Within ancient Hebrew manuscripts, scattered among libraries throughout the world, one can find some surprising treasures, like previously unknown and unpublished pieces of writing. The unusual midrash we will examine here is one of these. It appears in a manuscript that is part of the Firkovich collection, which resides in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.
From the story of a life on its last journey, from words of family members gathered around the grave, rises terrible pain but also a great light. Notes from Mt. Herzl
It has been a week of funerals.
The heart breaks and widens.
Tears flow, here from pain, there from emotion.
Jewish funerals, and especially those of IDF soldiers, whoever they may be, offer a lesson in how to live. As the people in attendance listen to the eulogies, they learn more and more what life was for the deceased and his family. They discover how the soul of the one who fell is reflected in the souls of each one near and dear to him. The mirrors of the soul tell us a story of interwoven lives and relationships.
A huge crowd gathers at the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl. The hot sun of Tammuz beats down upon our heads. Mt. Herzl is a city of eternal youth – of youths who sacrificed their lives so that we may exist in our Land. We stand close together: young and old, soldier and civilian, Jews from all sectors – secular and haredim, traditional and national religious, conservative and reform. In my heart I wonder why we define ourselves in terms of sectors, and I decide that I prefer the tribal definition of yore.
Between the carefully-tended graves – for each is a garden unto itself –words of prayer cut through the choked sobs that are heard in turn from different spots within the crowd. Each word finds its way from one heart into all our hearts.
A person’s last teaching, his legacy, is delivered in condensed form by his dear ones as they part from him. In Israel, it is the words of people, more than the rites, that bring his life to the fore, and perhaps this is truer of words spoken at a funeral than those spoken at a happy occasion. Thus it is written in Ecclesiastes, “It is better to visit a house of mourning than a house of celebration.”
At this funeral I witnessed the reflection of values held by grandparents in the lives of their children and their children’s children. I was amazed at how today’s parents in Israel teach their children that modesty and putting oneself last are necessary for the social good; that what counts is the person, not titles, degrees, wealth, family connections or military rank, which without deep human essence is meaningless.
Around the grave stood four generations of one rooted family, in which the ingathering of exiles and a mixing of cultures have led not to assimilation but to mutual enrichment; A family that through quiet perseverance throughout the generations, in joy and at times in sorrow, has preserved its stake in the Land. I beheld a mother’s valor in her words, “would that I had died instead,” even as she asks God to give strength to be joyful in what there is and not weep over what might have been. I heard her clear call to those assembled to continue, throughout the years and not only in the time of mourning, to visit her home, the home of a family whose precious son was snatched from them in the flower of his youth.
Our Sages taught us not to offer comfort to people while their dead lay before them. But the presence of the community in the home does offer a bit of consolation. In recalling those lone soldiers who came from the Diaspora and volunteered to serve, we should remember that the mitzvah of comforting mourners continues after the funeral and the shiva, throughout life, and so we should maintain contact with their families. It is the least we can do for those who gave the greatest sacrifice of all for the sake of our security.
At this funeral I learned of the great power of love held in the heart of a young man for his parents and grandparents, his friends, siblings, and beloved, who would have become his bride. They were a young couple who chose to spend free moments learning Torah for its own sake. I heard that the young man’s favorite teaching of Rabban Gamliel, one of the ten Mishnaic sages who were killed in the Land by the Romans, was from Ethics of the Fathers (3:12): “…receive every man with a joyful countenance.”
As I left the cemetery, my prayer was that we shall all learn to receive each person in joy, not only now in a time of war but also when quiet is restored; that we visit families not only in times of mourning but also in times of happiness.
The funeral was of Second Lieutenant Yuval Haiman z”l from Efrat who was killed thwarting a murderous attack emerging from one of the Hamas tunnels near Kibbutz Nir Am. I work with Yuval’s mother, Zohara, but was not privileged to know Yuval until his funeral. May his memory be for a blessing, may the memory of all the fallen soldiers be for a blessing, and may their souls be bound in the bond of life.
(English translation by Penina Goldschmidt)
I would like to thank all who heard, responded, and helped me formulate this article: the Tehuda Seminary: Sara Leibovitz and Sharon Melammed; the Shreibom Bet Midrash; Or Margalit and the Ma’ayan Bet Midrash in Modi’in, to Ra’anan Dotan, to the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and Dr.Einat Ramon, who inspired me to write this article.
How we wish we could go back in time and stand at Sinai – to experience those three days of excited preparation, the sounds and the lightening, the heavy cloud, the loud blow of the shofar, the smoking mountain, God in the descending fire, Moses and God speaking to one another. If we could only, even for a brief moment, hear the voice of God, Master of the Universe, our Father, speaking to us to say: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt from the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”We yearn to merit the experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai directly from God: “Not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!”
Instead we have only a midrash to remind us that all of us – throughout past and future history – were present, “and not you alone, but even future generations were there at that time.”Is this sufficient? What does it help us that we are all considered to have been at Sinai?
If we all stood at the mountain, saw the sounds, stood to receive the Torah from the Almighty, all said as one, “we shall do and we shall listen”– then it follows that the statements “God held the mountain over our heads like a bucket” and “You are an impetuous nation, putting your mouths before your ears” apply to us as well; and we are all compared to a raped woman, having been forced to receive the Torah.
A people of slaves in the desert, thirsting for protection, a different master, identity, freedom, love – of course we were eager to accept the Torah, from God of the universe who chose us from all peoples, and sanctified us of all nations. We are His children whom He protects and He is our Father and Master. We belong to Him, for He is Great and Glorious, All-Powerful and Lofty.
But what happened to us immediately after He revealed Himself to us? How could it be, after we stood there and He spoke to us, that as soon as He disappeared we worshipped the golden calf, calling it God of Israel?How was it possible that we could not manage to wait, to be without mother and father, to tolerate the idea that perhaps we were alone? Is Sinai feasible for a nation of slaves? Are those so newly liberated capable of standing at the mountain?
Behold the festival of the Giving of the Torah, upon us it arrives each year anew. We may find ourselves each year standing at the mountain, seeing the sounds, hearing the voice of God, only to immediately afterwards, when the holiday is over, revert to worshipping the calf. What will prevent us from repeatedly traversing this destructive route from mountain to calf?
From anticipation to disappointment?
From hope to despair?
From following the path to losing the path?
The answer is found in the Book of Ruth, which for a variety of reasons was chosen to be read on Shavuot.All those reasons, including those that compare Ruth’s acceptance of the God of Israel to the conversion process, are not enough to prevent the fall from the mountain to the calf.
If we examine in depth the two scenes – Israel standing at Sinai and Ruth standing before Naomi – we can perhaps arrive at the answer. At Sinai we were a nation of slaves, newly released from Egypt, inferior in all aspects, meeting the true, Omnipotent Ruler of the world in the heart of the desert (from which there was no way back). The chasm between the standing of a slave and that of the All-Powerful God inherently creates an “enforcing” situation, for the mountain is suspended over our heads. For who will not say ‘Amen’ when the Almighty speaks, or even before He speaks? When we face the All-Powerful, the All-Controlling, do we not lose some of our own power? The chasm between us renders us unable to maintain faith and belief!
If we understand thus our position at Sinai, it becomes obvious that not faith and belief, but fear and awe, hope and uncertainty, made “we shall do and we shall listen” the logical response.
Ruth Stands Before Naomi, Israel Stands Before God
There is a similarity between Ruth and Israel: both are destitute, in the desert, searching for a guardian, walking towards the unknown. Yet there are also differences – Israel stood as a nation; had no choice and no way back; and wanted God to fulfill His promise and provide. Ruth was an individual; she had a choice and could have returned, as Orpah did; she went with no expectations of honor or plenty, to an unknown fate.
The comparison between Naomi and God is more difficult; there can be no similarity between Omnipotence and human frailty. Naomi has nothing to offer Ruth– not food, protection, custody or identity – only love. As she states herself, “Call me not Naomi, call me Marah; for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me back home empty…” The feeling of emptiness expressed here is immense. What can an empty person possibly offer? Yet Ruth clings to Naomi:
And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave you, and to return from following you; for whither you go, I will go;
and where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God;
where you die, will I die,
and there will I be buried;
the LORD do so to me, and more also,
if aught but death part you and me.’
And when she saw that she was determined to go with her, she left off speaking unto her.
Why is Ruth determined? Why does she choose to remain specifically with Naomi? Here lies the unstated reason for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, and the solution towards avoiding a return to the Golden Calf.
The rabbis who attached Megillat Ruth to the festival of our receiving the Torah attempted, in their unique fashion, to imply something about our relationship with God. They are trying to tell us:
You, who yearn so to be present at Sinai – to witness such an impressive event, notwithstanding the problematic gulf between the sides – you were there, you and all your descendants. We all begin at that point, but let us not become affixed there, for then we shall be on the path towards the calf. You must conquer the overwhelming desire to be at Sinai above all else. You were already there – now you must progress onwards, until you reach the level of Ruth and Naomi, where the gap between the sides no longer exists. Like Ruth, you have a choice, you can turn your back on God (and man) and seek a comfortable life. Precisely here, where God (and man) seem to have nothing to offer you, and you may expect nothing from them. If you succeed at the stage of Ruth and Naomi, and face God and your fellow man, without expectations or demanding something in return – then you will understand the meaning of belief. You will know what it means to worship God. You will not follow the calf, nor will you get stuck dreaming about Sinai. You will attain redemption.
By connecting the Book of Ruth to the festival of receiving the Torah, our Rabbis show us the path towards redemption. They rely upon us to be able to traverse the entire way from Sinai to Ruth and Naomi, to not turn our backs and leave but to remain and have faith. This is perhaps where redemption begins. This explains why Ruth is the mother of royalty and the antecedent of Mashiah ben David.
He used to say: Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of
receiving a reward; instead be like servants who serve their master not for
the sake of receiving a reward. And let the awe of Heaven be upon you.
Mishna Avot, Chapter 1:3
English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.
To view other art images of Ruth and The Giving of the Torah, go to the TALI Education Fund’s Visual Midrash Site http://www.talivirtualmidrash.org.il/Index.aspx,
Hagit Dotan was ordained in Jerusalem in 2013 by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and has established a Bet Midrash in Modi’in where she has been teaching for the past 3 years. Interested in discussing ideas that the author has presented? Go to The Schechter Institutes Facebook page where you’ll find Rabbi Dotan’s article. She looks forward to your comments.
Question: The Body Worlds exhibit opened at the “Madatech” in Haifa on April 6, 2009 and it will remain in Israel for three months. More than 10,000 people visited the exhibit during the first three days. (The Jerusalem Post, March 20, 2009, pp. 1, 10; April 14, 2009, p. 24) According to the Body Worlds website, the exhibit consists of 200 real human specimens, including whole bodies, organs, organ configurations and transparent body slices. To date, more than 26 million people around the world have seen these exhibits since they opened in 1995.
- I) Justifications for the Exhibit
According to the Body Worlds website:
The BODY WORLDS exhibitions aim to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body and show the effects of poor health, good health and lifestyle choices. They are also meant to create interest in and increase knowledge of anatomy and physiology among the public.
Invented by scientist and anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens in 1977, Plastination is the groundbreaking method of halting decomposition and preserving anatomical specimens for scientific and medical education. Plastination is the process of extracting all bodily fluids and soluble fat from specimens, replacing them through vacuum forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers, and then curing them with light, heat, or certain gases, which give the specimens rigidity and permanence.
The BODY WORLDS exhibitions rely on the generosity of body donors; individuals who bequeathed that, upon their death, their bodies could be used for educational purposes in the exhibitions. Currently, the Institute for Plastination has a donor roster of 8,000 individuals, 490 are already deceased.
All of the full-body plastinates and the majority of the specimens are from these body donors; some specific specimens that show unusual conditions come from old anatomical collections and morphological institutes. As agreed upon by the body donors, their identities and causes of death are not provided. The exhibitions focus on the nature of our bodies, not on providing personal information.
- II) A General Reaction to these Justifications
I do not find these claims convincing. If the main purpose is education, why are the bodies posed playing poker, guitar and various sports?! If the main purpose is education, why did the owners allow a scene to be shot in 2006 at Body Worlds in which Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale kills one of his enemies in the middle of the exhibit?! If we want to educate adults and children about anatomy, physiology and cancer, we can easily use books and movies and CDs and websites; we don’t have to see actual plastinated bodies and organs.
As for the consent of the deceased, there are rumors that some are Chinese convicts who did not consent. However, even if they did consent, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is permitted. A Jew can consent to smoking or taking drugs or suicide, but all of these activities are still prohibited by Jewish law.
Finally, the fact that plastination was invented by a German physician whose father served in the S.S. is troubling and it behooves us to examine this issue with even greater care.
III) If the bodies on display were Jews
There is no question that if the bodies on display were Jews, it would be forbidden to visit this exhibit for the following reasons:
1) Kevurah: Jewish law requires burial in the ground (Deuteronomy 21:23; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 12:1 and cf. 14:1), but the bodies in Body Worlds remain unburied for an indefinite period of time.
2) Met Mitzvah: According to Jewish law, if you find a dead body in a field, you must drop everything and bury the person right away. Indeed, this mitzvahtakes precedence over Torah study and a Kohen must defile himself in order to bury a met mitzvah (Megillah 3b; Sifrey Bemidbar parag. 26, ed. Horovitz, p. 32; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 3:8; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 374:1). Thus, it is a mitzvah to bury the bodies on display in Body Worlds.
3) Autopsies are permitted in Jewish law in order to save lives: to help others with the same disease, to determine the cause of death or, according to some rabbis, to help medical students learn anatomy (see Rosner; Steinberg; and Dror). To dehydrate bodies and replace the fat and water with plastic is not at all comparable.
4) Halanat Hamet: Jewish law does not allow leaving a dead body overnight unless burial is delayed for the arrival of a close relative or in order to bring a coffin or takhrikhin (shrouds; Deuteronomy 21:23; Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5; Maimonides, Laws of Sanhedrin 15:8 and Laws of Mourning 4:8; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 357:1). Indeed, according to minhag Yerushalayim (the custom of Jerusalem), one must bury a person at night in order not to delay burial (David Golinkin, Sidra 16 , p. 13), yet the bodies in Body Worlds remain unburied for years!
5) Nivul Hamet: Jewish law prohibits desecration of the dead (Bava Batra154a; Hullin 11b; Arakhin 7a). Filling bodies with plastic and posing them in various odd positions is nivul hamet.
6) Hana’ah Min Hamet: The organizers of Body Worlds have taken in over 200 million dollars and made a huge profit from the 26 million people who have visited these exhibits throughout the world. Benefiting from the dead is prohibited by Jewish law. (Avodah Zarah 29b; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 14:21; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 349: 1-2).
7) If the bodies are Jewish, a Kohen may not visit the exhibit because ofTumah or ritual impurity (Mishnah Oholot 3:6-7; Maimonides, Laws of Mourning 3:3; Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 371:1).
- IV) If the bodies on display were non-Jews
One could claim that all of the above principles apply only to Jews who are obligated by Jewish law; since the bodies belong to non-Jews, there is no prohibition involved. I would reject this claim for a number of reasons:
1) Some of the bodies may belong to Jews, since many modern Jews tend to be very liberal about such issues. True, we have the halakhic principle of “Kol d’parish meruba parish”, “whoever is separated is separated from the majority”, which means we assume that all of the bodies belong to non-Jews. However, as I have shown elsewhere, legally this may be true, but factuallythere are probably some Jewish bodies in every exhibit. (See Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah 3 [5748-5749], p. 86 re. artificial insemination)
2) Some of the above prohibitions can apply to non-Jews as well. For example, we read in Joshua 8:29:
And the king of Ay, [Joshua] hung on a tree until the evening; and at sunset, Joshua ordered and they took his corpse down from the tree and they threw it at the entrance to the city gate and they set up a great heap of stones over it which is there until today.
Rabbi David Kimhi (the Radak, ad. loc.) says that Joshua did this because the prohibition of halanat hamet – delay of burial – applies to all who are hung in Eretz Yisrael, including non-Jews. R. Levi Ben Gershom (ad loc.) says that Joshua was adhering to Deut. 21:23 about halanat hamet. Nahmanides also says in his commentary to Deut. 21:23 that Joshua buried the bodies of the Kings of Canaan because of the prohibition of halanat hamet.
Rabbi Yair Hayyim Bachrach (Responsa Havot Yair, end of No. 139) and perhaps Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Responsa Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, end of No. 208) gave the same ruling without mentioning Nahmanides. On the other hand, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg ruled on the basis of Nahmanides andHavot Yair and the Hatam Sofer that “there is a mitzvah from the Torah to bury non-Jews who are killed and also their dead, especially in Israel” (Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 10, No. 25, Chapter 9). Thus, according to these important rabbis, halanat hamet applies to non-Jews, and Jews are required to bury non-Jews.
3) It is true that many of the Talmudic Sages had a negative opinion of non-Jews. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who lived at the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, said: “the most kosher among the gentiles – kill” (Yerushalmi Kidushin4:11, fol. 66b). He also said (Yevamot 61b): “Non-Jewish graves do not transmit tumah (impurity) as it is written ‘You are my flock, you are adam(man)’ (Ezekiel 34:31) – you are called ‘man’ and the gentiles are not called ‘man’ “. This negative attitude is not surprising in light of the fact that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, killed or exiled hundreds of thousands of Jews and outlawed many Jewish practices.
But Marc Hirshman, Moshe Greenberg and others have shown that some of the Sages and the later rabbis had a much more universalistic attitude towards gentiles as exhibited in the following passages:
- a) “[Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Beloved is adam (man) who was created in the image of God. Still greater was the love shown to him since he was created in the image of God, as it is written (Genesis 9:6) ‘in the image of God he made man.’ ” (Avot 3:14)
The plain meaning of this text is that all men (adam) were created in the image of God, not just Jews, i.e. the opposite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Later rabbis such as Maimonides, Tosfot Yom Tov and Tiferet Yisrael (to Avotad loc) emphasized and strengthened this approach.
- b) “Therefore Adam was created alone to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is considered by scripture as if he had destroyed the entire world, and whoever sustains one soul is considered by scripture as if he had sustained the entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, according to the correct reading explained by E. E. Urbach, Tarbitz 40 , pp. 268-284 and reprints). This mishnah does not distinguish between saving a Jew and saving a gentile.
- c) “Rabbi Yirmiya used to say …. Even a non-Jew and he observes the Torah, is [considered] like a “High Priest” (Sifra, Aharey, Chapter 13, ed. Weiss, fol. 86b. Cf. Sanhedrin 59a = Bava Kama 38a = Avodah Zarah 3a and Hirshman, Chapter 3).
- d) “Rabbi Joshua said to him … but there are tzadikim among the nations who have a place in the World to Come!” (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2, ed. Zuckermandel, p. 434)
- e) “If a person (adam) wants to be a Levi or a Cohen, he cannot, because his father was not, but if he wants to be a tzadik, even if he was a gentile, he can be a tzadik (Midrash Tehillim 146:7, ed. Buber, p. 536).
Finally, we have two very broad universalistic passages in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah; cf. Hirshman, Chapter 11):
- f) ” ‘And Devorah was a prophetess’ ” (Judges 4:4) – and what was the nature of Devorah who judged Israel and prophesied about them? Wasn’t Pinhas Ben Eleazar still [alive]?! I call heaven and earth as witnesses – both gentile and Jew, both man and woman, both male slave and female slave – everything is according to what a person does, so the Holy Spirit descends upon him”. In other words, anyone can merit the Holy Spirit – Jew or gentile, man or woman, male slave or female slave. (Seder Eliyahu Rabbah Chapter 10, ed. Ish Shalom, p. 48).
- g) “[God] said to Moses: Is there any favoritism before me between gentile and Jew, between man and woman, between male slave and female slave – if he performs a mitzvah, he receives a reward….” (, Chapter 13-14, p. 65 = Yalkut Shimoni to Genesis, parag. 76).
These passages are not halakhot or laws but aggadot or non-legal material, yet they indicate that all people, including non-Jews, were created in the image of God and are equal in importance to the entire world. A gentile can observe the Torah and can be a tzadik; he can receive the Holy Spirit and receive a reward for observing a mitzvah.
According to these passages, the gentiles on display in Body Worlds were also created in the image of God. Therefore, even if Jewish law does not require us to avoid this exhibit, we should avoid it lifnim mishurat hadin, beyond the letter of the law.
9 Iyar 5769
- On “Body Worlds”
- R. Shear-Yashuv Cohen quoted in The Jerusalem Post, March 20, 2009, pp. 1 and 10
- R. Reuven Hammer, “Body Worlds and the Dignity of the Dead”, The Jerusalem Post, August 24, 2006 and Ha’aretz, April 17, 2009
- R. Barry Schlesinger, Source Sheet on Body Worlds, Ravdibur, March 31, 2009
- R. Avinoam Sharon, Ravdibur, March 30, 2009
- R. Hillel Yisraeli, Ravdibur, March 30, 2009
- The Jewish Attitude towards Non-Jews
- Rabbi David Ellenson, After Emancipation: Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity, Cincinnati, 2004, pp. 394-424 (on R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Hayim David Halevi)
- Entziklopedia Talmudit, s.v. goy, Vol. 5, cols. 363-364
- Rabbi David Frankel, “May a Jew Enter a Church or a Mosque?” inResponsa of the Va’ad Halakhah 6 (5755-5758), pp. 211-230
- Robert Goldenberg, The Nations That Know Thee Not: Ancient Jewish Attitudes to Other Religions, New York, 1998
- Rabbi David Golinkin, Responsa of the Vaad Halakhah 6 (5755-5758), pp. 289-290
- Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, “Atam Kruyim Adam” in Avraham Shapiro, editor,Al Hamikra V’al Hayahadut, Tel Aviv, 1984, pp. 55-67
- Rabbi Isaac Herzog, Nokhrim B’Medinah Yehudit, Jerusalem 2008
- Rabbi Emil Hirsch, Jewish Encyclopedia s.v. Gentile, Vol. V, pp. 616-619
- Menahem Hirshman, Torah L’Khol Ba’ey Olam: A Universal Trend in Tannaitic Literature and its Attitude to the Wisdom of the Nations, Tel Aviv 1999 (Hebrew; abbreviated in Harvard Theological Review 93/2 April 2000, pp. 101-115)
- Rabbi David Novak, Jewish Social Ethics, New York and Oxford, 1992, Chapter 9
- Avi Sagi, Yahadut : Bein Dat L’Mussar, Tel Aviv, 1998, Chapter 8
- Eliezer Schweid, Hinukh Humanisti Yehudi B’yisrael, Tel Aviv, 2000, Chapter 7.
- Ephraim E. Urbach, “Goy Nochri V’akum“, Mehkarim B’madaey Hayahadut, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 520-528
- David Zohar, Mehuyavut Yehudit B’olam Moderni, Jerusalem and Ramat Gan, 2003, pp. 226-233
- Michael Walzer etc., editors, The Jewish Political Tradition, Vol. 2, New Haven, 2003, pp. 441-562.
- Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi, editors, Yahadut Shel Hayyim, Jerusalem 2007, pp. 215-234 (on righteous gentiles); pp. 256-286 (on the attitude of Maimonides)
III. Jewish Respect for the Dead
- Rabbi Gilah Dror, Responsa of the Vaad Halakhah 5 (5752-5754), pp. 143-160
- Rabbi David Golinkin, Responsa of the Vaad Halakhah 5 (5752-5754), pp. 120-121
- Fred Rosner, Modern Medicine and Jewish Ethics, second edition, Hoboken and New York, 1991, Chapters 21 and 23
- Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, Entziklopedia Hilkhatit Refuit, Jerusalem, 1988-1998, s.v. Hashtalat Eivarim, Vol. 2, cols. 219-222; s.v. Nituah Hamet, Vol. 4, cols. 550-564
This article began as a Hebrew responsum written on Rosh Hodesh Marheshvan 5763. I then lectured on the topic at the Sixth International Conference on Jewish Names at Bar Ilan University on June 11, 2003. The complete article appeared in Hebrew in Studies in Memory of Prof. Zev Falk , Jerusalem, 2005, pp. 27-38 which can be ordered from Magnes Press at www.magnespress.co.il . This English summary contains a few selected notes; lengthy footnotes can be found in the Hebrew article.
The question posed in the title of this article would seem to be a simple one, but, as we shall see, the answer is far from simple. Due to historical gaps, it is difficult to sketch a clear picture of the development of this custom. Therefore we shall discuss five periods in the history of when boys and girls are named: the biblical period, the first to eighth centuries, shavua habat , the Hollekreisch custom in Germany and a wide variety of customs from the sixteenth-twentieth centuries.
I) The Biblical Period
It seems that in the Biblical period, boys and girls were named at birth. A typical description is found in Genesis 4:1: “Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying : ‘I have gained a male child with the help of the Lord’ “.
Similarly, in Genesis Chapter 30, seven of Jacob’s children are named. In each case it says: And she conceived and bore Jacob a son and she said.Therefore she named him X. After six sons, the Torah says (Genesis 30:21): “Last, she gave birth to a daughter, and she named her Dinah”.
These and other verses give a clear impression that children – both boys and girls – were named at birth.
Indeed, a few verses explicitly mention boys who were named at birth:
” But as she [=Rachel] breathed her last – for she was dying – she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Binyamin” (Genesis 35:18).
As Tamar was giving birth to twins,
one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand to signify: This one came out first. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother, and she said : “What a breach you have made for yourself!” So he was named Peretz . Afterwards, his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah (Genesis 38:27-30).
Finally, Isaac was clearly named by Abraham (Genesis 21:3-4) before his brit , as opposed to the custom today.
II) The First – Eighth Centuries
Amazingly enough, there is no explicit source in the Mishnah or both Talmuds which teaches us when boys or girls were named.
The New Testament Book of Luke, which was written in Israel in the first century, says that both Zekhariah (1:59) and Jesus (2:21) were named at their brit ceremonies . The Church Father Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 220) says that Moses was originally named Yehoyakim at his brit. Finally, an eighth-century midrash, Pirkey D’rabi Eliezer (Chapter 48), says that Moshe was called Yekutiel at his brit.
Why was the naming of boys moved from birth to the circumcision ceremony? Theodor Gaster suggests that the Jews at that time were afraid of demons attacking the baby before the brit , just as Christians only give a name at Baptism and just as other peoples hide the name for a while after birth. Therefore, they moved the naming of boys to the brit ceremony.
And what about girls? There is no explicit source from the Talmudic period. Samuel Krauss, writing in 1911, assumed that girls still received their names at birth as in the biblical period. This is an “argument from silence” but, for the time being, this is all we have.
III) Shavua Habat
The term Shavua Haben “the week of the son” appears as the name of a birth celebration in nine places in rabbinic literature (e.g. Sanhedrin 32b). Rashi ( ibid .) and others assumed that it means the brit milah , but this is surprising since the brit occurs on the eighth day and not on the seventh .
This interpretation is also contradicted by a source quoted by Nahmanides (Spain and Israel, 1194-1270) about which event takes precedence over another: “and in another version of [ Massekhet Semahot ] it is taught: Shavua Habat [= the week of the daughter] and Shavua Haben – Shavua Haben comes first”.
In other words, if you have to choose between going to Shavua Haben or Shavua Habat , the former takes precedence. It is clear from this source that Shavua Haben is not a brit , because girls do not have a brit ! Various scholars have said various explanations for Shavua Haben . Leopold Low said in 1875 that the Greeks held a Hebdomeuomena festival on the seventh day after a boy was born and he suggested that this is called Shavua Haben in our sources.
If we jump forward 1800 years, we know that Iraqi Jews hold a Shisha festival on the sixth night after birth for boys and girls. At that festival, girls receive their names. In other words, the festival is identical for boys and girls except that girls are named at the Shisha , while boys are named at the brit . The same may have been true for Shavua Haben/Shavua Habat . A festival may have been held for boys and girls on the seventh day, except that girls were named then, while boys were named at the brit . This suggestion will remain a hypothesis until further evidence is found.
IV) The Ashkenazic Custom – The Hollekreisch
This custom existed for some 900 years in Germany and has been discussed by many scholars. It took place on the first Shabbat when the mother went to the synagogue, which was on the fourth Shabbat or on the thirteeth day after the birth. It took place after Shabbat lunch. Boys recited the Hollekreisch for boys and girls for girls. The newborn children were dressed up; baby boys were dressed in a tallit and the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) was placed in the crib.
Before the naming, a series of verses were recited from the Pentateuch.
Then, they would lift up the crib and shout in German:
Hollekreisch ! How shall the baby be called? Ploni Ploni Ploni (i.e. his or her name three times).
This is repeated three times and then nuts, sweets and fruits were given to the boys and girls.
Originally, this was the German custom for both boys and girls. In time, they stopped performing the ceremony for boys, since they were named in any case at the brit , and they observed it only for girls. Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (d. 1776) says there was not a fixed custom to recite the verses for girls. Girls received a Hebrew name or a secular name at the Hollekreisch .
There are at least six different explanations for the word Hollekreisch . For example, some suggest that it comes from the French “haut la crèche”, to raise the crib. This is not convincing because the word is always quoted by German rabbis, not French. Others said that Hollekreisch means a “holy cry”. This interpretation is not correct, because the ceremony included giving a secular name or just a secular name.
The most convincing explanation is that Holle is Lilith or an evil spirit which attacks infants and that they cried “Holle” in order to chase away the evil spirit from the baby. This explanation fits the well- known method of making noise in order to chase away evil spirits.
V) A Wide Variety of Customs from the Sixteenth-Twentieth Centuries
Beginning in the sixteenth century, we hear of twenty different customs regarding the proper time to name a baby girl. In Ashkenaz, they preferred synagogue ceremonies, while the Sefaradim and Oriental Jews preferred home ceremonies. Here is a sampling of different customs:
1) The first time the mother comes to the synagogue after the birth;
2) On the day of birth;
3) At the first Torah-reading after birth;
4) On the first Shabbat after birth;
5) On the second Shabbat after birth;
6) At the Shisha , on the sixth night, as mentioned above;
7) One full week after the birth;
8) On the eighth day;
9) Two weeks after birth;
10) On the thirteeth day;
11) On the fourteeth day;
12) On the eighteeth day;
13) On Rosh Hodesh;
14) Within a year of birth.
VI) Some Concluding Observations
It is clear from the above that the most ancient custom is to name a girl at birth. This was the biblical custom which seems to have continued throughout the Talmudic period even when boys began to be named at the brit . If my hypothesis about Shavua Habat is correct, there was a custom in the third century to name girls on the seventh day after birth.
A more well-attested custom is the Hollekreisch , going back 900 years. According to this custom, a girl is named on the fourth Shabbat or on the thirteeth day after birth.
All the other customs are late, and each was or is practiced by various groups of Jews and is explained in various fashions.
What can we learn from all of the above about the status of women in Judaism? It is difficult to give a definitive answer. On the one hand, the time for naming babies in the biblical period and in Ashkenaz was egalitarian for boys and girls, and in Ashkenaz the entire ceremony was almost identical. On the other hand, one could claim that the lack of a unified custom for girls beginning in the sixteenth century shows that girls are less important in Judaism than boys. However, there is another way to explain the different customs. One could claim that originally, in the biblical period, the naming ceremony was uniform and egalitarian.The transfer of the naming of boys to the brit in the first century weakened the status of the original custom of naming girls at birth. This weakening led to the creation of the wide variety of customs described above.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.
I) The Jewish Attitude Towards Birthdays
Jews, traditionally, do not celebrate birthdays. In the Biblical and Second Temple periods, only kings – especially non-Jewish kings – celebrated birthdays.
The only biblical reference to a birthday celebration is found in Genesis (40:20-21) regarding Pharaoh:
On the third day – his birthday – Pharaoh made a banquet for all his officials, and he singled out his chief cupbearer and his chief baker from among his officials. He restored the chief cupbearer to his cup bearing, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand; but the chief baker he impaled – just as Joseph had interpreted to them.
The New Testament (Mark 6:21ff.; cf. Mathew 14:6 ff.) tells the story of King Herod Antipas’s birthday celebration in the days of Jesus:
Herod for his birthday made a feast for his lords and military commanders and the magnates of Galilee. And his daughter Herodias came in, danced and pleased Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl: “Ask of me whatever you want and I will give it to you. up to half my kingdom”. So she went out and said to her mother: “What shall I ask for?” and she said: “The head of John the Baptist”.
Josephus writes about the birthday of King Agrippa I, Herod’s grandson, who reigned from 41-44 c.e. King Agrippa quarreled with his general Silas, sent him to his homeland and had him imprisoned. After a while, his anger abated:
In consequence, when he was celebrating his birthday and all his subjects were participating in the joyous festivities, he recalled Silas at a moment’s notice to share his table.
Thus we see that in ancient times a king celebrated his birthday, as did his subjects. On that day, the king would reward his friends and punish his enemies.
Indeed, the Sages were well aware that Greek and Roman kings celebrated their birthdays with great fanfare. In rabbinic literature, there is frequent reference to the yom genusia/genesia or birthday of the king, which the Sages considered an idolatrous practice.
S. D. Goitein, one of the leading experts on the Cairo Genizah, notes that at certain periods birthday celebrations were held for the Fatamid caliphs. Yet Goitein did not find any reference in the vast Genizah corpus to good wishes for a birthday celebration, even though Jews did record the exact date when a child was born according to the Jewish and Muslim calendars. He thinks that Jews avoided celebrating birthdays because “numbers were ominous, attracting the evil eye”.
Even though Jews as a rule do not seem to have celebrated birthdays, we do find a few references to birthday celebrations, especially of significant birthdays such as 60, 70 and 80.
The tractate of Moed Kattan (28a) says that a person who reaches the age of 60 has passed the age of karet , of being “cut off”, which is a common penalty mentioned in the Torah (Genesis 17:14; Exodus 12:15, 19; 31:14 and frequently). Therefore, Rav Yosef (Babylon, ca. 300) celebrated his 60 th birthday, saying “I have passed the age of karet !”.
Rabbi Menachem be Shlomo (Italy, 12 th century) refers to our topic in his Midrash Sekhel Tov to the passage in Genesis 40:20 quoted above: “Most people like their birthday.and rejoice on it and make a party”.
Rabbi Yozl of Hoechstadt (15 th century) relates that his beloved teacher Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460) made a siyyum to celebrate the completion of a tractate of Talmud on his sixtieth birthday “in order to also absolve him from the banquet which he was supposed to make on his sixtieth birthday” ( Leket Yosher , Part II, Berlin, 1904, p. 40).
Rabbi Yair Hayyim Bachrach (Germany, died 1702), refers to our topic in a lengthy responsum regarding se’udot mitzvah (mitzvah feasts) (No. 71):
“.or a feast for a seventy-year-old. There is doubt even if the seventy-year-old blesses the sheheheyanu blessing” whether this is a se’udat mitzvah , and therefore one should deliver a sermon to ensure that it is a seudat mitzvah .
Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (d. 1909) relates three different customs related to our topic. He says that a person who reaches the age of 60 or 70 should recite sheheheyanu over a new garment or a new fruit but also intend that the blessing refer to his birthday. He adds that some people celebrate every birthday as a festival “and this is a good sign and this is the custom in our home”. He also says that some make a feast every year on the anniversary of their brit “and this is a nice custom” which he adopted by reciting a special prayer every year on the anniversary of his brit .
In our own day, Rabbi Murray Stadtmauer relates that his father Simchah Asher Stadtmauer (1899-1997), who was born and raised in Eastern Europe, would not celebrate his birthday, saying: “Jews in the old country did not have birthdays”. Rabbi Stadtmauer tried to convince his father for years – to no avail.
But not long thereafter, I came upon a short biography of [the] Chofets Chayyim, who died in 1933 at the age of ninety-six. As I scanned the book, I read an account describing how, after his eightieth year, Chofets Chayyim began to hold a se’udat mitzvah. each year on his birthday!
Asked by his disciples to explain, Chofets Chayyim said: “The Tehillim [Book of Psalms] promises us a life of seventy years or, at most, eighty years (Psalms 90:10). So if you live beyond eighty, it is a special gift of God. For such a gift, one should give thanks each year”.
Excitedly, I rushed to see my father and told him this story, concluding with a challenge: “Dad, are you a greater tzaddik than the Chofets Chayyim?”
“Of course not.”
“Then let’s celebrate your next birthday with a se’udas mitzvah .” Dad was then close to ninety-three.
“Okay,” he smiled, “but you owe me thirteen birthdays.”
Thus we see that there is precedent in our tradition for celebrating a birthday, especially if one adds a dvar torah !
II) “At Fifty for Counsel”
There are two passages in rabbinic literature which emphasize the importance of some specific ages or milestones in life.
The first is in Kohelet Rabbah (to Kohelet 1:2, ed. Vilna, fols. 1c-1d):
Rabbi Shemuel bar Rav Yitzhak taught in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: The seven “vanities” ( havalim ) mentioned by Kohelet correspond to the seven worlds which a person sees.
A one-year-old is like a king in a carriage – all kiss him and hug him.
A two-and-three-year-old is like a pig, which puts its hands in the gutters.
A ten-year-old skips like a kid.
A twenty-year-old neighs like a horse, adorning himself and looking for a wife.
When he marries, he is like a donkey.
When he has children he is brazen like a dog to bring them bread and food.
When he grows old, he is like a monkey.
A similar, though much more famous list, appears in a beraita appended to the fifth chapter of Pirkey Avot:
He used to say:
At five – [one is fit] for Bible.
At ten – for Mishnah,
At thirteen – for mitzvot
At fifteen – for Talmud
At eighteen – for marriage
At twenty – for pursuing
At thirty – for strength
At forty – for wisdom
At fifty – for counsel
At sixty – for old age
At seventy – for gray hairs
At eighty – for heroism ( gevurot )
At ninety – to bend over
At one hundred – it is as if he died and passed away from the world.
Much has been written about every item in this list. Indeed, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167) composed an entire liturgical poem Ben Adamah based on this Mishnah,which is recited by Syrian Jews on Yom Kippur eve, after the evening service. We shall zero in on “fifty for counsel”, which is what interests me this year.
The Hebrew says ” ben hamishim l’eitzah “. ” Eitzah ” is a common word in biblical and rabbinic Hebrew which means “counsel” or “advice”.The Second Book of Samuel, Chapters 15-17, tells a long story about ” atzat Ahitofel “, the counsel or advice of Ahitofel which was not followed. “For Torah shall not fail from the kohen , nor eitzah (counsel) from the wise, nor oracle from the prophet” (Jeremiah 18:18). “Many are the thoughts in the mind of man, but the advice ( eitzah ) of God shall stand” (Proverbs 19:21). “When Rabbi Joshua died, good advice ( eitzot tovot ) and good thoughts departed from Israel” ( Yerushalmi Sotah 9:17, fol. 24c).
But why is fifty the age of advice or counsel? Rashi and many other commentators to Pirkey Avot refer to a passage about the Levites:
We have learned from the Levites, about whom it is said (Numbers 8:25): “but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more”. But what shall he do? “He shall assist his brothers” (v. 26) with the eitzah (advice) he gives them.
In other words, when a Levite retires from active service in the Temple at age fifty, his job is to assist the younger Levites by giving them advice, or, according to Rabbeinu Yonah (Spain, 13 th century), by teaching them the laws of the Temple service.
Don Isaac Abarbanel (Spain, Portugal, Italy, 1437-1508) in his Nahalat Avot commentary to Pirkey Avot (ed. Jerusalem-New York, 2004, p. 372) has a different explanation for “counsel at fifty”:
And he attributed eitzah to age fifty because eitzah requires yishuv hada’at (deliberation, peace of mind) and much knowledge in experience of things, and this he will acquire entirely at age fifty, not before.
In other words, advice is based on peace of mind and experience and one only acquires both these things at age fifty.
A similar idea was expressed by Simcha Pietrushka of Montreal (1893-1950), in his Yiddish commentary to the Mishnah (Vol. 4, New York, 1966, p. 479):
“A man who is fifty, to ask him for advice”: because by then he has already seen a lot in life and he already looks at life and at all events with yishuv hada’as (peace of mind).
Finally, we have the words of Rabbi Menahem Hameiri (Provence, d. 1315) in his commentary to Pirkey Avot ( Bet Habehira to Avot , ed. Pereg, Jerusalem, 1964, p. 102):
“Fifty for counsel”, in other words, his counsel is worthy because counsel requires two things, one.intelligence and [two].experience, as the ethicists said: “the years will refine wisdom”.And when he reaches fifty, he has already seen many experiences, and he still possesses his full intellectual power, i.e. his intelligence has not begun to wane, so his advice is purified by its two necessities.
Modern western society worships youth. Pirkey Avot and the Meiri remind us that we have much to learn from the middle-aged who can give us much good advice and counsel, based both on intellect and on years of experience.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:mailto:email@example.com.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.
In this month’s Israel Insight, I would like to take a break from the Intifada and related controversies (I wish that Israel could do so too!) and relate to one of Israel’s long-term problems: conversion, intermarriage and “who is a Jew?” I relate to this issue not as an objective observer, but as someone who has been actively involved for three years in trying to solve this problem. This problem has two different aspects, which sometimes lead in opposite directions.