Insights on Judaism: The Apocrypha, Lions, Printers and the Parsha

Answers to questions about Judaic practice and custom.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple
PR

THE APOCRYPHA

Q. What are the Apocrypha?

A. The Apocrypha are the “hidden or secret books” excluded from the Hebrew Bible though accepted in some Christian versions.

The Apocrypha contains some colourful stories, though there are also some slight works which appear to lack classical Biblical quality.

Apart from the contents of the Apocrypha in its present form, there were a number of “external books” prohibited to Jews. Examples, in the Talmudic view (Sanh. 100b), are Sadducean works, regarded as heretical, and the book of Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), deemed to be trivial. Bertinoro (the “Bar-T’nura”) adds the works of Aristotle, love songs and novels. The Tiferet Yisra’el adds the works of Homer and the writings of idolaters.

Clearly these are books which the sages considered to be dangerous from either a theological or moral point of view or both. But they are books deriving from a later age when there was a fear that Greek culture would spread.

As far as the Apocrypha itself is concerned the criterion appears to be that works written too late (after Ezra) and/or lacking sanctity (i.e. without evidence of the prophetic spirit or the ru’ach hakodesh) were regarded as unsuitable. The test was therefore the date and/or the content of the books. Since such works usually contained Divine names, they were not destroyed but “hidden away”.

However, some Apocryphal material parallels passages in the Talmud (e.g. some parts of Ben Sirach); some material in the Apocrypha is esteemed for its wisdom; some (e.g. Maccabees) is useful as a historical source – but Apocryphal books are not found in the Tanach and are not part of the synagogue readings.


LIONS IN JERUSALEM

Q. Why is there a lion on the emblem of the city of Jerusalem?

A. Lions were known in Biblical times. The lion had several Hebrew names, especially “arieh”. In Jacob’s final message to his sons (Gen. 49:9) he calls Judah “gur arieh” – “a lion’s whelp”.

The Biblical lion was probably not the great African lion but a smaller variety, though it still symbolised strength, majesty and valour.

Israel as a whole are compared to a lion (Num. 23, 24). Both David and Solomon are stated as having killed a lion (Judges 14, I Sam. 17). Lions were part of the decoration of the Temple (I Kings 7:29) and golden lions stood on either side of Solomon’s throne and on both sides of its steps (I Kings 10:19-20). A lions’ den plays a major role in the story of Daniel.

In rabbinic tradition, God’s voice is powerful like the roar of a lion (Ber. 3a), and lions are introduced into many other stories and contexts. The Talmud calls it the king of beasts (Hag. 13b: is this the first time this phrase is used?). The Mishnah urges a person to be as brave as a lion to do the Divine will (Avot 5:20).

In time the lion became a common motif in Jewish ceremonial art and is usually the only specific creature used in synagogue decoration; it very frequently flanks the Ark curtain, Torah covers and Torah breastplates. Clearly it represents dignity, majesty and strength. But is this the reason for its association with Jerusalem?

This is a possibility, but it must be pointed out that the Biblical name Ariel used for Jerusalem several times in Isaiah 29 may mean, not “lion of God”, but “altar-hearth of God”.


HEIDENHEIM & ROEDELHEIM

Q. Why do some heirloom prayerbooks bear the names Heidenheim and Roedelheim?

A. Wolf Benjamin, the son of Shimshon, born in 1757, used to call himself “Ish Heidenheim”, a man from Heidenheim, the village in Bavaria from which he originated. His early studies made him a passionate believer in the need for scrupulously accurate texts of Hebrew works.

By the end of the 18th century he had a printing shop in Roedelheim, a suburb of Frankfort-am-Main. Not only did he publish the works of other authors, but he produced books of his own, especially machzorim for the festivals and two editions of the daily prayer book. He was very careful with the Hebrew text and the quality of his printing.

The title page of his books bore his Hebrew signature, though this did not achieve the desired effect of preventing plagiarism or pirating of his works. Nonetheless, genuine Heidenheim/Roedelheim editions were always highly respected and found their way all over the world. As a result, there are still copies in many Jewish homes, though pirated editions betray their inauthenticity by their statement in small letters, “as correct as any edition ever printed”, followed in large print by the name “Roedelheim”.

It is said that though countless tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Roedelheim were vandalised by the Nazis, Heidenheim’s grave survived.

OUR ANCESTORS’ MERITS

The Torah promises that if we listen to God’s will, He will carry out the covenant He made with our ancestors (Deut. 7:12).

But the sages say in the Midrash to Psalm 146, “If a person does not do good deeds, they cannot rely on the deeds of their ancestors”.

This accords with the second of the Ten Commandments, which tells us that if we do the right thing, God’s approval will reverberate for a thousand generations.

Everything depends on our own deeds. If we do the wrong thing, we cannot expect God to turn away and take no notice. If we sin, we cannot expect the good deeds of our ancestors to save us.

So what is the point of the long established concept of “z’chut avot”, “the merits of the ancestors”?

Our ancestors are there to help us, to guide us along the right path, to support us when we feel too weak to make the big decisions in favour of keeping the Divine commandments.

The lesson is reinforced by the opening paragraph of the Amidah, where we praise the Almighty as “our God and the God of our fathers”.

If we decide that He will be our God, this makes us at one with our ancestors; and because He is the God of our ancestors, the thought of their piety leads us to make Him our God.


THE SHEMA & THE QUALITY OF THE COMMUNITY

In this week’s reading we encounter the second paragraph of the Shema.

Amongst its contents is a repetition of the laws of t’fillin, “You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be symbols between your eyes” (Deut . 11:18).

The difference between the command in the first paragraph of the Shema and the one we now see in the second paragraph is the singular “you” in the first paragraph and the plural in the second. In modern English the same word, “you”, is used for both. In archaic English the distinction is clearer, between “thy” (singular) and “your” (plural).

This suggests the dichotomy between the individual (“thou”) and the community (“you”). “I” (singular) am one and unique; “we” (plural”) are part of each other but the “we” has its own personality.

When it comes to keeping the mitzvot, just as there is a personal obligation on each one of us; the community as a whole has to act together to ensure that “your camp shall be holy” (Deut. 23:15).

There are two ways of judging the quality of a Jewish community – what the individual member does, and what the community does.

Yehudah Halevi utilised this distinction in a famous explanation (in his Kuzari) of communal prayer. He said that each individual has an obligation to pray (not just because the law requires it but because anyone who looks at God’s world will automatically utter the praises of the Creator), but so does the community, since in a group one member reinforces the other and overcomes the other’s defects.

To Yehudah Halevi we can add that there are things which the community needs to do, and is seen as doing, as a group, and hence the community has its overall group aspirations and attainments.


A STIFF-NECKED PEOPLE

Several times – including in this week’s portion (Deut. 9:6) – the Torah calls Israel “am k’shei-oref”, a stiff-necked people. In today’s idiom “stiff-necked” means intransigent, unbending, rigid, can’t be budged, impossible to move.

There was once a notice put up by a stiff-necked person on his office wall, “Don’t confuse me with logic. My mind’s made up!” It seems that being stiff-necked is not highly regarded.

However, the opposite is no great bargain either – being weak, vacillating, bending with the wind, constantly compromising with principles. Some politicians have their own take on this characteristic when they say “I never promised to keep my promises!”

The best way is probably to have the instinct to know when to be insistent and when to be pragmatic. Being insistent means having the steady nerves to maintain one’s standards regardless of the changing fashions; being pragmatic means being aware that new circumstances sometimes call for a new approach


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