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Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

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 »

Parsha and Manuscript - Va'etchanan: The Power of Prayer

MS. Huntington 425, fol. 83 (1403) Va'eschanan.png

In the beginning of the Torah portion of Va’etchanan it presents Moses praying to G-d to be allowed to enter the land. The Torah states:[1]


I entreated (Va’etchanan) the Lord at that time, saying, "O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for who is [like] God in heaven or on earth who can do as Your deeds and Your might? Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon."


The question that arises from the text is what is the particular meaning of the word Va’etchanan in reference to prayer, since the usual word for prayer is tefillah, as… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: The disparagement of Phinehus

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 150 (1396) Pinchas.png The portion of Phinehas discusses the bold act of Phinehas, who took the life of the prince of the Israelite tribe of Shimon and his paramour, a Midianite princess, who attempted to lure the prince to idolatry. Through the act of Phinehas, a plague that had broken out in the camp was terminated and Phinehas was rewarded with the covenant of peace and the priesthood for his heroism. The Torah states:[1]


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Balak - 'How goodly are the tents of Jacob' through the Oxford Manuscripts of Rashi

MS. Canon. Or. 81 Fol. 149 Balak.pngIn the portion of Balak, the king of Moav, Balak, hires the non-Jewish prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead of cursing, impressed by the virtues of the Jewish people who don’t follow sorcery and future telling, uphold lofty morals, as well as the forgiveness of all sins by G-d, Balaam only finds reason to praise the Jewish people and bless them. One of the praises that Balaam extols the Jewish people for is expressed in a verse that has also been incorporated as the opening to the morning prayers.


The Torah states:[1] ‘Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d rested upon him. Balaam then proceeds to… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Chukat – ‘The Red Heifer through Oxford’s Hebrew manuscripts'

CCCMS165, fol. 116 Chukas.pngThe Torah portion of Chukat discusses the laws of the red heifer, relating to a person who came in contact with a dead corpse, the process of purification of which involves sprinkling of ashes of the red heifer mixed with spring water. This law was taught for the first time at the time of the inauguration of the tabernacle on the second day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, to purify Israel for the bringing of the Paschal offering in the newly erected sanctuary. It was subsequently recorded in the Torah in the portion of Chukat, after the rebellion of Korach that saw many of the people of Israel fall in a plague.


In the opening of the laws regarding the red heifer, the Torah states:[1]


The Lord spoke to Moses and… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Korach


CCCMS165 fol. 113 Korach1.pngThe Torah portion of Korach discusses the rebellion of Korach and two hundred and fifty men against Moses for having chosen himself as king, his brother Aaron as High Priest and his nephew Eltzafan ben Uziel – the youngest of the four sons of Kehot - as prince over the family of Kehot, as opposed to Korach, the first born of Yitzhar, the second oldest son of Kehot.


The Torah opens the story of Korach with the following:[1]



(1) 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— (2) And they rose up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Shlach - ‘Why are they juxtaposed?’

MS. Huntington 425, fol. 29 (1403) Shlach.pngThe portion of Shlach lecha discusses the sending of the twelve spies to scout the land of Israel before entering it. The Torah states:[1]


The Lord spoke to Moses saying, "Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel. You shall send one man each for his father's tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst."


The negative report of the spies about the land caused the people to rebel against G-d and ask to return to Egypt, resulting in tragedy for the Jewish people: a plague befell them, and they had to wander in the dessert for forty years until the generation had passed away, allowing only their offspring to enter the land. This… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Bamidbar - ‘Why the repeated counting of the Jewish people?'

In the opening of the Book of Numbers it talks about the census of the Jewish people following the construction of the tabernacle:


On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.


This is the third census that took place after the Exodus: The first is immediately after the Exodus:[1] ‘The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.’


The second occurred after the sin of the… Read More »

A history of eating dairy among Jews of medieval England through the lens of a Hebrew manuscript at the Bodleian Library

Cheesecake (650x245)The eating of dairy foods is one of the customs on the holiday of Shavuot – commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.[1] A reason for eating dairy on the holiday is due to the fact that the Torah is referred to as milk and Mount Sinai as cheese. In Song of Songs, it writes in reference to the Torah:[2] ‘Your lips drip flowing honey, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue, and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.’


Similarly, one of the names of Mount Sinai is Mount Gavnunim (lit. mountain of peaks) that is similar etymologically to the Hebrew word for cheese – ‘gevina.’ The Midrash says Mount Sinai had in fact six… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself



 One of the most important teachings of the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion of Kedoshim:[1] ‘Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord.’ We will look at this teaching through the lens of the commentary of Rashi, where Rashi comments: ‘Rabbi Akiva says: This is a fundamental principle of the Torah.’


Interestingly, there are three versions of this comment as found in the printed edition and the Oxford manuscripts:


1. In the printed edition it states, as above: ‘Rabbi Akiva says: This is a fundamental principle of the Torah - Zeh k’lal gadol b’Torah.’ This is also how it is found in the following manuscripts… Read More »

Metzora in Manuscript: The day of his cleansing

Metzora - day.jpg

The opening of the portion of metzora states:


And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: This shall be the law of the metzora - person afflicted with tzara'ath, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the kohen. The kohen shall go outside the camp, and the kohen shall look, and behold, the lesion of tzara'ath has healed in the afflicted person. Then the kohen shall order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop. The kohen shall order, and one shall slaughter the one bird into an earthenware vessel, over spring water. [As for] the live bird, he shall take it, and then the cedar stick, the strip of… Read More »

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