Chavarah- Jewish Community Learning

A blog of Jewish study and traditions. Notes from classes: Torah Study with Rabbi Marder, Toledot and Shabbaton as well as other details found of interest.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Building Drive - A City / A Tower

Genesis 11: 3-9 – Building the City and the Tower
key words: bricks, tar (mortar), city, tower, one language, confuse speech, scattered, babel (confused)

“to make a name for ourselves”

Key topics from Torah Study with Rabbi Marder 8/22
  • The first ‘building drive’
  • sound patterns in the verse
  • contrast between location where you build bricks vs use stone
  • bricks were an important aspect of Mesopotamian culture
  • What is the motivation for building the city? Was it a rebellion against the command to populate the world?
  • Ziggurat – the spiral tower in the ancient near east – to emulate a mountain.
  • Why is there a problem with this?
  • Arrogance of humans to try to ‘reach the heavens’
  • interpretations from: Arthur Green, Talmud Sanhedrin, Rashi, Eli Munk, Samson Raphael Hirsh
  • And more contemporary interpretations – political points
  • Why is God above?

Pieter Bruegel.

Gustave Doré,



    by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

BabEl = confusion – joke on the Glory of Babylon

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Different Languages at Babel

Tower of Babel

Continuation of exploration of Nimrod from Ch 10, he was associated with Babylon and the building of the city and the tower and the turning away from God.

"Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.' Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth." (Genesis 11:1-9)

We focused on the “languages” aspect this week.

“everyone had the same language”

Abravnel - the goal is a single community. There was no ‘private property’ until Nimrod built the city and the tower. (sin was the capitalization of moving away from a communistic view)

How important is unity through language?
How important is diversity?
or is it more 'understanding' that changed?

Different words for language:
Safa VS Lashon
Lips VS Tongue
Language of the tongue is from the depth of life / holy tongue.
Language of the lips is on the surface.

What is the language of God?
A language that everyone understands.

ABRACADABRA - relates to language origins – Hebrew

The sins of those who built the Tower resulted in the language differences and thus cultural differences and mis-communications. The contrast between the richness that the differences give us and the problems of those same differences.

Why is this story in this place of Torah?
Parallels between Adam and Eve in the garden and the building of the city and the tower,

The contrasts between urban and rural living begin at this point.

The question if Language is a unifying factor or not was discussed as well.

11:2 – “from the East” could also refer to “from the old ways”
marks a moving away from God. . .

East is significant – Babel is in Southern Iraq today.

11:3 “come let us make bricks”
no mention yet of what building but emphasis on ‘bricks’ rather than ‘stones’.
Bricks made by man rather than natural like stones.

Etymology – 1st person imperative - signifies the desire to do this.

Historical moment – a new way of building with brick and mortar.

No other Mesopotamian story parallels the Babel story.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Names - Places - Table of Nations

Genesis Chapter 10 – The Table of Nations

Torah Study with Rabbi Janet Marder

8/1/09 and 8/8/09

This rather lengthy list of names and places, many unpronounceable, that delineates the descendants of Noah and shows where they ended up.

Two key messages coincide – “we are all the same and yet we are all different.”

This family ‘tree’ with geographic indicators divide the descendants of Noah’s sons. And yet while it sounds like a list of individual names, it is more likely that it is speaking of the ‘nations’ that come after the sons of Noah.

When this is first read it seems like it has little meaning (like so many of the chapters) a bit of digging into the many commentaries gives it so much meaning.

Ethnology is not the point. These ‘nations’ appear in other near-east literature and it gives a panoramic image of the people of the world ‘post flood’.

The geography is described so we can actually define the map (above)

The later Jews are from SHEM and are within the ‘fertile crescent’

There are 70 ‘nations’ mentioned – many are linked to geographic areas but some are not.

(74 names = 70 nations + 3 sons + Nemrod who is the only ‘individual’ named.)

70 is one of those key numbers that comes up again in Torah. Jacob’s descendants that go to Egypt, 70 elders in the wilderness, 70 members in the Sanhedrin.

There are other later traditions that key on the number 70 as well –

  • 70 mythological gods of the time
  • 70 languages of Torah
  • 70 nations represented at Sukkot

Nahum Sarna - modern Biblical Scholar:

Emphasis on our common origin. Human divisiveness is less important than our common origin. Universalistic view – Humanity is all connected correlates to One God.

Emotions are universal.

Photo exhibit: The Family of Man

The Family of Man (MoMA Exh. #569, January 24-May 8, 1955) was composed of 503 photographs grouped thematically around subjects pertinent to all cultures, such as love, children, and death.

The names are divided within the 3 basic areas –

  • Japheth – relates to the Greek influence
  • Ham – relates to the Egyptian influence
  • Shem – relates to the followers of Abraham – Jews

Names mentioned appear again in Torah and help to better define the who’s who listed here. While it is not an ‘actual anthropology’ there are hints to known places and people in history.

A Few Specifics Noted:

Ashkenaz - from Japheth via Gomer – and this relates to ‘nomadic people’ around the Caspian Sea. This later referred to Germany and is said to be the genealogy that leads to Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe!

Alashia – Mentioned in many texts – ancient name for Cyprus. Ionian - an ethnic division of ancient Greeks.

Tarshish – the place on the Mediterranean where we later see Jonah.

Ref: Cyrus Gordon -

# The Wine-Dark Sea – Homer –

Cyrus Gordon related the name "Tarshish" to a Semitic root also found in the Greek "Thalasos" meaning sea. This explanation is close to that of the Talmud which however seems to connect Tarshish to the Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean in particular.

"C. Gordon attempts to interpret the name Tarshish with the wine-dark sea of Homer" Journal of Near-Eastern Studies 37 (1978), pp. 51-52. "

"Attic thalatta, meaning sea, becomes thalassa in Doric".

Cyris Gordon has also been quoted as identifying Tarshish with America.

Nimrod – an individual – “mighty one”. It seems that Nimrod must have been a known character of his time but the specific details of the ‘epoch of Nimrod’ were lost to time, so it gives much room for midrash and interpretation.

“Mighty Hunter before God”

Some say he rebelled against God. Others say he was ‘godly’.

The Hebrew root – relates to rebellion, warrior…

Rashi – Nimrod hunted men’s souls to entrap them

Samson Raphael Hirsh – progenitor of religious tyrants.

He is said to have misused the name of God.

Abravanel, 15th Century Spanish scholar of Torah, who was a great advocate of republicanism, believed that Nimrod had forced himself upon the people, established the principle that monarchy goes with tyranny, and built great edifices to big-note himself. – Avravanel was very negative based on his personal experiences in Spain in the 15th Century.

Eli Munk, connects Nimrod to the Tower of Babel which is the beginning of a series of his failures as a monarch. Abraham (Avram) was cast into the fiery furnace but was saved by God, then Nimrod is killed by Esau, the other hunter.

Another interpretation is that Nimrod was seeking to slay him on account of the cloak which had belonged to Adam [and which Esau now possessed], for whenever he put it on and went out into the field, all the beasts and birds in the world would come and flock around him. (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 65:16)

The first monarch. Strong rule. Corrupt power.

Nimrod = the spirit of raw power that is always present.

Places mentioned in Genesis 10 link to other places in Tanak – many are known but some not. Most based on the political and economic ties :

Bavel = Babylon = confused – (babbled)

Another interpretation: Bavel = gate = gate of God or gateway to heaven.

Eber = source for Evrit (Hebrew) - the name of the language

Eber and Shem started a yeshiva. (This started a discussion of how they could study Torah before the events of Torah happened!)


Japheth = Hellenistic Culture / Arts & Science


Shem = Moral Ethics / Truth / Ideal

‘One can get the aesthetics BEFORE they can get the ethics!’

Themes of Torah: Include the younger son prevailing over the older son – true here also as Shem is the younger son.

Overall: Polarized struggle between the universalistic view and the dominance of one people over another. This is a tension in Torah.

Generation of Division

Literary pattern here shifts from unity to division to unity.

Judah Ha-Levi, was a Jewish physician, poet and philosopher. He was born in Toledo in Spain, about 1085 and died in about 1141 soon after he moved to the Holy Land.

My heart is in the East

My heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West;

How can I taste what I eat and how could it be pleasing to me?

How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet

Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I am in the chains of Arabia?

It would be easy for me to leave all the bounty of Spain --

As it is precious for me to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

NEXT – Languages and the human hubris!