Israel Drazin

Thoughts on the portion Ki Thissa, superstition, and rabbinical Judaism

The weekly portion of Ki Thissa begins with counting the adult male Israelites from age twenty, by each giving a half shekel so “that there not be a plague among them when you count them,” and raises the question if this is superstition. This is followed by instructions to build a laver where Aaron and his sons will wash their hands and feet, the laws of anointing oil to consecrate the Tabernacle and the priests, the ingredients for incense and when and how to use it, followed by the laws of the Sabbath. Chapter 32 tracks the episode of the worship of the Golden Calf and God’s and Moses’ reactions. Chapter 33 contains the tale of Moses requesting to see God’s glory. Chapter 34 has verses 14-26 that Bible critics preposterously call a “Ritual Decalogue” distinct from the “Moral Decalogue” in Exodus 20.

  • There are conflicting ideas among Bible commentators about whether counting people is improper, even dangerous. Some say Jews should never count other people. They contend that Moses did not count the people in this portion lest they die as punishment. He counted coins. Those who hold this view do not even count the number of men needed for a minyan, a quorum of ten required for specific synagogue prayers. They do so in Yiddish, saying “nisht aince, nishst tzvei…,” not one, not two, and continuing. Others say this is foolish, irrational superstition. Rashi, relying on a Midrash, who is usually superstitious, inconsistently comments on Exodus 1:1, “Even though [the Torah] counted [Jacob’s family] during their lifetime by names [in Genesis 46:8ff], He [God] counted them after they died to make known His love of them.” Yet, in his commentary on Exodus 30:11, Rashi refers to II Samuel 24 and states that counting gives power to the evil eye.
  • II Samuel 24 is an example of the disagreement among biblical commentators in how they understood the tale of King David’s census. Abarbanel, for instance, like Rashi, claimed the census provoked an evil eye. The Aramaic Targum asserted that the census caused Satan to kill soldiers. Maimonides offered a rational explanation.
  • The final chapter of II Samuel, chapter 24, contains one of the most incomprehensible stories in the Bible, a challenging inexplicable theological event. King David orders his commander Joab to assemble soldiers to tally the people. After counting for nine months and twenty days, Joab returns to the capital and reports that he counted eight hundred thousand Israelite males who could be mobilized for war and five hundred thousand men with similar martial qualifications from the tribe of Judah.
  • The census was to procure soldiers for an upcoming battle. David dispatched his general and senior officers for the census because they had the ability to determine who was fit to be mustered into the military force.
  • David’s army was mobilized and went to war. They won but suffered huge losses, 70,000 soldiers followed by a plague. As previously stated, many traditional commentators insisted this was a divine punishment.
  • A more rational explanation is that a publicly known census, especially one that lasted over nine months and involved senior military officers traveling through the entire Israelite nation, must have come to the attention of Israel’s enemy, the country that David was assembling forces to fight. Once the enemy learned about the mobilization, the numbers of their opposing forces, and the areas from which they were drafted, they undertook preventative measures, with enormous negative consequences to the Israelites.
  • Why were the soldiers punished for David’s foolish act? The death of the 70,000 was not punishment. It was the natural consequence of David’s action.
  • We can understand verse 30:12 rationally. It states, “When you count the Israelites by number, each man should give a ransom for himself to God when you count them so that there will be no plague among them when you count them.” Moses’ counting was done to see the number of survivors after many Israelites were killed for worshipping the Golden calf. The plague likely resulted from contamination from the many dead bodies. Giving the coin to the Tabernacle as “a ransom for himself” was how the man cleansed himself for any act or thought he may have had during the Golden Calf service. By donating to the Tabernacle, he showed his allegiance to God and his hope that the donation would result in him not dying because of the contamination.
  • This issue of superstition is important for two reasons. (1) We need to keep in mind that Jews are not Torah Jews but Rabbinical Jews. The Torah was written for the generation it was given to. It contains some ideas such as slavery, sacrifices, an eye for an eye, which are not ideal when read literally. But the Torah is masterfully written. It gives multiple hints on how to implement what it is saying in an ideal manner. It reduces the hardships of slavery and sacrifices. It told the Israelites to obey their leaders and judges. The rabbis understood this and explained the Torah in this manner. We need to obey the rabbinical interpretations. (2) We must also learn to abandon superstitions and use our intelligence. There is no such thing as an evil eye or Satan. “Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
  • Rabbi Dov Linzer, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of YCT Rabbinical School, posted the rabbinical view of the rabbis’ authority to interpret Torah on the internet on September 26, 2016. He wrote, “What is the basis for rabbinic authority? Why do we follow the Talmud? Why is the Rabbis’ interpretation of Torah mitzvot binding on us? The Talmud tells us that the answer to some of these questions can be found in our parasha. Much of parashat Shoftim is devoted to institutions of authority: the court system, the king, the prophet, and those whose job it is to interpret the true meaning of the mitzvot of the Torah. The Torah states that if something is hidden from you, ‘You shall arise, and get thee up into the place which the Lord thy God shall choose.’ It continues: And you shall come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days and enquire; and they shall tell you the sentence of judgment. And you shall do according to the sentence, which they shall tell you from that place which the Lord shall choose, and you shall observe to do according to all that they inform thee” (Deuteronomy 17:8-11).
  • Rabbi Linzer also addresses the question shouldn’t we rely on the ancient rabbis. The “Talmud comments on the phrase, “the judge that you will have at that time”: “Yiftach in his generation was like Shmuel in his generation” (Rosh HaShannah 25b).” Even though Samuel was a prophet and Yiftach was only a military commander, they may offer interpretations equally.
  • A good example of a superstition that the rabbis disliked, but gave it a rational interpretation is tashlich, a ceremony performed on the New Year holiday Rosh Hashanah to bribe and silence Satan. Jews recite prayers near a body of water, preferably a river, stream, or any water containing fish. They toss breadcrumbs or other foods to the fish as a bribe, confident that the fish would take the food and deliver it for them to Satan, and the bribe would stop Satan from accusing them of past misdeeds before God. The idea is based on the primitive notion in many cultures that God does not make decisions without first consulting with angels and demons and that they can persuade God to act contrary to the interests of humanity.
  • Some rabbis recognized the pagan roots of tashlich but chose to allow the continuation of the custom because of the rabbinic principle minhag avoteinu Torah hi, “the customs of our ancestors is a law (for us).” However, they set about disguising its origin, rationalizing it, and turning it into a symbolic ceremony with religious significance.
  • For example, Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520–1572) argued that tashlich is a symbolic prayer for a good life, a blessing that Jews should multiply like fish in water, and an opportunity to observe the mighty wonders of God who made the sea.
  • Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555–1630) wrote in his Shney Luchot Habrit that Jews go to the water to see fish. This prompts them to think that just as fish have no eyelids and their eyes are always open, Jews should always keep their eyes open to God.
  • Many rabbis opposed the tashlich Despite the attempt of other rabbis to rationalize, ennoble, and spiritualize it, it was clear to them that the root and purpose of the practice lay in ancient pagan superstitions. Elijah Gaon (1720–1797) and his disciples did not practice tashlich because they saw it as superstition. Maimonides did not include this rite in his code of Jewish law for the same reason.
  • The rabbis asked, why were the Sabbath laws inserted in the middle of the discussion of the Tabernacle in this week’s biblical portion. Although the Torah does not detail more than a few prohibitions, they used this event to develop thirty-nine different categories of prohibited acts with many sub-categories. They said that acts performed in the building of the Tabernacle are banned on the Sabbath. Thus, the Sabbath laws which are absent from the Torah are another example of Rabbinical Judaism.
  • The rabbis admitted that no biblical source supports the rabbinical laws concerning the Sabbath. They wrote in Mishnah Chagigah 1:8, “the laws of the Sabbath are like heavy “mountains hanging [on the Torah] by a thread.”
  • The first details about the Sabbath laws are in Exodus 16. The Israelites were told to collect a double portion of manna on the sixth They were required to prepare the manna before the Sabbath and forbidden to cook or bake it on the Sabbath. Numbers 11:8 adds a ban against grinding and milling the manna on the Sabbath.
  • The second detailed Sabbath law is Numbers 15:32–36. It describes an episode where the Israelites “found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.” Verse 36 states that he was stoned for this offense. The first prohibition seems to forbid preparing manna on the Sabbath and may not require that the ban applies to other foods. It is possible that the rule only applied to the manna, an important food since it miraculously came from God. The episode of the stick gatherer is more problematic and more obscure. The rabbis felt there was no biblical prohibition against picking up sticks or anything else on the Sabbath. Under rabbinical law, a Jew is forbidden to break a stick or the Sabbath and to carry anything a certain distance. However, there is no indication in the tale that the man did either of these things. More significantly, even if he did, the prohibition is rabbinical and promulgated during the post-biblical period. So, why he was stoned is obscure.
  • A third detailed prohibition is in Exodus 35:3 lo teva’aru eish b’khol moshveikhem b’yom hashabat. The Sadducees of the late Second Temple period, who insisted on maintaining the ancient practices, defined teva’aru as “burn” and translated the verse ‘You may not burn a fire in all of your habitations on the Sabbath day” and sat in the darkness on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, who sought ways to make the laws more lenient and from whom rabbinical Judaism evolved, translated teva’aru as “kindle.” They prohibited making a fire, but if it existed, one could enjoy its light and heat.
  • The rabbis invented the idea of lighting Shabbat candles before the Sabbath begins to emphasize their teaching that having a light on the Shabbat is allowed. It also symbolizes that Shabbat is a warm and enlightening observance.
  • The two versions of the Decalogue, Exodus 20:7–10 and Deuteronomy 5:11–14, add the obligation to refrain from all work on the Shabbat, but the definition of “work,” melakhah in Hebrew, is absent. Perhaps, the stick-gatherer was found guilty of the crime of melakhah as it was understood in ancient times. This ancient understanding may have been very restrictive, and the rabbis made the prohibition more lenient. It is possible that the biblical Sabbath was considered a holy day or a day of rest when everything needed for the day should be completed before the Sabbath began so that no work should be done on the Sabbath itself.
  • It is also possible that the prohibitions regarding Shabbat are based on the work in creating the Tabernacle to stop Jews from doing creative works on Shabbat and remember that God created the world and then rested.
  • All of this is obscure. It was necessary for the rabbis to interpret it. It is clear that, like all other holy days, the biblical Sabbath differed from the Sabbath we have today, and the post-biblical rabbinical laws have no basis in the Torah. As the Mishnah states, they only hang on to the Torah by a thread.
  • Another fundamental law, not in this week’s portion, is also an example of Rabbinical Judaism. This is the law forbidding eating dairy dishes immediately after meat dishes.
  • While there is no hint of this prohibition in the Torah, the rabbis supported their rule on The prohibition to cook and/or eat meat and milk together in Mishnah Chulin 8:1 based on a phrase that appears three times in the Torah, “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” twice in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy.
  • Maimonides recognized in his Guide 3:48 that the verses forbid the boiling of a baby goat in its mother’s milk because this was a pagan ritual.
  • Most Jews feel that change is necessary for Judaism and life in general. An example is the Agunah, a woman whose husband refused to give her a Jewish divorce leaving her unable to marry another man. They equate change with growth and improvement. But they differ in the speed of the change. Reform Jews seek changes now. Orthodox Jews are wary of quick changes.
  • I am in the latter group. I am Orthodox, although I dislike the term. Orthodox means people with the same beliefs. Judaism does not require Jews to have any belief. The word belief is not in the Torah. What is needed is proper behavior.
  • Equally important, I think all Jews should be respected. We should work together. I am constantly reminded that both rabbis and scholars recognize that the second temple and the land of Israel were destroyed because of infighting among Jews. Jews would not have been defeated by the Romans and be in the diaspora today if they could have gotten along with each other in 70 CE.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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