Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of 2,000 Years
By Israel Shahak
|| This chapter
is devoted to a more detailed description of the theologico-legal structure
of classical Judaism.1 However, before embarking on that description it is
necessary to dispel at least some of the many misconceptions disseminated
in almost all foreign-language (that is, non-Hebrew) accounts of Judaism,
especially by those who propagate such currently fashionable phrases as "the
Judeo-Christian tradition" or "the common values of the monotheistic
Because of considerations of space I shall only deal in detail with the most
important of these popular delusions: that the Jewish religion is, and always
was, monotheistic. Now, as many biblical scholars know, and as a careful
reading of the Old Testament easily reveals, this ahistorical view is quite
wrong. In many, if not most, books of the Old Testament the existence and
power of "other gods" are clearly acknowledged, but Yahweh (Jehovah), who
is the most powerful god,2 is also very jealous of his rivals and forbids
his people to worship them.3 It is only very late in the Bible, in some of
the later prophets, that the existence of all gods other than Yahweh is
What concerns us, however, is not biblical but classical Judaism; and it
is quite clear, though much less widely realized, that the latter, during
its last few hundred years, was for the most part far from pure monotheism.
The same can be said about the real doctrines dominant in present-day Orthodox
Judaism, which is a direct continuation of classical Judaism. The decay of
monotheism came about through the spread of Jewish mysticism (the cabbala)
which developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, and by the late 16th century
had won an almost complete victory in virtually all the centers of Judaism.
The Jewish Enlightenment, which arose out of the crisis of classical Judaism,
had to fight against this mysticism and its influence more than against anything
else, but in latter-day Jewish Orthodoxy, especially among the rabbis, the
influence of the cabbala has remained predominant.5 For example, the Gush
Emunim movement is inspired to a great extent by cabbalistic ideas.
Knowledge and understanding of these ideas is therefore important for two
reasons. First, without it one cannot understand the true beliefs of Judaism
at the end of its classical period. Secondly, these ideas play an important
contemporary political role, inasmuch as they form part of the explicit system
of beliefs of many religious politicians, including most leaders of Gush
Emunim, and have an indirect influence on many Zionist leaders of all parties,
including the Zionist left.
According to the cabbala, the universe is ruled not by one god but by several
deities, of various characters and influences, emanated by a dim, distant
First Cause. Omitting many details, one can summarize the system as follows.
From the First Cause, first a male god called "Wisdom" or "Father" and then
a female goddess called "Knowledge" or "Mother" were emanated or born. From
the marriage of these two, a pair of younger gods were born: Son, also called
by many other names such as "Small Face" or "the Holy Blessed One;" and Daughter,
also called "Lady" (or "Matronit," a word derived from Latin), "Shekhinah,"
"Queen," and so on. These two younger gods should be united, but their union
is prevented by the machinations of Satan, who in this system is a very important
and independent personage. The Creation was undertaken by the First Cause
in order to allow them to unite, but because of the Fall they became more
disunited than ever, and indeed Satan has managed to come very close to the
divine Daughter and even to rape her (either seemingly or in factopinions
differ on this). The creation of the Jewish people was undertaken in order
to mend the break caused by Adam and Eve, and under Mount Sinai this was
for a moment achieved: the male god Son, incarnated in Moses, was united
with the goddess Shekhinah. Unfortunately, the sin of the Golden Calf again
caused disunity in the godhead; but the repentance of the Jewish people has
mended matters to some extent. Similarly, each incident of biblical Jewish
history is believed to be associated with the union or disunion of the divine
pair. The Jewish conquest of Palestine from the Canaanites and the building
of the first and second Temple are particularly propitious for their union,
while the destruction of the Temples and exile of the Jews from the Holy
Land are merely external signs not only of the divine disunion but also of
a real "whoring after strange gods:" Daughter falls closely into the power
of Satan, while Son takes various female satanic personages to his bed, instead
of his proper wife.
The duty of pious Jews is to restore through their prayers and religious
acts the perfect divine unity, in the form of sexual union, between the male
and female deities.6 Thus before most ritual acts, which every devout Jew
has to perform many times each day, the following cabbalistic formula is
recited: "For the sake of the [sexual] congress7 of the Holy Blessed One
and his Shekhinah. . . " The Jewish morning prayers are also arranged so
as to promote this sexual union, if only temporarily. Successive parts of
the prayer mystically correspond to successive stages of the union: at one
point the goddess approaches with her handmaidens, at another the god puts
his arm around her neck and fondles her breast, and finally the sexual act
is supposed to take place.
Other prayers or religious acts, as interpreted by the cabbalists, are designed
to deceive various angels (imagined as minor deities with a measure of
independence) or to propitiate Satan. At a certain point in the morning prayer,
some verses in Aramaic (rather than the more usual Hebrew) are pronounced.8
This is supposed to be a means for tricking the angels who operate the gates
through which prayers enter heaven and who have the power to block the prayers
of the pious. The angels only understand Hebrew and are baffled by the Aramaic
verses; being somewhat dull-witted (presumably they are far less clever than
the cabbalists) they open the gates, and at this moment all the prayers,
including those in Hebrew, get through. Or take another example: both before
and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands, uttering a special
blessing. On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God, by promoting
the divine union of Son and Daughter; but on the other he is worshiping Satan,
who likes Jewish prayers and ritual acts so much that when he is offered
a few of them it keeps him busy for a while and he forgets to pester the
divine Daughter. Indeed, the cabbalists believe that some of the sacrifices
burnt in the Temple were intended for Satan. For example, the seventy bullocks
sacrificed during the seven days of the feast of Tabernacles9 were supposedly
offered to Satan in his capacity as ruler of all the Gentiles,10 in order
to keep him too busy to interfere on the eighth day, when sacrifice is made
to God. Many other examples of the same kind can be given.
Several points should be made concerning this system and its importance for
the proper understanding of Judaism, both in its classical period and in
its present political involvement in Zionist practice.
First, whatever can be said about this cabbalistic system, it cannot be regarded
as monotheistic, unless one is also prepared to regard Hinduism, the late
Graeco-Roman religion, or even the religion of ancient Egypt, as
Secondly, the real nature of classical Judaism is illustrated by the ease
with which this system was adopted. Faith and beliefs (except nationalistic
beliefs) play an extremely small part in classical Judaism. What is of prime
importance is the ritual act, rather than the significance which that act
is supposed to have or the belief attached to it. Therefore in times when
a minority of religious Jews refused to accept the cabbala (as is the case
today), one could see some few Jews performing a given religious ritual believing
it to be an act of worship of God, while others do exactly the same thing
with the intention of propitiating Satanbut so long as the act is the
same they would pray together and remain members of the same congregation,
however much they might dislike each other. But if instead of the intention
attached to the ritual washing of hands anyone would dare to introduce an
innovation in the manner of washing,11 a real schism would certainly ensue.
The same can be said about all sacred formulas of Judaism. Provided the working
is left intact, the meaning is at best a secondary matter. For example, perhaps
the most sacred Jewish formula, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the
Lord is one," recited several times each day by every pious Jew, can at the
present time mean two contrary things. It can mean that the Lord is indeed
"one;" but it can also mean that a certain stage in the union of the male
and female deities has been reached or is being promoted by the proper recitation
of this formula. However, when Jews of a Reformed congregation recite this
formula in any language other than Hebrew, all Orthodox rabbis, whether they
believe in unity or in the divine sexual union, are very angry
Finally, all this is of considerable importance in Israel (and in other Jewish
centers) even at present. The enormous significance attached to mere formulas
(such as the "Law of Jerusalem"); the ideas and motivations of Gush Emunim;
the urgency behind the hate for non-Jews presently living in Palestine; the
fatalistic attitude towards all peace attempts by Arab statesall these
and many other traits of Zionist politics, which puzzle so many well-meaning
people who have a false notion about classical Judaism, become more intelligible
against this religious and mystical background. I must warn, however, against
falling into the other extreme and trying to explain all Zionist politics
in terms of this background. Obviously, the latter's influences vary in extent.
Ben-Gurion was adept at manipulating them in a controlled way for specific
ends. Under Begin the past exerts a much greater influence upon the present.
But what one should never do is to ignore the past and its influences, because
only by knowing it can one transcend its blind power.
Interpretation of the Bible
It will be seen from the foregoing example that what most supposedly
well-informed people think they know about Judaism may be very misleading,
unless they can read Hebrew. All the details mentioned above can be found
in the original texts or, in some cases, in modern books written in Hebrew
for a rather specialized readership. In English one would look for them in
vain, even where the omission of such socially important facts distorts the
There is yet another misconception about Judaism which is particularly common
among Christians, or people heavily influenced by Christian tradition and
culture. This is the misleading idea that Judaism is a "biblical religion;"
that the Old Testament has in Judaism the same central place and legal authority
which the Bible has for Protestant or even Catholic Christianity.
Again, this is connected with the question of interpretation. We have seen
that in matters of belief there is great latitude. Exactly the opposite holds
with respect to the legal interpretation of sacred texts. Here the interpretation
is rigidly fixedbut by the Talmud rather than by the Bible itself.12
Many, perhaps most, biblical verses prescribing religious acts and obligations
are "understood" by classical Judaism, and by present-day Orthodoxy, in a
sense which is quite distinct from, or even contrary to, their literal meaning
as understood by Christian or other readers of the Old Testament, who only
see the plain text. The same division exists at present in Israel between
those educated in Jewish religious schools and those educated in "secular"
Hebrew schools, where on the whole the plain meaning of the Old Testament
This important point can only be understood through examples. It will be
noted that the changes in meaning do not all go in the same direction from
the point of view of ethics, as the term is understood now. Apologetics of
Judaism claim that the interpretation of the Bible, originated by the Pharisees
and fixed in the Talmud, is always more liberal than the literal sense. But
some of the examples below show that this is far from being the case.
1. Let us start with the Decalogue itself. The Eighth Commandment, Thou shalt
not steal" (Exodus, 20:15), is taken to be a prohibition against "stealing"
(that is, kidnapping) a Jewish person. The reason is that according to the
Talmud all acts forbidden by the Decalogue are capital offenses. Stealing
property is not a capital offense (while kidnapping of Gentiles by Jews is
allowed by talmudic law)hence the interpretation. A virtually identical
sentence"Ye shall not steal" (Leviticus, 19:11)is however allowed
to have its literal meaning.
2. The famous verse "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" etc. (Exodus, 21:24) is
taken to mean "eye-money for eye," that is payment of a fine rather than
3. Here is a notorious case of turning the literal meaning into its exact
opposite. The biblical text plainly warns against following the bandwagon
in an unjust cause: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither
shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment" (Exodus,
23:2). The last words of this sentence"Decline after many to wrest
judgment"are torn out of their context and interpreted as an injunction
to follow the majority!
4. The verse "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk" (Exodus,
23:19) is interpreted as a ban on mixing any kind of meat with any milk or
milk product. Since the same verse is repeated in two other places in the
Pentateuch, the mere repetition is taken to be a treble ban, forbidding a
Jew (i) to eat such a mixture, (ii) to cook it for any purpose and (iii)
to enjoy or benefit from it in any way.13
5. In numerous cases general terms such as "thy fellow," "stranger," or even
"man" are taken to have an exelusivist chauvinistic meaning. The famous verse
"thou shalt love thy fellow14 as thyself" (Leviticus, 19:18) is understood
by classical (and present-day Orthodox) Judaism as an injunction to love
one's fellow Jew, not any fellow human. Similarly, the verse "neither shalt
thou stand against the blood of thy fellow" (ibid., 16) is supposed to mean
that one must not stand idly by when the life ("blood") of a fellow Jew is
in danger; but, as will be seen in Chapter 5, a Jew is in general forbidden
to save the life of a Gentile, because "he is not thy fellow." The generous
injunction to leave the gleanings of one's field and vineyard "for the poor
and the stranger" (ibid., 9-10) is interpreted as referring exclusively to
the Jewish poor and to converts to Judaism. The taboo laws relating to corpses
begin with the verse "this is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that
come into the tent . . . shall be unclean seven days" (Numbers, 19:16). But
the word "man" (adam) is taken to mean "Jew," so that only a Jewish corpse
is taboo (that is, both "unclean" and sacred). Based on this interpretation,
pious Jews have a tremendous magic reverence towards Jewish corpses and Jewish
cemeteries, but have no respect towards non-Jewish corpses and cemeteries.
Thus hundreds of Muslim cemeteries have been utterly destroyed in Israel
(in one case in order to make room for the Tel-Aviv Hilton) but there was
a great outcry because the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was damaged
under Jordanian rule. Examples of this kind are too numerous to quote. Some
of the inhuman consequences of this type of interpretation will be discussed
in Chapter 5.
6. Finally, consider one of the most beautiful prophetic passages, Isaiah's
magnificent condemnation of hypocrisy and empty ritual, and exhortation to
common decency. One verse (Isaiah, 1:15) in this passage is: "And when ye
spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make
many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood." Since Jewish
priests "spread their hands" when blessing the people during service, this
verse is supposed to mean that a priest who commits accidental homicide is
disqualified from "spreading his hands" in blessing (even if repentant) because
they are "full of blood."
It is quite clear even from these examples that when Orthodox Jews today
(or all Jews before about 1780) read the Bible, they are reading a very different
book, with a totally different meaning, from the Bible as read by non-Jews
or non-Orthodox Jews. This distinction applies even in Israel, although both
parties read the text in Hebrew. Experience, particularly since 1967, has
repeatedly corroborated this. Many Jews in Israel (and elsewhere), who are
not Orthodox and have little detailed knowledge of the Jewish religion, have
tried to shame Orthodox Israelis (or right-wingers who are strongly influenced
by religion) out of their inhuman attitude towards the Palestinians, by quoting
at them verses from the Bible in their plain humane sense. It was always
found, however, that such arguments do not have the slightest effect on those
who follow classical Judaism; they simply do not understand what is being
said to them, because to them the biblical text means something quite different
than to everyone else.
If such a communication gap exists in Israel, where people read Hebrew and
can readily obtain correct information if they wish, one can imagine how
deep is the misconception abroad, say among people educated in the Christian
tradition. In fact, the more such a person reads the Bible, the less he or
she knows about Orthodox Judaism. For the latter regards the Old Testament
as a text of immutable sacred formulas, whose recitation is an act of great
merit, but whose meaning is wholly determined elsewhere. And, as Humpty Dumpty
told Alice, behind the problem of who can determine the meaning of words,
there stands the real question: "Which is to be master?"
Structure of the Talmud
It should therefore be clearly understood that the source of authority for
all the practices of classical (and present-day Orthodox) Judaism, the
determining base of its legal structure, is the Talmud, or, to be precise,
the so-called Babylonian Talmud; while the rest of the talmudic literature
(including the so-called Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud) acts as a supplementary
We cannot enter here into a detailed description of the Talmud and talmudic
literature, but confine ourselves to a few principal points needed for our
argument. Basically, the Talmud consists of two parts. First, the Mishnaha
terse legal code consisting of six volumes, each subdivided into several
tractates, written in Hebrew, redacted in Palestine around AD 200 out of
the much more extensive (and largely oral) legal material composed during
the preceding two centuries. The second and by far predominant part is the
Gemaraha voluminous record of discussions on and around the Mishnah.
There are two, roughly parallel, sets of Gemarah, one composed in Mesopotamia
("Babylon") between about AD 200 and 500, the other in Palestine between
about AD 200 and some unknown date long before 500. The Babylonian Talmud
(that is, the Mishnah plus the Mesopotamian Gemarah) is much more extensive
and better arranged than the Palestinian, and it alone is regarded as definitive
and authoritative. The Jerusalem (Palestinian) Talmud is accorded a decidedly
lower status as a legal authority, along with a number of compilations, known
collectively as the "talmudic literature," containing material which the
editors of the two Talmuds had left out.
Contrary to the Mishnah, the rest of the Talmud and talmudic literature is
written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, the latter language predominating
in the Babylonian Talmud. Also, it is not limited to legal matters. Without
any apparent order or reason, the legal discussion can suddenly be interrupted
by what is referred to as "Narrative" (Aggadah)a medley of tales and
anecdotes about rabbis or ordinary folk, biblical figures, angels, demons,
witchcraft and miracles.15 These narrative passages, although of great popular
influence in Judaism through the ages, were always considered (even by the
Talmud itself) as having secondary value. Of greatest importance for classical
Judaism are the legal parts of the text, particularly the discussion of cases
which are regarded as problematic. The Talmud itself defines the various
categories of Jews, in ascending order, as follows, The lowest are the totally
ignorant, then come those who only know the Bible, then those who are familiar
with the Mishnah or Aggadah, and the superior class are those who have studied,
and are able to discuss the legal part of the Gemarah. It is only the latter
who are fit to lead their fellow Jews in all things.
The legal system of the Talmud can be described as totally comprehensive,
rigidly authoritarian, and yet capable of infinite development, without however
any change in its dogmatic base. Every aspect of Jewish life, both individual
and social, is covered, usually in considerable detail, with sanctions and
punishments provided for every conceivable sin or infringement of the rules.
The basic rules for every problem are stated dogmatically and cannot be
questioned. What can be and is discussed at very great length is the elaboration
and practical definition of these rules. Let me give a few examples.
"Not doing any work" on the sabbath. The concept work is defined as comprising
exactly 39 types of work, neither more nor less. The criterion for inclusion
in this list has nothing to do with the arduousness of a given task; it is
simply a matter of dogmatic definition. One forbidden type of "work" is writing.
The question then arises: How many characters must one write in order to
commit the sin of writing on the sabbath? (Answer: Two). Is the sin the same,
irrespective of which hand is used? (Answer: No). However, in order to guard
against falling into sin, the primary prohibition on writing is hedged with
a secondary ban on touching any writing implement on the sabbath.
Another prototypical work forbidden on the sabbath is the grinding of grain.
From this it is deduced, by analogy, that any kind of grinding of anything
whatsoever is forbidden. And this in turn is hedged by a ban on the practice
of medicine on the sabbath (except in cases of danger to Jewish life), in
order to guard against falling into the sin of grinding a medicament. It
is in vain to point out that in modern times such a danger does not exist
(nor, for that matter, did it exist in many cases even in talmudic times);
for, as a hedge around the hedge, the Talmud explicitly forbids liquid medicines
and restorative drinks on the sabbath. What has been fixed remains for ever
fixed, however absurd. Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, had written,
"I believe it because it is absurd." This can serve as a motto for the majority
of talmudic rules, with the word "believe" replaced by "practice."
The following example illustrates even better the level of absurdity reached
by this system. One of the prototypes of work forbidden on the sabbath is
harvesting. This is stretched, by analogy, to a ban on breaking a branch
off a tree. Hence, riding a horse (or any other animal) is forbidden, as
a hedge against the temptation to break a branch off a tree for flogging
the beast. It is useless to argue that you have a ready-made whip, or that
you intend to ride where there are no trees. What is forbidden remains forbidden
for ever. It can, however, be stretched and made stricter: in modern times,
riding a bicycle on the sabbath has been forbidden, because it is analogous
to riding a horse.
My final example illustrates how the same methods are used also in purely
theoretical cases, having no conceivable application in reality. During the
existence of the Temple, the High Priest was only allowed to marry a virgin.
Although during virtually the whole of the talmudic period there was no longer
a Temple or a High Priest, the Talmud devotes one of its more involved (and
bizarre) discussions to the precise definition of the term "virgin" fit to
marry a High Priest. What about a woman whose hymen had been broken by accident?
Does it make any difference whether the accident occurred before or after
the age of three? By the impact of metal or of wood? Was she climbing a tree?
And if so, was she climbing up or down? Did it happen naturally or unnaturally?
All this and much else besides is discussed in lengthy detail. And every
scholar in classical Judaism had to master hundreds of such problems. Great
scholars were measured by their ability to develop these problems still further,
for as shown by the examples there is always scope for further
developmentif only in one directionand such development did actually
continue after the final redaction of the Talmud.
However, there are two great differences between the talmudic period (ending
around AD 500) and the period of classical Judaism (from about AD 800). The
geographical area reflected in the Talmud is confined, whereas the Jewish
society reflected in it is a "complete" society, with Jewish agriculture
as its basis. (This is true for Mesopotamia as well as Palestine.) Although
at that time there were Jews living throughout the Roman Empire and in many
areas of the Sassanid Empire, it is quite evident from the talmudic text
that its compositionover half a millenniumwas a strictly local
affair. No scholars from countries other than Mesopotamia and Palestine took
part in it, nor does the text reflect social conditions outside these two
Very little is known about the social and religious conditions of the Jews
in the intervening three centuries. But from AD 800 on, when more detailed
historical information is again available, we find that the two features
mentioned above had been reversed. The Babylonian Talmud (and to a much lesser
degree the rest of the talmudic literature) is acknowledged as authoritative,
studied and developed in all Jewish communities. At the same time, Jewish
society had undergone a deep change: whatever and wherever it is, it does
not include peasants.
The social system resulting from this change will be discussed in Chapter
4. Here we shall describe how the Talmud was adapted to the
conditionsgeographically much wider and socially much narrower, and
at any rate radically differentof classical Judaism. We shall concentrate
on what is in my opinion the most important method of adaptation, namely
As noted above, the talmudic system is most dogmatic and does not allow any
relaxation of its rules even when they are reduced to absurdity by a change
in circumstances. And in the case of the Talmudcontrary to that of
the Biblethe literal sense of the text is binding, and one is not allowed
to interpret it away. But in the period of classical Judaism various talmudic
laws became untenable for the Jewish ruling classesthe rabbis and the
rich. In the interest of these ruling classes, a method of systematic deception
was devised for keeping the letter of the law, while violating its spirit
and intention. It was this hypocritical system of "dispensations" (heterim)
which, in my view, was the most important cause of the debasement of Judaism
in its classical epoch. (The second cause was Jewish mysticism, which however
operated for a much shorter period of time.) Again, some examples are needed
to illustrate how the system works.
1. Taking of interest. The Talmud strictly forbids a Jew, on pain of severe
punishment, to take interest on a loan made to another Jew. (According to
a majority of talmudic authorities, it is a religious duty to take as much
interest as possible on a loan made to a Gentile.) Very detailed rules forbid
even the most far-fetched forms in which a Jewish lender might benefit from
a Jewish debtor. All Jewish accomplices to such an illicit transaction, including
the scribe and the witnesses, are branded by the Talmud as infamous persons,
disqualified from testifying in court, because by participating in such an
act a Jew as good as declares that "he has no part in the god of Israel."
It is evident that this law is well suited to the needs of Jewish peasants
or artisans, or of small Jewish communities who use their money for lending
to non-Jews. But the situation was very different in east Europe (mainly
in Poland) by the 16th century. There was a relatively big Jewish community,
which constituted the majority in many towns. The peasants, subjected to
strict serfdom not far removed from slavery, were hardly in a position to
borrow at all, while lending to the nobility was the business of a few very
rich Jews. Many Jews were doing business with each other.
In these circumstances, the following arrangement (called heter
'isqa"business dispensation") was devised for an interest-bearing loan
between Jews, which does not violate the letter of the law, because formally
it is not a loan at all. The lender "invests" his money in the business of
the borrower, stipulating two conditions. First, that the borrower will pay
the lender at an agreed future date a stated sum of money (in reality, the
interest in the loan) as the lender's "share in the profits." Secondly, that
the borrower will be presumed to have made sufficient profit to give the
lender his share, unless a claim to the contrary is corroborated by the testimony
of the town's rabbi or rabbinical judge, etc,who, by arrangement, refuse
to testify in such cases. In practice all that is required is to take a text
of this dispensation, written in Aramaic and entirely incomprehensible to
the great majority, and put it on a wall of the room where the transaction
is made (a copy of this text is displayed in all branches of Israeli banks)
or even to keep it in a chestand the interest-bearing loan between
Jews becomes perfectly legal and blameless.
2. The sabbatical year. According to talmudic law (based on Leviticus, 25)
Jewish-owned land in Palestine16 must be left fallow every seventh ("sabbatical")
year, when all agricultural work (including harvesting) on such land is
forbidden. There is ample evidence that this law was rigorously observed
for about one thousand years, from the 5th century BC till the disappearance
of Jewish agriculture in Palestine. Later, when there was no occasion to
apply the law in practice, it was kept theoretically intact. However, in
the 1880s, with the establishment of the first Jewish agricultural colonies
in Palestine, it became a matter of practical concern. Rabbis sympathetic
to the settlers helpfully devised a dispensation, which was later perfected
by their successors in the religious Zionist parties and has become an
established Israeli practice.
This is how it works. Shortly before a sabbatical year, the Israeli Minister
of Internal Affairs gives the Chief Rabbi a document making him the legal
owner of all Israeli land, both private and public. Armed with this paper,
the Chief Rabbi goes to a non-Jew and sells him all the land of Israel (and,
since 1967, the Occupied Territories) for a nominal sum. A separate document
stipulates that the "buyer" will "resell" the land back after the year is
over. And this transaction is repeated every seven years, usually with the
Non-Zionist rabbis do not recognize the validity of this dispensation,17
claiming correctly that, since religious law forbids Jews to sell land in
Palestine to Gentiles, the whole transaction is based on a sin and hence
null and void. The Zionist rabbis reply, however, that what is forbidden
is a real sale, not a fictitious one!
3. Milking on the sabbath. This has been forbidden in post-talmudic times,
through the process of increasing religious severity mentioned above. The
ban could easily be kept in the diaspora, since Jews who had cows of their
own were usually rich enough to have non-Jewish servants, who could be ordered
(using one of the subterfuges described below) to do the milking. The early
Jewish colonists in Palestine employed Arabs for this and other purposes,
but with the forcible imposition of the Zionist policy of exclusive Jewish
labor there was need for a dispensation. (This was particularly important
before the introduction of mechanized milking in the late 1950s.) Here too
there was a difference between Zionist and non-Zionist rabbis.
According to the former, the forbidden milking becomes permitted provided
the milk is not white but dyed blue. This blue Saturday milk is then used
exclusively for making cheese, and the dye is washed off into the whey.
Non-Zionist rabbis have devised a much subtler scheme (which I personally
witnessed operating in a religious kibbutz in 1952). They discovered an old
provision which allows the udders of a cow to be emptied on the sabbath,
purely for relieving the suffering caused to the animal by bloated udders,
and on the strict condition that the milk runs to waste on the ground. Now,
this is what is actually done: on Saturday morning, a pious kibbutznik goes
to the cowshed and places pails under the cows. (There is no ban on such
work in the whole of the talmudic literature.) He then goes to the synagogue
to pray. Then comes his colleague, whose "honest intention" is to relieve
the animals' pain and let their milk run to the floor. But if, by chance,
a pail happens to be standing there, is he under any obligation to remove
it? Of course not. He simply "ignores" the pails, fulfills his mission of
mercy and goes to the synagogue. Finally a third pious colleague goes into
the cowshed and discovers, to his great surprise, the pails full of milk.
So he puts them in cold storage and follows his comrades to the synagogue.
Now all is well, and there is no need to waste money on blue dye.
4. Mixed crops. Similar dispensations were issued by Zionist rabbis in respect
of the ban (based on Leviticus, 19:19) against sowing two different species
of crop in the same field. Modern agronomy has however shown that in some
cases (especially in growing fodder) mixed sowing is the most profitable.
The rabbis invented a dispensation according to which one man sows the field
length-wise with one kind of seed, and later that day his comrade, who "does
not know" about the former, sows another kind of seed crosswise. However,
this method was felt to be too wasteful of labor, and a better one was devised:
one man makes a heap of one kind of seed in a public place and carefully
covers it with a sack or piece of board. The second kind of seed is then
put on top of the cover. Later, another man comes and exclaims, in front
of witnesses, "I need this sack (or board)" and removes it, so that the seeds
mix "naturally." Finally, a third man comes along and is told, "take this
and sow the field," which he proceeds to do.18
5. Leavened substances must not be eaten or even kept in the possession of
a Jew during the seven (or, outside Palestine, eight) days of Passover. The
concept "leavened substances" was continually broadened and the aversion
to so much as seeing them during the festival approached hysteria. They include
all kinds of flour and even unground grain. In the original talmudic society
this was bearable, because bread (leavened or not) was usually baked once
a week; a peasant family would use the last of the previous year's grain
to bake unleavened bread for the festival, which ushers in the new harvest
season. However, in the conditions of post-Talmudic European Jewry the observance
was very hard on a middle-class Jewish family and even more so on a corn
merchant. A dispensation was therefore devised, by which all those substances
are sold in a fictitious sale to a Gentile before the festival and bought
back automatically after it. The one thing that must be done is to lock up
the taboo substances for the duration of the festival. In Israel this fictitious
sale has been made more efficient. Religious Jews "sell" their leavened
substances to their local rabbis, who in turn "sell" them to the Chief Rabbis;
the latter sell them to a Gentile, and by a special dispensation this sale
is presumed to include also the leavened substances of non-practising
6. Sabbath-Goy. Perhaps the most developed dispensations concern the "Goy
(Gentile) of Sabbath." As mentioned above, the range of tasks banned on the
sabbath has widened continually; but the range of tasks that must be carried
out or supervised to satisfy needs or to increase comfort also keeps widening.
This is particularly true in modern times, but the effect of technological
change began to be felt long ago. The ban against grinding on the sabbath
was a relatively light matter for a Jewish peasant or artisan, say in
second-century Palestine, who used a hand mill for domestic purposes. It
was quite a different matter for a tenant of a water mill or windmillone
of the most common Jewish occupations in eastern Europe. But even such a
simple human problem" as the wish to have a hot cup of tea on a Saturday
afternoon becomes much greater with the tempting samovar, used regularly
on weekdays, standing in the room. These are just two examples out of a very
large number of so-called "problems of sabbath observance." And one can state
with certainty that for a community composed exclusively of Orthodox Jews
they were quite insoluble, at least during the last eight or ten centuries,
without the "help" of non-Jews. This is even more true today in the "Jewish
state," because many public services, such as water, gas and electricity,
fall in this category. Classical Judaism could not exist even for a whole
week without using some non-Jews.
But without special dispensations there is a great obstacle in employing
non-Jews to do these Saturday jobs; for talmudic regulations forbid Jews
to ask a Gentile to do on the sabbath any work which they themselves are
banned from doing.19 I shall describe two of the many types of dispensation
used for such purposes.
First, there is the method of "hinting," which depends on the casuistic logic
according to which a sinful demand becomes blameless if it is phrased slyly.
As rule, the hint must be "obscure," but in cases of extreme need a "clear"
hint is allowed. For example, in a recent booklet on religious observance
for the use of Israeli soldiers, the latter are taught how to talk to Arab
workers employed by the army as sabbath-Goyim. In urgent cases, such as when
it is very cold and a fire must be lit, or when light is needed for a religious
service, a pious Jewish soldier may use a "clear" hint and tell the Arab:
"It is cold (or dark) here." But normally an "obscure" hint must suffice,
for example: "It would be more pleasant if it were warmer here." 20 This
method of "hinting" is particularly repulsive and degrading inasmuch as it
is normally used on non-Jews who, due to their poverty or subordinate social
position, are wholly in the power of their Jewish employer. A Gentile servant
(or employee of the Israeli army) who does not train himself to interpret
"obscure hints" as orders will be pitilessly dismissed.
The second method is used in cases where what the Gentile is required to
do on Saturday is not an occasional task or personal service, which can be
"hinted" at as the need arises, but a routine or regular job without constant
Jewish supervision. According to this methodcalled "implicit inclusion"
(havla'ah) of the sabbath among weekdaysthe Gentile is hired "for the
whole week (or year)," without the sabbath being so much as mentioned in
the contract. But in reality work is only performed on the sabbath. This
method was used in the past in hiring a Gentile to put out the candles in
the synagogue after the sabbath-eve prayer (rather than wastefully allowing
them to burn out). Modern Israeli examples are: regulating the water supply
or watching over water reservoirs on Saturdays.21
A similar idea is used also in the case of Jews, but for a different end.
Jews are forbidden to receive any payment for work done on the sabbath, even
if the work itself is permitted. The chief example here concerns the sacred
professions: the rabbi or talmudic scholar who preaches or teaches on the
sabbath, the cantor who sings only on Saturdays and other holy days (on which
similar bans apply), the sexton and similar officials. In talmudic times,
and in some countries even several centuries after, such jobs were unpaid.
But later, when these became salaried professions, the dispensation of "implicit
inclusion" was used, and they were hired on a "monthly" or "yearly" basis.
In the case of rabbis and talmudic scholars the problem is particularly
complicated, because the Talmud forbids them to receive any payment for
preaching, teaching or studying talmudic matters even on weekdays.22 For
them an additional dispensation stipulates that their salary is not really
a salary at all but "compensation for idleness" (dmey batalah). As a combined
result of these two fictions, what is in reality payment for work done mainly,
or even solely, on the sabbath is transmogrified into payment for being idle
Social Aspects of Dispensations
Two social features of these and many similar practices deserve special
First, a dominant feature of this system of dispensations, and of classical
Judaism inasmuch as it is based on them, is deceptiondeception primarily
of God, if this word can be used for an imaginary being so easily deceived
by the rabbis, who consider themselves cleverer than him. No greater contrast
can be conceived than that between the God of the Bible (particularly of
the greater prophets) and of the God of classical Judaism. The latter is
more like the early Roman Jupiter, who was likewise bamboozled by his worshipers,
or the gods described in Frazer's Golden Bough.
From the ethical point of view, classical Judaism represents a process of
degeneration, which is still going on; and this degeneration into a tribal
collection of empty rituals and magic superstitions has very important social
and political consequences. For it must be remembered that it is precisely
the superstitions of classical Judaism which have the greatest hold on the
Jewish masses, rather than those parts of the Bible or even the Talmud which
are of real religious and ethical value. (The same can be observed also in
other religions which are now undergoing revival.) What is popularly regarded
as the most "holy" and solemn occasion of the Jewish liturgical year, attended
even by very many Jews who are otherwise far from religion? It is the Kol
Nidrey prayer on the eve of Yom Kippura chanting of a particularly
absurd and deceptive dispensation, by which all private vows made to God
in the following year are declared in advance to be null and void.23 Or,
in the area of personal religion, the Qadish prayer, said on days of mourning
by sons for their parents in order to elevate their departed souls to
paradisea recitation of an Aramaic text, incomprehensible to the great
majority. Quite obviously, the popular regard given to these, the most
superstitious parts of the Jewish religion, is not given to its better parts.
Together with the deception of God goes the deception of other Jews, mainly
in the interest of the Jewish ruling class. It is characteristic that no
dispensations were allowed in the specific interest of the Jewish poor. For
example, Jews who were starving but not actually on the point of death were
never allowed by their rabbis (who did not often go hungry themselves) to
eat any sort of forbidden food, though kosher food is usually more expensive.
The second dominant feature of the dispensations is that they are in large
part obviously motivated by the spirit of profit. And it is this combination
of hypocrisy and the profit motive which increasingly dominated classical
Judaism. In Israel, where the process goes on, this is dimly perceived by
popular opinion, despite all the official brainwashing promoted by the education
system and the media. The religious establishmentthe rabbis and the
religious partiesand, by association, to some extent the Orthodox community
as a whole, are quite unpopular in Israel. [As a challenge to this claim
regarding the unpopularity of Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel, please see "Gush
Emunim: The Tip of the Iceberg" by Ehud Sprinzakweb editor] One of
the most important reasons for this is precisely their reputation for duplicity
and venality. Of course, popular opinion (which may often be prejudiced)
is not the same thing as social analysis; but in this particular case it
is actually true that the Jewish religious establishment does have a strong
tendency to chicanery and graft, due to the corrupting influence of the Orthodox
Jewish religion. Because in general social life religion is only one of the
social influences, its effect on the mass of believers is not nearly so great
as on the rabbis and leaders of the religious parties. Those religious Jews
in Israel who are honest, as the majority of them undoubtedly are, are so
not because of the influence of their religion and rabbis, but in spite of
it. On the other hand, in those few areas of public life in Israel which
are wholly dominated by religious circles, the level of chicanery, venality
and corruption is notorious, far surpassing the "average" level tolerated
by general, non-religious Israeli society.
In Chapter 4 we shall see how the dominance of the profit motive in classical
Judaism is connected with the structure of Jewish society and its articulation
with the general society in the midst of which Jews lived in the "classical"
period. Here I merely want to observe that the profit motive is not
characteristic of Judaism in all periods of its history. Only the platonist
confusion which seeks for the metaphysical timeless "essence" of Judaism,
instead of looking at the historical changes in Jewish society, has obscured
this fact. (And this confusion has been greatly encouraged by Zionism, in
its reliance on "historical rights" ahistorically derived from the Bible.)
Thus, apologists of Judaism claim, quite correctly, that the Bible is hostile
to the profit motive while the Talmud is indifferent to it. But this was
caused by the very different social conditions in which they were composed.
As was pointed out above, the Talmud was composed in two well-defined areas,
in a period when the Jews living there constituted a society based on agriculture
and consisting mainly of peasantsvery different indeed from the society
of classical Judaism.
In Chapter 5 we shall deal in detail with the hostile attitudes and deceptions
practiced by classical Judaism against non-Jews. But more important as a
social feature is the profit-motivated deception practiced by the rich Jews
against poor fellow Jews (such as the dispensation concerning interest on
loans). Here I must say, in spite of my opposition to marxism both in philosophy
and as a social theory, that Marx was quite right when, in his two articles
about Judaism, he characterized it as dominated by profit-seekingprovided
this is limited to Judaism as he knew it, that is, to classical Judaism which
in his youth had already entered the period of its dissolution. True, he
stated this arbitrarily, ahistorically and without proof. Obviously he came
to his conclusion by intuition; but his intuition in this caseand with
the proper historical limitationwas right.
1. As in Chapter 2, I use the term "classical Judaism" to refer to rabbinical
Judaism in the period from about AD 800 up to the end of the 18th century.
This period broadly coincides with the Jewish Middle Ages, since for most
Jewish communities medieval conditions persisted much longer than for the
west European nations, namely up to the period of the French Revolution.
Thus what I call "classical Judaism" can be regarded as medieval Judaism.
2. Exodus, 15:11.
3. Ibid., 20: 3-6.
4. Jeremiah, 10; the same theme is echoed still later by the Second Isaiah,
see Isaiah, 44.
5. The cabbala is of course an esoteric doctrine, and its detailed study
was confined to scholars. In Europe, especially after about 1750, extreme
measures were taken to keep it secret and forbid its study except by mature
scholars and under strict supervision. The uneducated Jewish masses of eastern
Europe had no real knowledge of cabbalistic doctrine; but the cabbala percolated
to them in the form of superstition and magic practices.
6. Many contemporary Jewish mystics believe that the same end may be accomplished
more quickly by war against the Arabs, by the expulsion of the Palestinians,
or even by establishing many Jewish settlements on the West Bank. The growing
movement for building the Third Temple is also based on such ideas.
7. The Hebrew word used hereyihud, meaning literally
union-in-seclusionis the same one employed in legal texts (dealing
with marriage etc.) to refer to sexual intercourse.
8. The so-called Qedushah Shlishit (Third Holiness), inserted in the prayer
Uva Letzion towards the end of the morning service.
9. Numbers, 29.
10. The power of Satan, and his connection with non-Jews, is illustrated
by a widespread custom, established under cabbalistic influence in many Jewish
communities from the 17th century. A Jewish woman returning from her monthly
ritual bath of purification (after which sexual intercourse with her husband
is mandatory) must beware of meeting one of the four satanic creatures: Gentile,
pig, dog or donkey. If she does meet any one of them she must take another
bath. The custom was advocated (among others) by Shevet Musar, a book on
Jewish moral conduct first published in 1712, which was one of the most popular
books among Jews in both eastern Europe and Islamic countries until early
this century, and is still widely read in some Orthodox circles.
11. This is prescribed in minute detail. For example, the ritual hand washing
must not be done under a tap; each hand must be washed singly, in water from
a mug (of prescribed minimal size) held in the other hand. If one's hands
are really dirty, it is quite impossible to clean them in this way, but such
pragmatic considerations are obviously irrelevant. Classical Judaism prescribes
a great number of such detailed rituals, to which the cabbala attaches deep
significance. There are, for example, many precise rules concerning behavior
in a lavatory. A Jew relieving nature in an open space must not do so in
a North-South direction, because North is associated with Satan.
12. "Interpretation" is my own expression. The classical (and present-day
Orthodox) view is that the talmudic meaning, even where it is contrary to
the literal sense, was always the operational one.
13. According to an apocryphal story, a famous 19th century Jewish heretic
observed in this connection that the verse "Thou shalt not commit adultery"
is repeated only twice. "Presumably one is therefore forbidden to eat adultery
or to cook it, but enjoying it is all right."
14. The Hebrew re'akha is rendered by the King James Version (and most other
English translations) somewhat imprecisely as "thy neighbor." See however
II Samuel, 16:17, where exactly the same word is rendered by the King James
Version more correctly as "thy friend."
15. The Mishnah is remarkably free of all this, and in particular the belief
in demons and witchcraft is relatively rare in it. The Babylonian Talmud,
on the other hand, is full of gross superstitions.
16. Or, to be precise, in many parts of Palestine. Apparently the areas to
which the law applies are those where there was Jewish demographic predominance
around AD 150-200.
17. Therefore non-Zionist Orthodox Jews in Israel organize special shops
during sabbatical years, which sell fruits and vegetables grown by Arabs
on Arab land.
18. In the winter of 1945-6, I myself, then a boy under 13, participated
in such proceedings. The man in charge of agricultural work in the religious
agricultural school I was men attending was a particularly pious Jew and
thought it would be safe if the crucial act, that of removing the board,
should be performed by an orphan under 13 years old, incapable of being,
or making anyone else, guilty of a sin. (A boy under that age cannot be guilty
of a sin; his father, if he has one, is considered responsible.) Everything
was carefully explained to me beforehand, including the duty to say, "I need
this board," when in fact it was not needed.
19. For example, the Talmud forbids a Jew to enjoy the light of a candle
lit by a Gentile on the sabbath, unless the latter had lit it for his own
use before the Jew entered the room.
20. One of my uncles in pre-1939 Warsaw used a subtler method. He employed
a non-Jewish maid called Marysia and it was his custom upon waking from his
Saturday siesta to say, first quietly, "How nice it would be if"and
then, raising his voice to a shout, ". . . Marysia would bring us a cup of
tea!" He was held to be a very pious and God fearing man and would never
dream of drinking a drop of milk for a full six hours after eating meat.
In his kitchen he had two sinks, one for washing up dishes used for eating
meat, the other for milk dishes.
21. Occasionally regrettable mistakes occur, because some of these jobs are
quite cushy, allowing the employee six days off each week. The town of Bney
Braq (near Tel-Aviv), inhabited almost exclusively by Orthodox Jews, was
shaken in the 1960s by a horrible scandal. Upon the death of the "sabbath
Goy" they had employed for over twenty years to watch over their water supplies
on Saturdays, it was discovered that he was not really a Christian but a
Jew! So when his successor, a Druse, was hired, the town demanded and obtained
from the government a document certifying that the new employee is a Gentile
of pure Gentile descent. It is reliably rumored that the secret police was
asked to research this matter.
22. In contrast, elementary Scripture teaching can be done for payment. This
was always considered a low-status job and was badly paid.
23. Another "extremely important" ritual is the blowing of a ram's horn on
Rosh Hashanah, whose purpose is to confuse Satan.
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