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Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

Parsha and Manuscript – ‘Vayishlach: Esau’s departure from Jacob’

MS. Canonici Or. 35, fol. 43 Vayishlach.pngIn the Torah portion of Vayishlach, it discusses the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau and the subsequent parting of ways between them. The Torah states:[1]


And Esau took his wives, his sons, and his daughters and all the people of his household, and his cattle and all his animals and all his property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and he went to another land, because of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too numerous for them to dwell together, and the land of their sojournings could not support them because of their livestock. So Esau dwelt on Mount Seir Esau, that is Edom.


The reason the Torah gives for the departure of Esau is because:[2] ‘their possessions were too numerous for them to… Read More »

Maimonides on equality and the problem of expensive tastes

Maimonides-2.jpgIn this essay, I would like to explore the question of equality in the thought of Maimonides and the problem of expensive tastes. The question is: does Maimonides view society as individuals with individual needs or as a collective, and if individuals, when distributing resources, should a person be compensated for one’s expensive tastes that a person may have? I will say from the outset that there may be more than way to understand the view of Maimonides on the ideal model for society, and indeed, some have argued that the Torah supports a socialist model, drawing from the laws of tithe and sabbatical, some have argued a capitalist model – one is allowed to own and sell land according to Jewish, and some have argued neither… Read More »

Conference: 'Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Transformative Paradigm for the World'

SOCIAL VISION SEMINAR.pngChabad at Oxford University hosted this past Sunday (22 November, 2020) an afternoon conference entitled 'Social vision of Judaism for a modern world' with nine leading scholars from around the world, exploring the question how the philosophical and mystical teachings of Judaism can serve as a paradigm for creating a less fractured and more just society, inspired by the principle of reciprocity and other key ideas of Hasidic ethos. 


The conference was organised by Rabbi Eli Brackman, director of Chabad of Oxford, who invited speakers to focus on their own professional fields, while relating them to themes in the book 'Social Vision: The Lubavitcher Rebbe's Transformative Paradigm for… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript – ‘Vayetze: The reasons for the name Reuben’

Screenshot 2020-11-26 at 20.25.18.pngIn the Torah portion of Vayetze, it discusses the birth of the twelve tribes of Israel that took place after Jacob was forced to marry the older sister, Leah, before marrying the younger sister, Rachel. While they both provided for him the tribes of Israel, this led to Jacob loving Rachel more than Leah. In this essay, we will discuss the birth of the oldest of the tribes, Reuben, and why Leah called him Reuben. In particular, we will explore two reasons given for this name, one in the biblical text and a further one presented in the Talmud and quoted in the standard published edition of Rashi. We will aim to explain why the second reason for the name Reuben, while found in all published edition nowadays, it is omitted in the early printed… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Toldot - ‘Do not go down to Egypt’

MS. Canonici Or. 35 Toldos.pngIn the Torah portion of Toldot,[1] it discusses that after Isaac had given birth to Esau and Jacob and they had grown up, there was a famine in the land of Israel and he desired to find pasture for his flock and food in Egypt. It states:


There was a famine in the land—aside from the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham—and Isaac went to Abimelech, king of the Philistines, in Gerar. The Lord had appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your heirs as numerous as… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Nitzavim and Vayelech - ‘G-d in Exile’

MS. Canonici Or. 35 (Nitzavim).pngIn the Torah portion of Nitzavim it states:[1]


And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your G-d has banished you, and you will return to the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, then, the Lord, your G-d, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your G-d, had dispersed you.


The idea that ‘G-d will bring back your exiles’ is expressed in a way that gives… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Ki Tavo – Treasured and holiness: promise or commandment?

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 179 (1396) Ki Tavo.pngIn the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, Moses addresses the Jewish people regarding the commandment of the bringing of the first fruits (bikkurim) to Jerusalem and the related law of the second tithe (ma’aser sheni) that also must be consumed only in Jerusalem. Having fulfilled this commandment and cleared the house out from all related produce, on the eve of Passover of the fourth year of the sabbatical cycle,[1] a declaration is made that one has offered all the necessary tithes, including the priestly offerings (terumah), the first Levite tithe (ma’aser rishon), the second tithe for the poor, as well as the first fruits, and requests G-d for His reciprocal blessings. These laws are then followed by a stirring closing of… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Re’eh – ‘Imitatio Dei’

MS. Canon. Or. 81 Re'eh.pngIn the Torah portion of Re’eh it discusses the concept of ‘Imitatio Dei’ – the commandment to imitate the ways of G-d. This is indicated in the following verses, where it states:[1] ‘You shall follow the Lord, your G-d, fear Him, keep His commandments, heed His voice, worship Him, and cleave to Him.’[2] Similarly, it states:[3] ‘For if you keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your G-d, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him,’[4] ‘You shall fear the Lord, your G-d, worship Him, and cleave to Him and swear by His Name,’[5] and: ‘The Lord will establish you as His holy people as He swore to you, if you observe the commandments of… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript - Devarim - 'Deciphering the place Di-Zahav in the Rashi manuscripts at the Bodleian Library'

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 160 (1396) Devarim.pngIn the Torah portion of Devarim, it discusses how Moses rebuked the Jewish people and reviewed the laws of the Torah before his passing. The rebuke of the Jewish people comes in two stages: the first, hinting the misdemeanours by mentioning them only in connection with the names of the places they sinned, followed by a more detailed recounting of their sins throughout the portion of Devarim. Reasons for this differentiation is due to the fact that the first encrypted rebuke was spoken only to the leaders of the Jewish people and that it was Moses’ own decision to rebuke them at this time, thus it was done with deference to the dignity of the people, whereas the more detailed rebuke was to all the people and by the command of… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Masei - The listing of the journeys: provocation or love?

The portion of Masei discusses the enumeration in detail of the forty two travels of the Jewish people after the Exodus in the desert until they arrived on the east bank of the Jordan river before entering the land. The Torah states:[1] ‘These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron.’ The question that arises is: why does the Torah repeat all the places of the encampment of the Jewish people in the desert, when this has been enumerated in detail previously in the Torah in the book of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.


The commentators starting from the ancient period right through medieval times, until the 19th century, have addressed this… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Korach – ‘What did Korach take?'

In the Torah portion of Korach, it discusses the rebellion of Korach, accompanied by two hundred and fifty men, against Moses, for having appointed himself leader and his brother, Aaron, as high priest.[1] In describing the rebellion the Torah states:[2]


And Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, took, and Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben And they rose up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise… Read More »

Shelach - Rashi Manuscripts

Rashi Manuscripts - Shelach


Bodleian Library MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201–1225) – Ashkenaz


MS. Oppenheim 34, fol. 85 (1201-25) Shelach.png


Bodleian Library MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396) - Pescia (Italy)


MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 139 (1396).png



Bodleian Library MS. Michael 384 (1399) - Camerino (Italy)


MS. Michael 384, fol. 103 (1399) Shelacha.png



Bodleian Library MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408) - Ashkenaz


MS. Oppenheim 35, fol. 81 (1408) Shelach.png


Bodleian Library MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-1425) – Italy?


MS. Canonici Or. 35 (1401-25) Shelach.png 


Bodleian Library MS. Huntington 445 (1376-1400) - Spain


MS. Huntington 445 (1376-1400) Shelach.png


Bodleian Library MS. Huntington 389 (1301-1400) – Orient (Numbers)


MS. Huntington 389 (1301-1400) Shelach.png


Bodleian Library MS. Huntington 425 (1403) (Numbers and Deuteronomy) – North Africa?


MS. Huntington 425, fol. 33 (1403) Shelach.pngRead More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Beha’alotecha – 'Why does the candelabrum follow the dedication of the altar: A missing commentary'

MS. Canonici Or. 35, fol. 163 (1401-25).pngIn the Torah portion of Beha’alotcha it discusses the kindling of the Menorah following the description of the twelve-day inauguration of the altar by the princes of the tribes of Israel. It states,[1] The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him: “When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.” The question arises: why is the kindling of the candelabrum in the Tabernacle juxtaposed with the inauguration of the altar? It does not seem to have happened in this order chronologically, as the kindling of the candelabrum seems to have occurred before the inauguration of the altar by the princes of the tribes, immediately when the Tabernacle was completed.Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Naso – ‘The secondary counting of the Levite clan of Gershon’

MS. Canonici Or. 35, fol. 158 (1401-25).pngIn the Torah portion of Naso, it discusses the census of the Levite clans; the mention of the Gershonites is sandwiched in the Book of Numbers between the census of the Kehatite and Merorite clans. This census follows three earlier countings in the Book of numbers: a. the overall census of the Jewish people between the ages of twenty and sixty[1], excluding the Levite tribe,[2] b. the census of the Levite tribe from thirty days old,[3] and c. the census of the firstborns, also from thirty days old, who were redeemed of their sanctity by the Levites.[4] This particular census of the Levite clans were of people between thirty and fifty, the purpose was to found out how many were strong enough for the service of dismantling and transporting… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Behar – ‘What exactly was taught at Mount Sinai?’

MS. Michael 384, fol. 91.pngIn the opening of the Torah portion of Behar it discusses the laws of the Sabbatical year with the unusual detail that this particular law was taught at Mount Sinai. As this detail appears to be unnecessary, as all laws are thought to have been taught at Sinai, we will explore the various ways biblical commentaries explain what the Torah intends to convey with this statement, looking at commentaries from the 4th century through the medieval period until today. We will focus on the Hebrew manuscripts of the medieval commentator Rashi at Oxford’s Bodleian Library to understand exactly how much of the laws were taught to Moses on Mount Sinai itself and how much were taught later in the desert Tabernacle and the Plains of… Read More »

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