Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

A Passover essay: I am He and there is no other

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I, and none other


In the Haggadah, it states:


“And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched forearm and with great awe and with signs and with wonders” (Deuteronomy 26:8). “And the Lord took us out of Egypt” - not through an angel and not through a seraph and not through a messenger, but [directly by] the Holy One, blessed be He, in His glory, and by Himself, as it is stated (Exodus 12:12): “And I will pass through the Land of Egypt on that night and I will smite every firstborn in the Land of Egypt, from men to animals; and with all the gods of Egypt, I will make judgments, I am the Lord.”[1] “And I will pass through the Land of Egypt" - I… Read More »

Jewish amulets at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum

Screenshot 2022-02-02 at 16.20.34.pngOxford houses thousands of Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books. In addition, perhaps less known, however, in the museums around Oxford, are held artefacts and objects of Jewish interest. This includes a charity collection bowl, known as the Bodleian Bowl at the Ashmolean Museum, and a collection of Shofars and Jewish amulets at the Pitt Rivers Museum. In this essay, we will explore the history and significance of amulets in Jewish tradition, through the classic period, as recorded in the earliest works of Jewish law, through the medieval period, when this tradition is ridiculed by Maimonides, until its decline in the modern period. Despite the decline of the use of amulets nowadays in Jewish tradition, as reflected in their presence… Read More »

History of the Upshernish: a medieval custom?


The custom to have a celebration for the cutting of the hair of a boy at three years old goes back over five hundred years, recorded in a work by Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (1479-1573), known as the Radbaz,[1] to perform this haircut at the gravesite of Samuel the Prophet. Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), disciple of Rabbi Joseph Karo, Rabbi Moses Alshich and foremost disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) also records in Sha-ar Hakavanot:[2]


The custom in Israel to visit on the 33rd day of the Omer – Lag Ba-omer – to the tomb of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar, who are buried in Maron, as is known, and eat and drink and be joyous… Read More »

Chanukah essay: Lighting one lamp from another on the Chanukah Menorah - Tribute to Rabbi Lord Sacks

Menorah BL Add 15250.pngIn a lecture by Rabbi Sacks to the international Chabad Shluchim rabbinic conference in 2011,[1] he touched on a Talmudic dispute in tractate Shabbat,[2] regarding whether one may light one lamp from another on the Chanukah Menorah. He summarised the subject as follows: The sage Rav maintains it is forbidden to light one lamp from another, while his contemporary Shmuel says that it is permitted. The reason for this dispute is that Rav argues that when one lights one candle from another it diminishes the mitzvah (ka makchi-sh mitzvah) - oil may spill from the first candle.[3] Shmuel, however, is not concerned about this. In all cases, the law follows Rav in disputes with Shmuel,[4] besides three cases, one of which… Read More »

'As the Hart that panteth after the water brooks (Psalm 42:1): Jewish New Year reflections on an Oxford college coat of arms'

Hart.jpgInterspersed around Oxford, one can find mottos in Latin, which have Hebrew Biblical origin. This includes the motto of the university: ‘Dominus illuminatio mea,’ from Psalm chapter 27: ‘The Lord is my light, and my salvation; whom then shall I fear: the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid.’ This is read in the Hebrew prayers from the beginning of the month of Elul until the end of Sukkot. A lesser-known motto may be found over the front gate of Hertford College, opposite the Bodleian Library. It bears the motto: ‘Sicut cervus anhelat ad fontes aquarum,’ which is taken from Psalm 42:1, and widely translated, taken from the King James Bible, as: ‘As the hart panteth… Read More »

Moses of London: Insight into Oxford's Jewry through his legal teachings and recent archaeology

MS Parma 933, fols. 77-78 copy.pngOne of the greatest rabbis of the medieval period in England was Rabbi Moses of London, formerly Moses de Oxonia or Moses of Oxford.[1] Born in Oxford, he resided in the Oxford Jewry, before moving to London, until he passed away in 1268.[2] In the records he is known as Magister Moses of London, signalling his position as a respected rabbi and teacher of Jewish law. While little information is known in terms of his day-to-day life, financial activities and social interactions, a glimpse into his life and status in Anglo-Jewry in the 13th century may be viewed from his scholarship and legal rulings. A presentation of his legal rulings and discussions will offer us a meaningful view into the life and influence of this important medieval… Read More »

‘Rashi on Ruth in the supercommentary of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson’

Ruth image.jpegThe supercommentary of the Rebbe on Rashi is primarily a commentary on the Torah, taking place on every Shabbat afternoon, when a public gathering (farbrengen) would take place between 1965 and 1989. The weekly Torah portion - the Pentateuch - served as the basis for the selection of a comment of Rashi to study and expound on, following the methodology that the Rebbe had developed in his commentary. However, the subject material extended also to certain other books of the Torah, as the occasion presented itself, in connection with certain Jewish holidays. This included a commentary on the Book of Esther, a single comment on the book of Joshua found in the Passover Haggadah and, as we will present in this essay, also a comment of Rashi on… Read More »

The dispute about mentioning the Exodus at night in the manuscripts

In the opening of the Passover Haggadah, it brings a text from the Mishnah in tractate Berachot[1]to support the idea that one is commanded to tell the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover.[2] There are a number of versions to this text of the Haggadah:


1. In the Ashkenazi Siddur CCC MS 133, it states:


Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: “Behold I am like[3] a man of seventy years and I have not merited [to know the scriptural source[4]/prevail over the sages that[5]] the exodus from Egypt should be mentioned at night - until Ben Zoma explicated it, as it is stated:[6] ‘That you remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life.’ Now, ‘the days of your life’ refers to the… Read More »

A Passover Essay: Rashi commentary on the Haggadah in the supercommentary of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

BL Add MS 14762 (1430-1470) V'arbeh.pngBackground to the Rebbe’s Rashi commentary on the Haggadah


The supercommentary of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, on the commentary of Rashi spans 1965 to 1989 and covered approximately 800 studies. The commentary was taught on every Shabbat when a farbrengen was held, resulting in the commentary being predominantly a commentary focused on the Pentateuch. The commentary, however, formally extended to two other areas: seven studies in Rashi on the Book of Esther, between 1965 and 1981, and, as we will discuss, three studies on the biblical passages recited in the Passover Haggadah. We will discuss how this third part of the Rebbe’s Rashi commentary developed, its duration, and a possible reason for its decline… Read More »

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 »

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