Truth, Understanding, Insight

Precious Promises

1st August 2016, hej


18) Modern Jewish understanding of the promises

Comprehension of text, unfortunately, due to reader pre-conceptions, tends to be more than just understanding the individual words. For example, to a person who has a conception in their mind that Abraham has gone to heaven, the promise of the land he was looking at seems nonsense and they feel they have to interpret it as meaning something else. The idea of a soul living forever and going to heaven is of pagan (non-Jewish) origin. The Bible says souls die. When we look at Jewish writings we can find evidence they understand that the land promised to Abraham is Canaan (now modern Israel).

One source, a Jewish source for Jews, is Hayim Halevy Donim’s, ‘To pray as a Jew’. In the Chapter on grace after meals Donim points out that the Jew is required by scripture to recite a blessing after eating. The grace has four blessings. Donin summarises, “The first blessing speaks of God providing food to sustain all the life that He created in the world. The second blessing speaks of Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and the Torah, and the covenant of circumcision. The third blessing…expresses a prayer that God rebuild Jerusalem and its holy temple and restore the Davidic Dynasty – all elements in Israel’s redemption”. As Donin points out most religions pray before eating and thank God with something resembling the first blessing.

Following is the beginning and end of Donin’s translation of the second blessing

We thank the Lord our God, for the desirable, good and spacious land that Thou gave our forefathers as a heritage, for having brought us up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed us from slavery: for thy covenant that Thou sealed in our flesh: for thy Torah which Thou taught us…… as it is written: ‘when you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you’. Blessed art thou, Lord for the land and the food.

Donin then proceeds to explain that the Torah referred not to the land where the food comes from, but to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. He says the context makes this clear. This has forced the sages to understand why this may be! Donin suggests that Judaism was sustained by this hope of one day going to Eretz Yisrael, “it (the land) lived within them: in every prayer, in every holyday, in every ceremony, day in and day out”. As the sages understood the Torah to be speaking of Israel, they added the section dealing with the covenant to remind people that, “God made a covenant with Abraham, giving to him and to his descendants as an everlasting possession, the land that was then known as Canaan”. The sages said that if one left out the reference to ‘the desirable, good and spacious land’ the grace has not been said.

The third blessing begins and ends as below:

Be merciful, Lord our God, to thy people Israel, to thy city, Jerusalem, and to Zion, the dwelling place of thy glory, to the royal house of David, Thine anointed, and to the great and holy temple that was called by thy name…….rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, soon in our days. Blessed art thou Lord who in his mercy builds Jerusalem.

The sages say that the blessing has not been said unless the kingdom of the house of David is mentioned and Donin suggests, “this phrase reflects the national yearning for political sovereignty as symbolised by the coming of the Messiah”. We remember at this point that this blessing is said after eating every meal, and it is said despite Israel being in occupation of Jerusalem since 1967. It is clear the sages of the Talmudic era understood the promises to David as being literal, concrete and deliverable despite Israel’s disobedience (for it is in His mercy that Jerusalem is to be re-builded).

These issues are raised in blessing after each meal, and also on the Sabbath when the Amida of 18 blessings is recited. These blessings are recited standing facing Eretz Yisrael. In Israel they are said facing Jerusalem. In Jerusalem they face the Temple Mount. It is said twice. Six of the 18 blessings speak of the stages of redemption and it is agreed they refer to a chronological order of events. With the ingathering of Jews to Israel, followed by the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple followed by the coming of Messiah. Donin notes that Maimonides(1135- 1204CE) states Messiah will come first, and these events follow with an initial ingathering being only partial, with Messiah completing the task.

Donin understands the hope of the Jew to be a political one. His modern interpretation makes the application of the scripture to be even more concretely related to the land of Israel, than older interpretation. He is possibly influenced by the nationalism of Zionism.