Simchat Torah

October 20-21, 2011

September 29 – October 1, 2010

October 10-11, 2009

Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah.”

The Torah is comprised of the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch. Portions are read in the synagogue throughout the year, from the first chapter of Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) to the last chapter of Deuteronomy (“The Death of Moses”).


In Hebrew it’s called Bereshit, or “In the Beginning.”

Genesis is the “fun” book. Nearly all the Sunday school stories of the Torah hail from Genesis. This includes Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham (the patriarch of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) and Abe’s male line: his son Isaac, grandson Jacob, and great-grandson Joseph (the one with the amazing technicolor dreamcoat, if you’re into that kind of thing.)


In Hebrew it’s Shemot, or “Names.” But the Greeks added some pizzaz. The Exodus tells the story of Charlton Heston, or “Moses”, in Egypt. It includes the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the Ten Commandments, which God gave Moses to civilize the ancient Hebrews when they were cow-worshippers in the desert. (And which Cecil B. DeMille reintroduced to Americans when they were flappers in ’20s.)

DeMilles Ten Commandments, 1923 version
DeMille's "Ten Commandments", 1923 version


The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel, descended from Jacob. In Hebrew the book is Viyakra, “He Called”.

If you’ve ever read the Bible cover to cover (you have way too much free time on your hands, and) you know that Leviticus is where it starts to get wild, if not repetitive. Here, God gives one of his many gentle yet firm encouragements to follow his commands:

27 ” ‘If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, 28 then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. 29 You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. 30 I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you. 31 I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. 32 I will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. 33 I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins.

Leviticus 26

Leviticus also the book that gives us the legal precedent behind California Propositions:

Thou shall not lie with a man as thou lies with a woman.

Leviticus 18:22


In the Hebrew: Bamidbar, “In the Wilderness…”

Don’t let the Hebrew fool you. The name “Numbers” is more representative of how exciting it is. Numbers contains detailed census information about the twelve tribes during the forty years in the desert. But Numbers is also the source of alien-conspiracy theories since time immemorial:

15 On the day the tabernacle, the Tent of the Testimony, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire… 17 Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped… 21 Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. 22 Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out.

Numbers 9:15


Finally we get to Deuteronomy, or “Second Law.” A look back on the Laws of Moses before his death. In Hebrew it’s Devarim: “Things.”

Although t-shirts today proudly proclaim the wisdom of Leviticus 18:22, fewer espouse the need to follow to the letter of the law Deuteronomy 22:

13 If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her 14 and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” 15 then the girl’s father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin to the town elders at the gate… Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, 18 and the elders shall take the man and punish him. 19 They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver…

20 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death…

Although that would make a catchy t-shirt!


All told, the Hebrew Bible contains not ten but 613 Commandments. That’s right, Christians have it easy. Try remembering all these puppies.

Deuteronomy and the Torah end with the death of Moses, Judaism’s greatest prophet.

No one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.

Deuteronomy 34:12

Transfiguration of Jesus

August 6

a: a change in form or appearance; metamorphosis
b: an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change

The transfiguration, celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church each year on August 6, refers to what is perhaps history’s greatest Kodak moment: Jesus talking with the prophets Moses and Elijah (Elias) on the peak of Mount Tabor in 27AD.

Only the Apostles Peter, John and James witnessed the event, and unfortunately none of them posted pics it to their myspace account. (If you have a photograph of the Transfiguration, please email it to us!) Nor do we have any record of what was discussed, for the disciples were too distant to hear the conversation, and Jesus forbade them from even mentioned the event until after the Son of Man had risen.

What we do know comes from nearly identical versions in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Jesus led the three Apostles to the mountaintop where “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light,” says Mark.

Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus,” continues Matthew.

Peter offered to set up three shelters, one for each prophet, but as he spoke a cloud enveloped them. “A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him,” concludes Luke. When the Disciples looked again, the two prophets had disappeared.

Theologians have debated the literalness of the Transfiguration. Most take the Transfiguration as a factual description of an actual event, especially in the Orthodox Church. Others view it as an allegory.

One interpretation of the Transfiguration is that Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets.

In Jesus’ time, Moses was seen as having delivered the Law from God to the people and codifying it during their 40 year trek across the desert. In fact, after Genesis and half of Exodus, that’s what most of the first five books of the Bible are: lengthy lists and descriptions of the laws that governed ancient Hebrew society, from the now obscure laws concerning the treatment of slaves, the ritual sacrifice of goats, and proper stoning technique, to principles still considered the basis of Western law, such as “Thou shall not kill.”

Elijah meanwhile, may have represented the Prophets. Elijah is a prophet in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths (“Ilyas” in Islam), but occupies very little space in any of those religions’ spiritual texts. One of his claims to fame was that he was said to have never died. Instead he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. It was believed his future appearance on Earth would be an imminent predictor of the coming of the Messiah. In the New Testament, folks take St. John the Baptist for Elijah.

For all its celebration among the churches themselves, the event receives very little attention from the general Christian public. And these days a child is less likely to learn about transfiguration from Matthew, Luke, or Mark than from Harry:

“Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts. Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back.”

— Minerva McGonagall, HP 1:8

[2008: This year the Transfiguration falls only a few days away from Islam’s Al-Miraj, the Ascension of the Prophet. During what is often called the “Night Journey,” Muhammad travels first to Jerusalem in a single night, then up to the heavens where he meets the prophets of Islam’s past, including Jesus, Moses, and Abraham. Like the Transfiguration in Christianity, Islamic religious leaders debate whether Al-Miraj is an actual event or symbolic allegory. And like Jesus, Muhammad is transformed prior to the encounter, not by light but by the Qur’an’s most famous open-heart surgery.]

Greek Orthodox Transfiguration