Category Archives: Jewish Texts

Everyone Should Read Josephus

Josephus

Why everyone who likes ancient Middle Eastern history should read the works of Josephus.

The contributions of the first century writer, historian, and apologist, Josephus are innumerable. His words wield such rich treasures in historical and theological artifacts, and are so well known for almost two millennia, that he likely is the most taken-for-granted author ever. Old English print copies, online versions, and even a movie has covered a portion or all of his works, which makes him so celebrated, that it feels like qualifying anything from him is stating the obvious. His works are well prepared and documented, and carry little controversy or surprise to almost anything. He simply adds more details to the already known historical records, and does a superb job with this, but his narrative writing form is very gripping – especially the The Jewish War.

There are many parallels to the New Testament record and then some more. Nowhere else can one find such in-depth information about the Herod dynasty than his accounts.

Josephus was captured by the Romans in a rebellion against them, and became a slave and interpreter for the Emporer Vespasian. He was considered a defector by the Jewish community. The majority of his writing was spent to reestablish two things: reacceptance into the Jewish community by defending Jewish values, history, and literature from a Graeco-Roman perspective. Secondly it was to defend Judaism against the Graeco-Roman community who disbelieved the Jewish accounts, and found them inferior to their own religious beliefs and historical records. He covers theology, and Biblical texts in great detail because of this.

One can find special accounts about Moses, Noah’s Ark and many more not found anywhere else.

Jacob Feeley, a PhD Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in Ancient History, published a state-of-the-union address on academic pursuits of Josephus’ works entitled, The Understudied and Marginal Josephus: Bringing Him into the Conversation, which is well worth taking the time to read.

The writings of Josephus are a must-read for anyone that has an interest or commitment to the New Testament writings, or Jews, wanting to know their own history. His style is not that difficult to comprehend. It is actually a pleasurable read compared to most historical writers.

It should be the first book outside of the Bible given to novices who wish to understand the history and context related to the life of Christ.

There is a reference to Christ, albeit a very small one, and arguably may not even exist in the original text, and one about John the Baptist, which once again is small piece, but preserves the idea that John the Baptist was a prominent figure during that time. What is the most captivating is his coverage on the insurrection, and utter destruction of Jerusalem. He took into account the political, social, and personal complexities of war from both the Roman and Jewish camps that few writers are seldom able to achieve. It is a sad story, but very much fits into why Christ said, “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” (Mark 13:14-17 NIV) If you read, or have already read Josephus with this in mind, you will know what is meant here.

Josephus’ stories still come alive. As I once stood on the top of Masada and looked out across to the high hills that border around it, the stone rows used by the Romans for their camps are still clearly visible. Masada and those stones have very little meaning outside of Josephus, but because of his words, it caused me to imagine this fortress two thousand years ago, and brought this place alive again.

My copy of Josephus is worn, as shown by the picture above. Once you start reading, it won’t take long to wear the book out, or if you have it on an e-reader, it may establish the top position on your reader list for historical non-fiction.

The works of Josephus can easily be found online, or as an ebook, or in print.

The Purpose of Prayer

ArtScrollSiddur

The ArtScroll Siddur contains one of the best definitions of prayer found anywhere. A siddur is a Jewish prayer book that outlines personal and communal prayers for almost any occasion; life, death, loss, birth, success, and everything in-between. It is written from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. The following is an excerpt.

“Prayer, a Timeless Need

When we think of the word ‘prayer’ we think of our needs and requests, and the litany is endless: ‘Heal me.’ ‘Enlighten me.’ Enrich me.’ ‘Redeem me.’ ‘Glorify me.’ ‘Forgive me.’

Perhaps our concept of prayer has all been wrong. As children we would ask God to grant our wishes, just as we asked our parent to take us places and to buy us toys. “Please, Father take me to . . . !’ ‘Please, Mother, buy me that . . .!’ ‘Please God, give me this . . .!’ Rather than fall into the modern trap of insisting that man can control so much of his life and environment that he need not pray, let us examine what prayer really is, and always was. When we are done, we will realize that the commandment to pray is no less binding today than ever, and that our need for its benefits is perhaps greater than ever.

Man’s Essence

AS A SYNONYM for a human being the Mishhah (Baba Kamma 2a) uses the name מַבְעֶה [mav’eh], an unfamiliar word that the Talmud (ibid. 3b) derives from the root בעה, to pray. In other words, the Talmud defines man as ‘the creature that prays.’ Furthermore, the Talmud teaches that even נֶפֶשׁ, the life-sustaining soul, is synonymous with prayer (Berachos 5b). Strange. Such definitions appear fitting intensely spiritual observant people — but what of someone whose observance is casual, or a non-believer? The Talmud’s teaching applies even to such people. How, then, is prayer so central to their lives?

What is man but his soul, for his soul and intelligence are what make him ‘man’ rather than simply a higher order of beast. And what is man’s soul but his innermost longing, whatever matters to him most? As the Sages pithily expressed it, a burglar prays for God’s help as he prepares to enter the home of his victim (Berachos 63b in Ein Yaakov). Incongruous, is it not, that on the threshold of a sin that may result in violence, even murder, the thief asks for the help of the One Who commands him to desist? Yes, but because his most sincere desire is to commit his crime undetected, his soul cries out for success. Wherever one puts his faith is a form of prayer, whether or not that word is in his vocabulary (Michtav MeEliyahu).

Prayer, then, is not a list of requests. It is an introspective process, a clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what he should be, and how to achieve the transformation. Indeed, the commandment to pray is expressed by the Torah as a service of the heart, not of the mouth (Taanis 2a).

To the extent that we improve ourselves with prayer, we become capable of absorbing God’s blessing, but the blessings depend on each person’s mission. One man’s task may be to act as God’s treasurer, to amass wealth and distribute it for worthy causes, or to set an example of how to remain uncorrupted by riches. Another’s mission may call for modest or reduced circumstances. Meyer Amshel Rothschild became rich because his mission was to be the banker of monarchs and the patron of paupers, and Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli remained destitute because his mission was to subsist on a crust of bread and bowl of beans, and joyously say that he never experienced a bad day in his life! Each recited the prayer for prosperity in Shemoneh Esrei and each was answered — in the manner that was best for him. But the reasons for these differences between people and nations are not apparent to human intelligence. Nor do we discern the hand of God in the complexities of everyday life.

In this welter of contradictions, man needs all his inner strength as a Jew and bearer of the Torah to ward off the attacks on his faith. We may enter adulthood with the idealism of youth and faith ingrained by parents and teachers, but life chips away incessantly at them. In the eloquent words of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb): Life often robs you of the power and strength its circumstances make necessary, for it tends to remove truth from you and to offer falsehood; it forces you to surrender where your task is to conquer.

Modern society has learned that people ‘burn themselves out’ if they never withdraw to relax and regain perspective and inner strength. What makes us think we can fight the moral war demanded by God without removing ourselves from the trenches every now and then to regain our perspectives on the purpose and strategy of the battle?

Prayer’s Function

ITS HEBREW NAME IS תְּפִלָּה, tefillah, a word that gives us an insight into the Torah’s concept of prayer. The root of tefillah is פלל, to judge, to differentiate, to clarify, to decide. In life, we constantly sort out evidence from rumor, valid options from wild speculations, fact from fancy. The exercise of such judgement is פְּלִילָה. Indeed, the word פְּלִילִים (from פלל) is used for a court of law (Exodus 21:22), and what is the function of a court if not to sift evidence and make a decision? A logical extension of פלל is the related root פלה, meaning a clear separation between two things. Thus, prayer is the soul’s yearning to define what truly matters and to ignore the trivialities that often masquerade as essential (Siddur Avodas HaLev).

People always question the need for prayer — does not God know our requirements without being reminded? Of course He does, He knows them better than we do. If prayer were intended only to inform God of our desires an deficiencies, it would be unnecessary. Its true purpose is to raise the level of the supplicants by helping them develop true perceptions of life so that they can become worthy of His blessing.

This is the function of the evaluating, decision-making process of תְּפִלָּה, prayer. The Hebrew verb for praying is מִתְפַּלֵּל; it is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself. Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgement; a process of removing oneself for the tumult of life to a little corner of truth and refastening the bonds that tie on to the purpose of life.”

Used with permission from Mesorah Publications, ltd. The Complete ArtScroll Siddur: a new translation and anthologized commentary, by Rabbi Nosson Scherman. New York: Mesorah Publications, ltd.1985. Pg. XII-XIII

The ArtScroll Siddur continues to describe prayer in detail for a number more pages. To read the complete article, one can purchase an ArtScroll Siddur from the ArtScroll website, or visit a local Jewish library.

The grammar and punctuation in this reprint follows the ArtScroll Siddur print copy.

Attempts on Translating Rashi and Jewish Aramaic

Rashi, an 11th century French Rabbi, is one of the most important commentators of the Talmud and is central to the contemporary study of it. In fact, some texts of the Talmud are difficult to understand without reference to him.

One would think that his works would be ubiquitous for the English reading audience, but English translations, outside of his commentary of the Torah, are almost non-existent.

This forces curious researchers such as myself to look at texts in the original language, which in this case is a complex mixture of classical Hebrew, Rabbinic Aramaic and at a lesser rate, old French.

There are several barriers one has to overcome in providing a legitimate translation of his works. First of all, the translator will immediately arrive with the problem at the lack of resources. “The study of Aramaic is a difficult thing, not merely because of the inherent toughness of the language, the lack of standarisation in spelling and grammar, and the wild dialectal varieties one finds; but also because grammatical and lexicographal aids are few and far between.”(1)Manual of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic.

The best aids found so far are:

  • Aiding Talmud Study by Aryeh Carmell. It is so succinct and helpful. No beginner translator should work without it. It is also very inexpensive.

  • There is also A Manual of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic but this one is not recommended. It is definitely not designed for independent study and is frustrating to approach it with such an intention.

  • Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, and Midrashic Literature is also indispensable. It is also available on-line for free access.

  • The Hebrew on-line dictionary called morfix is helpful. It requires that you type in Hebrew for dictionary finds. It takes some time to learn to type in Hebrew, but it is worth it. At first, I just cut and paste Hebrew text directly into the search engine. Now I have learned to change my Mac’s typing direction along with the Hebrew font very quickly. This site is very quick and thorough. Sometimes it is not sufficient enough for words in a Rabbinic context.

  • Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s complete 17 volume or so Hebrew dictionary can also be a good source for referencing hard to find words. Unfortunately it is not available on-line, nor on DVD. It has to be purchased through a specialty bookstore. It is not the same as the pocket dictionary under his name. This is not a good source to work from.

  • The Talmud Babli itself with its corresponding Rashi commentary in the original text and layout can be found online at edaf. I prefer to use the Hebrew Wikisource version of the Talmud found here. It contains the entire Talmud page in searchable text, plus any texts originally printed in Rashi script is converted to the regular Hebrew font.

    One of the initial difficulties is dealing with the unique Rashi font typically used in any publications of his original works. It is a unique script that most readers familiar with traditional Aramaic or Hebrew block fonts will not recognize. It is closer to modern Hebrew cursive. Rashi Script was not invented nor promoted by Rashi. Rather it was the font chosen by the printers to publish his text. If one prefers to translate from the original printed text, it takes some time to get used to. I find it especially difficult to differentiate between the heth and teth, and also the mem and samek.

    If one wants to translate directly from the Rashi script, then this site will help with understanding the alphabet link

  • There is also Instone-Brewers Rabbinic writings site. This is a massive project to provide the Talmud in parallel English and original texts. However, it does not provide translation of Rashi. Also, one has to realize that this is a work in progress. The English translation does not always parallel with the Hebrew equivalent. These problems are still being ironed out.

The internet is not very helpful as a tutor to translate Rashi. One place that had at least some introductory help is the Megilla Tutor, but this is one of the better choices out of very few sites available.

The traditional way of learning to translate Rashi, along with most Jewish Rabbinic texts is firstly through a Yeshiva. This is a higher centre of Jewish learning, the equivalent of an intense Bible College. An alternative would be through the mentoring and discipleship of a local Rabbi versed in this style of learning.

So those who do not have access to such resources have a more difficult but not impossible task. It just will take more time.

References   [ + ]

Notes for Learning Ancient Hebrew

Classical Hebrew, the text for the majority of the Old Testament, is only a small part of the available Hebrew writings available today.

It doesn’t take much more effort to learn modern Hebrew over learning to read classical Hebrew texts. Utilizing the same amount of time learning modern Hebrew gives one a much more comprehensive toolkit.

Why one may ask?

Modern Hebrew gives one the ability to straddle among many eras of Hebrew literature. Not only that, it gives one the quickness, speed and the necessary knowledge to do it.

Those who learn solely classical Hebrew are stuck to a ninth-century or so text that is interpolated with Greek Septuagint and Latin chapter divisions. Not only this, but the vowel system, known as niqqud (sometimes spelled as nikkud), is not dominant in most Hebrew writings. It is considered at least from a modern Hebrew perspective, as a child’s aide.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud and many other Hebrew writings do not have niqqud.

As one delves further into the Hebrew writing system, it is a crossover between a written and oral system. It has to be read and understood from this perspective. For example, the Talmud is written is such a way to make memorization easy. It is designed for the fact that that there was a limited supply of printed material (since everything at the time had to be laboriously copied out by hand). The importance of persons and communities memorizing the source material was paramount for the perpetuation.

Modern Hebrew helps with understanding this important concept.

Classical Hebrew has its own nuances, especially the vav conversive and its uses of the verb tenses, but it is not hard to learn by those who know modern Hebrew.

It also opens the world to later Hebrew documents such as the book of Daniel, which has Aramaic in it.

It also allows one cross into Talmudic texts. There is a caveat here though, the Talmud seems to have its own proprietary words and phrases. It is a writing unto itself. Modern Hebrew doesn’t align completely with the language of the Talmud, but it still is far better to have modern Hebrew than classical when approaching this unique text.

Modern Hebrew also opens the gateway to other authors such as Rashi, whose writings are powerful but little known in the Western world.

It also exposes one to many different font types from classical to modern handwriting. It gives one the ability to adapt to almost any Hebrew text of interest.

Because there is no niqqud available in most Hebrew texts, one has to learn how to read by context. A word with no vowels can mean or sound differently according to what precedes and goes after it. Learning modern Hebrew allows one to quickly identify the context and what the word sounds like and ought to be translated. It becomes second nature.

Those with a modern Hebrew ability also can become involved in contemporary writings such as reading ha’artetz, one of the leading Israeli newspapers. Unlike western newspapers, Israeli life and their journalists always cross-over into the religious realm. There really is no concrete distinction between religion and society in Israel. It makes for some really good contemporary religious dialogues.

Where would one start to learn modern Hebrew? Many local universities have courses in modern Hebrew. Or, if one is really adventurous, there are full-fledged immersion courses offered by universities in Israel, such as the Hebrew University, etc., but these can be expensive.

If one wishes to do self-study, this can be done too. www.learnmodernhebrew.com has many resources to draw from.

A Primer for the Evangelical on the Talmud

A complete set of the Talmud Babli

The Talmud is a broad collection of Jewish writings that the majority of evangelical Bible students could easily read and understand. It is very close in the thoughts and methods outlined in the New Testament.

There were quotes that Christ made that paralleled those in the Talmud. This has captured the imagination of many scholars who are looking for more correlations. A long-running argument has gone on as to whether Christ borrowed from earlier traditions, or He actually was the originator of them.

The Talmud is in many ways closer to the epoch of the New Testament than Greek classical writings such as Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras.

Because of this, the Talmud is an invaluable piece of ancient literature for those seeking religious truth.

The Talmud is a very hard collection of books to define. Adin Steinsaltz, in his book, The Essential Talmud, may have the closest thing to defining it:

“The Talmud is the repository of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom, and the oral law, which is as ancient and significant as the written law (the Torah), finds expression therein. It is a conglomerate of law, legend, and philosophy, a blend of unique logic and shrewd pragmatism, of history and science, anecdotes and humor. It is a collection of paradoxes: its framework is orderly and logical, every word and term subjected to meticulous editing, completed centuries after the actual work of composition came to an end; yet it is still based on free association, on a harnessing together of diverse ideas reminiscent of the modern stream-of-consciousness novel. Although its main objective is to interpret and comment on a book of law, it is, simultaneously, a work of art that goes beyond legislation and its practical application.”

There are two distinct versions of the Talmud. The Talmud Babli, which traces its origins back to Babylon, and the Talmud Yerushalmi, which is to the Jerusalem area. The Yerushalmi is much shorter and is used less frequently. The Talmud Babli is the central source for discussion.

The Talmud has two major components. The Mishna — which has its basis around the 2nd century AD, and the Gemara — which was completed around the 5th century. The Gemara is a discussion of the Mishna and a springboard for many other items.

Surrounding these two major components are other commentaries and glosses whose contributions vary from the 6th to 19th centuries.

A typical page with explanations can be found here.

One will see that this page is an art form and a precursor to hyper-texting.

There is no other religious document in the world that details the passing of thought throughout the centuries as the Talmud does.

This introduction is for those new to the Talmud and wanting to explore it in the English language. Here are some places to find good English literature on the subject:

There is a good online site to begin reading in English. It is called Rabbinic Traditions. It may seem overwhelming at the start with so many books, tractates, and other technical goodies listed. Feel free to go anywhere on the site and just read. After a while it will begin to make sense.

The Soncino Talmud contains the majority of the Mishna and the Gemara in English. It can be purchased, or often found for free in various iterations on the internet.

Anything Adin Steinsaltz has written on the Talmud is going to be good, and The Essential Talmud, found at amazon.com, should be on everybody’s library shelf.

A. Cohen’s, Everyman’s Talmud, found at amazon.com covers the Talmud more from a systematic theological point of view. There is a wealth of information here for the Evangelical reader.

If one wants to get a little deeper, the following books are well-written:

Ephraim E. Urbach’s, The Sages: their Concepts and Beliefs, is an incredible piece of scholarship that also integrates Christian writings in certain places as well. It is out-of-print right now, but if you can get your hands on it, it is worth the effort.

Anything written by Jacob Neusner about Jewish writings is going to be excellent. His book, The Oral Torah: The Sacred Books of Judaism, is a good place to start.

Last of all, Gedaliah Alon’s, The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age, mixes more historical references than Urbach but not as theological, is also a classic.

These last three books are an especially must have in any ancient literature buff’s library.