Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Haazinu

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Haazinu 5762/ Sept. 29, 2001

Sukkot and Simhat Torah:

"For the Peace and Well-Being of the Nations of the World"

Rabbi Dr. Aaron She'ar Yashuv

Department of Philosophy


On Sukkot the Jews used to sacrifice seventy bulls, and on Shemini Atzeret, one. Tractate Sukkat (58b) remarks on this practice:

Rabbi Eleazar said: Seventy bulls for the seventy nations. But why a single bull? For the unique nation. This can be compared to a king of flesh and blood who said to his servants, "Make me a great feast." On the last day he said to his beloved, "Make me a little feast, that I may take pleasure in you." Rabbi Johanan said: Woe to those nations who sustained a loss, yet know not what they lost; for when the Temple still stood, it used to atone for them, and now who will atone for them?
According to Scripture (Num. 29:12-34), every day one bull less was sacrificed. Rashi comments on this as follows: "The bullocks offered on the Feast of Tabernacles are seventy in all, in allusion to the seventy nations of the world, and they gradually decrease [in number each day], an omen to them [of gradual] annihilation, but during the period when the Temple existed [and these sacrifices were offered] they protected them against this misfortune." But Pesikta de Rav Kahana (par. 30, be-yom shemini atzeret) says: "All seventy bulls that Israel used to sacrifice on the festival were for the seventy nations of the world, so that they not be removed from the world, as it is said: 'They answer my love with accusation, but I am all prayer' (Ps. 109:4). That is, now they are protected by prayer instead of sacrifice."

According to Rashi and Rabbi Johanan, the gentiles were granted the Lord's blessing by virtue of the sacrifices, but now they are doomed to annihilation. According to Pesikta de Rav Kahana, however, they do not disappear from the world. The dialectic between the universalism of Sukkot and the particularism of Shemini Atzeret is maintained and finds expression today in the prayers recited during the intermediate days of the festival, according to the custom of the eastern Jews:

Our Father in Heaven, in antiquity our ancestors used to sacrifice to You on the Festival of Sukkot seventy sacrifices for the peace and well-being of the nations of the world. And we, Your holy people Israel, implore You on this sacred festival, from Jerusalem the city of peace, from Zion the seat of Your glory: Please have mercy on the countries and nations, and keep them from war that destroys the world, Your land. We beseech You, King of Peace, instill speedily in the hearts of all the nations a spirit of peace and brotherhood to unanimously seal a covenant of peace for evermore, as is Your Destiny in the words of Your holy prophets in the vision of the End of Days, Amen and Amen. (Siddur Tefillat Yesharim, according to the Sephardic tradition, Jerusalem)
As Jews, we must protect the balance between our particularism and our universal role, between Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, for the Torah is comprised of the Law of Moses and the Law of the Noahides. Hakham Eliyahu Ben-Amozeg, Rabbi of Leghorn (Livorno, Italy) in the second half of the 19th century, developed in his book Yisrael ve-ha-Enoshut a theology for the descendants of Noah according to the classical tradition of the Sages and Jewish philosophy through the ages. According to this theology, the Jews are the priests of the world, and the descendants of Noah - the righteous gentiles - are like the "lay Israelites." Hakham Ben-Amozeg based this categorization on the model of the Temple as a microcosm of all humanity. Just as a distinction was made in the time of the Temple between the priests and the rest of the Israelites, so too one should separate all of humanity into Jews (priests) and the rest of the descendants of Noah, who are considered outsiders or lay persons [1]. This duality is expressed not only in the system of sacrifices, but also in the form of the Temple (for example, the seventy posts of the Tabernacle) and in the name Jerusalem. The dual form of Yerushalayim, matching this historical duality, is discussed by Ben-Amozeg [2]:
Salem [where Melchizedek, a gentile, was the priest of G-d Most High in the time of Abraham] and Jerusalem are names of the same city... We certainly cannot take lightly the implication for universality that follows from this ... Jerusalem, the focal point of Judaism, derives its right of existence from the history of the city as the center of monotheism since time immemorial. The people of Israel, who made Jerusalem their eternal religious capital, preserved worship of the Lord in its traditional center.
The true Simhat Torah, rejoicing in the Torah, is a process that is progressively improved by better explaining the Torah to ourselves and to the nations of the world. The gemara (Sotah 32a) says that Moses wrote the words of the Torah on the altar in seventy tongues. Rashi's commentary (on Deut. 27:7 and Deut. 1:5), which is based on this gemara in Tractate Sotah, does not make clear whether this meant seventy actual languages or whether it referred to the ways of explication, as in the "seventy faces of the Torah." Ikar Siftei Hakhamim understands Rashi literally: "So that it be understood by each and every nation, each and every person in his own language, as is actually evident in Parashat [Ki] Tavo: 'inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly' (Deut. 27:8), so that the Torah be open and accessible to every human being in the world."

In this spirit, rabbis throughout the history of Jewish thought have attempted to explain Judaism not only in the vernacular, but first and foremost in the terminology of the dominant philosophical approaches of each generation in every civilization - in light of the Hellenistic civilization of the ancient world, in the terms of Arab civilization of the Middle Ages, and in the thought of modern Western civilization which is based on the Christian tradition and the philosophical tradition, as in the works of Kant, Hegel, or Existentialism.

Sukkot reminds us of our role as a light unto the nations, and Shemini Atzeret, which in Israel coincides with Simhat Torah, reminds us of our role as a "light unto the Jews." Only a balance between these two sides of the coin can bring us closer to that day of true rejoicing on which "there shall be one Lord with one name" (Zech. 14:9).

Every Jew and every gentile who wishes to be graced with happiness is obliged to strive for improved rational understanding. Regarding this intellectual endeavor, Maimonides wrote in the context of the laws concerning the descendants of Noah:

All who accept the seven commandments and are careful to observe them are considered among the righteous gentiles of the world and have a share in the world to come. Namely, that they accept them and observe them because the Lord so commanded in His Teaching, and informed us via Moses that the sons of Noah had been thus commanded earlier. But if a person observes them because of the dictates of the mind, such a person is not considered a ger toshav and is not one of the righteous gentiles of the world, rather he is one of their wise men (Hilkhot Melakhim 8:11).
Thinkers throughout the ages, from the Kesef Mishneh through Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn, until modern scholars, have all attempted to understand this halakhah, which seems in contradiction to the rationalism characteristic of the author of Guide for the Perplexed. Could it be that Maimonides is saying that only simple faith in Revelation gives Jews and gentiles a place in the world to come and joy in the Torah, and that the dictates of the mind do not? Spinoza, who failed to understand this halakhah properly, rejected Maimonides' opinion [3]. In contrast, philosophers such as Mendelssohn [4], Herman Ezekiel Cohen [5], and Rabbi Abraham I. Kook succeeded in understanding the depth of this halakhah, which only on the face of it seems to merit Spinoza's wrath. Rav Kook in a sense stood this ruling on its head in the following words:
I am inclined to think Maimonides meant that the merit of "having a share in the world to come" is a rather inferior merit, even though it is a great boon; but since eventhe wicked and the ignorant among the Jews merit this [for all Israel has a share in the World to Come—ed.], in the ranking of spiritual merits it rates lowly. Maimonides was of the opinion that intellectual prowess serves man far more than pious observance alone. Therefore he believed that the level of "having a share in the world to come" was precisely the level for the gentiles of the world, who did not excel in intellectual understanding, rather accepted the faith with the innocence of the sentiments of the heart, and followed the straight path in their actions, having accepted that their mitzvot were indeed given them by the Lord. But whoever succeeds in arriving at the seven commandments of the descendants of Noah by the dictates of the mind is truly wise and full of understanding, and is considered among their wise men, for the merit of wisdom is very great, and needless to say, such a person also has a share in the world to come, but more than that, he is on a level of sanctity that should be expressed by something greater than "having a share in the world to come."
According to this reading, there is no contradiction between the rationalism of Guide for the Perplexed and the religious language of Mishne Torah. Although Maimonides' opinion was expressed in the context of the descendants of Noah (to exclude the category of ger-toshav), he surely considered praiseworthy the intellectual efforts of any Jew who could combine the elements of faith and understanding into an "understanding of the faith," a rational basis for his Judaism. The particularism and universalism of Jewish tradition teach us that rejoicing in the Law of Moses and in the Law of the Descendants of Noah comes only from study and deep investigation.


[1] According to Targum Onkelos (cf., for example, Lev. 22:10): " 'No outsider (Heb. zar) shall eat of the sacred donations,' meaning no secular (layperson, as in New JPS translation), shall eat of the sacred donations.

[2] Yisrael ve-ha-Enoshut, translated from French, Mossad ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem 1967, p. 279.

[3] In his Theological-Political Tractate, end of ch. 5.

[4] From "Epistle to the Priest Lavater," published in 1769.

[5] In section 15 of his book, Dat ha-Tevunah mi-Mekorot ha-Yahadut.