Second Temple Period Rationales for the Torah’s Commandments: Book of Jubilees

Tomb of Patriarchs

Tomb of Patriarchs,

The literature of Second Temple Judaism is both varied and extensive. Under this rubric one may include Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Hellenistic Jewish literature (Philo and Josephus), and the Dead Sea Scrolls. For our purposes today, will be concentrating on three particular works: the book of Jubilees, a pseudepigraphical work dated to sometime after 180 BCE, the works of Philo Judaeus (c. 20 B.C.E.-50 CE), the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher, the biblical antiquities of Josephus, d. ca. 100 CE, and some scattered references in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We will be concerned here with understanding the approach of these authors to determining and presenting rationales for commandments required by the Torah. We shall not discuss in this paper the views of Second Temple authors on the theoretical basis for the authority of Torah prescriptions or those rulings found in Second Temple legal sources. We and other scholars have talked in detail about the theoretical bases for the authority of biblical legislation in a variety of studies. Further, although some helpful background can be gleaned from accounts of the period of the return— the Persian Period, we will confine our study to the Greco-Roman era. In this framework, we note that the study of the rationales for specific commandments, ta`amei ha-mitzvot, has not attracted the attention of academic research. It is our hope that this paper will begin to reverse that trend.

Book of Jubilees

We begin our discussion by looking at the book of Jubilees. This is a work completed sometime soon after 180 B.C.E.  Jubilees rewrites and expands the book of Genesis, stretching from the creation to the end of the book, and continues into Exodus, concluding with laws for observance of Passover. The book is organized around a chronology based on jubilee years, a feature not particularly important to our purposes today. Central to our discussion, however, is the fact that the book follows closely on a principle that the rabbis would later enunciate, namely that the Patriarchs observed, or we might say pre-observed, large parts of the legislation of the Torah before it had been given at Sinai. In this spirit, the book often refers to observance of commandments, especially those pertaining to the holidays and their sacrifices, by the Patriarchs and often connects these observances to specific events in their life or to important principles of Judaism.

As we survey the most important of these examples, we need to be aware of a significant distinction. I would describe it as the difference between the conceptual rationale for a commandment and its etiology. In a certain sense, this gets right to the heart of the very definition of ta`amei ha-mitzvot. Examination of later literature that seeks to provide us with such rationales speaks not to the historical origin of the particular commandment but to its meta-halakhic meaning within the overall framework of Judaism as a holistic phenomenon. We will see some examples of this kind of conceptual rationale in Jubilees. For the most part, however, what masquerades as the rationale for commandments will really be etiology, simply tying the Torah’s commandments retrospectively (to put it in modern Hebrew—retroaqtivi) to the life of the Patriarch and his experiences as already described in Genesis and expanded on in Jubilees. By contrast, when we look at some examples taken from Philo’s Special Laws in our next section, we will encounter actual rationales, for the most part philosophical in nature.

After describing the creation of woman from man, based on Gen. 2:18-25 Jubilees states as follows (Jub. 3:8-12):

In the first week was Adam created, and the rib–his wife: in the second week He showed her unto him: and for this reason the commandment was given to keep in their defilement, for a male seven days, and for a female twice seven days. And after Adam had completed forty days in the land where he had been created, we brought him into the garden of Eden to till and keep it, but his wife they brought in on the eightieth day, and after this she entered into the Garden of Eden. And for this reason the commandment is written on the heavenly tablets in regard to her that gives birth: ‘if she bears a male, she shall remain in her uncleanness seven days according to the first week of days, and thirty and three days shall she remain in the blood of her purifying, and she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor enter into the sanctuary, until she accomplishes these days which (are enjoined) in the case of a male child. But in the case of a female child she shall remain in her uncleanness two weeks of days, according to the first two weeks, and sixty-six days  in the blood of her purification, and they will be in all eighty days.’

The passage asserts the reason for the commandment in Lev. 12:1-5 that requires a longer period of impurity after birth for a woman giving birth to a female than for one giving birth to a male. The explanation is that Eve was created a week after Adam and not brought to him until the end of the second week. Further, Adam entered the Garden of Eden forty days after his creation but Eve, only after eighty days. For this reason, the Torah commands that in the case of a woman who gives birth to a male child, her bleeding is considered not to be menstrual for 33 days, whereas one who gives birth to a female has 66 such days, adding up the totals of 40 and 80 that we mentioned before. We will see a similar proposal in the Dead Sea Scrolls. For now, we should note that this passage is as close as we are going to get to a rationale for a commandment. In wider terms, we might suggest that what we see here is that birth is understood to be a repetition of the creation of the first human beings. Just as those initial human beings are said to have gone through certain experiences, children coming into this world are expected in some way to replicate these experiences. From a phenomenological point of view, what we are really seeing is the retrojection of existing Levitical purity laws back to the pre-Sinai period, indeed to the period of creation, where these laws are being inserted into the narrative. Once this is accomplished, this retrojected material may now serve as the claimed origin for practices later legislated by the Torah. We should note here our view that whenever Jubilees refers to the Heavenly Tablets, this is simply a reference to a preexistent form of the Torah according to the view of the author.

Bordering on etiology is the following discussion of modesty in Jub. 3:30-32. Comparing humans to the animals, the text states:

And to Adam alone did He give (the wherewithal) to cover his shame, of all the beasts and cattle. On this account, it is prescribed on the heavenly tablets as touching all those who know the judgment of the law, that they should cover their shame, and should not uncover themselves as the Gentiles uncover themselves.

On the one hand, this is clearly a protest against public nudity in athletic games during the Hellenistic period.[1] After all, the book of Jubilees objects strongly to the influence of Hellenism as well as to intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. At the same time, this passage seeks to define a fundamental difference between humans and animals, namely that humans are enjoined to wear clothes. Essentially, this passage sees Adam as having observed this requirement immediately after his expulsion from the Garden and, assuming that it is a commandment of the Torah, retrojects it onto Adam.  I regard this is an etiology, because what we see here is not really a reason. We are simply told that because Adam did this (notice that Eve is not mentioned), the heavenly tablets (that is, the pre-existent Torah) describes it as a requirement on the Jewish people.

Regarding the confession of sins, we seem to have a rationale given in Jub. 4:5-6 that is in disagreement with a view of rabbinic Judaism. After the description of the killing of Abel, Jubilees makes the following statement:

And on this account it is written on the heavenly tables, ‘Cursed is he who smites his neighbor treacherously, and let all who have seen and heard say, So be it; and the man who has seen and not declared (it), let him be accursed as the other.’ And for this reason we announce when we come before the Lord our God all the sin which is committed in heaven and on earth, and in light and in darkness, and everywhere.

 This passage is alluding to and  interpreting Deut. 27:24, interpreted together with Lev. 5:1,[2] and asserts that the commandments of these two Torah passages would be violated if not for the requirement that a confession of transgressions be made in connection with the sacrificial rituals required to expiate (accidental) transgressions and the attendant process of repentance. The sages, in the view of many Bible scholars accurately reflecting First Temple theology, saw the purpose of confession (viddui) as part of a religious, internal process of repentance of one’s transgressions. Our text clearly has connected confession with the requirement that witnesses testify to crimes so that criminals can be punished. This represents a completely different rationale and understanding for the commandment of confession than that of the rabbis.

Corresponding to the biblical description of Abraham’s giving a tithe to Melchizedek in Gen. 14:20, an enigmatic passage in Jub. 13:25-28 states:

…for Abram, and for his seed, a tenth of the first fruits to the Lord, and the Lord ordained it as an ordinance for ever that they should give it to the priests who served before Him, that they should possess it for ever. And to this law there is no limit of days; for He hath ordained it for the generations for ever that they should give to the Lord the tenth of everything, of the seed and of the wine and of the oil and of the cattle and of the sheep. And He gave (it) unto His priests to eat and to drink with joy before Him.

This passage clearly indicates that because Abraham had given the tithes to the king of Salem, Melchizedek, the Torah therefore commands that forever tithes should be given. Here, this seems to be nothing more than etiology, since no specific connection is made between the actions of Abraham and the reason for which Jews would be commanded to give tithes later on.

Jubilees includes numerous such passages demonstrating essentially etiologies, claiming that because the Patriarchs were commanded to observe a commandment, therefore the commandment was placed on the Jewish people throughout the ages. Before concluding this section, I would like to give one final example that is closer to being an actual reason. After describing the kidnapping of Joseph,  Jub. 34:18-19 writes as follows:

For this reason it is ordained for the children of Israel that they should afflict themselves on the tenth of the seventh month–on the day that the news which made him weep for Joseph came to Jacob his father– that they should make atonement for themselves thereon with a young goat on the tenth of the seventh month, once a year, for their sins; for they had grieved the affection of their father regarding Joseph his son. And this day has been ordained that they should grieve thereon for their sins, and for all their transgressions and for all their errors, so that they might cleanse themselves on that day once a year.

This passage asserts that the observance of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) came into being for the purpose of making atonement for the kidnapping of Joseph and the use of the blood of a kid to cover it up. We learn here that the date has been fixed on the day on which Jacob heard the sad news of the “loss” of his son, Joseph, and that the specific ritual of the slaughter of a young goat on the Day of Atonement was chosen because of its role in the Joseph story. In this example, we see an actual reason for a commandment being given: the text holds the view that Yom Kippur and its ritual are to atone for the transgression of the sons of Jacob in selling Joseph into slavery and causing their father the terrible pain of believing that Joseph had been killed.

To sum up the attitude to commandments in the book of Jubilees, we can characterize it as the etiology of commandments. Jubilees claims that because the forefathers observed various commandments, they must continue to be observed by Israel. Of course, for us as modern readers, we know that the truth is the reverse. Laws observed by Israel as a result of the commandments of the Pentateuch have here been retrojected onto the forefathers and made to appear as the reason for later observance. Scattered among these etiologies, here or there we will find an actual rationale, but for the most part one connected with the early history of the people of Israel. These are not philosophical or theoretical rationales but rather attempts at finding historical precedent or meaning in the pre-Sinai history of the Jewish people. Indeed, one of the major themes of Jubilees is that Israel’s covenant with God was already established with the Patriarchs. Hence, these for the most part etiological explanation for commandments seek to set their origins in the time of Israel’s forefathers.

[1] Cf. 2 Macc. 4:12. Cf. note of Charles, 29 note 31.

[2] Cf. HAQ.

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One Response to Second Temple Period Rationales for the Torah’s Commandments: Book of Jubilees

  • CJ OBrien says:

    The “Heavenly tablets” in other enochic texts might contain the torah, but i don’t think the term should be understood as “simply a reference to a preexistent form of the Torah”. It’s clearly more than that in passages like 1 enoch 81:2-3:

    “And I observed the heavenly tablets, and read everything which was written (thereon) and understood everything, and read the book of all the deeds of mankind, and of all the children of flesh that shall be upon the earth to the remotest generations. And forthwith I blessed the great Lord the King of glory for ever, in that He has made all the works of the world”

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