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Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

PLAIN MEANING OF SCRIPTURE: RASHI ON GENESIS 3:8

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fo. 5 (1396) Pescia, Italyb.pngIntroduction

 

In the opening of the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi,[1] he argues that Rashi is only a commentary that interprets following the plain meaning of the Torah, known as ‘p’shat.’ This is based on the statement of Rashi on Genesis 3:8: I have come only to explain the plain meaning of scripture.’ This is the fundamental guiding principle for the Rebbe’s commentary that spanned 25 years, posing questions on Rashi, whenever Rashi appears to veer from this principle, and explaining how in fact Rashi follows this principle.

 

There are three views on the approach of Rashi to ‘p’shat.’ Some have the opinion that Rashi is not at all a commentary committed to p’shat, … Read More »

The basic mitzvah of Chanukah: a study in the manuscript of the Talmud at the Bodleian library

IMG_6122 copy.jpgThe main custom on the holiday of Chanukah is the lighting of the menorah, to recall the miracle of the lights. This is primarily sourced in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b):

 

What is Hanukkah? The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum f… Read More »

Response to Anti-Semitism: strengthening of Jewish identity and universal education

Introduction

 

One of the oldest hatreds in the world is Anti-Semitism. This has taken on many forms, from ancient times until today, giving rise to countless books and articles on its causes and ways to counter it. Leon Poliakov writes in his foreword to The History of Anti-Semitism: there are two hypotheses on the origin of modern Anti-Semitism: Anti-Semitism that arises out of Christendom, and the supernatural explanation: ‘by virtue of the mysterious design of Providence, the Jews having been assigned a special role among the nations, playing it first among the so-called Noachian peoples – those practicing a religion that derives from the Hebrew Bible.’ This is reflected in an interpretation of the statement in … Read More »

Maimonides on the sounding of the Shofar through the manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah at the Bodleian Library

IMG_5246 Marsh 509 Uru uru.jpg

Maimonides on the sounding of the Shofar through the manuscripts of the Mishneh Torah at the Bodleian Library

 

The central tradition on the festival of Rosh Hashana is to hear the sounding of the Shofar, as it states in Leviticus 23:24: ‘Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.’ Similarly, it states in Numbers 29:1: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.’ While the Torah does not give any reason for this mitzvah, numerous reasons are … Read More »

Exploring a plaque at the site of the medieval Oxford Synagogue at Christ Church, University of Oxford

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Introduction

 

In commemoration of 500 years since the beginning of the study, teaching and collecting of Hebrew at Christ Church, under Henry VIII, we would like to explore the idea of a plaque to commemorate the site of the Oxford medieval synagogue on St. Aldate's, Oxford.

 

 

The concept of the plaque and method of recording the years (start date and end date) may be modelled on a system employed by Professor Herbert Loewe, who served as Professor of Semitic languages at University of Oxford between 1913 and 1931. Before departing Oxford for Cambridge in 1931, he went around Oxford with colleagues, and placed three Jewish heritage plaques, including the Oxford University Botanic Garden, marking the site of … Read More »

How Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Ashkenazi (the Chacham Tzvi) defended the view of Rabbi David Nieto in London in the 18th century

 

The holiday of Purim is an exilic holiday that took place when the Jews resided under the rule of the Persian empire, during which time the threat of genocide occurred by the minister to the king, Haman. Following the downfall of Haman and the survival of the Jewish people, the holiday of Purim was established with the reading of the Megillah and other traditions of the holiday. As with other exilic holidays, like Chanukah, the miracle of the survival of the Jewish people during Purim, while caused by the miraculous, beyond nature, did not stray from the course of nature.[1] This is unlike the miracles of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea, amongst other miracles that are regarded as open miracles beyond the confines of nature.… Read More »

Parsha and Manuscript: Mishpatim: 'If you lend money to My people'

It states in Exodus 22:24: ‘If (im) you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.’ In Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael (Mishpatim, ch. 19), it clarifies that the interpretation of this verse is that it is not optional, but there is an obligation to lend money to the poor:

 

R. Yishmael said: wherever ‘im’ occurs in Scripture it is used of an act the performance of which is optional, except in three instances, of which this is one. Other cases include Exodus 20:22: ‘And if (when) you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones,’ and Leviticus 2:14: ‘And if (when) thou offerest the meal-offering of first-… Read More »

Parsha and manuscript - Bo: Warning Pharaoh about the plague of locusts

 

Parsha and manuscript Bo .pngBefore the Exodus, G-d struck Egypt with ten plagues. The plagues contained four aspects: G-d asking Moses to go to Pharaoh to let the people go and warn him of the consequences of the plagues if he refuses; Moses asking Pharaoh to let the people go and warn of the impending plague if he refuses; hardening of Pharaoh’s heart and his refusal’ and the actual plague. Similarly, before the plague of locusts, it states (Exodus 10:1-6):

 

Then G-d said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, (2) and that you may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyp… Read More »

GASTER TANYA IN MANUSCRIPT AT THE BRITISH LIBRARY - BL Or 10456 (1775-1796)

INTRODUCTION

 

PART 1: BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TEACHING, WRITING, DISTRIBUTION, EDITING AND PRINTING OF THE TANYA

 

The work of the Tanya is a work of Jewish mysticism regarded as the foundational work[1] of Chabad philosophy (Torat Chassidut Chabad), authored by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe (1745-1813). It was first taught orally over a number of years, beginning in 1782 (5542), and then a second time over a three-year period, beginning on Rosh Hashanah, in September, 1789 (5550). The first three chapters were taught on Rosh Hashanah, and then continuing once a month on Shabbat, and other special occasions. This concluded on 14 November, 1793 (10 Kislev 5554).[2]

 

Similar to the teaching of the Read More »

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi and Maimonides: a similar approach

On the last day of Passover, 1984, the Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted a new custom: the study of a section of Maimonides daily that was aimed to unite the entire Jewish people by studying the same subject of the Torah daily. With this, also began the second significant commentary of the Rebbe on a classical work of the Torah: the legal work of Maimonides, Mishneh Torah. This initiative came after eighteen years of the development of the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi, that began in October, 1964, after the passing of his mother, Rebetzin Chana. In this essay, I would like to explore a similarity between these two commentaries: an approach that allowed the Rebbe to develop a unique commentary on two classic works of the Torah, despite hundr… Read More »

Rashi on Esther in the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

Rashi wrote commentary on the whole of the Torah, including the Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings, besides on Chronicles that is only attributed to Rashi. The supercommentary of the Rebbe on Rashi was however focused primarily on the commentary on the Pentateuch. The reason for this is as indicated in the reasoning given for the commentary itself: the study of Rashi on Shabbat is based on the clause in Jewish law that the commentary of Rashi may serve in the place of the Aramaic translation of Onkelos in the context of the custom to read each Shabbat the Torah, twice in Hebrew and one with the Targum. Rabbi Joseph Karo writes that a G-d-fearing person should read the Rashi commentary, in addition to the Targum. While the reading of Rashi wa… Read More »

Midrash in Rashi in the Commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

The commentary of Rashi is based on the level of interpretation of p’shat, as Rashi states in his commentary on Genesis 3:8: ‘There are many Aggadic midrashim, and our Sages already arranged them in their proper order in Genesis Rabbah and in other midrashim, but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture (p’shuto shel mikra) and such Aggadah that clarifies the words of the verses, each word in its proper way.’ In this statement Rashi acknowledges that he also brings midrashic teachings in his commentary. Complicating the intention of Rashi to follow only p’shat, is the fact that a vast amount of the commentary, estimated seventy f… Read More »

Posing questions in the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Rashi

The methodology of the Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi appears conventional to other super-commentators whereby a question is asked on a text of Rashi and an answer is proposed in validation and explanation of the comment. A unique feature of the Rebbe’s commentary is, however, the style of the questioning. The Rebbe would not suffice in posing a central question but rather on occasion pose up to twenty questions on a particular, sometimes short text of Rashi,[1] before proposing a principle, upon which he would be build a new perspective, fundamentally, upon reflection, simple and obvious, that due to its simplicity was overlooked. The reason for having overlooked the answer proposed may have been due to the conventional appro… Read More »

The Lubavitcher Rebbe's commentary on Rashi: open and interactive

An interesting style of the way the studies of Rashi were taught was that it was not just frontal teaching but interactive. While the Rebbe had other structured series of studies on different works, including Igeret ha-teshuvah (Epistle of Repentance) in the work of the Tanya by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi,[1] the work of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, on the Tanya and the Zohar, Ethics of the Fathers, and in the 1980s on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the studying of Rashi was unique in that the Rebbe invested effort in making it interactive. This was done in various way and in stages. During 1964-5, it began as frontal teaching without interaction. The Rebbe would choose to… Read More »

Choosing the Rashi to study in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s commentary on Rashi

With the closing of the chapter of the explaining a Rashi based on the system of selecting the beginning and final verse in each Parsha, what method did the Rebbe use to decide which Rashi to dwell on and incorporate in his commentary? On most occasions, the Rebbe would unilaterally choose a comment of Rashi to explain. There are other factors that also had influence on the particular Rashi that would be discussed. On occasion it was related to a topic that was being discussed at that time and fit well with the theme. This can be found in 1966 (Pinchas, 21 Tammuz 5726), when the Rebbe linked the discussion on the Exodus as a case of coming out of danger, which would require a blessing of thanksgiving, to an internal exodus from spiritual ai… Read More »

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