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Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

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 »

Coronavirus: a Jewish perspective – ‘Taking no chances’

WalkingWalking in the supermarket in Oxford covered with a facemask to protect against covid, a fellow shopper with a strong Irish accent walks past me and says: ‘Taking no chances? It’s all in G-d’s hands!’ I followed him round the shop and told him that Maimonides says: ‘you need to be healthy to serve G-d.’ He began telling me that he’s 15% Jewish, probably from his Irish ancestry who travelled to America a few centuries ago and then returned to Ireland. We exchanged contacts and I said I would be happy to share my thoughts on this profound question. The point of this short article is to try and explain both his question and my answer from a Jewish perspective.


The question posed was: is not… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Acharei Mot - ‘A parable of a physician’

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 109 Acharei.pngIn the portion of Acharei Mot, it discusses the entry into the Holy of Holies by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, stating that he may only enter once a year on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur and not enter any other time so that he may not pass away. In the warning to Aaron that he should not enter any other time, Moses warns him by saying that he should not enter so that he will not be punished like his sons passed away due to their own sin when they entered the holy of holies for being intoxicated or for usurping the authority of Moses.[1]


The Torah states:[2]


1. And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they drew near before the Lord, and they died. 2. And the Lord said to Moses: Speak… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript – Sh’mini – ‘A faithful attendant’

Opp. Add. 4° 188 Sh'mini.pngThe Torah portion of Sh’mini discusses the 8th day of the inauguration of the tabernacle when Aaron offered up sacrifices and the Divine presence rested on the tabernacle. The verse states:[1] ‘And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fats upon the altar, and all the people saw, sang praises, and fell upon their faces.’ The events that follow, whereby the two sons of Aaron pass away[2] after bringing an alien fire with incense in the Tent of Meeting, is however tragic. The Torah relates:[3] ‘And Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in it, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And… Read More »

Parsha and MS – Tazria – ‘Signs of Baldness: a mistaken text?’

MS. Canon. Or. 81 Tazria.pngIn the Torah portion of Tazria, it discusses the phenomenon of a person contracting Tzara’at or leprosy in response to slander or gossip. Maimonides explains[1] this is unnatural lesion that occurs on a person’s skin, clothing or house meant to indicate to a person to correct their ways and not to continue on such a destructive path. It first occurs on the walls of a person’s home. If the person changes course, it no longer occurs. If the person persists it spreads to a person’s garments and then on a person’s skin. The Talmud[2] discusses numerous other reasons why this may occur to a person including arrogance and other immoralities.


We would like to focus on an aspect of the laws of Tzara'at… Read More »

You and Us in the 12th century Corpus Christi Passover Haggadah Manuscript

Screen Shot 2020-04-14 at 01.43.38 am.pngThe Haggadah presents the Exodus story in the context of the four sons: the wise, the wicked, the simpleton and the one that does not know how to ask. The Haggadah text in the Ashkenazi Siddur CCC MS 133 presents the wise question as follows: 'What does the wise son say? "What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our G-d commanded us?"' And accordingly you will say to him, as per the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, "We may not eat an afikoman [a dessert or other foods eaten after the meal] after [we are finished eating] the Pesach sacrifice."[1]


This text of the CCC MS 133 Haggadah is based on the verse in Deuteronomy[2] with a variation: instead of stating: ‘the L-rd our… Read More »

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