Monday, May 21, 2007

Definitions and Terminology

I started reading Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament about 12 years ago and have read them off and on since then. Since I will be writing about them frequently in the coming posts, here are some words, definitions, and people to whom I may refer.

Avot: "Fathers," often used for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Also used for a tractate completed by 200 A.D. of the oral Torah, and for commentaries on that tractate.

Midrash, plural Midrashim: "investigation," refers to 1) the activity of exegesis of the Scriptures, 2) the interpretations that result from that exegesis, 3) the written documents that are a collection of those interpretations.

Mishnah: code of Jewish law, derived from the Pentateuch and passed down by oral tradition. The most famous version of the encoding of the oral Torah was completed around 200 A.D. by Patriarch Judah in Palestine, but there are other versions, notably Mishnah Torah, a commentary on the Mishnah written by Rambam/Maimonides.

Mitzvah, plural Mitzvot: commandment, commandments of the Law. There are 613 mitzvot recorded in Deuteronomy.

Rabbah, Midrash Rabbah: midrash texts on the five books of the Pentateuch and Ruth, Esther, Lamentations, Eccelesiastes, and Song of Songs. Compiled and collected from about the 4th century A.D. through the 9th.

Rambam: initials of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204, Spain, Morocco, Egypt), aka Maimonides, philosopher and commentator.

Ramban: initials of Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (1194-1270, Spain), commentator.

Rashi: initials of Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105, France), the foremost medieval commentator on the Torah.

Talmud: code of Jewish law, philosophy, and ethics, collected between 200 and 500 A.D. in both Palestine and Babylon.

Tanakh: the Scriptures, comprising the Pentateuch (aka Torah), Prophets, and Writings.

Tanhuma: midrash written as homilies on the Pentateuch.

Torah: "instruction," the Law, the Word of God, also used to designate the Pentateuch. The oral Torah, as written down in the Mishnah, informs the written Torah, as contained in the Pentateuch. Both were handed down by God to Moses at Sinai, and the written Torah must be read in light of the oral Torah. The Torah existed "In the Beginning."
Genesis Rabbah I.i.2

A. In the beginning God created (Genesis 1:1) [As to the verse, Then I was beside Him like a little child, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the sons of men] (Proverbs 8:30-31).
B. The word [for child also may be read to] mean "workman."
C. [In the cited verse] the Torah speaks, "I was the work-plan of the Holy One, blessed be He."
D. In the accepted practice of the world, when a mortal king builds a palace, he does not build it out of his own head, but he follows a work-plan.
E. And [the one who supplies] the work-plan does not build out of his own head, but he has designs and diagrams, so as to know how to situate the rooms and the doorways.
F. Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, consulted the Torah when He created the world.
G. So the Torah stated, By means of "the beginning" [that is to say, the Torah] did God create (Genesis 1:1).
H. For the word the beginning refers only to the Torah, as Scripture says, The Lord made me as the beginning of his way (Proverbs 8:22).
Proverbs 8 is speaking of Holy Wisdom, known as Hagia Sophia to Christians, whose person is the Incarnate Word. Read John 1:1-18 in light of the above. For myself, this is an example of the illumination that can be found when reading rabbinical commentaries on the Old Testament.

Warning: I am not a Jewish scholar, nor have I read enough works to think that I have an intuitive grasp on Jewish interpretation. I do, however, often find it insightful, while trying to play close attention to not distort the words of the rabbis to something unfaithful to the text, as I extend the writings to Christianity (in other words, I try to avoid proof-texting, and will read an entire rabbah, its sources, and other commentaries such as Rashi's, before developing my thoughts on a particular part). I will mostly be using Jacob Neusner's translations of Hebrew and Aramaic texts, while largely ignoring his controversial interpretations.

Please feel free to correct me, disagree, or provide additional texts in the comments.


Fr. Greg said...

Are you familiar with Gerald Schroeder? Take a look, if you haven't already:

and especially:

AG said...

I've seen the titles to his books, but never investigated it until the links you provided, thanks!

He makes a very good point here - The Hebrew Bible translates Genesis 1:1 as "In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth," not "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."

But I think he misses the point later on. He relies alot on Ramban (Nahmanides), who is rather late on the commentary record. The rabbis simply aren't that concerned with the creation of the universe as science. They are concerned only with WHO God created FOR, WHO God entrusted creation TO.

I'll post a really long comment from Rashi here on Genesis 1:1 (Rashi's commentaries can be found online at

"In the beginning of God’s creation of Heb. בְּרֵאשִית בָּרָא. This verse calls for a midrashic interpretation [because according to its simple interpretation, the vowelization of the word בָּרָא, should be different, as Rashi explains further]. It teaches us that the sequence of the Creation as written is impossible, as is written immediately below] as our Rabbis stated (Letters of R. Akiva , letter “beth” ; Gen. Rabbah 1:6; Lev. Rabbah 36:4): [God created the world] for the sake of the Torah, which is called (Prov. 8:22): “the beginning of His way,” and for the sake of Israel, who are called (Jer. 2:3) “the first of His grain.” But if you wish to explain it according to its simple meaning, explain it thus: “At the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth, the earth was astonishing with emptiness, and darkness…and God said, ‘Let there be light.’” But Scripture did not come to teach the sequence of the Creation, to say that these came first, for if it came to teach this, it should have written:“At first (בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה) He created the heavens and the earth,” for there is no רֵאשִׁית in Scripture that is not connected to the following word, [i.e., in the construct state] like (ibid. 27:1):“In the beginning of (בְּרֵאשִית) the reign of Jehoiakim” ; (below 10:10)“the beginning of (רֵאשִׁית) his reign” ; (Deut. 18:4)“the first (רֵאשִׁית) of your corn.” Here too, you say בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אלֹהִים, like בְּרֵאשִׁית בְּרֹא, in the beginning of creating. And similar to this is,“At the beginning of the Lord’s speaking (דִּבֶּר) to Hosea,” (Hos. 1:2), i.e., at the beginning of the speaking (דִּבּוּרוֹ) of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to Hosea, “the Lord said to Hosea, etc.” Now if you say that it came to teach that these (i.e., heaven and earth) were created first, and that its meaning is: In the beginning of all, He created these-and that there are elliptical verses that omit one word, like (Job 3:9): “For [He] did not shut the doors of my [mother’s] womb,” and it does not explain who it was who shut [the womb]; and like (Isa. 8:4): “he will carry off the wealth of Damascus,” and it does not explain who will carry it off; and like (Amos 6:12): “or will one plow with cattle,” and it does not explain: “if a man will plow with cattle” ; and like (Isa. 46: 10): “telling the end from the beginning,” and it does not explain that [it means] telling the end of a matter from the beginning of a matter-if so, [if you say that Scripture indicates the order of creation] be astounded at yourself, for the water preceded, as it is written: “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water,” and Scripture did not yet disclose when the creation of water took place! From this you learn that the water preceded the earth. Moreover, the heavens were created from fire and water. Perforce, you must admit that Scripture did not teach us anything about the sequence of the earlier and the later [acts of creation]."

The rabbis can also say that Jacob created the world, Israel formed it, for it is God's relationship with the people Israel that matters - the Song of Songs is the holiest Scripture because it recounts the love affair between God and the people Israel, which is all that really matters from the perspective of the sages writing Rabbah - all the extra meanings, that in the Bible God was using code, the secret knowledge (like Kabbalah) really date to the medieval period. They are sometimes interested in the PLACE of God - is God in creation or outside of it (alongside philosophical discussions during the early centuries outside the Jewish communities), but not in the order of creation - nor is there much support (from my readings) for the idea that darkness is chaos, although it is also an ancient concept not specific to Judaism. There are suggestions that in darkness, one can acquire other identities, but that doesn't quite mean that darkness = entropy.

I'm not going to be nit-picky and discuss whether or not it hurts his case that the universe is now projected to be between 13 and 14 billion years old, other than to say that there are questions about the nature of time in absolute spacetime, its movement forward, and the increasing expansion rate of the universe that might make his hypotheses about the exponential decrease of a "unit time" (to give it a name other than day) questionable. And it's tough to get around the language of "morning" and "evening." That's why I've always liked the explanation that the six days were six real-time days that Moses spent on Sinai receiving these revelations about creation, even if it's a bit of a cop-out.

But I will also admit that I have a very strong bias against most attempts to make creationism and intelligent design into science, fostered through reading many many young earth explanations of geology and the fossil record in my high school days, so pay little heed to what I write.

Thank you for the link - I'm reading a book about time (what is meant by it in physics) right now, so it was really relevant to me.