ר’ שמעון בן יוחי עקיבה רבי היה דורש דרך כוכב מיעקב דרך כוזבא מיעקב רבי עקיבה כד הוה חמי בר כוזבה הוה אמר דין הוא מלכא משיחא אמר ליה רבי יוחנן בן תורתא עקיבה יעלו עשבים בלחייך ועדיין בן דוד לא יבא
Simon ben Yochai taught: “Akiva, my teacher, would offer the homily ‘a star shall come out of Jacob’—‘Kosiba came forward from Jacob.’” Rabbi Akiva, when you would see Bar Kosiba, he would say, “this is the King Messiah.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta responded, “Akiva – Grass will grow on your cheeks and the son of David will not yet have come!”
Other Jewish writers appear to be responding directly to Matthew’s narrative. For example, the Sefer HaYashar, a midrashic work from the early second millennium which rewrites much of the Torah, describes Abraham’s birth as follows:
ויהי בלילה ההוא עת הולדת את אברם ויבואו כל עבדי תרח וכל חכמי נמרוד וכל חרטומיו ויאכלו וישתו בבית תרח… וישאו את עיניהם השמימה בלילה ההוא אל הכוכבים ויראו והנה כוכב אחד גדול מאד בא ממזרח שמש וירץ בשמים ויבלע ארבעה כוכבים מארבע רוחות השמים : ויתמהו כל חכמי המלך וכל החרטומים מהמראה ההוא… ויאמרו איש אל רעהו אין זה כי אם הילד אשר נולד בלילה הזה לתרח…
And it was on the night in which Abram was born, all of Terah’s servants and all of the sages of Nimrod and his magicians ate and drank in Terah’s house… and they lifted their eyes to the heavens that night to the stars and they saw one big star coming from the east and it ran through the heavens and swallowed four stars from the four corners of the heavens. And all of the king’s sages and his magicians were stunned at this vision… and each said to his fellow that night: This must be on account of the baby who was born to Terah this night….
For the midrash, Abraham had an earlier, bigger, and more important star than Jesus.
Matthew’s narrative continues:
Matthew2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
The Magi have the knowledge needed to follow the star and interpret its message about a king, but they need the Jewish sources to provide the details. Matthew’s message is that pagan wisdom can only get one so far, but not to the desired destination.
According to Matthew’s understanding of the Prophets, the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem because of the prophecy in Micah 5:1 (=5:2 in Christian numbering):
And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, least among the clans of Judah, from you one shall come forth to rule Israel for Me.
Matthew frequently cites Israel’s Scriptures to anchor the story of Jesus to the stories of the Jewish community. Bethlehem is also the home of King David, so the quote from Micah and the promise in 2 Samuel 7 are complementary.
Jesus is called not “Jesus of Bethlehem” but “Jesus of Nazareth”; the Gospels identify him as a Galilean, not a Judean. Thus, the Bethlehem birth required explanation. Neither the Gospels of Mark nor John mentions the Bethlehem birth. While Matthew presents Joseph and Mary as living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, and only later moving to Nazareth, Luke presents an otherwise unknown universal census to bring Joseph and Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem:
Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
The census would have reminded Luke’s readers of the tax revolt led by “Judas the Galilean” in 6 C.E. when Rome did decide to take a local census. Luke will later reference this revolt in the continuation of the third Gospel, the fifth book of the New Testament called The Acts of the Apostles.
Luke depicts the noted teacher Gamaliel as speaking against persecuting the followers of Jesus. Comparing their movement to other popular movements, Gamaliel states,
Acts 5:37 Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
For Luke, the message to readers is that Joseph and Mary, and so their child, are not anti-Roman revolutionaries.
This depiction of Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem for the census then leads to the famous description of Jesus’ birth in a stable because “there was no room at the inn,” and to Mary’s subsequent placing the infant “in a manger.”
Luke 2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Despite legends of greedy innkeepers who would not accommodate Mary and Joseph—legends that play on anti-Jewish stereotypes—Luke says nothing of the sort. Despite recent claims that shepherds were “unclean” or that the innkeeper banished Mary from public space because giving birth made her ritually impure—again, anti-Jewish interpretations—the text has nothing to do with ritual purity. The point is that there is no room for them at the inn to give birth. Mary needed privacy. The reference to the manger is symbolic: a manger is a feeding trough, and Jesus will later compare his body to bread (see Luke 22:19).
Jesus and Moses
Returning to Matthew’s account, we find Herod commanding the Magi to seek the child, “and when you have found him, bring me word that I may also go and kneel before him” (2:8). Herod has no such intention; he wants to kill potential rivals.
The Magi, after finding the child, receive their own dream in which they are warned not to return to Herod, and so they do not report back. Joseph too, escapes:
Matt 2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Matthew here includes another “fulfillment citation,” the technical term for the New Testament’s citing of Jewish Scripture as fulfilled by Jesus or his followers. In this case, the verse comes from Hosea:
Hos 11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (NRSV)
Hosea is speaking of the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and Matthew identifies Jesus with Israel in this prophecy.
The story continues with Herod’s reaction, and another fulfillment citation:
Matt 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the Magi.
In this account, known as “Slaughter of the Innocents,” Matthew parallels Herod with Pharaoh (Exod 1:22) and Jesus with Moses (Exod 2:2–3). Just as Moses’ life is threatened when Pharaoh mandates that children be cast into the Nile, so Jesus’ life is threatened when Herod orders the massacre of the children. This paralleling of Jesus to Moses continues throughout this Gospel.
Matthew next includes a fulfillment citation:
Matthew 2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The citation is to Jeremiah 31:14 (MT; 31:15 in Christian numeration):
Jer 31:14 Thus says YHWH: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
This prophecy originally referred to the children of Israel being taken into exile in Babylon, but Matthew again understands it in reference to Jesus’ survival when the other children in Bethlehem were slaughtered.
Jeremiah’s next verses respond to Rachel’s weeping:
Jer 31:15 Thus says YHWH: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work,” says YHWH: “they shall come back from the land of the enemy; 31:16 there is hope for your future,” says YHWH: “your children shall come back to their own country.”
Matthew’s readers, were they to know Jeremiah 31, would likely have heard a prediction of the resurrection of the children; Jews—going to the next verse—hear the emphasis on the land that tends to go missing in the New Testament.
Anyone familiar with the book of Exodus could predict the next events in Matthew’s narrative. When Herod dies, again an angel appears in a dream to Joseph and tells him to return to the land of Israel (see Exod 4:19). He does, but instead of going to Bethlehem, he relocates to Nazareth in the Galilee.
In the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus meets John the Baptizer, and in his immersion under the waters of the Jordan recollects the crossing of the Reed Sea. Jesus then goes into the wilderness for a period of forty days—suggesting Israel’s sojourn for forty years in the wilderness as well as Moses’ forty days on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28). Satan tempts him to engage in false worship (we recall the Golden Calf), but Jesus survives the temptation by quoting to Satan verses from Deuteronomy. Finally, like Moses, Jesus ascends a mountain and interprets Torah (Matt 5–7, the “Sermon on the Mount”).
And this is not the end of the story. Throughout the Gospels, we find more prophecies seen as fulfilled, and more connection of the story of Jesus to the story of Israel. With the advent of Christianity as a separate religion, it became very hard to see the Jewish roots of these traditions about Jesus, but when we bring knowledge of Jewish sources to New Testament studies, we find in the Nativity stories Jewish themes, Jewish history, and Jewish prophecy.
Is December 25 Jesus’ Birthday?
Neither Matthew nor Luke gives a date for Jesus’ birth, so how did December 25 become the (popularly) accepted date?
December 25 for the date of Jesus’ birth is first intimated in 221 C.E. in the writings of the Christian author Sextus Julius Africanus. He dated the conception of Jesus to March 25, the date he assigned to the day the world was created. If Jesus were conceived on March 25, then he would have been born nine months later, on December 25. But there are other possible explanations for the date, one pagan and one Jewish.
Pagan—The Roman emperor Aurelian instituted a festival, celebrated December 25, to commemorate the birth of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. That the winter solstice occurred a few days before added incentive to make the connection to rebirth. A holiday in place is easily adapted to a new religious concern.
Jewish—The followers of Jesus knew that his death occurred around the time of the Passover holiday; according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ Last Supper is a Passover meal, and Jesus dies on the first day of Passover; John depicts Jesus as being killed 24 hours earlier, when the lambs for the meal are sacrificed in the Temple. Some in the early Church concluded that Jesus’ conception and the crucifixion occurred on the same day, the spring equinox, calculated to March 25, and taking place around the same time as Passover. Again, were he conceived on March 25, his birthday would be December 25.