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Oxford Jewish Thought

Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

Humility & Judaism: Jewish theology after the Holocaust

A principle of all religions is the virtue of humility. Humility is considered the foundation of all virtues. This appears to be the case also in Judaism as articulated in almost every text from the Bible to the 19th century works of Chassidism. I would like to argue that while meekness, humility and lowliness of spirit is an all-important virtue in Judaism, in the second half of the 20th century, after the Holocaust, this virtue appears to be reevaluated in Jewish theology as not a virtue as an end in itself but rather must be accompanied by a healthy pride enabling one to make the world a place for the in-dwelling of the Divine. This fundamental shift, I would like to suggest, is based not merely on a change in Jewish ethics but a subtle… Read More »

Ancient Jewish Coins at the Ashmolean Museum: The Tyrian Shekel

Tyrian Shekel.jpgTyrian Shekel1.jpgOne of the most precious items in the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford is an ancient silver Shekel of Tyre from the Second Temple period dated 64/3 BC, weighing 14.14g. On the obverse there is Laureate head or Heracles-Melqart wearing lion-skin around the neck and on the reverse there is an eagle standing with its foot on the beak of a ship. Over the eagle’s shoulder there is a plam-branch and to the left an upright club. The inscription on the coin states: ΤΥΡΟΥ ΙΕΡΑΣ (“of Tyre the Holy”), year 63. The comment by the Ashmolean museum related to the coin is[1]: Jewish temple tax paid with iconic coinage?

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Duties and Rights of a Minor in the Oxford Manuscript of the Mishneh Torah

MS.pngThis essay will aim to outline the status of a minor in Jewish law based on an interesting variation in the Oxford Huntington manuscript of Maimonides’ legal code Mishneh Torah. I will first present the general status of a minor as seen through civil law, followed by an in-depth analysis of various approaches to a minor as found in Jewish law. 


Society differentiates between a minor and an adult. In Roman law, as in ancient Chinese and Greek law, children had no rights. In the 18th century work, the Commentaries of Sir William Blackstone on the Laws of England, it states that the father in ancient Roman Law had the power of life and death over his children on the principle that “he who gave had also the power… Read More »

Simcha Luzzatto: Jewish Legal Disputes in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice - 500 Years

Venice.jpgThis essay will present the life and interesting legal rulings of one of the most prominent rabbis of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, Simcha Luzzatto, known also as Simone Luzzatto (1583 - 1663), who served as the chief rabbi of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice between 1648 and his passing in 1663. A short biography on Luzzatto was written in Hebrew by Moses Avigdor Shulvass (1909–1988), as an introduction to Ma'amar al Yehudei Venezia - Tract on the Jews of Venice (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1950)[1]. In this essay, I will aim to present an outline of his life, three areas of his contribution to Jewish scholarship and proceed to focus on the main subject of this essay - a known controversial opinion of Luzzatto arguing for the… Read More »

Marks of Genius: The status of a borrower in Oxford's Maimonides' Manuscript and the Law of a Borrowed Sukkah


Rambam Manuscript of Laws of Borrowing and Entrusted Objects.jpg

One of the most precious Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library is a handwritten draft edition of a section of the legal code Mishneh Torah by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (1135-1204)[1]. The Mishneh Torah was completed in 1180 and consists of a Jewish legal work by subject matter of the entire Talmudic and Gaonic literature of Jewish law. The manuscript, which was recently on display at the Bodleian Library’s Marks of Genius exhibition, has ten leaves[2] and was bought from the Cairo Genizah through the Rev. G. J. Chester in 1890. The Cairo Genizah is a designated room attached to the old Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo where discarded pages containing the name of G-d were deposited, to preserve… Read More »

Dominus Illuminatio Mea: Insights into Oxford's 16th century Motto


Moto of oxford.jpgThe motto of the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, founded around 1167, is Dominus Illuminatio Mea. The motto that appears on the university's coat of arms depicting an open book surrounded by three crowns[1] is taken from the book of Psalms[2] and means: ‘The Lord is my light’. It has been in use at least since the second half of the 16th century[3] when there was a revival of interest in the Hebrew Bible and the Hebrew language, as a sacred language, at Oxford. This revival is reflected by a number of developments during that period. This includes the establishment of the Regius professorship of Hebrew at the University of Oxford by Henry VIII in 1546; the translation of the… Read More »

I am that I am: The existential name of G-d in the Oxford manuscript

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 11.34.54 am.pngOne of the perplexing ideas in Jewish theology is the fact that G-d does not just exist but has names by which He is referred to. Furthermore, we find that He is described by not just a single name but by different names throughout Scripture. In Genesis during the creation of the world, G-d is referred to by the name Elo-him[1]; Abraham referred to G-d with the name E-l and Sha-dday; Moses referred to G-d with the explicit name of G-d (Tetragrammaton), which is written Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey. Hannah and many of the prophets called G-d the Lord of the Hosts - Tz'va-ot. The concept of the names of G-d is prevalent throughout the scripture and the Hebrew prayer book. In total there are at least seven, according to some opinions ten[2], names of G-d… Read More »

Marks of Genius: Wear and Tear in Maimonides’ Cairo Geniza Manuscript


One of the most precious Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian library is a handwritten draft edition of a section of the Mishneh Torah by Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (1135-1204)[1]. The Mishneh Torah was completed in 1180 and consists of a Jewish legal work by subject matter of the entire Talmudic and Gaonic literature of Jewish law. The manuscript, which was recently on display at the Bodleian Library, organized by the Oxford University Chabad Society, has ten leaves[2] and was bought from the Cairo Genizah through the Rev. G. J. Chester in 1890. The Cairo Genizah is a designated room attached to the old Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo where discarded pages containing the name of G-d were deposited, to preserve G-d’s… Read More »

Oxford's Autograph of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah: Does G-d sleep?

Rambam & Signature.png

One of the rare autographs of Maimonides at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford is a brief text with Maimonides’ signature, authenticating an early copy of the first two books of the Mishneh Torah[1]: Book of Knowledge (Mada) and Book of Adoration (Ahava)[2]. The manuscript is known in the Bodleian Library as MS Huntington 80 or in rabbinic writings as the Book of the Signature (Sefer Hachasum). The Bodleian Library bought this text in 1693 from Dr. Robert Huntington, who acquired it while serving as chaplain to the English merchants in Aleppo. The autograph states[3]: “corrected against my own book, I Moses, son of Rabbi Maimon of blessed memory”. This manuscript is supremely important as it attests… Read More »

Berachiah of Lincoln: One of England's greatest Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages

Jews House.jpgOne of the greatest rabbis of the medieval period in England was Rabbi Berachiah (Benedict) of Lincoln[1]. He was born in the first half of the 13th century in Oxford to Rabbi Moses of London, son of Rabbi Yom Tov, and was brother of Rabbi Elijah Menachem of London, considered, according to Oxford historian Cecil Roth, the most illustrious English Jew of the Middle Ages[2]. This essay will look at the difficult life of Rabbi Berachiah of Lincoln, including the challenges of being Rabbi in Lincoln at the time of the Lincoln blood libel in 1255. I will then look at a selection of his teachings, through which I will present the family of Berachiah, including his distinguished father Moses of London and brother Elijah Menachem of… Read More »

Maimonides and the Menorah: Insights into an Oxford Manuscript

Menorah_Rambam.jpgOxford’s Bodleian library is known for its rare collection of Hebrew manuscripts including some of the most important manuscripts of the great Jewish legalist and philosopher Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides (1138-1204). One such manuscript is Maimonides’ original handwritten manuscript in Judeo Arabic of his Commentary to the Mishnah[1], known as Pirush Hamishnayot, on the 3rd century Jewish legal work of the Mishnah.


This rare manuscript was brought to Oxford by the collector of Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts in the East, Professor Edward Pococke (1604-1691), who was born and passed away in Oxford. Pococke was appointed to the professorship of Hebrew at Oxford in 1648 and had a collection of 420… Read More »

Rabbi Elijah of Oxford: The Most illustrious Jew of the Middle Ages in England



One of the most illustrious Jews of the Middle Ages in England was Rabbi Elijah Menachem of Oxford, known as Rabbi Elijah of London, where he lived most of his life. He was son of Rabbi Moses of Oxford and known in Norman medieval England as Magister Elias fil’ Magistri Mossei. Much has been written about the details of the life of this great rabbi of the 13th century, which served as the subject of a presidential address by Oxford Jewish historian Cecil Roth (1899-1970) before the Jewish Historical Society of England in December, 1943, subsequently published as an article in the Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England[1].


In this essay we will first present an outline of the life of this great… Read More »

Jacob the Jew, Isaac Casaubon and forced apostasy in England in the Middle Ages


As we celebrate the holiday of Chanukah, I am delighted to present the following essay on the subject of forced conversion in Oxford in the Middle Ages - a theme that is connected also to the historic setting of Chanukah, when Jews were forced to abandon their Jewish faith for Greek Hellenism in the 2nd century BCE. 


The history of the Jews of Oxford includes many important figures who contributed enormously to the University of Oxford[1]. A less known fact however is that for most of the history of the university, Jews were either not allowed to reside in England or were not admitted to the university, whether as a student or academic. The establishment of Merton College, one of the first colleges at Oxford, was in 1264… Read More »

Chabad on Campus UK Hosts AEPi Europe Conclave at the Oxford Chabad Society

P1070570.JPGPlease click here for the picture gallery


This past weekend, Chabad on Campus UK hosted one of the largest student Shabbaton weekends of the year, in conjunction with Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi’s third annual AEPi Europe Conclave.


The weekend was attended by 200 students and hosted at the Chabad of Oxford Slager Jewish Student Centre. 


According to Andy Borans, Executive Director of AEPi international, "Chabad on Campus and AEPi are natural partners and it was great to see the camaraderie between the Brothers and Rabbis.”


Celebrating 103 years since its founding, AEPi has 11,000 student members across the world. Until recently it was mainly in North America but over the last… Read More »

Professor Alan Dershowitz addresses Oxford Chabad Society after winning BDS debate at the Oxford Union

Chabad-10.jpgOn Sunday, 1st of November, Professor Alan Dershowitz addressed a full-to-capacity hall at the Oxford Chabad Society after having successfully debated the Oxford Union. The much-anticipated events were well attended; a full chamber of 250 people at the union, and around 200 at the Chabad society.


Dershowitz’s accolades are numerous and impressive; a Brooklyn native, he is professor emeritus at Harvard University Law School. He has been called “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer” as well as “Israel’s single most visible defender: the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion.”


He is the also the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at… Read More »

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