Judaism changes when Jews meet other cultures


We saw that when the Judeans were exiled to Babylonia they replaced the script of Hebrew.[1] As far as we can tell, this was not the only alteration at that time. Among much else, they also switched when the day and year begins.

As I describe in some detail in the chapter “Was the Great sage Rashbam Orthodox?”  Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam (c. 1085-1158), the grandson of Rashi (1040-1105), and the author of a superb Bible and Talmud commentary wrote in his commentary on Genesis 1:5 that the biblical day began at daybreak. The Torah states that God performed certain acts of creation on the first day; then there was evening and then morning when the first day ended and God began new activities in the morning for the second day. Since the biblical day began and ended at daybreak, the first temple sacrifice was in the morning.

I recall hearing a professor tell his audience that the holidays of “Passover” of the fourteenth day of the first month of the year, later called Nisan, and “The Feast of Unleavened Bread” that fell on the following day, the fifteenth, created an ancient problem.[2] The Torah mandates that the Israelites sacrifice the Pascal lamb on the fourteenth and may eat it all night but no later than the morning of the fifteenth. Since, he said, the holiday of “The feast of Unleavened Bread” began at sundown and since the Israelites were still observing the holiday of “Passover” during that night, the Torah created a strange situation that two holidays were observed simultaneously. He thought he was clever and added that this was the origin of the statement “Why is this night different than all other nights?”[3]

Actually, the Torah mandates that the Israelites observe Passover by eating the Pascal sacrifice from midday on the fourteenth until the day ends on the fifteenth in the morning, at which time the other holiday begins.

Apparently, the Judeans discovered that the Babylonians began their day at nightfall and copied their practice. By doing so, they now began their Shabbat on Friday evening instead of Saturday morning and ended it on Saturday evening instead of Sunday morning, and thereby they violated the Torah laws during Saturday evening until Sunday morning when the day was still Shabbat according to the Torah. This was a radical substitution and not everyone accepted the change. We still see the result today in a bizarre practice which I describe in my book “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets,” in the thirty-ninth chapter “Why Do Women Light Candles Long Before the Sabbath Begins?”

But this was not the only revision the Judeans apparently made at this time.[4] The Torah does not name the months of the year.[5] In Babylon, the Judeans accepted the names the Babylonians gave to the months. This does not seem so radical until one realizes that some of the months were named after idols, such as Tamuz. Many mystics, not knowing this, read fancy mystical Jewish ideas into the Babylonian names.

Another rather radical change concerns when the year begins. The Torah unambiguously states in Exodus 12 “This month (the month of the Israelite exodus from Egypt) shall be your first month.” These words mean that the month in which Passover occurs should be the beginning of the year. Yet when the Judeans encountered the Babylonians, they accepted that the year should begin in the Fall and not the Spring.

When I attended the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, we were told by rabbis who did not know or did not want to believe that there were many changes in Judaism, that what the Torah means is that the month in which Passover occurs should be thought of as the first month even though the year itself begins on the first day of the seventh month. Even today, I still cannot understand how anyone could think this is true.

Once the notion was accepted that the year begins in the Fall, the notion was expanded to the idea that the world was created in the Fall and that the sixth day of creation, when humans were created, was the first day of the seventh month. Then the holiday of Rosh Hashana, “New Year,” was created. As I point out in my “Mysteries of Judaism,” Rosh Hashana is not a biblical holiday. The Judeans changed the biblical “Yom Teruah,” the day of the blowing of the shofar, to a totally different holiday with a totally different purpose.

One of the many consequences of considering the first day of the seventh month as the day humans were created as basic Jewish theology – which it is not – is ignoring the fact that this is not stated in the Bible and it rejects the scientific view that creation occurred over a large number of years.

When one recalls that Moses and Joshua labored hard to bring and settle the Israelites in Canaan, that the Torah repeats often that God wants the Israelites in Canaan, that sages such as Nachmanides and Abraham ibn Ezra even believed that the Torah commands were obligatory only in the “holy land,” one is surprised that the overwhelming number of early Judeans in 516 BCE decided to remain in the land of their captivity, Babylon, rather than return to Judea. This was still another change, perhaps one might even term it an abandonment, of a Torah teaching. In later years when some Jews lived in Israel while others still remained in Babylon, the sages in Babylon were considered more knowledgeable than those in Israel and the Babylonian Talmud is preferred over the one composed in Israel.[6]

Similarly, as much as Judaism today considers the Hebrew language a core element of Judaism, many Judeans in Babylon forsook Hebrew and spoke the linguae franca Aramaic. Even Judeans who returned to Judea spoke Aramaic, with the result that they were unable to read and understand the Torah. The Judean leaders remedied this problem by having the Torah translated into Aramaic.[7] Another consequence of the usage of Aramaic is that the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds are written in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic.[8]      



[1] Many Jewish mystics who do not know that the current form of letters is not of Jewish origin read all kinds of homiletical mystical lessons in the formation of the letters.

[2] As I explain in my book “Mysteries of Judaism,” the biblical holiday of Passover was a day when Israelites were obligated to sacrifice and eat the Pascal lamb. It is a totally different holiday than “The feast of the Unleavened Bread.” The first occurred on the fourteenth of the month and lasted for a day. The second was a seven day holiday in which the Israelites were to eat no unleavened bread. When the temple was destroyed in 70 CE and Jews ceased offering sacrifices, there was no way to observe “Passover,” so it ceased to exist. The rabbis decided to remember the holiday of the fourteenth by giving “The Feast of the Unleavened Bread” an additional name “Passover.” While most people know the holiday today by this name, it is still called “The Feast of the Unleavened Bread” in the prayer book and in the prayers associated with the seven-day period.

[3] The question has nothing to do with the two holidays colliding. The reading, which in Hebrew is called “Ma nishtanah,” concerns the practices of the Seder during the night, such as eating certain foods that are not generally eaten during other religious ceremonies.

[4] I say “apparently” because while it is clear that the replacement occurred and it is likely it happened at this time, there is no certainty that this was the time when the alteration occurred.

[5] The Torah does use a couple of words to describe a couple of months, but is not certain that the words were nouns, that is names, or adjectives, descriptions of the climate during the month.

[6] There was a time, however, when the reverse was true.

[7] Some scholars insist that the earliest Aramaic translation was done during the leadership of Ezra the Scribe in the mid fifth century BCE. The official Aramaic translation, the one which has the rabbinic imprimatur is Targum Onkelos, a translation made around 400 CE, as I show in my Targum books. A similar problem arose with the Jews living in Egypt who spoke Greek and who needed to have the Bible translated into Greek, a document called the Septuagint. The word means “seventy” and refers to the legend that the translation was miraculously done by seventy-two scholars from Israel, six from each of the twelve tribes, each of whom worked on the translation in a separate room, without contact with each other, and each produced the exact same wording.

[8] When Maimonides wrote his Mishneh Torah in the twelfth century CE, he rejected the Talmudic style of mixing Aramaic with Hebrew and wrote his fourteen volume work in pure Hebrew.