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Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

The Development of Kol Nidrei Through the lens of Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library

MS. Reggio 2 (1) copy.pngKol Nidrei, the opening communal prayer for the annulment of vows at the onset of Yom Kippur, is one of the most familiar prayers of Yom Kippur. The text according to the Ashkenazic tradition states the following:[1]


All vows,[2] and things we have made forbidden on ourselves, and oaths, and items we have consecrated to the Temple, and vows issued with the expression “konum,” and vows which are abbreviated, and vows issued with the expression “kanos,” that we have vowed, and sworn, and dedicated, and made forbidden upon ourselves; from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur - may it come to us at a good time - we regret having made them; may they all be permitted, forgiven… Read More »

The Pusey House Torah Scroll of the 17th Century

Torah.jpg Pusey House Torah scroll is an old Torah scroll from Prague being held for the past 100 years, since 1920-30s, at Pusey House Library, Oxford, an Anglican institution, associated with the University of Oxford. It was previously in the possession of an Anglican scholar before being donated to Pusey House, where there is a letter, buried in a pile of uncatalogued papers, about the donation of the Torah scroll to the library, asking for it to be looked after. The letter was written to the principal, Anglican priest and theologian, Dr. Darwell Stone (1859-1941), who was educated at Merton College and served as the principal from 1909 to 1934. The scroll was viewed in the 1980s by Professor… Read More »

The Pusey House Torah Scroll of 17th Century at Oxford

Torah.jpgThe Pusey The Torah scroll at Pusey House is an early 17th century Torah scroll from Prague being held for the past 100 years, since 1920-30s, at Pusey House Library, Oxford, an Anglican institution, associated with the University of Oxford. It was previously in the possession of an Anglican scholar before being donated to Pusey House and there is a letter, buried in a pile of uncatalogued papers in Pusey House archives, about the donation of the Torah scroll to the library asking for it to be looked after. The letter was written to the principal, Anglican priest and theologian, Dr. Darwell Stone (1859-1941), who was educated at Merton College and served as principal from 1909 to… Read More »

Maimonides on the Irrevocability of a Positive Prophecy according to the Oxford Manuscript of the Mishneh Torah

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Summary: The authentic Oxford manuscript of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah omits a section suggesting that positive prophecy is revocable. With a lengthy discussion on the nature and reliability of positive prophecy in Jewish thought, the essay explains why this omission is in fact correct.



One of the names of the night of the Exodus is Leil Shimurim,[1] the night of the watch. This represents the night that G-d guarded Israel and saved the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Another interpretation is that G-d anticipated and waited longingly for that night when the Exodus would take place to be assured that the promise he had made to the Jewish people that they would be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt but… Read More »

A Jewish perspective on social responsibility and innovation

We’re living at a time of unprecedented development through the power of the human mind, creativity and innovation offering an enriched quality of life, while accompanied simultaneously by uniquely man made potential disasters, in terms of the environment. From a Jewish point of view, the fact that humankind is able to make a difference to the world we live in, even manipulate its fundamental elements for our benefit, is routed in the notion that man is a partner in creation,[1] and man is made to toil and work.[2] At the same time, man is charged with responsibility to fix the world that is imperfect: everything that was created needs fixing.[3] One of the disasters of our times includes the development of materials that previously… Read More »

The Rebuilding of Jewish Life After The Holocaust: The Rebbe's Legacy

Rebbe1.jpgThe Holocaust was the period from 1939 until 1944, during which the total physical and spiritual decimation of European Jewry that had existed for hundreds of years took place. The most affected place was Poland, the heart of world Jewry with 3,000,000 Jews. In Lodz, before the war there were 233,000 Jews, which was one third of the city population. There were synagogues, yeshivot(Rabbinical seminaries) trade and culture. The Jews were forced into a ghetto on 8 February 1940 and remained there until 1944. Even in the ghetto, Jewish life was vibrant with 45 primary schools, 2 high schools, one vocational school, 5 pharmacies, and 7 hospitals.


As the Germans exerted greater control over the ghetto, conditions deteriorated, to… Read More »

Maimonides on Prophecy according to an Oxford Manuscript: To grant understanding or inspiration?

Untitled.pngA rare autograph of Maimonides exists at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, consisting of a brief text with Maimonides’ signature, authenticating an early copy of the first two books of his legal compendium Mishneh Torah:[1] Book of Mada (knowledge) and Book of Ahava (adoration).[2] The manuscript is known in the Bodleian Library as MS Huntington 80 and in rabbinic works as the ‘Book of the Signature’ (Sefer Hachatum).[3] 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:[4] “Corrected against my own book, I Moses, son of Rabbi Maimon of blessed memory”. This… Read More »

The Menorah according Oxford's Maimonides Manuscript

Menorah Rambm.jpgOxford’s Bodleian library is known for its rare collection of Hebrew manuscripts including some of the most important manuscripts of the great medieval 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… Read More »

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. The Piyut reads as follows:


It is indeed true that passion rules us; So it is for You to justify, O abundantly just and to answer us, ‘I have forgiven!’


Abominate the slanderer (Satan), and invalidate his testimony, O Beloved, Who roars loudly, may He grant us the sound of His word, ‘I have forgiven!’  


Silence the Accuser, and let the Defender replace him, And may G-d be his support, so that He may say, ‘I have forgiven!’


Let the merit of the… 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 »

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