Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for the ‘Pentateuch’ Category

Shabbat chol ha moed Sukkot

15 October 2011

 Deuteronomy 8:1-18

 In this chapter, as in nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the Israelites, who have traversed the  wilderness for forty years, and are now on the brink of entering the Promised Land.

Moses doesn’t name the land across the Jordan as Canaan, or as Israel, but as ‘the land which the Lord swore to your fathers’. The name Canaan is much used in Genesis when the Patriarchs lived in the land but did not rule it. The term Eretz Israel does not occur until the time of King Saul, and then just  once. It is Ezekiel, in exile, who consistently refers to Eretz Israel.

 Moses goes on to remind the Israelites of the many afflictions they endured during their forty years in the wilderness, as well as the benefits of God’s protection. Even the manna, which we might think of as a blessing, is described here as an affliction, whose purpose, says Moses, is ‘to make you know that one does not live on bread alone, but on every utterance which proceeds out of the mouth of God’.’[1]He contrasts the privations of the wilderness years with the wonderful prosperity which they will enjoy, just across the riverJordan, where he, Moses, will not be permitted to accompany them.

From this chapter come the familiar words You will eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you[2]  which, as it happens, is the only blessing explicitly commanded in the Torah. The blessings we say before and after the Torah readings, for example, are not from a biblical source. Many of them come from a minor tractate called Massekhet, from the time of the Talmud and it has been suggested that the authors had in mind the template of this verse in Deuteronomy, which includes the words asher natan lach when they prescribed the phrase asher natan lanu in the Torah blessings.


When Moses teaches ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’, he foreshadows the tradition of the prophets, who called on the people to pursue righteousness and reject materialism.

The connection between bread and Torah is made by Isaiah too when he says ‘Why do you spend money for what is not bread, Your earnings for what does not satisfy?’

 Following the examples of Moses and Isaiah, the rabbinic sages sometimes compared bread with Torah or spoke of bread as a metaphor for Torah. The progressive liturgist Jakob Petuchowski pointed out that the expression bread from the earth – lechem min ha-aretz – has the same grammatical structure as the traditional name for Revelation – Torah min ha shamayim, literally: Torah from heaven.  In Sayings of the Fathers, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Without bread there is no Torah, without Torah there is no bread,’and this aphorism is often explained with reference to the verse ‘Not by bread alone shall you live’.

As this shabbat is Chol ha Moed Sukkot, the tradition is to read the book of Ecclesiastes. We read the opening chapter so did not get as far as Chapter 11, where Kohelet, the speaker in Ecclesiastes says: ‘Cast your bread upon the waters and after many days you will find it’.

 Is Kohelet really speaking about bread? Or is it, as Moses Mendelssohn thought, a metaphor about long-term market trends and the advantages of risk taking? Or is the bread symbolic of good deeds, mitzvot, undertaken without thought of personal gain. This was the view of Rashi who interpreted the verse as meaning that you should do acts of kindness even for a person who you think you’ll never see again.The good deeds flow away like bread on the water, but their positive effects come back with the ripples of the tide.

In Exodus, the manna is called bread from heaven, lechem min ha shamayim.

On one hand, it’s something less than normal bread, because the people grow tired of it and complain; on the other hand it’s much more than bread because it comes miraculously from heaven,  enabling the Israelites to survive in the wilderness. At the shabbat table, we have two loaves of challah, symbolizing the double portion of manna which the children of Israel used to gather on the eve of shabbat, but, because one doesn’t live by bread alone, the two challot can be seen also as representing the two tablets of the law, the other gift from heaven which the children of Israel received in the wilderness.

Mikketz 2008

Genesis 43:15-44:17

There are parts of Joseph’s story which most people remember: for example that his jealous brothers sold him into slavery and that his personal qualities and clairvoyant skills resulted in him becoming Pharaoh’s right hand man. You may recall that years later, Jacob sent Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to obtain grain, because there was famine in the land of Canaan. When the brothers arrived in Egypt, they  failed to recognize Joseph, now the Viceroy or Prime minister, and Joseph showed what must have seemed an odd and threatening interest in these Hebrew brothers from Canaan. He accused them of being  spies, demanded that they bring their brother Benjamin to Egypt and meanwhile held Simeon as a hostage to settle the matter. Finally, as the brothers travelled home, they found that the money they had paid for the grain had been returned to them, placed inside their sacks.

 Today we read that, when the famine continued, Jacob sent his sons again to Egypt. This time they brought with them Benjamin, much against Jacob’s wishes, for Benjamin, like Joseph, was the son of Rachel, and Jacob favoured the sons of Rachel above the sons of Leah.

 Besides Jacob and his twelve sons, there is another player with a speaking role in this part of the Joseph narrative. This is Joseph’s house steward whose  name is not recorded  so he is called simply הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר עַל בֵּית יוֹסֵף,  the man over Joseph’s house. This character appears benign but unexpectedly well-informed, knowing some things which he could have learned only from Joseph.

 To him, the brothers confide their fears, that they will appear as thieves, because their money had reappeared in their sacks, and that the Viceroy will deal harshly with them, perhaps even take them as slaves. It is an ironic turn of events that the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery now fear being enslaved by him; ironic also that they are wrong in one way and right in another, for Joseph will not enslave them yet their descendants are destined of course to become slaves in Egypt.

Joseph’s house steward says: ‘Do not fear; your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks.’ He then reunites them with Simeon who had been held hostage and brings them to Joseph’s house, where they receive five star hospitality.

 I am curious about this steward and the way he is just called ‘the man,’[1] combined with the fact that the brothers refer to Joseph as ‘the man’[2] and the brothers, if you look closely at this chapter, are not called ‘the brothers’ but ‘the men.’[3] They are called Joseph’s brothers only at the moment when he reveals to them his true identity, which is not yet, not this week.

 At last Joseph appears and the brothers bow before him, just as in the dream, which Joseph, as a teenager, related to them, causing them to hate him. They dine with Joseph and get drunk with him, but Joseph never lets down his guard. The next day, he tells his steward to put the men’s silver in their sacks, as before, and to plant in Benjamin’s sack a valuable silver goblet. Years before, the brothers were paid in silver when they sold Joseph to Midianite traders,  and now silver keeps coming back to them, an unwanted reminder of a matter they must have hoped was closed.

 Joseph gives his steward the job of pursuing the men and accusing them of theft. Although they protest their innocence, the goblet is of course found, to their horror, in Benjamin’s sack. It is, we learn, a ‘divining cup,’ which Joseph uses for divination, a common practice in Egyptian society, and Joseph in particular has a tendency towards the psychic, in his own prophetic dreams and the dreams which he interprets.

 The men return to the city and now Judah begins to play a prominent role,  acting as a spokesman for his brothers and attempting to protect Benjamin from punishment.

Joseph however declares his intention of keeping Benjamin as a slave and says ‘The rest of you go back in peace to your father.’ The traditional interpretation is that he is testing his brothers, to see if they will abandon Benjamin, as he himself  was abandoned, or if they have repented and changed.

 The themes of identity theft and deception are part and parcel of the Joseph story. They begin in the previous generation, when Jacob disguises himself as Esau  and continue when Laban puts Leah in Jacob’s tent instead of Rachel. Then Joseph’s brothers lie to their father, telling him that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast.  Now Joseph withholds the truth from his brothers, exercising his power over them to create fear and revive guilt.

 We await the moment of revelation and reconciliation, which will come in the next sidra, with the whole family together in Egypt and the stage set for slavery, exodus and nationhood.

Stay tuned.
















[1] see also Genesis 37: 15-17


 Genesis 43: 3, 7, 14


 ibid vv 15, 17, 18, 24

Torah portion Ki Tissa Exodus 34:29-35 

 If you get the opportunity to go to Rome, you might visit the church of San Pietro in Vincoli where you can see Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses. The rays of light on Moses’ head are represented by  two marble horns. That is the problem with a medium like marble. How could even Michelangelo convey the radiance of light which transfigured Moses as he came down from Mount Sinai, carrying the second set of the tablets of the Covenant?

 The Hebrew phrase   קָרַן עור פְּנֵיו – suggests that Moses had a luminous appearance and that his skin was radiant.  The verb קָרַן resembles keren, the Hebrew word for a horn, so it was not entirely unreasonable for Michelangelo to represent this incandescence as horns, although, in my opinion, a halo would have done the trick.

 When the bible was translated into Latin, early in the fifth century, קָרַן עור פְּנֵיו  was interpreted as meaning that Moses face was horned, cornuta esset facies sua, since you ask.  This launched a tradition which obviously influenced Michelangelo, although the Jewish commentators  dismissed the idea of a horned Moses as foolishness[1] or heresy.[2]

 The Hebrew word עור in this text sounds like the word אור which means ‘light’ but the spelling is different – with an ayin instead of an aleph – and it means skin. It could be connected with עֶרְוָה, nakedness, and it should be noted that Moses covers his face with a veil, to conceal from the Israelites the naked radiance which they view with consternation.

 A medieval Jewish interpretation[3] is that Moses covered his face with a veil  ‘…out of respect for the rays of majesty.’  The majestic nature of the rays, which is not explicit in the text, was inferred also by the Jewish scholars who translated the Hebrew bible into Greek in the third century BCE:  the Greek Septuagint says that Moses’ face was glorified.[4]  

There is a clue to the meaning of this word karan in the book of the  prophet Habakkuk[5]  who experienced a vision of God and said that God’s splendour was like the sunrise, with rays flashing from God’s hand:

 קַרְנַיִם מִיָּדוֹ  karnayim miyado

Karnayim, a plural form of keren,  is much more intelligible as radiance than as horns. It is the only similar use of the word in the bible, but that is enough for it to offer evidence of linguistic meaning.

Sigmund Freud wrote an essay on the subject of Michelangelo’s Moses.[6] He noted that Michelangelo represented Moses as fiercely angry, and Freud therefore associated the statue with  the narrative of the golden calf, which, as it happens, occurs earlier in this same sidra, Ki Tissa.  Moses was indeed angry when he saw the  Israelites dancing round the calf, so much so that he broke the first set of tablets.  We see from our sidra that Moses received a second set of tablets, in place of those which were broken, and his face shone when he descended with these, the second luchot ha brit.  Freud would have known this if he had gone to shul more often.

The word for a veil, מָסְוֶה, is not found elsewhere in the bible, so its exact meaning can be known only from the present context and from a small number of similar words which mean cloak, cover or curtain. The author Richard Elliott Friedman suggests that Moses’ veil has something in common with the curtain which covered the Holy Ark in the Tabernacle. The Ark had a  holiness which could be dangerous to those who came close to it, and so did  Mount Sinai, ablaze with  fire which no one but Moses could approach. God said to Moses: You cannot see my face for no one can see me  and live, and it is as if Moses’ face may not be seen, because it reflects his encounter with God. It is interesting that Moses himself was unaware of the rays which were observed at once  by Aaron and the Israelites.

 וּמשֶׁה לֹא יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו

 Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams.

Moses had so little thought for his appearance in the eyes of others that it was only when he saw their reaction  that he thought to cover his face with a veil. We know from a verse in the book of Numbers:

 וְהָאִישׁ משֶׁה עָנָו מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה

 The man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.[7]

 This  seems an apt description for a man who had no idea that his face reflected his meeting with God, and who, learning that this was so, covered it with a veil so as not to be an object of wonderment to those waiting at the foot of the mountain.

[1]Rashbam cf N Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot vol 2 p632


Ibn Ezra ibid p643

[3]Rashi on Exodus 34:33



[5]Habakkuk 3:4

[6]Der Moses des Michelangelo Sigmund Freud 1914

[7]Numbers 12:3


[8]Genesis 28:16


  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Hi Melvyn. I thought he was in Belfast, pro IRA. Talks a lot about/against the D UP.
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  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Gosh. My late husband went to Jewish schools, primary and then the Hasmonean. He told me that when he was young, he drew a swastika, finding the symme