Chag HaMatzot and the Omer

Chag HaMatzot is the first of the three annual chagim (Pilgrimage Festivals) in the Hebrew Calendar. In Rabbinical Judaism, Chag HaMatzot is called Pesach and in English this chag is known as Passover or Feast of Unleavened Bread.

The very first Chag HaMatzot is recorded in detail in Shemot chapters 12 and 13. This chag actually began when B’nei Yisrael were still slaves in Mitzrayim.

They are to eat the flesh [of the lamb] on that night, roasted in fire, and matzot, with bitter-herbs they are to eat it. … And thus you are to eat it: your hips girded, your sandals on your feet, your sticks in your hand; you are to eat in trepidation – it is a Passover-Meal to יהוה. (Shemot 12:8,11)1

The chag is to be held for seven days beginning at sunset on the fourteenth day of the month of aviv (the first month). It is commanded that we eat matzah and not have any “chametz” (fermented products) within our homes.

This “chametz” is in fact three specific types of substances.3
1. Chametz (חָמֵץ) – anything that sours such as vinegar, wine, and leaven (Shemot 12:15)
2. Se’or (שְׂאֹר) – fermented mixture such as sourdough starter (Devarim 16:4)
3. Machmeset (מַחְמֶצֶת) – mixture of chametz or se’or with another item such as seasonings (Shemot 12:19-20)

In the first (month), on the fourteenth day after the New-Moon, at sunset, you are to eat matzot, until the twenty-first day on the month, at sunset. For seven days, no leaven is to be found in your houses, for whoever eats what ferments, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether sojourner or native of the land. (Shemot 12:18-19)1

Chag HaMatzot is a mitzvah that is to be an eternal command for the Yisraelites. We are also commanded to pass the knowledge of this chag and its surrounding history onto our children.

You are to keep this word as a law for you and for your children, into the ages! Now it will be, when you come to the land which יהוה  will give you, as he has spoken, you are to keep this service! And it will be, when your children say to you: What does this service (mean) to you? then say: It is the slaughter-meal of Passover to YHVH, who passed over the houses of B’nei Yisrael in Mitzrayim, when he dealt-the-blow to Mitzrayim and our houses He resuced. The people did homage and bowed low. (Shemot 12:24-27)1

After the initial Chag HaMatzot that was celebrated in Mitzrayim, the mitzvah continued during B’nei Yisrael’s time in the Wilderness and after they entered Eretz Yisrael. The sacrifice was brought to the Miskhan and later to the Beit HaMikdash. The sacrifice was not to be slaughtered within the gates of the settlements of B’nei Yisrael.

Keep the New-Moon of Aviv. You are to observe Passover to יהוה your God, for in the New-Moon of Aviv יהוה your God took you out of Mitzrayim, at night. You are to slaughter the Passover-offering to יהוה your God, (from) flock and herd, in the place the יהוה chooses to have his name dwell. … You may not slaughter the Passover-offering within one of your gates that יהוה your God is giving you; rather, in the place that יהוה your God chooses His name to dwell you are to slaughter the Passover-offering, at setting-time, when the sun comes in, at the appointed-time of your going-out from Mitzrayim. (Devarim 16:1-2,5-6)1

The king commanded all the people: “Offer the Passover sacrifice to God your יהוה as written in this Book of the Covenant.” (Melakhim Beit 23:21)2

Unlike Rabbinical Judaism which calls this chag “Pesach,” Karaite Judaism refers to this chag as Yom HaMatzot (חַג הַמַּצּוֹת) – the same name used in the Tanakh (Vayikra 23:6).

Karaites, just like the Rabbinates, begin preparing for Chag HaMatzot by thoroughly cleaning one’s home. All chametz (chametz, se’or, and machmeset) must be removed from one’s home and burned on the day of the chag’s eve. All utensils, plates, and cooking vessels must be thoroughly cleaned in order to remove any chametz. In addition, it is traditional for Karaites to make their own matzah which is to be eaten each day of the chag.3

The centerpiece of the first day of Chag HaMatzot is the seder. B’nei Yisrael was commanded to teach their children about the exodus from Mitzrayim.

…and in order that you may recount in the ears of your child and of your child’s child how I have been capricious with Mitzrayim, and my signs, which I have placed upon them – that you may know that I am יהוה. (Shemot 10:2)1

The seder is generally led by the head of the household (ba’al ha-bayit). The Ba’al HaBayit sings the Haggadah using a traditional Karaite melody. The text of the Haggadah is taken from Tehillim (Psalms), Bereishit (Genesis), Yehezq’el (Ezekiel), Devarim (Deuteronomy), and Vayikra (Leviticus). After the reading of the Haggadah is complete the meal is eaten.3

Since we no longer have a Beit HaMikdash, we offer prayers in place of offerings and sacrifices as we see in Hoshea.

Take words with you and return to יהוה. Say to Him: “Forgive all sin and accept what is good. We will offer confession in place of bullocks.” (Hoshea 14:3)4

יהוה spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to B’nei Yisrael and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, and you harvest its harvest, you are to bring the premier sheaf of your havest to the priest. He is to elevate the sheaf before the presence of יהוה, for acceptance for you; on the morrow of the Shabbat the priest is to elevate it. … An you are to number for yourselves, from the morrow of the Shabbat, from the day that you bring the elevated sheaf, seven Shabbats-of-days, whole (weeks) are they to be; until the morrow of the seventh Shabbat you are to number – fifty days, then you are to bring-near a grain-gift of new-crops to יהוה. (Vayikra 23:9-11,15-16)1

B’nei Yisrael is commanded to count a seven-week period from the “morrow of the Shabbat” and offer an omer (grain) offering on the fiftieth day. Karaites, unlike the Rabbinates, begin counting the Omer on the first Sunday that occurs during Chag HaMatzot. Since we no longer have a Beit HaMikdash, the Counting of the Omer between Chag HaMatzot and Shavuot is the only part of the mitzvah that we can currently fulfill.3

During the fifty days of counting, according to Karaite tradition, every person in the family counts the day of the Omer during the morning tefillah (prayer). It is also a tradition to beg יהוה for mercy that He bring forth the harvest.3


1Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
2Aryeh Kaplan. The Living Nach: Early Prophets. Brooklyn: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1994.
3al-Qirqisani Center. An Introduction to Karaite Judaism: History, Theology, Practice, and Custom. Troy, NY: al-Qirqisani Center for the Promotion of Karaite Studies, 2003.
4Aryeh Kaplan. The Living Nach: Later Prophets. Brooklyn: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1995.

Up for the Count: “a new initiative by the Karaite Jews of America to help Karaites of all varieties – historical, new, and simply the Karaite-intrigued – count the omer according to the biblical numbering”

Counting the Omer: “Each day, the number of the week and the number of the day in the week are declared.”

Refuting the “Oral Law” – Birds and Shabbat

Kosher Birds
Now these you are to hold detestable from fowl – they are not to be eaten, they are detestable-things: the eagle, the bearded-vulture and the black-vulture, the kite and the falcon according to its kind, every raven according to its kind; the desert owl, the screech owl and the sea gull, and the hawk according to its kind; the little-owl, the cormorant, and the great owl; the barn-owl, the pelican, and the Egyptian-vulture, the stork, the heron according to its kind, the hoopoe and the bat. (Vayikra 11:13-19)1

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that the Yisraelites would not know which birds are kosher. However, we are told in these very verses which birds are treif. Birds that were unknown to the Yisraelites, such as chicken and turkey, could be considered kosher or treif depending upon their characteristics as compared to known kosher birds (such as pigeons and turtledoves).

Seventh Day
(You) see that the Eternal One  has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day, he gives you bread for two days. Stay, each man, in his spot; no man shall go out from his place on the seventh day! (Shemot 16:29)1

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that the Yisraelites would not know what is meant by “his place” or the distance that one is permitted to travel on Shabbat. First, you must understand that this particular verse is telling the Yisraelites that they are not to leave their places on the seventh day in order to gather in manna. The Yisraelites were already given enough manna for two days.

In addition, from a simple peshat interpretation of this verse we see that there is no distance restriction for a person to travel on Shabbat. “His place” simply means that one is not permitted to travel if it means that the individual and his family would be unable to properly keep Shabbat.

Work on Shabbat
For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work [מְלָאכָה], but the seventh days is Sabbath for the Eternal One  your God: you are not to make any kind of work, (not) you, nor your son, nor your daughter, (not) your servant, nor your maid, nor your beast, nor your sojourner that is within your gates. (Shemot 20:9-10)1

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that the Yisraelites would not know what is meant by “work” which is forbidden on Shabbat. The word used in this passage for work (מְלָאכָה) is not meant to refer to common everyday physical labor. This type of work is that which is associated with creation as seen in Bereishit 2:2:

And on the seventh day God finished His work [מְלַאכְתּוֹ] which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made.1

Therefore this verse can be understood as a restriction on creation – making something new and unique. We can also see that “work” on Shabbat refers to that which has religious or spiritual significance. This can be deduced from Exodus 31:1-11 where the building of the Tabernacle was referred to as “work” (מְלָאכָה) and was forbidden to continue on Shabbat.


1Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.

Refuting the “Oral Law” – Slaughter and Fat

Only: in all your appetite’s craving you may slaughter (animals) and may eat meat according to the blessing of the Eternal One your God that He has given you within all your gates; the tamei and the pure (alike) may eat it, as (of) the deer, so (of) the gazelle. (Devarim 12: 15)1

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that the Yisraelites would not know how to properly slaughter an animal if there was no “Oral Law” given to Moshe. We can see clearly in the very next verse that the only actual mitzvah related to proper slaughter is to spill the blood of the animal onto the ground like water.

Only: the blood you are not to eat, on the earth you are to pour it out, like water. (Devarim 12:16)1

We can also observe that we are forbidden to be cruel to animals. One such example we see in Shemot.

For six days, you are to serve, and are to make all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath for the Eternal One  your God: you are not to make any kind of work, (not) you, nor your son, nor your daughter, (not) your servant, nor your maid, nor your beast, nor your sojourner that is within your gates. (Shemot 20:9-10)1

We can also see from many other passages that animal cruelty is forbidden.* We can observe from these passages that it could be easily deduced that the quickest and least painful means of slaughtering animals is the proper way.

*Shemot 23:11; Vayikra 22:28; Devarim 22:4, 22:6-7, 22:10, 25:4

Eating Fat
The priest is to turn them into smoke upon the slaughter-site as food, a fire-offering of soothing savor – all the fat is for the Eternal One , a law for the ages, into your generations, throughout all your settlements: any fat, any blood, you are not to eat! (Vayikra 3:16-17)1

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that the Yisraelites would not know which fat is forbidden. However, we see from the preceding verses that the fat which is forbidden to us is already spelled out.

Then he is to bring-near from it his near-offering – a fire-offering for the Eternal One ; the fat that covers the innards and all the fat that is about the innards, the two kidneys and the fat that is on them, that is on the tendons, and the extension on the liver – along with the kidneys he is to remove it. (Vayikra 3:14-15)1


1Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.

Refuting the “Oral Law” – Calendar and Textual

Rabbi HaLevi asks what month is being referenced in Shemot 12:24: “Let this new moon be for you the beginning of new moons, the beginning-one let it be for you of the new moons of the year.”1

We clearly see in a verse shortly after this mitzvah is given that the month referred to is the month of the aviv.

Today you are going out, in the new moon of ripe grain (אָבִיב).” (Shemot 13:4)1

Rabbi HaLevi goes on to ask how the Yisraelites would know if the calendar was to be according to the lunar months or the solar months. A literal translation of this verse instructs us that the new moon is the beginning of a month according to the calendar that God had given to the Yisraelites. This was clearly something that Moshe ha-navi and the Yisraelites would have seen on that day and understood the mitzvah. There is no need for an “Oral Law.”

The Rabbinic Jews claim that there are proofs within the Tanakh itself that prove there is an “Oral Law” that was given to Moshe ha-navi.

the Eternal One said to Moshe: Go up to me on the mountain and remain there, that I may give you tablets of stone: the Instruction and the Command that I have written down, to instruct them. (Shemot 24:12)1

Rabbinic Jews will declare that the Instruction and the Command refer to the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.5 This is simply a misunderstanding of the peshat (plain) meaning of this passage. It is clear that the Instruction and the Command were written. There is no indication of an “Oral Law” for it clearly states that these things were written down.

In (the country) across the Yarden, in the land of Moav, Moshe set about to explain this Instruction… (Devarim 1:5)1

Again, Rabbinic Jews state that this verse refers to Moshe giving the “Oral Law” to the Yisraelites to clarify any ambiguities in the Written Torah.5 It is clear that Moshe is expounding upon all the mitzvot that had been given because the Torah was received and written during the time in the Wilderness. We see here that Moshe was reiterating the Torah that was already given and ensuring that the Yisraelites knew the Torah. Repetition is a form of teaching – and a very effective form of teaching especially since there were not copies of the Torah for each individual or family. This passage in no way indicates that an “Oral Law” existed.

In addition to these proofs from the Written Torah there is also the concept that there are three components to the “Oral Law”. These three components are:
1. Edicts;
2. Thirteen principles of Torah; and
3.  Laws given to Moses at Sinai.2

When any legal matter is too extraordinary [פָּלָא] for you, in justice, between blood and blood, between judgment and judgment, between stroke and stroke, in matters of quarreling within your gates, you are to arise and go up to the place that the Eternal One your God chooses, you are to come to the Levitical priests and to the judge that there is in those days; you are to inquire and they are to tell you the word of judgment. You are to do according to this word that is told you, in that place that the Eternal One chooses; you are to take care to observe what they instruct you. According to the instruction that they instruct you, by the regulation that they tell you, you are to do; you are not to turn away from the word that they tell you, right or left. (Devarim 17:8-11)1

The argument for the “Oral Law” is that one of the components of the “Oral Law” allows for edicts to be pronounced. We see that these verses begin by telling us that we are to go to the Levites for a judgment if the matter at hand is too difficult for the individual to judge or if there is a controversy within the community. There is no mention that these edicts become law for the masses but are simply edicts – judgments – made for an individual case. Of course, this also means that there is a possibility that this judgment will then spread throughout the communities and become de facto law.

The argument that when Moshe was given the Written Torah he was also given instructions as to how one is to study and understand Torah is baseless.2 We see that these thirteen principles are not followed by all rabbis or all communities. I ask, are we to follow the seven rules of Hillel, the 13 rules of Rabbi Ishmael, or the 32 rules of Rabbi Eliezer ben-Yose HaGelili?3

Now if the entire community of Yisrael errs, and the matter is hidden from the eyes of the assembly so that they do one of any of the things (regarding) the Eternal One’s commandments that should not be done, and so incur guilt: when it becomes known, the sin that they sinned, the assembly are to bring-near a bull, a young of the herd, as a hattat-offering; they are to bring it before the Tent of Appointment. The elders of the community are to lean their hands on the head of the bull, before the presence of the Eternal One, and one is to slay the bull before the presence of the Eternal One. (Vayikra 4:13-15)1

We see here that if the Levites ruled wrongly and the community errs in response to the judgment of the Levites then the Levites are responsible for the error. If this is the case then how can we remain certain that the rabbis who wrote the “Oral Law” are absolutely correct in their judgments? How can we be sure that the edicts in the Talmud are correct when the rabbis themselves generally cannot agree as to the correct judgment?

With all this evidence against an “Oral Law” how can we possibly believe that the traditions and writings of the rabbis in the Talmud should be wholeheartedly taken as Divinely inspired writings? How can we seriously say that the “Oral Law” is in fact halakhah and not simply tradition? Why should we hold the Mishnah or Talmud above any other rabbinic writings and ignore (or even contradict) what was given to Moshe at Har Sinai?


1Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
2Naftali Silberberg. “What is the ‘Oral Torah?’” Chabad, n.d., accessed 15 April 2012. []
3Jewish Encyclopedia. “Talmud Hermeneutics.” The Kopelman Foundation, 1906, accessed 15 April 2012. []
4Gil Student. “The Oral Law.” The AishDas Soceity, 2001, accessed 15 April 2012. []
5Aryeh Kaplan. “The Oral Tradition.” Aish HaTorah, 26 February 2005, accessed 15 April 2012. []

Abraham’s Journeys: Beth-El and Ai

Bereishit יב (Genesis 12)

8 And he removed from there unto the mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD. 9 And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South.

Beth-El is an ancient city which lies 10 miles north of Jerusalem in the Samaria region. The city is associated with the Canaanite city of Luz (Bereishit 35:6). The city of Luz and the area of Abraham’s Beth-El are not one and the same. Beth-El was the place, the sanctuary, which was defined by Abraham whereas Luz was a nearby city that was eventually enveloped by Beth-El.1 Beth-El is often associated with Abraham who made a sanctuary in the area and gave it the name of Beth-El. Beth-El has been identified by some with the modern-day Israeli city of Beit-El.

Beth-El has been identified with the Arab village of Beitin. Edward Robinson is believed to have been the first person to identify ancient Beth-El with the ruins of the village Beitin in the nineteenth century.2

But no scholar made the obvious identification of Beitil with Khirbet Beitin, an hour’s walk northeast of el-Bireh, until it fell into the lap of the great American Biblical topographer, Edward Robinson, along with many other sound identifications, in May, 1838. He examined the extensive ruins of the ancient city, then entirely unoccupied, and noted that the phonetic relation of Beitin to Beitil is normal in Arabic. Since the publication of Robinson’s results in 1841 no competent topographer has hesitated for a moment to accept the identification as essentially correct . . . .(Albright 1968:1, our emphasis).2

Beth-El has also been identified as el-Bireh – the Arab city adjacent to Ramallah. Jeroboam established an altar an established the worship of a golden calf in Beth-El (I Kings 12:32). Excavations at Beitin found no archaeological evidence of an altar or high place. However, the site of el-Bireh does show evidence of a high place called Ras et-Tahumneh.

Bereishit יב (Genesis 12)

8 And he removed from there unto the mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD. 9 And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South.

Ai was originally a Canaanite royal city and is associated with the modern-day et-Tell. Eusebius and Jerome both spoke about the location of the Biblical Ai.

Eusebius: “’Aggai (Genesis 12:8). The sun goes down (over) Bethel, not far away. Bethel is situated going up to Jerusalem from Neapolis (Nablus) on the left at the 12th marker, and it still remains. ‘Aggai is deserted and can only be pointed out. This is the record of Gai.”3

Jerome: “Aggai goes west toward the region of Bethel, not much from it in distance. Now Bethel is situated on the left side of the road nearly 12 milestones from Aelia going toward Aelia from Neapoli(s). And to this day only a small village can be shown. But a church is built where Jacob slept on his way to Mesopotamia. The place itself he named “Bethel,” it is “the house of God.” Actually, there are scarcely any remains of Aggai, and the place is barely discernable. It must be known that Hebrew does not have the letter G, but it is called Ai, and written through the alphabet which among us is called Ain.”3

The site associated with the Biblical Ai is often based upon the location associated with the Biblical Beth-el. W. F. Albright made the suggestion that Ai was mistaken for Beth-el by the writers of the Bible. Other scholars believe that Beth-el is near Shechem which would place Ai closer to Shechem as well. Joseph Callaway has been led to believe that et-Tell was Ai based upon his own excavations but Grintz suggested that et-Tell is in actuality Beth-Aven.4


1”Luz.” Bible History Online. n.d. Web 19 November 2011. []
2David Livingston. “Locating Biblical Bethel Correctly – Part I.” Ancient Days. 2003. Web 19 November 2011. []
3David Livingston. “Locating Biblical Ai Correctly.” Ancient Days. 2003. Web 17 December 2011. []
4David Livingston. “Location of Biblical Bethel and Ai Reconsidered.” Associates for Biblical Research. November 1970. Web 18 December 2011. []

What is Sheol?

So the king said to her, “Have no fear. What did you see?” The woman said to Shaul, “I see an angel rising from the earth.” He said to her, “What does he look like?” She said, “An old man is rising, wearing a cloak.” Shaul knew that it was Shmu’el, and he paid homage and prostrated himself. Then Shmu’el said to Shaul, “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?”… (Shmu’el Aleph 28:13-15)1

Sheol (שְׁאוֹל) is translated throughout the Tanakh as grave, pit, and underworld. Sometimes Sheol is also mistranslated as “hell” of which there is no concept within the Tanakh. This is a completely Christian concept that was taken from the pagan belief in “Hades.”

The term Sheol (שְׁאוֹל) does not mean “grave.” The Hebrew language – and by extension the Tanakh – has a separate word for grave. The term used in the Tanakh for grave is kevura (קְבוּרָה) which comes from the root word kavar (קָבַר) which means “to bury.” We see both of these terms used in the story of Rachel’s death.

So Rachel died; she was buried (וַתִּקָּבֵר) along the way to Efrat – that is now Beit-Lechem. And Yaakov set up a standing-pillar over her burial place (קְבֻרָתָהּ), that is Rachel’s burial pillar of today. (Bereishit 35:19-20)2

The term sheol (שְׁאוֹל) also does not mean “pit.” The Tanakh uses the term bowr (בּוֹר) for pit which comes from the root word buwr (בּוּר) which means “to bore into.” We can see the use of both sheol and bowr in the prophecy of Yeshayahu.

Instead, you will be brought down to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל), to the bottom of the Pit (בוֹר)! (Yeshayahu 14:15)3

Sheol (שְׁאוֹל) is not the grave or the pit but is in fact an abode of the dead. Sheol comes from the root word sha’al (שָׁאַל) which means “to ask” or “to inquire” and indicates that Sheol is a place where there are only questions and uncertainty.

Sheol is a place of darkness as we see from the story of Iyov.

…before I go permanently to the land of darkness and the shadow of death. A land whose blackness is like the gloom of the shadow of death, with no orderly systems, and whose luster [or light] is like gloom. (Iyov 10:21-22)4

The inhabitants of this abode of the dead are referred to as shades or “Rephaim.”

Sheol below trembles as you approach. It has awakened the Rephaim (רְפָאִים) of all the rulers of the earth and raised all the kings of the nations from their thrones. (Yeshayahu 14:9)3

The Rephaim are “shadowy and non-personal entities … [who are] shadowy entities that reflected only a semblance of their former selves.”5 Not only are the Rephaim caught in a place where they cannot do anything that is associated with the living, they are also unable to praise God.

Let my prayer reach You. Incline Your ear to my shout. For my soul has had its fill of misfortunes, and my life approaches [Sheol (לִשְׁאוֹל)]. I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit. I have become like a man bereft of strength – among the dead who are released; like the corpses lying in the grave, whom You remember no more, for they have been cut off by Your hand. (Tehillim 88:3-6)4

As can be seen, Sheol is rightfully called the abode of the dead. Sheol is not simply the grave or pit as it is often translated.


1Aryeh Kaplan. The Living Nach: Early Prophets. Brooklyn: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1994.
Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.
3Aryeh Kaplan. The Living Nach: Later Prophets. Brooklyn: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1995.
4Aryeh Kaplan. The Living Nach: Sacred Writings. Brooklyn: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1998.
5Donald Gowan, ed. Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.


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The mitzvah that wasn’t

Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light Shabbat candle[s].

Many of us have heard these words spoken on Friday nights in honor of Shabbat (Sabbath). Many non-Jews have also heard this brachah (blessing) in movies, videos, plays, synagogues, etc. But where does this brachah come from and why do Jews all over the world continue to say it every Friday night?

According to tradition, it was Sarah who instituted the idea of lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night. The candles supposedly burned from one Friday night to the next inviting people to visit her and Avraham in their tent.1 Of course, this is only a midrash and is not to be taken seriously so what reasons are given for lighting Shabbat candles?

The first reason given by the sages for lighting Shabbat candles is Shalom Bayit (peace in the home). Shabbat is intended to be a weekly break and peace-filled time from the chaos of our weekly world. Lighting Shabbat candles brings light into the home and thus peaceful rest from the chaos and darkness. A second reason is for pleasure. In order to have pleasure and enjoy the meals and hospitality of a home on Shabbat, lighting – in this case candles – is necessary. A third reason given for this tradition is to honor the day. This tradition more specifically specifies honoring the “Shabbat haMalkah (Shabbat Queen).”1 Since ancient times Shabbat has been personified as a bride or queen that is to be welcomed in during the waning of the day. In the sixteenth-century Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) was created and the Shabbat haMalkah became affixed in Friday night rituals.2

Lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night is an ancient ritual and is mentioned as one of three things that must be done before Shabbat begins in the Mishnah (Shabbat 2:7). The rabbis believed that Shabbat was to be a day of delight as spoken of by Yeshayahu (58:13). In order for the day to be a delight the home must have light and warmth. Thus the rabbis instituted the lighting of candles before Shabbat began. The idea behind the lighting of these candles was to ensure that there was light and warmth available during Shabbat since the kindling of fire was prohibited on Shabbat.2

You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day. (Shemot 35:3)3

This mentioning of lighting candles before Shabbat began in the Mishnah however was only for Shalom Bayit and not the mitzvah we see today. In the Geonic Period (eighth-ninth centuries) a dispute arose between the Rabbinic Jews and the Karaite Jews. While the Rabbinic Jews followed the Mishnah and lit candles on Friday nights – and permitted these candles to continue to be lit through Shabbat – the Karaite Jews taught that all lights must be extinguished before Shabbat began.2 In order for the Rabbinic Jews to demonstrate that fire and light were permitted on Shabbat (if they were lit before Shabbat) the rabbis instituted the Shabbat candle-lighting ceremony. The rabbis thus transitioned the Shabbat candle-lighting from one of Shalom Bayit to a mitzvah complete with a bracha.4 The bracha for Shabbat candle-lighting was established by the Geonim as a reaction to the Karaite teachings. The bracha “that they formulated was similar to the ancient one used when lighting the Hanukkah lights.”2

We are not commanded to light either the Hanukkah candles or the Shabbat candles in the Torah. The Geonim however justified the action of making this ceremony and bracha a mitzvah by using the following verse of Torah.

You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left. (Devarim 17:11)3

The Geonim thus concluded that “whatever the later legitimate authorities decide, based upon their interpretation of the Torah or upon their understanding of ancient practice, is the will of God.”2

The Geonim, based in Babylonia, were the leaders of the diaspora Jews and were the ones who ultimately made rulings of halakhah that were accepted by diaspora Jewry. The Babylonian schools were the leading places of learning and the heads of these schools were recognized as the highest authorities in halakhah.

The rulings of the Geonim were to be treated as the “modern” rulings of the judges who were to preside over Yisrael as seen in Devarim. However, smicha had already become corrupted by this time – there was very little chance that one could trace his smicha back to Moshe. The Geonim were not part of an organized Sanhedrin, there was no Temple and no priests to be advisors, and the Geonim were ruling from outside Eretz Yisrael. Ultimately, they had no legitimacy to demand that their rulings become halakhah for all of Yisrael. The verse used from Devarim to legitimate the rulings of the Geonim is taken out of context. It clearly states in Devarim chapter 17 that the magistrate and the levitical priests are to be consulted in a “place that the LORD your God will have chosen.”3 It also states in this chapter that the levitical priests and/or magistrate are to be consulted if “a case is too baffling for you to decide, be it a controversy over homicide, civil law, or assault – matters of dispute in your courts.” So the entire legitimacy of the Geonim to declare halakhah for the entire Jewish people is undermined if one reads this entire chapter of Devarim. The Geonim had no right to declare halakhah and no right to declare a new mitzvah.

I personally reject the idea of lighting Shabbat candles under the auspices of a “mitzvah.” The “mitzvah” is illegitimate and is a chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name). If one truly wants to honor Shabbat and also wants a personal ceremony to help usher in the Shabbat then this is an optional tradition – but it must not transgress Torah.


1“Blessing and Instruction for Shabbat Candles.” Chabad, n.d. []
2Reuven Hammer. “Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals.” New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2003.
3David Stein (ed.). JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
4Haggai Zagury. “Shabbat Candles.”  Reflecting on Judaism, August 2003. []

Book Review: American Reform Judaism: An Introduction

American Reform Judaism: An Introduction
Author: Sana Evan Kaplan
Publisher: Rutgers University press
Year: 2003
Pages: 262

American Reform Judaism: An Introduction is an overview of the history, controversies, challenges, and reformation of Reform Judaism in America. Professor Kaplan begins his exploration of Reform Judaism with a brief history of the movement from its inception in Germany to its American form. Professor Kaplan explains that he is focusing upon the American form of Reform Judaism because of Reform’s “stress on autonomy – both of the individual and of the congregation – Reform Judaism has manifested itself differently in various countries. Nevertheless, Reform communities throughout the world share certain characteristics.” (8)

As explained in the book, Classical Reform Judaism was the inheritor of the Enlightenment of Western Europe and America. There was a full-scale rejection of much of the traditions of Judaism (what later became known as Orthodox Judaism) and set a course of spirituality that spoke to those Jews who wished to remain connected to Judaism but also experience modern society in all of its glory. Reform Judaism in the American context developed along the same lines as that of Europe however, the individuality and societal/geographic movement of Americans led to some differences between European Progressive Judaism and American Reform Judaism.

According to the Declaration of Principles (1885) Reform Judaism accepted as binding “only the moral laws and maintain[s] only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject[s] all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” (44) The idea was to have a living Judaism that was connected to the world of the Bible and the Jewish forefathers and foremothers but was also able to adapt to the changing American society. The Columbus Platform of 1937 was created to “stimulate an apathetic and possibly alienated constituency.” (49) Professor Kaplan argues that this Platform was designed as an attempt to reinvigorate American Reform Judaism by allowing for “a degree of religious pluralism” (50) but the pluralism was also later defined as only being legitimate within certain boundaries.

Professor Kaplan goes on to explain that in the 1990s there was a resurgence of spirituality and the emphasis on studying traditional texts. A new generation was helping to transform and reinvigorate Reform Judaism and the Classical Reform Judaism of yesteryear was falling by the wayside. While there was still room for those who wished to worship in the Classical Reform ways the new generation was clamoring for more spiritual, exciting ways to worship. In addition to the push for reformation there was also the difficulty of a lack of rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish professionals plaguing the Reform Movement. The siddur, Professor Kaplan argues, is the chief means of transmitting Jewish ideas and ideals within the Reform Movement. Accordingly, as the makeup of the Reform synagogues changed the liturgy, siddur, and services began to change. There was also a resurgence in the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony.

Professor Kaplan utilizes an entire chapter to speak about the Reform Movement’s struggle for recognition in the State of Israel. It was the founders’ idea that Orthodoxy would eventually become a small minority within the State of Israel and the Reform Movement had anticipated this outcome. The Orthodox has a stranglehold on religious life in the modern State and as a result the Reform Movement has had many difficulties gaining any foothold within the State. While there is some movement of recognition for non-Orthodox Judaism within Israel it has been a very difficult battle. Regardless, it is the Reform Movement’s tradition to have a strong, vibrant support system for the State of Israel.

Education within Reform Judaism has mostly focused upon Hebrew school/Sunday school for children up to bar/bat mitzvah age. There has been a push for students to continue their Hebrew school education through confirmation age but this has not always been accepted practice as Professor Kaplan attests to. Reform Judaism at its inception was adverse to “day schools” but that seems to be changing. There are now Reform Jewish day schools opened across America where children are able to learn the secular subjects they need for life in the dominant culture as well as Jewish subjects they need for life in the Jewish culture and religion. In addition, Professor Kaplan notes that there are also additional classes that place emphasis on adult education and mixed parent-child educational programs.

One of the major issues facing Reform Judaism is intermarriage. As a result there is a concerted effort to have outreach programs aimed and bringing the non-Jewish spouse closer to Judaism with the goal of having him or her convert. Part of these outreach programs are also intended on bringing unaffiliated people (Gentiles and Jews) into Judaism. This, as Kaplan points out, is not necessarily a high priority for many within Reform Judaism. In addition to these outreach goals there was also the movement toward redefining “who is a Jew” within the Movement. In 1983 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a resolution stating that if one parent (mother or father) was Jewish then their children were “under presumption of Jewish descent. … [In addition such] children needed to be raised as Jews, not simply born to a Jewish parent.” (172)

Two other major moves by Reform Judaism established a more open and welcoming atmosphere within the Jewish world: the equality of women and the acceptance of gays and lesbians. Egalitarianism was always a staple of Reform/Progressive Judaism but in reality the rabbis, cantors, and other leaders were all men. This changed in 1972 when Sally Priesand became the first female rabbi ordained in America. Since this time the leadership of the Movement has changed and there is now real egalitarianism within Reform Judaism. The acceptance of gays and lesbians was slower to come as Professor Kaplan explains. It was not until the 1960s that there was a possibility of openness to accepting openly gay/lesbian members of synagogues and it was not until the 1980s that the issue came to the forefront of the Movement. It is now not unusual for an openly gay/lesbian person to become a rabbi or other leader within a synagogue nor is it unusual to have a congregation that caters to gays/lesbians affiliated with the Reform Movement.

Professor Kaplan closes his book with some words about the future of Reform Judaism. While it is true that Reform Judaism is the largest movement within Judaism, there is still the difficulties of attracting (and retaining) committed Reform Jews. There is also the difficulty facing Reform/Progressive Judaism and its acceptance within the modern State of Israel. The 1999 Pittsburgh Platform only shows the contention between those who are of the Classical Reform mindset and those who are willing to embrace a more modern and somewhat traditional Reform Judaism. Professor Kaplan however leaves the reader with some optimism and hope for the continued success of Reform Judaism.

For anyone who is interested in a history of American Reform Judaism as well as its theological trends, American Reform Judaism is a useful and interesting book.

Jewish Apologetics

Jewish apologetics attempts to defend Jews, our religion, and our culture from critics. The history of Jewish apologetics reflects a complicated relationship between Jews and Gentiles throughout the millennia. Jewish apologetics formed as a response to the challenges of pagans and – eventually – as a response to the challenges of Christianity.1

Jewish apologetics are intended to defend the Jewish religion and the Jewish social and national life against the direct attacks from the world around the Jews. Jewish apologetics is also intended to attack the internal doubts that were rising up from comparing Jewish life and the life of the Gentiles surrounding the Jewish community. In addition, Jewish apologetic literature is also written “in the hope of proving to the Gentiles the virtues of the Jewish religion and thereby influencing their outlook on, and attitudes toward, Judaism.”1

There is a long history of Jewish apologetics which became especially prevalent after the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash and the expulsion of the Jews from Eretz Yisrael.

The authors of Jewish-Hellenistic literature believed that their task was to defend the ideas of Judaism and its historical role. These Jewish-Hellenistic writers interpreted Judaism allegorically declaring that Judaism contains all the best of the systems of the great Greek philosophers. They also wrote that the Jews also pioneered all the “intellectual and material basis of universal civilization.”1 In addition to these general Jewish-Hellenistic apologetic writings, there were also specific apologetic works written by various authors. One of the most well-known of these works is Against Apion written by Josephus. Against Apion is a defense of the Jews who refused to participate in the local cults of the cities and provinces where they lived. Josephus and others also attempted to emphasize the humane character of the “precepts in the Torah regarding proselytes and Gentiles to counter the widespread accusations that these injunctions demonstrate pride, contempt, and hatred of mankind.”1

With the rise of the Church and the spread of Christianity Jewish apologetics were met with a new set of issues. The Jews maintained their ground in understanding the Tanakh. They insisted that there are answers to each Christian textual interpretation.

We learnt elsewhere: R. Eliezer said: Be diligent to learn the Torah and know how to answer an Epikoros. R. Johanan commented: They taught this only with respect to a Gentile Epikoros; with a Jewish Epikoros, it would only make his heresy more pronounced. (Sanhedrin 38b)2

The Talmud Bavli speaks about the Minim and the Epikoros who attempt to use Jewish sources – especially the Tanakh – to try and prove their own beliefs. Rabbi Yohanan said that all the passages which the Minim use as grounds for their heresy have a refutation to their heresies close by in the Scripture. There are multiple examples throughout the Tanakh. Here are but two examples:

1. And God said: Let us [plural] make man in our image, after our likeness … (Bereishit 1:26)

And God created [singular] man in His own image… (Bereishit 1:27)

2. Come, let us [plural] go down, and there confound their language … (Bereishit 11:7)

And the Eternal One came down [singular] to see the city and the tower … (Bereishit 11:5)

Part of the Church’s attacks upon Judaism was what became known as “replacement theology.” In essence, the Church maintains that it has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. Jews have steadfastly maintains that Israel is still the chosen people of God even though they have been placed in exile. The Jews of the Medieval period claimed that there continued a sovereign Jewish state in the East and therefore Israel maintained its status as an independent people under God’s protection. David al-Mukammis was a Jewish convert to Christianity who – after returning to Judaism – wrote two tractates refuting Christianity. These tractates served as refutation sources for the Karaite scholar al-Qirqisani and the Rabbinic scholar Saadiah Gaon. Judah HaLevi wrote an apologetics work called Sefer HaKuzari where he uses history – that of the conversion to Judaism of the king of Khazaria – to defend “the values of human faith in the revealed religion and of Jewish law above those of philosophy… At the basis of his defense of Judaism, he places the history of the Jewish nation and its election by God.”1 During the Renaissance there arose a Karaite scholar known as Isaac ben-Abraham of Troki. He was well-known as someone who had frequent contact with various Christian scholars from whom he learned about the Christian faith. What came out of his extensive reading of the Christian scripture, Christian theological writings, and anti-Jewish literature was his famous apologetic work Hizzuk Emunah. This work became extremely popular for its powerful defense of Judaism as well as its calm and reasonable emphasis of the vulnerable points in Christian tradition and theology.3

Islam, as opposed to Christianity, has received very little attention in Jewish apologetics literature. Two reasons are given for this situation. First, the fact that Islam states that the Tanakh is corrupted abolishes any common ground on which the explanation of the Jewish scholars can be based. Second, Muslims did not taunt the Jews about their exile as much as the Christians did which meant there was less of a reason for writing apologetic literature directed toward Islam. There were however two works of apologetics that were written specifically toward Islam. Solomon ben-Abraham Adret wrote Ma’amar al-Ishma’el which rejects a Muslim’s argument who disparaged the inclusion of the stories of Reuven, Tamar, and Yehudah in the Torah. This same Muslim also attacked the Jews for observing certain mitzvot which he believed merited abolition. Keshet u-Magen, written by Simeon ben-Zemah Duran discusses the attitude of the Qur’an toward Judaism. He also points out the contradictions found within the Qur’an, “its ignorance of the principles of natural science and philosophical doctrine of the soul, and complains about its obscure style.”1

During the Enlightenment of the eighteenth-century there was a weakening of religion in the West. This meant that the Jewish apologists had to prove “that the Jews constituted an advantageous element from an economic standpoint; that any faults with adverse social consequences, such as the practice of usury, were the result of the economic position into which they had been forced by medieval laws; and that they were loyal to the countries whose national culture they wished to adopt.”1

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Jewish apologists continued to emphasize the contributions of the Jews to civilization which meant they had to emphasize Judaism’s universal character. In addition, these apologists continued to be preoccupied with the questions of emancipation. Among these apologists was Abraham Geiger who defended Judaism is the spirit of the times and was known to make scholarly investigations of apologetics. With the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe during the second part of the nineteenth-century there came a renewal of apologetic literature – especially in response to blood libels. Joseph Samuel Bloch was a significant contributor to the defense of Judaism. He was especially known for combating anti-Semitic accusations made by Catholic theologian August Rohling. In Eastern Europe Jewish apologetic writings were mostly restricted to the struggle for civil rights. The apologists wrote in defense against anti-Semitic attacks – most importantly speaking out against blood libels. They fought for the abolition of residential restrictions made upon Jews while also emphasizing the role of Jewish merchants in the economy. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the growth of Jewish apologetic literature has been mostly an attempt to defend the universal nature of Judaism to the Gentile world while also attempting to bring Jews back to Judaism.1

Jewish apologetics is the attempt to disprove the challenges of the non-Jewish world and the Epikoros Jews. Jewish apologetics also attempts to bring back to lost people of the Jews. Read and study Torah and learn that there are always answers to the challenges of the Minim and the Epikoros.

Jews, God-fearers, and Gerim assert that the Messiah has yet to come and that Christianity’s assertions are false. The “Messianic prophecies” in the Tanakh as asserted by Christianity are (1) not Messianic prophecies, (2) are mistranslated and/or misinterpreted texts, and/or (3) have not been fulfilled by the Christian messiah.

What to Do When Confronted by A Missionary

1. Look at the entire context of the verse in question (It is best to use a Hebrew-English Tanakh). – If the Jewish proof can be made strictly from a Christian Bible however it has more impact.

2. Check to see if the verse is mistranslated.

3. Check to see is the verse is misinterpreted.

4. Check to see if the verse can be applied to a person other than Jesus.

5. Do not quote one’s rabbi.

6. Do not quote the Talmud/Mishnah.

7. Ask for logical proofs of their beliefs if they use psychological tricks such as warning you that you will burn in hell if you do not accept Jesus.

8. When you ask a question do not allow them to simply ignore it. Make sure that they answer your question or admit that they do not have an answer.

9. Speak calmly.

10. Never be on the defensive.

11. Remember that most missionaries are sincere and should be treated in a respectful manner.


1American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. “Apologetics.” Jewish Virtual Library, 2012. []
2I. Epstein “Tractate Sanhedrin.” London: Soncino Press, 1949. []
3Isaac ben-Abraham. “Hizzuk Emunah.” Faith Strengthened, n.d. []

©Jen Abbott, 2013-2014