Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Torah study meets the aha moment

As we count the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuot, as we go from Egypt to Sinai to receive the Torah, we should do more than just count.

We should study Torah each day, especially if that is not our normal practice. One can study the weekly Torah portion (the complete portion, not the minimalist triennial version). There are seven aliyot in each portion, so it is easy to use one aliyah a day for study.

Another way to study Torah is by delving into the volumes of insights by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, or our own Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, or such volumes as the JPS Torah Commentary, its Miqra’ot Gedolot series, and the late Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut’s Torah: A Modern Commentary. An excellent entry point to Torah study is the six-volume “Studies In” series by Nehama Leibowitz.

True, the Torah has been studied inside out for at least 3,000 years. Yet, as our understanding of things grows, so too does our understanding of the words of the Torah.

There always is something new to be found in these ancient words. That is how two words that open Leviticus 19:11, “lo tignovu,” “do not steal,” become a law against copyright infringement, or how “lifnei iver,” do not put a stumbling block “before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) becomes the Torah’s freedom of information act.

Then there is the exhilaration of the aha moment, when a light bulb goes off above your head and you find in the words of Torah something that has always been there (at least to the beholder), but no one seems to have noticed before.

As examples, let me give you my two recent aha moments.

The first has to do with conversion to Israelite religion (meaning Judaism). Supposedly, the Torah says absolutely nothing about conversion, or how it is accomplished. Syrian Jews, especially, reject the validity of conversion because of this.

As I was studying one of the Torah readings during Pesach, I realized that the Torah does discuss conversion, does approve of it, and does tell us how to accomplish it. It does not do so overtly, however, because it takes conversion for granted. It accepts conversion as a given.

This is what the Torah says in Exodus 12:43-48: “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: This is the law of the Passover offering: No [non-Israelite] foreigner shall eat of it. But any [non-Israelite] slave a person has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. No [non-Israelite] bound or hired laborer shall eat of it….The whole community of Israel shall offer it. If a [non-Israelite] stranger who dwells with you would offer the Passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be as a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it.”

Put another way, only Israelites (meaning Jews) may bring the Passover offering. This is not discriminatory; it is simply common sense. The Passover offering recalls the night God passed over Israelite homes, sparing their firstborn the fate of all the other firstborn in Egypt, regardless of nationality. For a non-Jew to bring the Passover offering is akin to thanking God for killing non-Jewish firstborns. If these non-Jews do want to make the offering, however, they must be circumcised first.

In other words, they must convert first.

When the Torah mentions “circumcision,” it refers only to brit milah, the covenant of circumcision, the means by which males become Jews. So when it says non-Jews can bring the Passover offering once they are circumcised, it is talking about conversion and its method. It also is saying that once converted, Israel’s past becomes the convert’s past, as well. His or her firstborn also were saved. He or she, too, left Egypt on the journey to Sinai and the Land of Israel.

Couple this, say, with Deuteronomy 23:8-9, which allows Edomites and Egyptians to enter “the congregation of the Lord in the third generation,” and the activities of Abraham (Maimonides, in Mishneh Torah Laws of Pagan Worship Chapter 1, has Abraham amassing converts 35 years even before we encounter him in Genesis 12). Clearly, the Torah assumes the propriety of conversion and details its method for men. (That immersion in a mikvah is not mentioned in Exodus 12:43-48 probably is because, at that point, there was yet no concept of purity.)

The second aha moment came on the last day of Pesach, when the festival calendar was read from Deuteronomy (verse 16:16). Here is the relevant text: “Three times a year — on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths — all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose.”

Most everyone accepts that when God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites, He almost always means just the men. If so, why say “all your males shall” here? Why not simply say “you shall”? I believe it is because “you shall” always includes both men and women, unless the commandment involved is gender-specific. Here, males are singled out because otherwise women, too, would be obligated. Yet someone has to stay home and mind the store, or the farm, or the family. In those days, especially, it was a lot easier for the men to leave for several days than it was for the women to do so, and certainly not three times a year.

I just had another aha moment. Could this be what gave someone centuries later the idea to exempt women from most positive time-bound commandments — an exemption the Torah knows nothing about?

If so, this could have a profound effect on the time-bound exemption, because it would limit it to only the most extreme hardships, not merely for such matters as donning tefillin, say.

Seriously, the aha moment is such a wonderful and exhilarating experience. Count the days between now and Shavuot, but also study some Torah and perhaps experience an aha moment or two for yourself.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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