Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Abraham in Mesopotamia

Sefer Bereshit mentions a number of Eastern locations in Abraham's backround

  • Ur Kasdim- birthplace(Bereshit 11:28)
  • Haran- Terach settles there(Bereshit 11:31)
  • Aram Naharayim- Eliezer is sent there to find a wife for Yitzchak(Bereshit 24:10)
  • Padan Aram- Rivka, Lavan's sister, is described as being from there(Bereshit 25:20)
  • Petor- a river-side settlement. Bilam is from there(Bamidbar 22:5)

What is the relationship between these places?

Mesopotamia, the land between rivers, refers to a large area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ur Kasdim is generally identified with the ancient city of Ur in Southern Mesopotamia(in modern Iraq), with it's port and ziggurat. The latter is similar to the Ziggurat of Babel, which likely is referred to in the tower of Babel narritive.

The scripture uses the names Haran, Aram Naharaim, and Padan Aram interchangably. These are generally identified with the ruins of the city Haran in Northern Mesopotamia(in modern day Turkey). Why so many names? Aram Naharayim literally means "Aramean Mesopotamia". Padan Aram means "Field of Aram", also presumably a name for the whole area. Haran is a particular settlement.

Finally, there is Petor. In Bamidbar(23:7) we hear it is in Aram, and in Devarim(23:5) it is called Aram Naharayim. Why does the scripture need to identify the geographic reason.

Hazal identify Bilam as related to Lavan. Although this isn't stated expicitly in the text, there are numerous literary and narritive parallels between Bilam and Lavan(see here). It completes the picture of the descendents of Midyan(Avraham's son), Moav(Avraham's nephew), and Lavan(Avraham's grand Nephew) plotting against the the primary Abrahamic line.

As to why Bilam's mission fails so completely, ending in his death, perhaps it relates to Lavan's promise(Bereshit 31:52)

עֵד הַגַּל הַזֶּה, וְעֵדָה הַמַּצֵּבָה: אִם-אָנִי, לֹא-אֶעֱבֹר אֵלֶיךָ אֶת-הַגַּל הַזֶּה, וְאִם-אַתָּה לֹא-תַעֲבֹר אֵלַי אֶת-הַגַּל הַזֶּה וְאֶת-הַמַּצֵּבָה הַזֹּאת, לְרָעָה. נגאֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלֹהֵי נָחוֹר, יִשְׁפְּטוּ בֵינֵינוּ--אֱלֹהֵי, אֲבִיהֶם; וַיִּשָּׁבַע יַעֲקֹב, בְּפַחַד אָבִיו יִצְחָק. וַיִּזְבַּח יַעֲקֹב זֶבַח בָּהָר, וַיִּקְרָא לְאֶחָיו לֶאֱכָל-לָחֶם; וַיֹּאכְלוּ לֶחֶם, וַיָּלִינוּ בָּהָר.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Daniel and his Holy Companions

The first chapter of Sefer Daniel introduces us to four Judean boys: Daniel, Hananya, Mishael, and Azarya. Through no action of their own, they are chosen from among the Judean nobility to be trained as potential members of King Nebuchadnezzar's court. By the king's decree, they are to undergo a 3 year educational program in Chaldean language. How does Sefer Daniel view the exile and indoctrination of the cream of Judean youth?

Daniel and Yosef

For starters, there are numerous parallels between Daniel in this story and the account of Yosef in Pharoah's court in Genesis. These include:
  • Both are taken as captives into a strange land
  • Both are given foreign names in place of their Hebrew name
  • Both resist sin and assimilation
  • Both are granted wisdom and the ability to interpret dreams
  • Both appear before the king and impress him with said wisdom to the exclusion of the court magicians
  • Both become members of the King's court

These persistent parallels serve to orient the reader. The Book of Daniel is not an island. The foundation is is built on is the classic story of living faithfully in exile, the story of Yosef in Egypt. The Book of Daniel will go on to explore the same themes and expand on them. This is to the benefit of it's intended audience, the many subsequent generations of Jews who live as subjects of foreign powers. So what insights does Daniel 1 add on top of the Yosef story?

The Holy and the Profane

There are some apparently irrelevant details in verse 2 when describing Yehoyakim's defeat by the Babylonians:

וַיִּתֵּן אֲדֹנָי בְּיָדוֹ אֶת-יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה, וּמִקְצָת כְּלֵי בֵית-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיְבִיאֵם אֶרֶץ-שִׁנְעָר, בֵּית אֱלֹהָיו; וְאֶת-הַכֵּלִים הֵבִיא, בֵּית אוֹצַר אֱלֹהָיו
Why is the capture of vessels from the Temple mentioned here, when it plays no further part in the story? One could argue that this is simply an intertextuality with Chapter 5, setting up the story where King Belshazar uses said vessels for his idolatrous party. This may be true, but it is worth noting that there are only a handful of textual connections between the stories in the first half of Daniel. For the most part, each story stands alone.

I'd like to suggest another possible reason for the mention of the temple vessels. The reader is meant to draw a parallel between the captive vessels in verse 2 and the captive youths in verse 3. Just as the holy vessels from Beit Hamikdash are being desecrated by being brought into a house of idolatry, so to are these noble Judean youths being desecrated by being indoctrinated into Babylonian culture.

This theme of desecrating the holy is further emphasized in verse 7, when the boys are given new Babylonian names:

וַיָּשֶׂם לָהֶם שַׂר הַסָּרִיסִים, שֵׁמוֹת; וַיָּשֶׂם לְדָנִיֵּאל בֵּלְטְשַׁאצַּר, וְלַחֲנַנְיָה שַׁדְרַךְ, וּלְמִישָׁאֵל מֵישַׁךְ, וְלַעֲזַרְיָה עֲבֵד נְגוֹ

What happens to the four companions' Hebrew names? Names that proclaim the glory of God:
  • Daniel- God Judges
  • Hananya- God is Gracious
  • Mishael- Who is like God?
  • Azarya- God Helps

The boys are instead given names of Babylonian Gods:

Just as the temple vessels are profaned with idolatry, so are the four Jewish youths profaned with idolatrous names.

Of Vessels and Vassals

Yet Nebuchadnezzar's irreverent plan immediately goes off the rails. In verse 8 Daniel makes a decision not to eat the non-kosher meat and wine provided to the King's servants:
וַיָּשֶׂם דָּנִיֵּאל עַל-לִבּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִתְגָּאַל בְּפַת-בַּג הַמֶּלֶךְ וּבְיֵין מִשְׁתָּיו; וַיְבַקֵּשׁ מִשַּׂר הַסָּרִיסִים, אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִתְגָּאָל

Daniel and his companions refuse to allow themselves to be profaned by their immersion in Babylonian language and culture. They are careful not to ingest impure food and they presumably hold themselves aloof from other parts of Babylonian culture. God's response to their dedication is both immediate and substantial. They are blessed and quickly become the wisest advisors in the kingdom.

וְהַיְלָדִים הָאֵלֶּה אַרְבַּעְתָּם, נָתַן לָהֶם הָאֱלֹהִים מַדָּע וְהַשְׂכֵּל בְּכָל-סֵפֶר וְחָכְמָה; וְדָנִיֵּאל הֵבִין, בְּכָל-חָזוֹן וַחֲלֹמוֹת...וְכֹל, דְּבַר חָכְמַת בִּינָה, אֲשֶׁר-בִּקֵּשׁ מֵהֶם, הַמֶּלֶךְ--וַיִּמְצָאֵם עֶשֶׂר יָדוֹת, עַל כָּל-הַחַרְטֻמִּים הָאַשָּׁפִים, אֲשֶׁר, בְּכָל-מַלְכוּתוֹ

Daniel chapter 1 carries a powerful message to Jews living in times of exile. Yes, the Babylonians succeeded in capturing and profaning holy vessels of the temple, but people are not vessels. People can ultimately choose whether to allow themselves to be profaned or to retain their sanctity. And God himself will bless those who choose the more difficult path.

The History of Daniel

So, continuing from our previous discussion of structure, let's get into the history of Sefer Daniel. The book begins with year 3 of Yehoyakim's reign and ends in year 3 of Cyrus's reign, a 7 decade period. Let's put together a rough chronology of relevant events based on Wikipedia articles and try to place chapters of Daniel within that timeline:

  • 608BCE- Yehoyakim appointed king of Judah by Pharaoh Necho
  • 605BCE- Nebuchadnezzar's father dies, becomes king
  • 605BCE- Battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar seige of Jerusalem. Yehoyakim/Judah join Babylonian Empire. First deportation of Babylonian Exile
    • Daniel 1
  • 604BCE
    • Daniel 2, 3?
  • 601BCE- Yehoyakim renews allegiance to Egyptian empire
  • 598BCE- Nebuchadnezzar seige of Jerusalem. Yehoyakim deposed, maybe killed
  • 588BCE- Destruction of 1st Temple
  • 562BCE- Nebuchadnezzar dies
  • 562 to 560BCE- Amel Marduk king of Babylon
  • 560 to 556BCE- Neriglissar king of Babylon
  • 559BCE- Cyrus the Great becomes king of Persia under Medes
  • 556BCE- Labashi-Marduk king of Babylon
  • 556–539BCE- Nabonidus king of Babylon
    • Daniel 4
  • 553-550?BCE- Cyrus conquers Medes
  • 553-543BCE- Belshazzar rules as regent while Nabonidus is in Teima
    • Daniel 5, 7, 8
  • 539BCE- Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon. Commands building of 2nd temple
    • Daniel 6, 9?
  • 537BCE
    • Daniel 10-12
  • 530BCE- Cyrus dies in Battle


Historical Problems in Daniel

What problems arise when we try to map the happenings in Daniel to this chronology?
  1. Ch. 1- The books of Daniel, Melachim, Divrei Hayamim, Yirmiaya, Josephus all give differing accounts of Yehoyakim's defeat and death(a good summary can be found in “Jehoiakim Slept with his Fathers…” (II Kings 24:6) – Did He?, Oded Lipschits)
  2. No minister by the name of Daniel is recorded in any other Babylonian/Persian source. On the other hand, Daniel is mentioned in Ezekiel(during the Babylonian exile), and Ezra(100 years later).
  3. Ch. 4- No prolonged absence of Nebhuchadnezzar from the throne is known to history. On the other hand, Nabonidus' absence is well established, including the Prayer of Nabonidus scroll from Qumran)
  4. Ch. 5, 7,8- Belshazzar never seems to have been King, rather he was Crown Prince and Regent
  5. Ch. 6, 9- The King, Darius the Mede, a contemporary of Cyrus who began his reign at 62 years old, is unknown to history. Darius the Great only came to rule the Persian empire in 522BCE at the age of 28, but perhaps the text is referring to some other milestone that happened later in his kingship. Even so, assuming that Daniel was about 10 years old in 598BCE, he would have been 110 years old by the time Cyrus the Great was 62, which seems farfetched
  6. Ch. 9- the 70 year calculation for the rebuilding of Jerusalem is not so straightforward. Different commentators attempt to explain the calculation. Many even gave up and concluded that Daniel miscalculated ("כל הגאונים פה אחת הסכימה דעתם עם דעת הקדמונים שאמרו שטעה דניאל בחשבונו" אבן עזרא על דניאל ט:ב)

Nabonidus Cylinder
The commentators take various approaches in their attempts to resolve these issues, but the overall picture that emerges is that Historical precision is less of a concern in Daniel than, say, in Divrei Hayamim. For this reason, historians find Daniel to be a less useful text for the period than, say, official chronicles of the Babylonian and Persian Empires.


These Historical issues with the book of Daniel raise the question whether the stories therein are historically factual. Did a Jew named Daniel really rise to prominence in the Babylonian and Persian courts? Did all these miracles and visions actually happen to him?

This sort of question is not foreign to traditional commentary. For instance, one Amora opined that the Book of Job is ahistorical:
יתיב ההוא מרבנן קמיה דר' שמואל בר נחמני ויתיב וקאמר איוב לא היה ולא נברא אלא משל היה(בבא בתרא טו.)
My own gut feeling about Daniel, given it's historical problems and it's structural idiosyncrasies, is that the character Daniel existed(as mentioned in Ezekiel) but that the Book of Daniel was composed after Daniel's lifetime. I assume that the writer of Daniel collected different stories and visions of Daniel, both written and oral, and wrote them into a single scroll. This writer likely belonged to the sages of the Great Assembly which would place him somewhere in the period between 530 and 150BCE, which is, admittedly, quite a long time interval.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes
The current scholarly consensus seems to be towards the end of that period, due to:
  1. The symbolic reference to Antiochus Epiphanes in Daniel 7
  2. Daniel's absence from the Canonization of Prophets and from Ben Sira
  3. It's presence in the Sibylline Oracles and Qumran Caves

The Value of Daniel

So, assuming the Book of Daniel was compiled up to 400 years after the period it portrays and it's historical accuracy is a bit sketchy, what are it's merits? More specifically, why did the Men of the Great Assembly choose to include this scroll in the biblical canon?

Daniel and his companions requesting kosher meals
Daniel contains some of the most iconic scenes in the bible, such as Daniel in the Lion's Den and the Fiery Furnace(which apparently served as inspiration for the famous midrash about Abraham). It's themes of Jews maintaining their faith while living in Gentile regimes have been relevant throughout our people's long history. Daniel and his companions were taken as slaves to Babylonia, but stayed true to God's covenant, and thrived thanks to God's blessing. Their host nations, on the other hand, rise, are judged for their sins, and ultimately fall. Daniel is the story of our covenant with God even in times of exile and subjugation.

    Monday, 7 May 2018

    Structure of Sefer Daniel

    Recently I began a project to learn sefer Daniel with the 929 site. Daniel is a book that always held a certain appeal for me, perhaps because of the memorable stories, perhaps because of the strange allure of Aramaic language and Babylonian culture. As such, for the past few weeks I've been working my way through the book, so this will hopefully be the first of a few posts on the topic. Note: I'm dedicating this series to my father, Zwi ben Yakov. May Hashem grant him a speedy and successful resolution to his current medical issues.

    High Level Structure

    Let's begin with the high-level structure of Daniel. The book has 12 chapters, which I have summarized as follows:

    Ch. Topic Narrator Hero Lang Time Period{King/Year}
    1 Children in Court 3rd Person Daniel+3 Heb Yhykm/3->Neb.->Koresh/1
    2 Dream of the Statue 3rd Person Daniel Arm, Heb Nebuchadnezzar/2
    3 The Fiery Funace 3rd Person 3 Arm Nebuchadnezzar/?
    4 Dream of the Great Tree Nebuchadnanezzar Daniel Arm Nebuchadnezzar/?
    5 The Writing on the Wall 3rd Person Daniel Arm Belshazar/?
    6 The Lion's Den 3rd Person Daniel Arm Darius the Mede/1->Cyrus
    7 Dream of 4 Beasts 3rd Person Daniel Arm Belshazar/1
    8 Dream of Ram + Goat Daniel Daniel Heb Belshazar/3
    9 Prayer for Jerusalem Daniel Daniel Heb Darius the Mede/1
    10 Vision of Angels P1 3rd Person Daniel Heb Cyrus/3
    11 Vision of Angels P2 3rd Person Daniel Heb Cyrus/3
    12 Vision of Angels P3 3rd Person Daniel Heb Cyrus/3

    As you can see, Daniel is a rather Eclectic work of literature. It's chapters comprise different languages, different timelines, different narrators, even different heroes. Is this a literary choice, reflecting the virtual Ziggurat of Babylonian culture the exiled Judeans found themselves thrown into? Does it reflect a history of editing and revision, as new stories were added to an existing text? Or is simply a collection of Daniel's writings, written at different periods over the course of a long life?

    What is generally agreed upon is that the Book of Daniel is divided into two distinct parts:

    Daniel Part 1

    The first 6 chapters take the form of Court Tales, which Oxford Reference defines as:
    A popular genre of the Persian and Hellenistic periods...that emphasize the wisdom of the courtier, often in settings of danger
    They seem to be in chronological order, at least in that they begin with King Nebuchadnezzar, move to Belshazer, and end with Darius. The stories are written mostly in Aramaic, with a third-person narrator, and Daniel as the protagonist. The exceptions are:

    • Chapter 1 and the beginning of ch. 2 are in Hebrew
    • Chapter 1 features all four companions, and Chapter 3 features the 3 others(Daniel is conspicuously missing)
    • Chapter 4 is written from the perspective of Nebuchadnezzar, who relates his dream and Daniel's interpretation
    One final point is that these stories seem form a cohesive unit, with intertextualities between them, such as:
    1. The 3 companions seem to be mentioned in Chapter 1 only because they are the heroes of Chapter 3
    2. In Chapter 5 the Queen recommends the King to Daniel, apparently based on his success in chapters 2, 4
    3. The Golden statue in Chapter 3 is implicitly Nebuchadnezzar's response to the interpretation of the dream in Chapter 2
    4. Chapters 1-4 all involve King Nebuchadnezzar and create a continued dialogue between him and God
    5. The chapters seem to come in similar pairs: 4 and 5 are visions of the downfall of haughty kings, while 3 and 6 are courtly intrigues to bring down Daniel and his companions based on their religious devotion

    Daniel Part 2

    The last 6 chapters are a collection of four dreams/visions Daniel has seen. They are a less cohesive unit than the first part of the book:
    • The first vision is in Aramaic, the other 3 are in Hebrew
    • The first and forth visions are written in first-person, while the second and third are in 3rd person
    • Besides that, the different visions don't seem to reference or build-on one another
    The general theme of these visions is the rise and fall of Babylonian, Persions, Greek, and Roman empires according to God's decrees, as well as the rebuilding of Temple in Jerusalem and return of the Judean exiles.

    Chapter 7

    Rabbi Yonatan Grossman argues that Chapter 7 actually belongs to the first part of the book. One reason he gives for this is that it is written in Aramaic, just like chapters 2-6. The other reason it that chapters 2-7 thereby form a chiastic structure.

    • Ch1: Children in Court
      • Ch2: Dream of 4-Part Statue(represents 4 Empires)
        • Ch3: Fiery Furnace(Daniel's companions are tested)
          • Ch4: Dream of the Great Tree(downfall of haughty king)
          • Ch5: The Writing on the Wall(downfall of haughty king)
        • Ch6: Lion's Den(Daniel is tested)
      • Ch7: Dream of 4 Beasts(represents 4 Empires)

    What emerges is a series of stories about lone Israelite exiles surviving among the Babylonian/Persian court. Rather than being subsumed by or trampled under the dominant culture, they hold to their faith and even thrive, dwelling among the halls of power, while their host Empires rise and fall by God's decree.

    Thursday, 4 January 2018

    Rav Kook and Science

    So here is an interesting lecture. Professor Tamar Ross speaks about her paper The Cognitive Value of Religious Truth Statements: Rabbi A. I. Kook and Postmodernism.

    Professor Ross begins with the problem: what do we do, as men and women of faith, when new scientific theories/discoveries conflict with the accepted understanding of scripture?

    She delineates 4 approaches:
    1. Why rely on science? Rationality is limited(Lubavich Rebbe)
    2. Allegory. Distinguish between content and presentation. Torah uses allegory to express itself. Torah's presentation is an allegory to scientific creation(Rambam on Aristotle's proof for eternal universe) Note: this also sounds like Professor Nathan Aviezer's "In the Beginning"
    3. Torah is not history/science book. It's narratives come to teach subjective truths, not empiric truths. Bereshit teaches us that we are dependent on a higher force, not a scientific account of creation(Yeshayahu Lebovich) Note: this sounds to me like Rabbi Natan Slifkin's The Challenge of Creation
    4. Scientific/moral insight as a form of continuing revelation. Beliefs are best chosen by world/people they create. Humanity must be ready for a particular revelation. Genesis is written in an epoch-neutral fashion(Rav Kook)

    The rest of the lecture is selections from Rav Kook's writings that exemplify this fourth approach. This is worth listening to, but I won't go into detail here.

    Professor Ross concludes by stating the relevance of this approach in our Postmodern age. In this time when objective truth seems so remote and we struggle with the question of what to believe, Rav Kook's approach can be a powerful tool for deciding which beliefs to promote.

    Sunday, 17 December 2017

    Book Review: Vagueness Vanquished

    Vagueness Vanquished: A Strategic Approach to Learning Gemara by Rabbi Peretz Segal is a 100 page handbook detailing the author's methodology for learning Talmud.

    Rav Segal  gives his method the acronym StructaPoP, which has 3 phases:
    1. Structure- structural analysis of the text
    2. Power Questioning- to identify the problems or ambiguities within the text
    3. Paradigm Shift- finding a new model for understanding the sugia
    After introducing the general methodology in Chapter 1, the following 3 chapters takes us a level deeper, with how to apply it to Mishna, Gemara, and Rishonim, respectively.

    I had the privilege of attending Rav Segal's classes for the better part of a year in 2003-4. The book does a good job of presenting his technique and includes a moderate dose of his wry sense of humor. I even found a new idea to adapt to my current learning: for each textual section, go back and formulate and write down a title summarizing the topic of the section. This helps me keep track of the big picture and the flow of the meta-narrative.

    I recall my move from Ohr Samayach to Har Etzion in 2004. At first, immersion into the Brisker methodology was a bit of a culture shock. The style of classes, their focus and even the vocabulary were completely different. Looking back, Rav Segal's methodology has a lot to say about 1) Structure and 2) Power Questioning, but not much about 3) Paradigm Shift, except that there should be one. What sort of new paradigm should we look for? How can we find it?  In the10 out of 100  pages dedicated to Paradigm Shift in the handbook, these questions are barely addressed. If anything, one would expect this to be the largest section! Structural analysis is fundamental, as is asking good questions, but at the end of the day, it is one's final explanation of the sugya that is the result of one's learning.

    The Gush's Brisker Methodology, on the other hand, is all about the Paradigm Shift. The Brisker Derech focuses on developing a library of models for explaining the sugiot of the Talmud. So, to sum up, Rav Segal's shiur gave me a great basis from which to continue in the Gush, but the difference in emphasis took me a while to process.

    Bottom line, I highly recommend Vagueness Vanquished as an introduction to Talmud learning methodology. It's an easy read and the tools for approaching texts are fundamental for the aspiring lamdan.

    Monday, 11 December 2017

    Book Review: Wrestling Jacob

    I originally heard about Shmuel Klitsner's book Wrestling Jacob on Sarah Rindner's excellent Book of Books blog. It sat on my list of books to order for a long time, but recently made the cut when I was making an Amazon order and I found a used copy on the cheap.

    What you get is 180 pages of close literary reading and Modern commentary on the story of Jacob and Esau. The analysis begins with Rivka's tempestuous pregnancy, continues through to the brothers' momentous meeting upon Jacob's return to Canaan, and ends with a final exploration of parallel passages in the Torah, specifically God trying to kill Moshe at the Inn and Bilaam's encounter with the Angelic swordsman.

    Klitsner's methodology is interesting. He has a long introduction detailing methodology and assumptions. It's important, so let's summarize the salient features:
    • Close literary readings
      • as opposed to Critical readings which put idiosyncrasies down to progressive changes/additions
      • as opposed to Fundamentalist readings which explain-away ideosyncrasies
      • instead, Klitsner takes idiosyncrasies/repetition as an authorial choice with a literary payload
    • Bible as a "Divine Anthropology" of Jewish people
      • As opposed to novels or even Greek classics which focus on Human individuality
    • Subtext gives insight into authorial intent

    Rabbi Klitsner
    Klitsner ultimately suggests these stories have as a theme, the struggle between Human autonomy and Divine destiny. Yet he contrasts how this theme plays out in the Bible with how it plays out in Greek literature. In Greek literature, people must follow their destiny as determined by the Gods, when they break this mold, bad things happen. The Bible carries this theme in the opposite direction. Characters try to fulfill their divine destiny, but suffer when they use illicit means to achieve those ends.

    This is a very Modern literary reading, with the focus being on Jacob's individual religious experience, his inner struggle, and his eventual redemption.

    Bottom line, Wrestling Jacob is a great book for anyone interested in Literary Bible studies. It's a short book, but is dense with ideas, close readings, and intertextualities. Highly recommended!