Oxford Jewish Thought

Lectures, essays, questions & articles

by Rabbi Eli Brackman

Anti-Semitism at Oxford during WWII


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, including the three volume 'History fo Anti-Senmitism' by Leon Poliakov, and countless articles on its causes and ways to counter it. The most recent form in Anti-Semitism, according to the late Lord Sacks, is a campaign against Israel's right to exist and defend itself: many times anti-Zionism masking a deeper antisemitism. In this essay, we would like to look at the more classic form of Anti-Semitism that existed in England during the Second World War at Oxford with the rise of refugees escaping the Nazis in Europe and the bombing in London. 


Jewish life at Oxford…Read More »





On the site of the Osney Mill Marina, on Mill Street, Oxford, on the remains of Osney Abbey, there is a plaque, erected in 1931 by Professor of semitic languages, Herbert Loewe, commemorating one of the first known burnings at the stake for heresy in England. This was performed against Haggai of Oxford, formerly known as Robert of Reading, a deacon, who converted to Judaism, and married a Jewish woman. When ordered to recant, he refused, and an edict was passed at the Council of Oxford, convened by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1150-1228), that he should be degraded and immediately delivered to the fire.[1] This took place on Sunday, 17 April 1222 AD, corresponding to the Hebrew date: 4 Iyyar 4982.


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The history of coffee houses in England is intimately connected to the return of the Jews to England 366 years after their expulsion in 1290. The first coffee house in England, and Europe, is recorded by Anthony Wood to have been opened in Oxford by a Jewish merchant from Turkey, most likely Smyrna, in 1650,[1] a few years before the formal readmission of the Jews to England in 1656. Called a Jewish beverage (mashke yisrael), due to its popularity amongst the Jews, or ‘black liquid’ (mei shichur),[2] it provoked major controversies in the Jewish community, as it did in society at large. In this essay, we will explore these controversies in detail.


The opponents of coffee included Muslims and Christians w… Read More »


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In Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 3:8, it states: ‘I have come only to explain the plain meaning of scripture (p’shuto shel mikra).’ This early comment in Genesis, among many other similar statements, is understood by some supercommentaries to serve as a fundamental guiding principle for Rashi’s commentary on the Torah. There are three general views pertaining to the nature of Rashi’s commentary: a. some argue that Rashi is not at all a commentary committed to p’shat, since it primarily cites midrash. This is the view of R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1009-1167) and found in the introduction to Sefer ha-Zikaron commentary on the Torah.[1] This is the view of Avraham Grossman a… 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



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

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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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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 »






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 »

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