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Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

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

 

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 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

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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 »

Metzora in Manuscript: Why two names?

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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 »

Holocaust Survivor Henry Glanz at the Oxford Chabad Society

I was born on 28th May 1924 in the small town of Zolynia in Southern Poland, which was part of Austria-Hungary until the end of the First World War. I have no memory of Poland as my parents, Markus and Esther (nee Buchen), immigrated when I was a baby to Kiel on the Baltic coast of North Germany, near the Danish border, where other Jews from Kiel lived, among them the two brothers of Esther. I grew up there. My parents ran a textiles business from the family flat, first in the Reventlou-Alee, then from 1930 in the Sternstrasse. After the Nazis came to power the condition of Jewish commerce worsened due to the boycott against them. The family that had by then grown to five members, had to move into a smaller and cheaper flat in the… Read More »

Circumcision in Maimonides' Oxford Manuscript

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 A rare autograph of Maimonides exists at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, consisting of a brief text with Maimonides’ signature, authenticating an early copy written during his life time of the first two books of his legal compendium Mishneh Torah:[1] Book of Mada (knowledge) and Book of Ahava (love).[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… Read More »

The Development of the Lighting of the Chanukah Menorah in the Oxford Manuscripts

 

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The holiday of Chanukah dates from the second century BCE at a time when the Greeks controlled the Holy Land under the Seleucid dynasty that existed from 312 BC to 63 BC. When Antiochus IV, known also as Epimanes, ‘the mad one,’ took over the reign between 175BC until 164 BC, he issued many decrees against the Jews in order to subdue them and inculcate Hellenist culture, banning the study of Torah, circumcision, keeping the Shabbat and the Kosher dietary laws. The Seleucids imposed their pagan worship and culture until they came to Modiin where the priest Matityahu lived. Matityahu and his sons led the Maccabees in a series of battles and eventually drove the Greeks out. When they arrived in the Temple to kindle… Read More »

Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish perspective

OBG.jpgThe leafy entrance to the Oxford University Botanic Garden, framed by the serene classical architecture of the Danby Gate, fronted by ornate rose gardens, marks the gateway to an escape from Oxford’s busy High Street, where buses and cyclists jostle to make their way through the city. This tranquil spot remarkably also hosts one of three Jewish heritage plaques in Oxford, commemorating the existence of a Jewish cemetery in medieval times and can be found on the right hand wall behind the Danby Gate, the main entrance, to the Gardens. The Jews arrived in England with the Norman Conquest in 1066, and the Domesday Book that was completed in 1086 recorded a Jew living in Oxfordshire. We don’t know exactly when the Oxford Jewry was… Read More »

Three Jewish Heritage Plaques at Oxford

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Oxford has one of the best-preserved records of medieval Jewish history in Europe and is home to the only artifact of the interior of a preserved Jewish home dating back to the 13th century, belonging to David of Oxford, alongside the exterior of Jews’ House in Lincoln. Commemorating the medieval Jewish history of Oxford, three plaques were placed in 1931 by Dr. Herbert Loewe and are still standing today. Herbert Loewe was born in 1882, and was appointed lecturer in Semitic languages at Exeter College, Oxford, from 1913 until 1931, before accepting a post at Cambridge as Curator of Oriental Literature, and Reader in Rabbinics. Before leaving Oxford in 1931, however, he was responsible for erecting three plaques relating to Oxford… Read More »

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.jpgPusey 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 »

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.

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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 »

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