Tag Archives: Bible

Jew of the Week: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen (Credit: CBC)

Leonard Cohen (Credit: CBC)

Leonard Norman Eliezer Cohen (1934-2016) was born in Montreal, the grandson of a Lithuanian rabbi and a Polish immigrant who founded the Canadian Jewish Congress. Cohen grew up very close to his Jewish community, and attended Montreal’s Jewish Herzliah High School, where he was first inspired to take up poetry by a teacher. While studying at McGill University, he published his first set of award-winning poems. His second book of poetry found even more success, and was seen as an important work in Canadian literature, with one critic calling Cohen “the best young poet in English Canada.” Cohen moved to a small island off the coast of Greece and wrote prolifically, publishing several more books of poetry and novels. One of his later books – a Literary Award winner – was inspired by the Hebrew Bible and consisted of 50 poems that Cohen called “prayers”. Meanwhile, Cohen started recording music in the 1960s as poetry did not bring the income he hoped for. His first album was a big hit in the US and UK. It was his seventh album that had his most famous song, “Hallelujah”, which Cohen went through some 80 drafts writing, and “banging his head on the floor”. The song was inspired by various Biblical scenes, including the stories of Samson and Delilah, and King David and Batsheva. It would be covered by over 200 artists in dozens of languages, and become the subject of a whole book and BBC documentary. In 1994, Cohen entered a period of five years of seclusion during which time he was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk. However, he never abandoned his Jewish roots, and said, “I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.” Cohen was known to keep Shabbat throughout his career, even while on tour. In his 2009 concert in Tel-Aviv, Cohen spoke Hebrew and ended the concert with Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing. During the Yom Kippur War, Cohen went to Israel to volunteer at a kibbutz before going to the front lines himself to entertain Israeli soldiers, saying he will “stop Egypt’s bullets”. In his 1972 Jerusalem concert he was so emotional that he had to walk off stage at one point. The crowd started singing to bring him back and a teary-eyed Cohen felt like “the entire audience turned into one Jew”. All in all, Cohen produced 15 albums (the last of which was released just three weeks ago), 13 poetry books, and two novels. He won a plethora of awards – including multiple Junos and Grammys, the Order of Canada, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and inspired countless musicians, poets, and artists. He has been hailed as one of the most influential songwriters and greatest musicians of all time. Sadly, Cohen passed away earlier this week.

Words of the Week

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen performing for the IDF, with Ariel Sharon looking on.

Leonard Cohen performing for the IDF, with Ariel Sharon looking on.

Jew of the Week: Rashi

Illustration of Rashi from 1539

Illustration of Rashi from 1539

Shlomo Itzchaki (1040-1105) was born in Troyes, France, the only child of a rabbi. He began his Torah studies at age 5 under the tutelage of his father. At 17, he married and moved to Worms, Germany to study at the yeshiva of Rabbi Yakar. He later studied under several other rabbis, including his uncle, and the chief rabbi of Mainz. At 25, now himself a rabbi, Itzchaki returned to Troyes and was invited to serve on the town’s rabbinical court. Soon after, he took over as the head of the court, and the central authority on Jewish religious and legal matters. By 30, Rabbi Itzchaki had opened a yeshiva, which went on to become a centre of Torah study for countless Jews. Undoubtedly, the Rabbi is most famous for his profound commentaries on the Bible and Talmud. These are included in just about every publication of the Bible and Talmud since the 1500’s. In these texts, he is referred to simply as “Rashi”, an acronym of his initials. Rashi’s commentary on the Five Books of Moses alone inspired over 300 future commentaries. Even the Christian world studied his texts (here, Rashi was sometimes referred to by his Latinized name, Isaacides). In fact, many Christian commentaries on the Bible are based on Rashi’s texts. One of the more famous ones, that of the monk Nicolas de Lyre, was so heavily drawn from Rashi that de Lyre was nicknamed “Rashi’s ape”. Nonetheless, it was de Lyre’s commentary that inspired Martin Luther, the father of Protestant Christianity, and Luther used this text to produce his famous translation of the Bible. In addition to his commentaries, roughly 300 of Rashi’s other legal texts exist today. These texts are studied by linguistic scholars, too, who are looking to better understand both Hebrew and medieval French. According to tradition, Rashi also worked as a winemaker to support himself financially. He had three daughters who were scholars in their own right, with some suggesting that they completed a number of his unfinished commentaries, and possibly even donned tefillin. Rashi’s grandsons were some of the biggest rabbis of the following generation, including Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam. Recently, an ancient map was discovered showing the location of Rashi’s grave. It happens to be under a public square in Troyes. A monument now stands over the site.

Words of the Week

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.
– Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg