Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

'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 »

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 »

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