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Oxford Jewish Thought

Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

Rabbi Yom Tov of York: A Yom Kippur liturgical poet, legalist and martyr


Rabbi Yom Tov of York is the author of one of the liturgical poems (piyutim) recited during the Yom Kippur evening service – the only High Holiday prayer to have as its author an English medieval rabbi. In this essay, I will explore the life and teaching of this illustrious rabbi through his contributions to the liturgy of the Hebrew prayer book, and his legal contribution as codified in the code of Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch). Uniquely for England, his contribution in these two areas has relevance until today: a liturgical poem (piyut) recited by Ashkenazim on the eve of Yom Kippur and a subject in Jewish law related to kindling a fire on the Shabbat that is accepted by both Ashkenazic and Sephardic custom. Based on an analysis of… Read More »

Henry VIII, Oxford’s Hebraists and the Rabbis



One of the most transformative periods in British history is the reformation – the break away of the British crown from Rome. This took place after Henry VIII was unable to receive annulment of his marriage from his sister-in-law Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn and produce a male heir to the throne. This issue preoccupied England between 1527 and 1535. In this essay, we will present an in-depth analysis of the issues relating to Henry’s troubled levirate marriage and the Levitical argument that marrying one’s brother’s wife is in violation of the laws of incest. We will look at this through an overview of the key rabbinic texts on this subject, which would have likely been sought and studied by… Read More »

Three Crowns: Interpreting Oxford's Coat of Arms through Jewish Theology

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Oxford University’s coat of arms consists of three crowns - two above and one below - surrounding an open book with an inscription in two columns of the motto Dominus Illuminatio Mea. The origin of the motto is from Psalms “The Lord is My Light”[1], however the origin of the three crowns is a matter for speculation. Some suggest that it comes from the three crowns on the arms of Thomas Cranley (c.1337–1417), who was a Fellow of Merton College in 1366, Warden of New College in 1389 and Chancellor of the University in 1390, and is buried in the grounds of New College.[2] In this essay, I will explore the plausibility of a Hebrew context to the crowns on Oxford’s coat of arms and present interpretations to the… Read More »

Michael Dov Weissmandl: A Rabbi from Oxford’s Bodleian Library who saved Jews from the Holocaust

Weissmandl.jpgThe University of Oxford did more for Jewish refugees than any other single university in England,[1] claims recently published research by Oxford historian Laurence Brockliss. By the time the war broke out, the university had taken in no less than fifty German Jewish refugees and had given them financial support. Most of the German Jewish refugees who initially arrived were physicists and of international reputation.Weissmandl.jpg


The bringing over of refugees began when Frederick Lindemann, anticipating the purge of Jewish academics in 1933, saw an opportunity to set up Oxford, ahead of Cambridge, as a centre for low temperature physics by recruiting German Jewish academics to come to Oxford to work for the Clarendon Laboratory that he… Read More »

The Oxford Passover Haggadah: The world’s oldest 12th century Haggadah - CCC MS 133

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One of the oldest manuscripts of a complete prayer book for the whole year (Siddur Kol Hashana) with a Haggadah text is an 11th or 12th century Ashkenazi Siddur held at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, known as CCC MS 133.[1] In this introduction to the manuscript we will present a. the details of the manuscript, b. thoughts about the copier, c. suggestions about the date of the manuscript, and d. an in depth focused comparative study of the Haggadah text within the manuscript with the aim of deciphering some of the key influences on the manuscript through twelve short comparative studies of the liturgy. In conclusion, we will argue that the liturgy in England in the medieval period was in fact not a fixed liturgy but a mix… Read More »

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 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?

Read More »

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

Coat of arms.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 King James… 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 name… Read More »

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

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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 »

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