Edition 36
February 2001   Shevat 5761 Vol. 4 Edition 2
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TOPIC OF THE MONTH      Miracles
This month: SHEVAT


     Samuel Bak

     Voice of the Turtle

     Synagogues without Jews

     Ethical lesson

     Samuel ha-Nagid




Responsa literature (in Hebrew She'elot U'Tshuvot - SHOOT for short) refers to the vast body of legal literature which is composed of questions asked of religious leaders about disputed or unknown points of Jewish law or procedure, and the answers received.

Responsa first emerged in the early Middle Ages when far-flung Jewish communities throughout the Islamic world sent their questions to the Geonim, heads of the Babylonian rabbinic academies and the undisputed spiritual authority of world Jewry. When new centers of Jewish scholarship emerged in Europe and North Africa towards the end of the tenth century, communities in these regions began to turn to local religious authorities with their questions. This tradition continues in Jewish communities even today.

We at JHOM.com can not take on the role of legal arbiter or spiritual advisors. However, to further the goals of this magazine, we will draw upon the resources available to us to provide answers to general questions regarding Jewish history, customs, and culture.  [Submit your question]

We continue here the tradition of She'elot U'Tshuvot. The following are questions submitted by our readers and JHOM.com's answers. Enjoy.

QuestionWhen was day one of the Jewish calendar? What year is it in the Jewish Calendar and how is this calculated i.e. what is the starting point? Would this calculation have held good during the Roman occupation 2000 years ago? [submitted by André Desmarais and Angus Henderson]


The years of the Jewish calendar are counted from the creation of the world, as calculated on the basis of the ages and genealogies of biblical personalities. According to this ancient calculation, creation was in 3760 B.C.E. and we are currently in the year 5761. According to one midrash, Rosh Hashanah commemorates not the beginning of creation but rather the creation of Adam. According to this understanding, the six biblical days of creation are before "day one."

Therefore, in order to convert the Gregorian year to the Jewish year, add 3760. For dates between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year that usually falls in September or early October) and 1 January, add 3761. Since this calculation is based on the date of creation, it applies to antiquity as well as to modern times but the correspondence of months is slightly different for the Julian calendar and even more so, for earlier periods.

Please note that when the year is written with Hebrew letters, the 5000 is usually omitted. For example, the year written as 756 in Hebrew letters would be written as 5756 in numerals and corresponds to 1996 (5756 - 3760 = 1996); to be precise, it lasted from the evening of 24 September 1995 until the evening of 13 September 1996.


Why isn't Rosh Hashanah not on the New Moon this year? Can you recommend any Jewish calender sites? [submitted by F.N.]


The first day of the Jewish month does not always coincide with the astronomical new moon. First of all, the astronomical new moon is when no moon at all is visible from the earth; the Jewish month starts only after a sliver is observed. Secondly, Rosh Hashanah must be scheduled so that Yom Kippur falls on neither a Friday nor a Sunday and Hoshanah Rabbah (the seventh day of Sukkot) does not fall on the Sabbath. Therefore, astronomical information printed on a general calendar is not a reliable way to determine the Jewish date.

At JHOM.com, we use the Perpetual Jewish/Civil Calendar at http://www.uwm.edu/cgi-bin/corre/calendar for determining equivalent dates. B'nai Brith has a listing of holiday dates through 2006 at http://bnaibrith.org/caln.html and calendar software may downloaded from http://www.kaluach.org/.

QuestionI enjoyed the article about the Noachide laws (http://www.jhom.com/topics/seven/noahite.html), but I am confused by the reference made to the book of Jubilees. Is this a Christian book? [submitted by Harold Loiterman]

The Book of Jubilees is a Jewish book that dates from the middle of the Second Temple period. It claims to be the secret revelation of the angel of the "Divine Presence" to Moses, upon his second ascent to Mount Sinai. Although originally written in Hebrew, all the surviving versions (Latin, Ethiopic) are translations from the Greek. Scholars think that the final form of Jubilees dates from approximately 100 B.C.E., but it incorporates much older traditions.

Jubilees is narrated in the first person by the angel of the "Divine Presence" who reviews the contents of the Bible, at the same time providing an exact date for the events and stories, within the framework of 49 year cycle of Jubilee years, hence the name. Although sometimes faithful to the biblical narrative, Jubilees frequently departs from it. In addition to the new narrative material, the author also makes legal innovations and provides novel interpretations for the origins of the holidays. (For example, Shavuot is said to commemorate the renewal of the covenant between God and man after the Flood; the "Eighth Day of Assembly" (Shemini Azeret) to have been instituted by Jacob, when he battled the angle and was renamed "Israel" and the Day of Atonement commemorates the day that Joseph was sold.)

The book is isolationist in its relationship to non-Jews and interprets the Sabbath laws very strictly. Jubilees rejects the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, but accepts the immortality of the soul. At the end of days, the author envisions two Messiahs, one from the tribe of Judah; another from the tribe of Levi.

Jubilees was probably one of the basic texts used by the Essene community/Dead Sea Sect (c.200 BCE -100 CE); some fragments that appear to be parts of the original Hebrew text were found in the Qumran caves. The book influenced later midrashic literature and had a particularly significant influence on the Ethiopian Jews, whose rituals and calendar are based upon it. The Book of Jubilees was not included in the canonized TaNaH (Bible).

QuestionFrom what direction did Moses approach Canaan? I have heard that it was from the East - through what is today Jordan. (submitted by Len Nadler)

AnswerYes, the Israelites approached the Canaan from the east, through the territory of modern Jordan, ancient Moab. This is evident from Deuteronomy 34:1: "Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land."; and from Joshua 1:2: "Prepare to cross the Jordan, together with all the people, into the land which I am giving you."

QuestionIs oral tradition something taught or are we born with it? Can the Hebrew language be an oral tradition? Are all other languages a corruption of Hebrew? Which came first? Is it the language that was spoken before the great flood? (submitted by Sarah N. Graham)

AnswerThe oral tradition is taught. The traditional Jewish formulation of the chain of transmission is found in Ethics of the Fathers (1:1): "Moses received the Law at Sinai and handed it down to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the men of the Great Assembly." At each stage the teacher taught his student(s) orally until Rabbi Judah HaNasi compiled the Mishna in c. 200. There is also a tradition that angels teach Torah to unborn children, then slap them on the mouth right before birth, causing them to forget everything (TB Niddah 30b); even if this were indeed the case, the oral tradition would have to be relearned after birth.

The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 38) that Hebrew is the first language, "the prima lingua" that Adam spoke. The rabbis note that Hebrew was the one language spoken by all the inhabitants of the universe before the generation of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1). No archaeological evidence is available to support this claim and even within the Jewish tradition, this view in not unanimous. Modern Hebrew is a language like any other, learnt by people in the same way any other language is learned. Although many languages have borrowed words from Hebrew, very few are derived from it. Languages that are derived from Hebrew include Yiddish (German Jewish) and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). More information is available at the website of the National Center for the Hebrew Language: http://ivrit.org/alvin.html

QuestionI would like to know more about the Night of the Murdered Poets: the year it occurred, who were the poets, why were they murdered. Are there traditional ways of remembering them? Are they in print? (submitted by Marcia Schertz)

AnswerBeginning in the winter of 1948-49, more than 400 Jewish artists, writers, actors, and musicians were arrested by the Soviet secret police (KGB). Most of them were sent to labor camps in Siberia, where they perished. In July 1952, twenty-four of these individuals were brought to trial, and on the night of August 12, 1952, were executed in Lubianka Prison in Moscow. This event is now referred to as The Night of the Murdered Poets, although not all of the victims were poets.

JHOM.com is not aware of any traditional or widely-accepted ways of memorializing this event. However, at least two musical works have been composed to commemorate the event and it certainly would be appropriate to perform them as part of a memorial evening:

Morris Moshe Cotel, "The Night of the Murdered Poets"(1978) for narrator and chamber ensemble; recorded on Grenadilla Records. (GS 1051) For more information, please refer to the composer's web site: http://members.aol.com/mmcotel/

Jonathan Kramer, "No Beginning, No End" (1983); 10 minutes for chorus and chamber (published by MMB Music): http://www.mmbmusic.com

QuestionI heard recently of the Jewish tradition of Shlihut (agency), that commissions an agent to perform (positive) tasks on your behalf and how that is regarded as the same as if you had performed those tasks yourself. Is this correct? ( submitted by Elizabeth Reuter)

AnswerYes, Jewish law does permit a person to appoint an agent to act on his/her behalf in both commercial and religious acts. One of the most common instances of this is the mohel who performs ritual circumcisions. Although the father is commanded to circumcise his son, very few fathers actually do it themselves, instead they authorize the mohel to do it for them. Originally, the cantor's function the synagogue was to serve as the congregants' agent and recite the obligatory prayers on their behalf. After the invention of the printing press, this function became less important but it still exists. The synagogue Torah reader reads as the agent of the person who recited the blessings, the head of the house who says kiddush on Friday night is an agent for the family and guests who hear him, etc. In some communities, a mourner may hire someone to the kaddish in his stead. A good article on commercial agency in Jewish law may be found in the Encyclopedia Judaica.

QuestionI recently saw the movie Pi, in which there was a discussion on the numerical system of the Hebrew language in the Torah. Someone told me that the number 18 has some significance in our religion. Can you explain or offer resources for study? (submitted by Larry Horn and Carissa Starr McGill)

AnswerIn Hebrew, like Greek (but unlike English), each letter also represents a number. For example (alef) = 1; (gimmel) = 3; (heh) = 5; (vav) =6; (nun) =50; (samech)=60; etc.

Gematria (from the Greek, geometria) is the calculation of the numerical equivalence of letters, words and phrases. Based on these calculations, the interrelation of different words and concepts are explored.

The number eighteen ((hai) in Hebrew) is significant in Judaism because it is the equivalent in gematria of the word hebrew meaning life: the numerical value of the first letter, (het), is 8, while the numerical value of the second letter, (yod) is ten.

For more information, you can refer to: http://www.inner.org/gematria/gematria.htm

QuestionWho are the Karaite Jews? Can rabbinic Jews marry them? (submitted by Joel Gordon)

AnswerKaraite Jews differ from other Jews in their rejection of the "Oral Torah" of rabbinic tradition, and their efforts to live according to the authority of the Hebrew Bible alone. They do not practice many of the accepted customs of rabbinic Judaism such as the use of phylacteries (tefillin) in prayer, the separation of meat and milk, and the celebration of the festival of Hanukkah.

The founder of Karaism was Anan ben David, a prominent Jewish scholar in eighth century Babylonia. Egypt was the chief center of oriental Karaism until it was weakened by the authority and reputation of Maimonides in the twelfth century. Karaites spread to Byzantium and Asia Minor, and existed for a brief period in eleventh century Spain. From the twelfth century there were Karaites in Russia and Lithuania. The majority of Karaites now live in Israel where they have their own religious courts. There is also a Karaite congregation in Daly City, California. Because of differences in marriage and divorce laws, marriage between rabbinic and Karaite Jews is problematic, although it does occur.

SHOOT Archive or submit your question

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