Welcome‎ > ‎

Awesome Women

                                                                 Miriam the Prophet                    by Rabbi Allen S Maller

The Torah explicitly asserts that Miriam was a prophet (Exodus 15:20). The Torah also quotes Miriam and Aaron saying, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:2). It is clear that Miriam and Aaron considered themselves to be prophets. 

So since Miriam was a prophet, what part of the Torah would Miriam the prophet have written?

In post-biblical times, when the majority of the Rabbis asserted that Moses wrote every word in the Torah, the rabbis downplay the prophecy of Miriam. But there were always some Rabbis who maintained that the revealing and writing of Torah was a much more complex process than Akiba and his followers believed. Although we cannot know for sure, we can inquire about when and what did God speak through Miriam? What was Miriam’s Torah (teaching)?

One could say Miriam was inspired to write down the oral narrative that had been transmitted over the generations from the birth of Abraham (Genesis 11:27) through the death of Joseph (Genesis 50:26) during the many years when Moses was in Midian. Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:18 and Tanhumah Va’era 6 state that the Israelite slaves in Egypt “possessed scrolls which they read”.

What was the content of these scrolls and who wrote them down? These two midrashim probably refer to the oral narrative about the patriarchs and the matriarchs that was passed down through the generations. The logical conclusion is that Miriam the prophet wrote down this material in the “scrolls which they read' (and that material became Genesis 12 to Genesis 50 when the Torah was compiled), and this is why Miriam is called a prophet.

But if Miriam the prophet wrote the narrative about the patriarchs and the matriarchs, perhaps Miriam the prophet also wrote the first 15 chapters of Exodus from “these are the names” to the song she and all the Jewish women sang when Israel safely crossed the Sea of Reeds.

That would explain why it is at this point that the Torah asserts the claim that Miriam was a prophet.. “Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and with all the women following her, dancing with tambourines; Miriam sang this refrain: Sing to the Lord…” (Exodus 15:21).

Miriam finished writing the Exodus narrative at Marah where “the Lord placed statute and ordinance” on the Jewish people. According to Rabbi Jacob: “statute” – refers to Shabbat, “ordinance” – refers to honoring parents, (Mechilta). These are the Mitsvot that will prepare the Jewish people for the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai.

This is the logical transition point for Moses to take over as the prophet who will lead the Jewish people into the covenant with God at Sinai. Miriam is probably the prophet who was inspired by God to write Genesis 12 through Exodus 15. In later centuries people forgot her role and her younger brother got all the credit.

Only Miriam's music (song and dance) is explicitly referred to in the Torah as it says: “Miriam the prophet, sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand; and all the woman followed her with drum and dances.” (Exodus 15:20) Why does the Torah mention at this particular time that Miriam was a prophet?

Because Miriam herself composed the music for this song long before Israel left Egypt. According to the Midrash: for many years Miriam went throughout the inhabitations of the people of Israel declaring that God would someday rescue Israel from Pharaoh's oppression; and after Israel left Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds, they would sing a praise-God song to this very music.

Miriam taught all the women how to play the drum for this praise-God song and Miriam also taught all the woman several different dance steps that the women would do when they played the rhythm's of the song.

Once the plagues started, Miriam kept reminding the women of all that she had taught them; and that as a sign of their faith in God they should all take at least one drum per family with them when it was time to leave. (Mechilta & Pirkey d'Rabbi Eliezer)

Another reason the Torah stresses that Miriam was a prophet is because the women danced and played their drums on the 7th day of Passover, when in later generations Orthodox Rabbis would rule that playing an instrument was prohibited. They would then say playing a drum was kosher at the Sea of Reeds because Miriam was a Prophet. (Yalkut Me'am Loaz to Exodus 15:20)

Miriam the prophet is referred to in Exodus 15:21 as Aaron’s sister because both Miriam and Aaron were prophets. What was the Torah of Aaron? All materials relating to performing the priestly rituals and services, the vestments of the priests, the design of the Tent of Assembly and its accruements, and the rules and rituals concerning ritual pollution are Aaron’s Torah.

Thus Numbers 19:1-2 states “God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, ‘This is the Torah/law God commanded’”. However, usually Aaron’s humility led him to give preference and credit to Moses. So in Leviticus 6:1-2 “God spoke to Moses- command Aaron and his sons: This is the Torah of the burnt offering.” And Leviticus 7:37 “This is the Torah of the burnt offering”.

The Divine teachings/Torah of Prophet Miriam, and the cultic aspects of the Mishkon and its offerings teachings/Torah of Prophet Aaron, were both included together with the Torah of Prophet Moses, by Ezra the scribe.

Of course, God inspired all of the prophets, each in his or her own way. Prophet Moses taught Mitsvot (the Book of the Covenant-Exodus 20:1-24:7, Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy) to the men. Prophet Aaron taught cult rules to the Levites and Kohanim/priests.

Prophet Miriam taught sacred history Torah narrative to all the men, women and children of Israel. Eldad and Medad taught the details of genealogy, demographics (census reports), the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14), and the death of Moses.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) states that Eldad and Medad revealed that Joshua would lead Israel into Canaan after Moses died. Maybe that is why in the next verse Joshua modestly urges Moses to restrain them. Rabbi Nachman states they prophesied about the final battle of Gog and Magog (who also have alliterative names). 

The same Talmud passage also claims that Eldad and Medad continued to prophesy until the day of their death. They might have revealed (and wrote) the last 8 verses of Deuteronomy, which follow the death of Moses. But elsewhere the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) claims that Joshua wrote these verses. 

These statements show that some Talmudic Sages disagreed with the view that Moses wrote the entire Torah all by himself. 

                                      Rachel ends the epidemic killing Rabbi Akiba's students      Rabbi Allen S. Maller

According to the Talmud (Yebamot 62b) “Rabbi Akiba had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, and they all died in during one period because of their failure to treat each other respectfully."

The first twelve thousand of Rabbi Akiba's students to die, were the young men who, inspired by Akiba's support for Bar Kokhba's revolt, joined the army of Shimon bar Kokhba to fight against the Romans. But now things were different. The new student deaths, were not due to fighting with the Romans.

These students were dying of a strange mysterious disease. According to Rabbi Hama bar Abba or, perhaps Rabbi Chiyya bar Abin: “All of them (the second twelve thousand) died a cruel death.”

Even stranger, no one else except the disciples, and the disciples of the disciples of Rabbi Akiba, were dying of this disease.

The epidemic had started during the last Passover of the revolt against the Romans. Three to four hundred of Akiba's students died daily.

The disease was unlike any other disease that people had ever died from. First one's tongue swelled up and turned bright blue. Then one had great difficulty talking, eating and finally breathing.

Rabbi Yohanan b. Torta who had opposed Akiba's proclaiming Bar Kokhba the Messiah saying, “Akiba, grass will come up between your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come.”(Talmud Yerushalmi: Ta'anit 4:8/27) felt the first twelve thousand were due to Rabbi Akiba's messianic illusions; but he had no explanation for the second twelve thousand.

Others thought the disease was some kind of Roman secret weapon. A form of black magic. Most people felt it was just bad luck. But Rabbi Akiba knew better. He knew that it is always easy to blame bad luck or other people when things do not go the way you want them to go.

And while that is sometimes the case, those who are wise also know that they have to look within their own conscious, and within their own soul, to see if they themselves did not play a role in what was happening.

Rabbi Akiba appointed two of his sharpest and most insightful disciples, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, to investigate the situation.

Rabbi Meir discovered that many of Rabbi Akiba's students did not respect each other.

Those students who did not leave their Yeshivahs to wage war against the Romans disrespected those who did.

Those who refused to withdraw from their battle positions when their leaders said to abandon one village in order go to protect another village, disrespected those who did withdraw.

Those who were more pious disrespected those who were less pious.

And Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai found that all of those who had died in the mysterious epidemic, had expressed negative opinions about Jews who had converted to Judaism. or who were the descendants of non-Jews, especially Greeks and Romans, who become Jewish in previous generations.

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai were shocked to learn that so many of Rabbi Akiba's students disrespected each other.

Rabbi Akiba had always taught his disciples that one of the most important principles in the Torah was, "Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself."

Indeed, many of Akiba's students used to sing a song when they sat around a campfire in the spring and summer, that proclaims: "Rabbi Akiba said, 'Love your neighbor as you love yourself' is a major principle in the Torah."

This principle applied not just to all of your neighbors, but also to your fellow students, the people you work with, and everyone else you know; Jew or Non-Jew alike.

Plus, there is another specific Mitsvah that says, "Love the stranger as much as you love yourself." This applies to non-Jews in general and to non-Jews who become Jewish in particular.

How sad it was then for Rabbi Meir, who himself was a descendant of converts to Judaism, to learn how many of the students of Akiba's students had transgressed Rabbi Akiba's teachings.

Did they not know that the full name of their great teacher was Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef HaGer: Rabbi Akiba son of Yosef the convert. But even today most Jews are ignorant of this fact.

It is stated in Rambam’s Introduction to the Mishneh Torah; Seder HaDorot that Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef received Torah from Rabbi Eleazar the great. Yosef, his father, was a righteous convert.

Although most of the Talmudic sages are referred to as X ben Y; Rabbi Akiba is never quoted by his full name: Akiba ben Yosef HaGer.

Perhaps Rabbi Akiba's students did not know Rabbi Akiba's father was a convert because there is a tradition that one should not bring up a convert's non-Jewish past.

This did not mean that you should not be proud of the many people who become Jewish, and whose descendants enrich the Jewish people for generations to come.

It meant only that you are not to refer to a convert's past in a negative way, or to think that a person born to Jewish parents was a better Jew, than a Jew who had no Jewish genes.

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, told Rabbi Akiba why the epidemic was killing his students, and suggested that they pray that God would forgive the disrespectful students.

They did, but the epidemic did not end. They prayed again and again, but to no avail.

Then Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai suggested to Rabbi Akiba that he go to his wife Rachel, who had walked away from her wealthy father's home to marry a poor illiterate sheepherder, whose own father was a Roman army officer named Tiberius.

Rabbi Akiba himself attributed all of his learning to Rachel his wife; because she had made him learn to read and then directed him to study Torah with the sages.

He asked her to pray on behalf of the disrespectful students.

Rachel said she would pray on the 33 day of the counting of the Omer, because that was the day when Akiba promised her he would learn to read and study Torah, and she had agreed to marry him.

Log B'Omer was also the same date a few years later, when Akiba's father Tiberius, inspired by Rachel, changed his name to Yosef and converted to Judaism.

She prayed on that day, and new cases of the epidemic stopped, although those students who were already stricken, died until Atzeret.

Fifteen centuries later, Rabbi Isaac Luria, father of Lurianic Kabbalah, and an expert in perceiving converts to Judaism who had reincarnated Jewish souls, added to the celebration of Log B'Omer, the yahrzeit of Shimon Ben Yohai, who played an important role in uncovering one of the most important reasons for the plague that killed so many of the disrespectful students of Rabbi Akiba ben Yosef HaGer.    

                                             Sarah and Abraham: Making Converts                   Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Only God can make a soul. So what does it mean when the Torah states that when Avram and Sarai left Haran to go to the land of Canaan, they took with them some members of their family, and “the souls that they made in Haran”. (Genesis 12:5) How can any human make a soul?

Rashi, the famous 11th century French Biblical commentator, quoting a Midrash, says that “the souls that they made” refers to the many converts they made in Haran. But they also made converts in Ur, before they went to Haran, as well as in Canaan and Egypt after they left Haran. Here is the story of two of Sarai's converts.

Sarai was a very beautiful woman.(Genesis 12:11) When Sarai and Avram went down to Egypt, Pharaoh's servants who were always on the lookout for beautiful women, heard about Sarai's beauty. They seized her, and brought her to Pharaoh's harem. After a few days a man born on the island of Melos and raised on Crete, who made very beautiful Cycladic style ritual statuettes of women, told Sarai she had to model for him naked, so her sculpture could be sent to Pharaoh for his approval. Sarai refused.

The man offered her silver jewelry to wear and keep. Sarai refused. He offered Sarai gold jewelry to wear and keep. She refused.

He told Sarai that none of the other beautiful women had ever refused the silver or the gold. The Egyptians believed Pharaoh was a God, the Devine son of Horus. They felt fortunate to be in God's harem.

Sarai explained to him that she could not be bought. The one and only God, who had no body and no harem, had made a covenant with her and her husband. If Pharaoh tried to force her, something terrible would happen to him.

When the man from Crete told this to Pharaoh; he laughed. But that night Pharaoh awoke after a very bad dream and couldn't fall sleep again. In the morning he ordered Sarai's release; and sent her and Avram on their way with lots of gifts. (Genesis 13:2)

The man from Crete was so impressed by Sarai's trust in God, that he went with them. Instead of nude Cycladic style ritual statuettes of women, he started sculpting special boxes to be placed in Temples, where people could donate sandals and clothing for the poor.

Almost a thousand years later, one of his boxes was placed in the Temple in Jerusalem that was built by Solomon.

Once Sarah met a man named Aner, who was a captain of the guards in Nimrod's palace in Ur. They began talking about religion. Aner said that he felt that all the silver and gold people spent on making statues to worship, would be better spent helping the poor and redeeming war captives.

Sarah agreed and said that she and her husband were the leaders of a small group of people who were starting a new religious community, They were all determined to follow a path different from the majority of other people.

When you are in the majority, and everyone agrees with you, it is hard to be critical of the way society does things. “We are a small minority and we intend to stay that way,” Sarah said, “although we hope to become a blessing for many other peoples. God willing.”

Aner liked what Sarah told him. Sarah invited him to join their new community; and to come with them to a new land that her husband said would be a special place for them all to start building a holy community. Aner did join them, went to Canaan with them.

He settled with Abram's nephew Lot in Sodom. When the town was conquered and Lot was carried away as a war captive, Aner was the one who brought the news to Avram. (Genesis 14:13) He and his men, joined Avram in the battle to free Lot. Aner was with Avram when he met with Melchizedek, the King of Salem. (Genesis 14:24)

Almost 2,000 years later, people were still talking about the souls that Abraham and Sarah made in Ur, Haran, Egypt and the Land of Canaan. Rabbi Eliezer taught that because Abraham and Sarah had increased their family so much with the addition of so many converts, they were able to travel throughout the land of Canaan without fear.

Rabbi Abba stated that the personal merit of Abraham and Sarah was augmented by the merit of all the additional souls that accompanied them, because when one person influences another person to join a holy community, the merit (all the Mitzvot) of the joiner is added to the merit of the inviter.

When the Roman Catholic Church became the official religion of the Roman Empire they restricted people from converting to Judaism with fines and lose of inheritance rights. After several generations, when this didn't stop non-Jews from becoming Jewish; the Romans in the sixth century made conversion to Judaism punishable by death. This remained the law in all European countries until the 18th century.

In Poland in 1749, a Polish nobleman named Valentine Potocki, who had secretly converted to Judaism, was burned alive in the center of Vilna. The more than ten century long established danger of making converts eventually turned almost all rabbis against accepting converts. Although in theory Judaism warmly welcomes anyone who desires to join the Jewish People to become one of us, in practice most rabbis, and almost all Orthodox Rabbis, make it difficult to convert to Judaism.

Very few Jews are aware of the teaching of Rabbi Abba that the personal merit of Abraham and Sarah was augmented by the merit of all the additional souls that accompanied them, because when one person influences another person to join a holy community, the merit of the joiner is added to the merit of the inviter. In 21st century Poland, it is not only a Mitzvah to encourage interested non-Jews to return to Judaism; it is a sin to make it hard for anyone to do so.

As we know, Rashi, the greatest of our Bible commentators, taught that Jews started seeking converts from the very beginning of their history, when he explained Genesis 12:5, a verse that states that Abraham made souls in Haran, to mean that Abraham and Sarah made converts.

Also the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) condemns those who push potential converts away by relating that Isaac and Jacob pushed away Timna the sister of Lotan who wanted to become Jewish. She then married a son of Esau. One of her descendants was Amalek who attacked Israel shortly after they escaped from Egypt. If, instead of being pushed away, Timna had become Jewish, Amalek would have been on our side, and not one of our enemies. A more practical view is hard to imagine.

Indeed, Rabbi Johanan says the Jews were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt because Abraham didn't try to influence some captives that he rescued to become Jewish. Even failing to encourage potential converts is wrong according to Rabbi Johanan. And several of our Rabbis felt that discouraging converts in the past had brought troubles upon us.

These are practical, not theological, reasons to seek converts and not to push away those who might be interested. Rabbis today should welcome potential converts and not discourage them. We may not be saving souls, but we should not be making future enemies by rejecting people who want to be Jewish.

The recent attempt by some Haredi Rabbis in Israel to retroactively dejudiaze thousands of Jews who were converted according to Halakah is an shameful example of what not to do.

Vashti Becomes Jewish                                                       Rabbi Allen S. Maller

When Queen Vashti married King Ahasuerus, she, like all Persian wives, promised to love, honor and obey. Yet, when her husband commanded Vashti to dance before his drunken guests wearing only her royal crown, Vashti refused.

How did she get the idea that a wife could and should refuse to follow her husband's instructions when they were disrespectful and stupid?

Vashti overheard a young woman named Hadassah giving advice to her much older cousin, Mordechai, a successful merchant and a leader of the Jewish community. Vashti was amazed that Mordechai would listen to and indeed follow the advice of a younger woman. Vashti asked them about their relationship.

Mordechai replied, "We are Jews, descendants of Abraham and Sarah. God told our ancestor Abraham that 'whatever Sarah tells you to do - do as she says.' (Genesis 21:12) Thus it is a mitzvah for Jewish husbands to follow the advice of their Jewish wives, especially concerning family and personal matters."

Vashti asked Hadassah, "Don't Jewish brides promise to obey their husbands?"

"Of course not," answered Hadassah, "Jewish husbands and wives are partners who are consecrated to each other according to the rules of Moses (the Jewish religion) and the people of Israel (the Jewish community).

Jewish women never promise to obey their husbands. Jewish spouses should love and respect each other, but no one should blindly obey anyone else, even the King."

Vashti was so impressed by what Mordechai and Hadassah had told her, that she began studying Torah with them and later with other Jewish teachers. After a year of study, Vashti decided to become Jewish.

She did not tell Ahasuerus that she had become Jewish because when she told him that she was studying the Torah, he was uninterested. Ahasuerus never paid any attention to Vashti's opinions or ideas, relying only on his seven advisors, especially Memucan whom everyone called Haman.

Vashti had noticed how Haman had manipulated the King to increase his own power. Now that she was Jewish, Vashti felt more self-confident and empowered so she tried to warn Ahasuerus about Haman's devious plots against people Haman thought were his rivals, and his tendency to avoid solving problems by finding scapegoats.

Haman noticed Vashti wasn't the submissive wife she had been, and decided to get rid of her. He succeeded in having her banished when she refused to dance naked before the King's drunken guests.

But Haman outsmarted himself because Vashti's replacement as Queen turned out to be Hadassah, (who used her Persian name Esther while at the court) and she was the one who brought about Haman's downfall.

Vashti was divorced and banished from Shushan, the capitol of the Persian empire to a small town in Southern Syria where she married the King of Massa, one of the local towns.

Her son Lemuel always remembered how his mother, Queen Vashti, admonished him that wine is not for kings since it impairs their judgment, and that the most important thing in life is to marry a woman of valor and respect her capabilities.

Vashti's words were incorporated as the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs which speaks about the virtues of a strong, active Jewish wife. The reference to a Torah of kindness being on her tongue (Proverbs 31:26) refers to the many good teachings that Vashti learned from Hadassah and that Vashti passed on to her son Lemuel.

Vashti was not the only non-Jew who became Jewish in that generation. According to the Book of Esther (8:17) "There were many from among the peoples of the land who became Jewish." Why was there such widespread conversion to Judaism?

The text says, "Because the pachad of the Jews fell upon them." Pachad is usually translated as "fear." But why would people fear the Jews who had just recently escaped being plundered and looted?

Perhaps the sudden reversal of Jewish fate filled many sensitive non-Jews with awe for the God of the Jews. The Hebrew word pachad, really means "awesome." It indicates the stunning and overwhelming experience of the Divine, and the stupefying and daunting reaction sensitive mortals have to a Divine eruption.

Indeed, Jacob twice refers to the God who protects him as Pachad Yitzchak-the awesome one of Isaac. (Genesis 31:42 + 53) Thus Pachad is a name for the awesome God.

In our own day, many more non-Jews have become Jewish in the half century following the Shoah and the recreation of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel than in the half century that preceded these events.

Many of these converts to Judaism have had their interest in Judaism incited by the Shoah or Israel. Some have been attracted to children of survivors, while others have been drawn to Orthodoxy and Aliyah.

The identification of converts to Judaism with the Jewish people in times of woe as well as times of wonder is why the Book of Esther explicitly states that Jews, their descendants, and all the converts to Judaism who had joined themselves to the Jewish people, took upon themselves to celebrate Purim. (9:27)

One such person was Agur Jakehson, King of Massa. Agur had received orders from Haman to permit the followers of Haman to plunder the Jews and then to blame the Jews for being different and drive them out of town.

Agur felt sorry for the Jews, but was prepared to follow orders. As the fateful day approached, Agur's conscience bothered him more and more and he began to warn the Jews about the planned progrom.

When Agur heard that Haman had been hung and that the Jews were commanded to fight back against their enemies, he ordered his soldiers to kill everyone in Haman's party who attacked Jews.

The faithfulness of the Jewish people to Judaism impressed Agur and he began to study Judaism. A year later, he became Jewish and the following year he met Queen Vashti and they fell in love and were married under a Huppah.

Vashti was proud that she would not have to promise to love, honor and obey, and Agur was proud that he had not obeyed Haman's orders. Agur's advice to the children of his previous marriage is found in Chapter 30 of the Book of Proverbs right next to the words of Vashti (Chapter 31) as taught by their son Lemuel.

In later centuries, Vashti's conversion to Judaism was forgotten. That she was the mother that Lemuel referred to was also forgotten. It is my honor to restore Vashti's contribution to the Book of Proverbs.