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Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

Parsha and Manuscript: Va’era - ‘The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart’

Manuscript - Vat.ebr.448 Vaera.pngIn the Torah portion of Va’era it discusses how after Pharaoh having enslaved the Israelites,[1] G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart and brought on Egypt the ten plagues before persuading Pharaoh to let the Jews free. In the justification for the first plague of the River Nile turning into blood, it states: ‘The Lord said to Moses, "Pharaoh's heart is heavy; he has refused to let the people out.’ In fact, there are twenty occasions in the book of Exodus where it says that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened: once in the introduction of G-d to Moses before sending him on his mission to Pharaoh to let the Jews free,[2] a second, pertaining to the miracle of the staff that turned into a serpent,[3] once, as mentioned, in… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Shemot – ‘Comparing Israel to the stars’

MS. Michael 384, fol. 36 (1399) Shemot.pngIn the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Torah mentions the counting of the Jewish people who came down to Egypt, stating that there was a total of (only)[1] seventy people, as it states:[2]’And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt; with Jacob, each man and his household came: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin. Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Now all those descended from Jacob were seventy souls, and Joseph, [who] was in Egypt.’


In addition, towards the end of the book of Genesis, there is a similar counting:[3] ‘And these are the names of the children of Israel who were coming to Egypt: Jacob and his sons, Jacob's firstborn was Reuben… all the… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Vayechi – ‘ End of Days’

MS. Canon. Or. 81 Vayechi.pngIn the portion of Vayechi, it discusses the end of the life of Jacob and how before he passed away he gathered his children to bless them. It states:[1] ‘And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father.’


The question that arises is: while the blessings of the sons of Jacob are related to the second assembly: ‘Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father,’ what was conveyed in the first assembly: ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the end of days?’


Midrash and Talmud


There are twelve… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Vayigash - ‘He leads me beside still waters’

MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 188.pngIn the portion of Vayigash it discusses how Joseph provided food for Egypt, whereby it states first that he provided for his family:[1] ‘And Joseph sustained his father and his brothers and his father's entire household with bread according to the young children.’


It then continues with how Joseph sustained all of Egypt:[2] ‘So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in return for the horses and for the livestock in flocks and in cattle and in donkeys, and he provided them with food in return for all their livestock in that year.’


He guided them


The Hebrew term used for ‘providing for his family’ is: ‘va’yechalkel,’ which means… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Vayeshev - ‘Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings’

MS Michael 384.jpgIn the Torah portion of Vayeshev it discusses the return of Jacob in Canaan after dwelling in the house of Laban for twenty years and his encounter with Esau. The Torah states:[1] ‘Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob: when Joseph was seventeen years old, being a shepherd.’ The story of Jacob follows a complete chapter about the sojournings of Esau, and his sojournings, whereby it states:[2] And these are the generations of Esau, that is, Edom, followed by his family, concluding with: ‘So Esau dwelt on Mount Seir Esau, that is Edom.’[3] It then proceeds to detail the family of Esau:[4] ‘And these are the generations of Esau the… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Vayetze - ‘Wait this week’

MS. Michael 384 (1399).jpgIn the portion of Vayetze it discusses the marriage of Jacob to Rachel and Leah. He worked for seven years for his uncle Laban to marry Rachel but was deceived into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. Laban then says to Jacob:[1] ‘Wait until the week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve e another seven years.’ The question that arises is why did Laban say ‘wait the week’ and not give Jacob Rachel right away or after a few days? What is the significance of Jacob being asked by Laban to wait a week before marrying a second wife? In this essay, we will explore the concept of waiting seven days and how it reflects an aspect of Jewish law that is relevant until today.


Seven days… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Toldot

MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396) fol. 23 Toldot.pngIn the portion of Toldot, it discusses the birth of Jacob and Esau and aspects of their lives. The Torah opens with the verse:[1]


And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac. And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan Aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to himself for a wife. And Isaac prayed to the Lord opposite his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rebecca his wife conceived. And the children struggled within her, and she said, "If [it be] so, why am I [like] this?" And she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate… Read More »

Patriarchs: Noahides or Israelites?

The book of Genesis discusses the life of the patriarchs and the tribes of Israel before the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai and entered into the covenant. What is however the status of the Jewish people before they received the Torah at Mount Sinai? Did they have a status of the Jewish people, different to being a Noahide, or were they merely Noahides but with extra traditions that they accepted upon themselves? In this talk we will explore this concept in details, as found in the works of the commentators and classical texts.


In the portion of Lech Lecha in the beginning of the life of Abraham as recorded in the Torah, it discusses how G-d told Abraham to travel with his wife, Sarai, nephew, Lot and the… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript - Vayera: Challenging G-d

MS. Canonici Or. 62 fol. 13 Vayera.jpgIn the portion of Vayera, the inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are accused of being morally depraved and threatened with destruction, upon which Abraham challenges G-d not to destroy the righteous with the wicked and, furthermore, to save the wicked on behalf of the righteous.[1] It states:[2]


And the Lord said, “Since the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and since their sin has become very grave, I will descend now and see, whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done; I will wreak destruction upon them; and if not, I will know.”[3] The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[4] Abraham drew near (vayigash) and said, “Will… Read More »

Noah and Abraham: A righteous person in his age

Noah.jpgIn the portion of Noah, it discusses the corruption of the generation of Noah and the contrast with Noah himself who was righteous. It states:[1] ‘Now the earth was corrupt before G-d, and the earth became full of robbery, And G-d said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth.”’ Regarding Noah, however, it states:[2] ‘But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man; he was perfect in his age; Noah walked with G-d.’ Further it states:[3] ‘And the Lord said to Noah, “Come into the ark, you and all your household, for it is you that I… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript - Ki Tetze - 'Ethics of Usury'

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 176 (1396) Ki Tetze.pngA complex point throughout Jewish history is related to the practice of usury. In the Torah portion of Ki Tetze it discusses the prohibition to take interest. An ethical imperative in Judaism is to help the needy and the poor with charity and to offer a loan to one who needs. The law regarding charity in the form of a loan is found in Deuteronomy:[1] If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities, in your land the Lord, your G-d, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.’ Similarly, in Exodus, there is an obligation… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript - 'Shoftim: Be wholehearted with G-d’

MS. Canon. Or. 81, Fol. 173 (1396) Shoftim.pngIn the Torah portion of Shoftim, it discusses the commandment not to follow soothsayers, diviners and sorcery, which was common practice in Canaan, but to be wholehearted with G-d. The Torah states:[1]


When you have come to the land the Lord your G-d is giving you, you shall not learn to do like the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire, a soothsayer, a diviner of [auspicious] times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, a pithom sorcerer, a yido'a sorcerer, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations, the Lord, your G-d is driving them out from before you. Be… Read More »

Reflections on the Oxford Medieval Synagogue

CHCH.jpgOne of the known sites of medieval Jewry in Oxford is the location of the synagogue, currently the site of Christ Church, established in 1532 by Henry VIII.  I would like to outline the history of the site from the medieval period until today and provide a study in Jewish teaching relating to the sanctity of an historic sacred site in Judaism and how that relates to the site of the medieval Oxford synagogue.


The Jewry in Oxford settled in what is now the area of St Aldate’s Street, then known as Great Jewry Street. There were Jewish houses on both sides of St. Aldate's Street, situated in St. Martin’s and St. Aldate’s parishes and bordering the Parish of St Edward’s. The main street in… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Ekev - Free Will in the Oxford Manuscripts

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 165 (1396) Ekev.pngIn the Torah portion of Ekev, it discusses one of the principles in Jewish teaching of reward for keeping the Mitzvot (commandments). It states:[1]


And it will be, because (ekev) you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your G-d, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers.[2]


The Hebrew word ‘ekev’ in this verse may be translated simply as ‘because,’ suggesting: because (ekev) you will heed the commandments, there will be the fulfilment of the promise of reward. The question that arises is why does the Torah use the definitive term ‘ekev’ (because), instead of the conditional term… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript - Mass'ei: Why the Torah Details the Journeys from Egypt?

CCCMS165, fol. 126 Masei.pngThe portion of Mass'ei 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, through medieval times, until the 19th century, have… Read More »

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