OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.

Written and Submitted by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.



Question.  There is a b’rachah to say when I go to the zoo, isn’t there?

Answer. I don’t know how many people do, but actually yes: “On seeing an elephant, an ape or a long-tailed monkey, one says, ‘Blessed is He who makes strange creatures'” (Ber. 58b).

In ancient times the elephant in particular seized the imagination of our ancestors, who were both impressed and frightened to see such a huge creature. Elephants were certainly known in Egypt and Mesopotamia. During the period of the Israelite kings, elephants figured in their trading activities.

Though the elephant as such does not seem to be mentioned in the Tanach, ivory was certainly known (e.g. I Kings 10:22), and there is a view that there were elephants in Noah’s ark (Bereshit Rabbah 31 – Mat’not K’hunah), though they must have weighed the vessel down.

After the close of the Biblical period elephants were often used in battle. The Jews of Judea were understandably alarmed by them during the Antiochus campaigns. The Books of Maccabees relate various incidents about elephants, and Judah Maccabee worked out that an elephant could be attacked from the side.

Elephant pictured in the 5th century C.E. mosaic in the Huqoq synagogue in Galilee. The Huqoq mosaic, is part of a larger scene showing soldiers, other war animals and lit oil lamps, as well as an elder holding a scroll surrounded by young men with sheathed swords. Photo: Jim Haberman.

Whether there were Jews who owned elephants one cannot be certain, but the Talmud does discuss the halachah of acquiring an elephant (Kidd. 25b) and using an elephant as a sukkah wall (Sukk. 23a), and what to do if one has a dream about an elephant (Ber. 56b). People who try impossible intellectual contortions are accused of trying to draw an elephant through the eye of a needle (B.M. 38b).

It would be interesting to ascertain whether Jews were ever involved in big game hunting of elephants. In the meantime, it would not hurt to say a blessing at the zoo.


Question.  Why are uncultured people called Philistines?

Answer. The answer goes back to the ancient conflict between light and darkness. Biblical thinking always took the side of light. At the beginning of Creation, God creates light and says it is good. Light is so significant in Judaism that we have an entire festival, Chanukah, called the Festival of Lights. Other groups, however, attached at least equal significance to darkness.

Matthew Arnold pointed out that the Children of Israel, as the harbingers of moral truth and righteousness to the world, were instructed to be the bringers of light to Canaan. Because the Israelites were opposed by the Philistine people, the enemies of culture became popularly known as Philistines.


Question.  Why is Pesach so late this year? Why does it sometimes coincide with Easter and sometimes not?

Answer. The Jewish calendar is based on the moon, but because of Pesach it is also linked with the sun. According to the Torah, Pesach must fall in the month of Aviv – the spring month – and the spring, like all the seasons, is governed by the sun. As the Jewish calendar has roughly 354 and a quarter days, eleven less than the solar year, there is a corrective mechanism to ensure that Pesach will not end up too far away from the northern hemisphere spring.

This corrective mechanism is the extra month of Adar that comes seven times in every nineteen years, ensuring that there will be a correlation between lunar and solar years. The result is that in a leap year, when we have the extra Adar, Pesach is relatively later, and in a non-leap year it is relatively earlier.

In early church history there were certain communities who celebrated Easter on 15 Nisan, the full moon, when the Jews kept Pesach. In an attempt at separating the two events the first Council of Nicaea decided in 325 CE that Easter should always fall on a Sunday, which rarely coincided with the full moon. Which Sunday? By the eighth century the rule was established that it should be the Sunday after the spring full moon.

However, the Christian and Jewish calculations of the new moon are not quite the same. Hence on some occasions Easter Sunday falls on the first day of Pesach, but it is rare to have a first day of Pesach on Sunday (with the accompanying problems of Erev Pesach being on Shabbat).

Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple Blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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