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January 20, 2017 / 22 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Samson’

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Influence In America (Part I)

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

Editor’s Note: This column contains excerpts from Dr. Levines “Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and America – an Historical View,” which appeared in The World of Hirschian Teachings, An Anthology on the Hirsch Chumash and the Hashkafa of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer Foundation, Feldheim, 2008, 199- 210).


Much has been written about Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s influence on German Jewry, and he is justifiably credited with having saved Orthodox Judaism in Germany. However, Rav Hirsch’s influence was not confined to Germany and did not end with his passing in 1888. His legacy continues to this day and is felt all over the world.

It is my intent to sketch how Hirschian ideology has fostered the flourishing Torah life we see today in America by indicating how a number of rabbis utilized this ideology. Such a sketch cannot, of course, be comprehensive. Nonetheless, it does provide perspective on how far-reaching the influence of RSRH has been on the American scene.


Rabbi Dr. Bernard Drachman (1861 -1945)

In 1899 Rabbi Dr. Bernard Drachman published the first English translation of Rav Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters.[i] Rabbi Drachman’s life story is an interesting one and is told in his autobiography The Unfailing Light: Memoirs of an American Rabbi.[ii]

Raised in a non-shomer Shabbos home, he went to public school in Jersey City, New Jersey, and then Columbia College. While in high school and college, Rabbi Drachman also attended the (Reform) Temple Emanuel Hebrew Preparatory School of New York City for six years. In 1882 he graduated Columbia with honors and decided to study for the rabbinate. Temple Emanuel granted him a scholarship to pursue rabbinical studies with the idea that he would prepare for the Reform rabbinate. He went to Germany, studied at the University of Breslau and the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, and earned his rabbinical degree. In addition, he matriculated at the University of Heidelberg and obtained the degree of Ph.D. Magna Cum Laude in 1885.

As a result of his studies in Germany, Dr. Drachman became completely committed to Orthodox Judaism. Temple Emanuel had sponsored his studies with the understanding that when he returned he would become its assistant rabbi. But given his commitment to Orthodoxy, Rabbi Drachman was forced to make it clear to the congregants of Temple Emanuel that he would only serve an Orthodox congregation, despite the fact that Reform rabbis usually earned considerably more than their Orthodox counterparts. The result was that “he speedily became known as an enthusiastic and energetic champion of Orthodox Judaism, one of the then very few English-speaking representatives of the ancient faith in the America of that time.”[iii]

During his summer vacation in 1883 Dr. Drachman visited Frankfurt-on-the-Main. His recollections of this visit show what a deep impression the community that Rav Hirsch had established made upon him.

In the latter place [Frankfurt] we [Rabbi Drachman and his cousin Solomon] not only saw a beautiful city but also a most wonderful Jewish community, the like of which was even then difficult to find anywhere else in the world. In size the city was not so very impressive, numbering not more than approximately twenty-five thousand souls, but in spiritual and cultural quality and importance to Judaism it was most exceptional and noteworthy.

Frankfort-on-the-Main was the city of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, inspired and inspiring leader in Israel, man of God if ever there was one. His soul glowed with profound love and loyalty to the ancient faith. From his lips poured streams of eloquence to convince the doubting, to strengthen the wavering, and to satisfy and delight the already convincedly devout. The impress of his mighty spirit was upon the whole Jewish life of the queenly city. The number of business establishments closed on Sabbaths and Jewish holy days, the large and beautiful synagogues and the throngs which entered them to worship, even on ordinary days of secular occupation, and a dozen other indications, all gave unmistakable testimony to the fact that here was a city of enthusiastically loyal Jews.

The Orthodox Jews, however, were not the majority of the Jewry of Frankfort. Rabbi Hirsch’s congregation did not even belong to the official Jewish community. Legally and technically it was not even a congregation but only a private society, Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft, “Israelitish Society for Religion,” but in numbers it was not greatly inferior to the main community and in zeal and religious fervor it was so superior, that its impress upon the life of the city was far greater and more significant.

The Judaism which Rabbi Hirsch taught, and for which he had gained thousands of adherents, in Frankfort and out, while unswervingly loyal to the Law and the traditions of Israel’s past, was yet something different, something new. It was the religion of the ghetto without the mannerisms or the world-estrangement of the ghetto. It was indeed a wondrously perfect synthesis of the ancient and the modern, of the Oriental-Sinaitic-Talmudic precepts of faith and the life and the speech, the culture, and the demeanor of the modern time and the Occidental world. It was fittingly designated by understanding observers as Neo-Orthodoxy.

Solomon and I met a number of members of the Hirsch community and they all measured up to this standard. Among them were the brothers Jacob and Julius Strauss, who were relatives of Solomon, cousins of his mother, whose maiden name was Strauss. They were wealthy people, bankers doing business in a large way under the firm name of J. and J. Strauss. They were, however, more interested in Jewish religion and culture than in their business affairs.

As their guests on Friday evening, we met in the synagogue, which was filled with devout worshippers. After service we walked together to the Strauss residence, a fine and beautifully furnished apartment in one of the best streets of Frankfort. It was a memorable evening, a remarkable combination of fervent Jewishness and aristocratic demeanor, a perfect illustration of what the rabbis of the Talmud meant when they spoke of “Torah and greatness in one place.” Everything was in accordance with the rabbinical precept that the best which the Jew is and has shall be reserved for the Sabbath. Such was the Friday evening in the Strauss home. Herr Jacob Strauss chanted the Hebrew prayers with dignity and reverence, and Frau Strauss was a most gracious hostess. After the sumptuous repast was concluded, and thanks duly given to the Giver of all good, we passed an hour or so in pleasant, informal conversation. Many questions about America were asked of me, and my answers were received with great apparent interest.[iv]

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Stunning Synagogue Discovered in Huqoq

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

A monumental synagogue building dating to the Late Roman period (ca. 4th-5th centuries C.E.) has been uncovered in archaeological excavations at the ancient Jewish village of Huqoq in Israel’s Galilee.

Revealed in the excavations are a stunning mosaic floor decorating the interior of the building.  Made of small, high-quality colored stone cubes, the mosaic depicts a scene of the biblical judge/warrior Samson tying fiery torches between the tails of foxes, as described in the book of Judges 15.  In another section of the mosaic, two female faces border a circular medallion, with a Hebrew inscription praising those who perform Torah commandments.

 The excavations are being conducted by Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and David Amit and Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and sponsored by UNC, Brigham Young University in Utah, Trinity University in Texas, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Toronto in Canada. Students and staff from UNC and the consortium schools are also participating in the dig.

“This discovery is significant because only a small number of ancient (Late Roman) synagogue buildings are decorated with mosaics showing biblical scenes, and only two others have scenes with Samson (one is at another site just a couple of miles from Huqoq),” said Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the department of religious studies in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences in a press release issued by the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Our mosaics are also important because of their high artistic quality and the tiny size of the mosaic cubes. This, together with the monumental size of the stones used to construct the synagogue’s walls, suggest a high level of prosperity in this village, as the building clearly was very costly.”

Huqoq is located just  west of Capernaum and Migdal.  It was discovered in 2011 by Magness.

Malkah Fleisher

Rationality, Irrationality, And Madness: Core Enemy Differences For Israeli Nuclear Deterrence (Third of Three Parts)

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

What, then, might be most important to Israel’s prospectively irrational enemies, potentially even more important than their own physical survival as a state? One possible answer is the avoidance of certain forms of shame and humiliation. Another would be avoidance of the potentially unendurable charge that they had somehow defiled their most sacred religious obligations. Still another would be leaders’ preferred avoidance of their own violent deaths, deaths that could be attributable to Israeli strategies of targeted killing and/or regime-targeting.

Oddly enough, this last suggestion may be problematic to the extent that, theologically, dying at the hands of Jews for the sake of Allah could be regarded as a distinct positive. In this connection, Israel must recall that there is no greater form of power in world politics than power over death. Dying for the sake of Allah could be regarded in certain contexts as a clerically-blessed passport to immortality.

These tentative answers are only a beginning. Strategic problems are fundamentally intellectual problems. What is needed now is a sustained and conspicuously competent intellectual effort to answer such questions in much greater depth, and breadth.

In the future, Israel will need to deal with both rational and irrational adversaries. These enemies, in turn, will be both state and sub-state actors. On occasion, Israel’s leaders will also have to deal with various complex and subtle combinations of rational and irrational enemies, sometimes even simultaneously.

Ultimately, Israel must also prepare to deal with nuclear madmen, both as terrorists and as national leaders, but first it must fashion a suitable plan for dealing with nuclear adversaries who are neither mad nor irrational. With such an imperative, Israel must now do everything possible to enhance its deterrence, preemption, defense, and war-fighting capabilities. This means, inter alia, enhanced and explicit preparations for certain “last resort” or “Samson” operations.

Concerning any prospective contributions to Israeli nuclear deterrence, recognizable preparations for a Samson Option could serve to convince certain would-be attackers that their anticipated aggression would not be gainful. This is especially true if such Israeli preparations were combined with certain levels of disclosure, that is, if Israel’s Samson weapons were made to appear sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first-strikes, and if these weapons were identifiably countervalue (counter-city) in mission function.

The Samson Option, by definition, would be executed with countervalue-targeted nuclear weapons. It is likely that any such last-resort operations would come into play only after all Israeli counterforce options had been exhausted.

Concerning the previously mentioned “rationality of pretended irrationality,” Samson could enhance Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a national willingness to take existential risks, but this would hold true only if Israeli last-resort options were directed toward rational adversaries.

Concerning prospective contributions to preemption options, preparations for a Samson Option could convince Israeli leaders that their own defensive first strikes would be undertaken with diminished expectations of unacceptably destructive enemy retaliations. This sort of convincing would depend, at least in part, upon antecedent Israeli government decisions on disclosure (that is, an end to “nuclear ambiguity”); on Israeli perceptions of the effects of disclosure on enemy retaliatory prospects; on Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons’ vulnerability; and on an enemy awareness of Samson’s countervalue force posture.

In almost any event, the optimal time to end Israel’s bomb in the basement policy, and thereby replace “deliberate ambiguity” with appropriate forms of disclosure, will soon be at hand.

Similar to Samson’s plausible impact on Israeli nuclear deterrence, recognizable last-resort preparations could enhance Israeli preemption options by displaying a clear and verifiable willingness to accept certain existential risks. In this scenario, however, Israeli leaders must always bear in mind that pretended irrationality could become a double-edged sword. Brandished too flagrantly, and without sufficient nuance, any Israeli preparations for a Samson Option could impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear war-fighting options.

Concerning prospective contributions to Israel’s nuclear war fighting options, preparations for a Samson Option could convince enemy states that any clear victory over Israel would be impossible. With such reasoning, it would be important for Israel to communicate to potential aggressors the following very precise understanding: Israel’s countervalue-targeted Samson weapons are additional to its counterforce-targeted war fighting weapons.

Without such a communication, any preparations for a Samson Option could impair rather than reinforce Israel’s nuclear warfighting options.

Undoubtedly, as was concluded by Project Daniel more than nine years ago, nuclear war fighting should, wherever possible, be scrupulously avoided by Israel. But, just as undeniably, there are some readily identifiable circumstances in which such exchanges could be unavoidable. Here, some form of nuclear warfighting could ensue, so long as: (a) enemy state first-strikes launched against Israel would not destroy Israel’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) enemy state retaliations for an Israeli conventional preemption would not destroy Israel’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) conventional Israeli preemptive strikes would not destroy enemy state second-strike nuclear capability; and (d) Israeli retaliations for enemy state conventional first strikes would not destroy enemy state nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

Louis Rene Beres

Bank of Israel Commemorative Coin Wins Coin of the Year

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

The Bank of Israel’s “Jonah in the Belly of the Fish” two shekel commemorative coin won the Coin of the Year award in the annual competition sponsored by the Krause Publications, the Bank of Israel said in a press release on Monday.

The coin was chosen from among 95 coins by a panel of judges who are experts in the field, including writers, editors, and members of the American Numismatic Association.

The “Jonah in the belly of the fish” coin is the sixteenth commemorative coin in the Biblical Art series issued by the Bank of Israel. The series has included coins such as, “Elijah in the Whirlwind”, “Samson and the Lion”, “And the Waters Were Divided”, and others.

Jewish Press Staff

Palestine, Iran And Israel’s Nuclear Strategy: Critical Notes for an Essential Strategic Policy in Jerusalem (Part II)

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

“For By Wise Counsel, Thou Shalt Make Thy War”

Proverbs 24, 6


            What is Israel to do? Confronting a new enemy Arab state that could act collaboratively and capably  (thanks, largely, to the U.S.) with other Arab states, or possibly even with non-Arab Iran, and also potentially serious synergies between the birth of Palestine, and renewed terrorism from Lebanon, Israel could feel itself compelled to bring hitherto clandestine elements of its “ambiguous” nuclear strategy into the light of day.  Here, leaving the “bomb in the basement” would no longer make strategic sense.


             For Israel, of course, the geostrategic rationale for some level of nuclear disclosure would not lie in stating the obvious (merely that Israel has the bomb), but rather, inter alia, to persuade all prospective attackers that Israel’s nuclear weapons are both usable/secure, and penetration-capable.


             Palestine, too, even if it would not actively seek collaboration with other Arab or Islamic countries, could still be exploited militarily and geographically against Israel by different regional enemies of the Jewish State. Iran and Syria represent the most obvious candidates to carry out any such exploitation. During May 2010, Iran reportedly transferred an undetermined number of Scud missiles to Syria. In Damascus, plans are already being made to smuggle these Scuds into northern Lebanon, from where they could then strike any major city in Israel.


            Israel’s core nuclear strategy, however secret and ambiguous, must always remain oriented toward deterrence.  The Samson Option refers to a presumed Israeli policy that is necessarily based upon an implicit threat of massive nuclear retaliation for certain specific enemy aggressions. This policy, to be sure, could be invoked credibly only where such aggressions would threaten Israel’s very existence. For anticipated lesser harms, Samson threats would likely not appear believable.


            In Jerusalem/Tel-Aviv, the main point of any Samson Option would not be to communicate the availability of any graduated Israeli nuclear deterrent; that is, a deterrent  (resembling what was once called “flexible response” in the U.S.) in which all possible reprisals would be more or less specifically calibrated to different and determinable levels of enemy aggression.  Rather, it would intend to signal the more-or-less unstated promise of a counter city (“counter value in military parlance) reprisal.


            The Samson Option, then, would be unlikely to deter any aggressions short of nuclear and/or certain biological first strike attacks upon the Jewish State.


            In essence, Samson would  “say” the following to all potential attackers:  We (Israel) may have to ‘die,’ but, this time, we don’t intend to die alone.”


            A Samson Option could serve Israel better as an adjunct to particular deterrence and preemption options than as a core nuclear strategy. The Samson Option, therefore, should never be confused with Israel’s main security objective. This principal objective must always be to seek effective deterrence at the lowest possible levels of conflict. 


            To suitably strengthen Israeli nuclear deterrence, visible preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince enemy states that aggression would not be gainful.  This would be most convincing if: (1) Israeli Samson preparations were coupled with some level of visible nuclear disclosure (i.e., ending Israel’s posture of nuclear ambiguity); (2) Israel’s Samson weapons appeared sufficiently invulnerable to enemy first strikes; and  (3) Israel’s Samson weapons were recognizably “counter value” in mission function. 


            Samson could also support Israeli nuclear deterrence by demonstrating a greater Israeli willingness to take existential risks. In matters of nuclear strategy, it may sometimes be better to feign irrationality than to purposefully project complete rationality.  Earlier, in IDF history, Moshe Dayan had genuinely understood this strangely counter-intuitive injunction: “Israel must be like a mad dog,” said Dayan, ” too dangerous to bother.


            Dayan was right. He knew what he was talking about.


             In our topsy-turvy nuclear world, it can be perfectly rational to pretend irrationality.  But in any given Middle East conflict situation, the precise nuclear deterrence benefits of pretended irrationality would have to depend in large part upon a prior enemy state awareness of Israel’s counter value targeting posture. Rejecting nuclear war-fighting as a purposeful strategic option, the Project Daniel Group, in its then-confidential report to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon more than seven years ago (January 16, 2003), recommended exactly such a deterrence posture.


            To strengthen still-possible strategies of preemption, preparations for a Samson Option could help to convince Israel’s own leadership that certain defensive first strikes would be cost-effective. These leaders would then expect that any Israeli preemptive strikes, known under international law as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense,” could be launched with reduced apprehensions of unacceptably damaging enemy retaliations. This complex expectation would depend upon many pertinent factors, including: (1) previous Israeli decisions on nuclear disclosure;  (2) Israeli perceptions of the effects of such nuclear disclosure on enemy retaliatory intentions;  (3) Israeli judgments about enemy perceptions of Samson weapons vulnerability; and (4) a presumed enemy awareness of Samson’s counter value force posture. 


            As with Samsonbased enhancements of Israeli nuclear deterrence,any identifiably last-resort nuclear preparations could support Israel’s critical preemption options by displaying a bold national willingness to take existential risks. In this connection, the steady and undisturbed nuclearization of Iran should come immediately to mind.



LOUIS RENÉ BERES  was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971),  and is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli security matters.  Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945,  he was Chair of Project Daniel, and, in Fall 2009,  published “Facing Iran’s Ongoing Nuclearization: A Retrospective on Project Daniel,”  International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Vol. 22, No. 3., pp. 491-514. Recent related publications include:  Louis René Beres, “Understanding the `Correlation of Forces` in the Middle East: Israel’s Urgent Strategic Imperative,”  The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 4., No. 1, 2009, pp. 77 – 88;  Louis René Beres, “Israel, Iran and Project Daniel,” a Working Paper for the Ninth Annual Herzliya Conference on the Balance of Israel’s National Security and Resilience, Israel, February 2-4, 2009; Louis René Beres, “Israel’s Uncertain Strategic Future,” Parameters: U.S.  Army War College Quarterly, Spring 2007, pp. 37-54; and Louis René Beres, “Israel and the Bomb,”  International Security (Harvard), Summer 2004,  pp. 175 – 180. Professor Beres is also the author of occasional opinion columns in such newspapers as The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Washington Times; Los Angeles Times; The Christian Science Monitor; USA Today; The Boston Globe; Chicago Tribune; Ha’aretz andThe Jerusalem Post. He is Strategic and Military Affairs analyst for The Jewish Press.

Louis Rene Beres

Innovation and Imitation in Albrecht Dürer’s Samson

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

Albrecht Dürer: Art in Transition
July 26-September 21, 2008
Museum of Biblical Art
1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New York


German artist, Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut “Samson Slaying the Lion” (1497-98) shows the warrior-prophet with the unkempt hair and beard of a Nazarite, sitting on the back of a lion, whose jaws he pulls apart. The lion looks up at Samson with surprise, its arched tongue mimicking Samson’s curly hair as it gasps for breath. Although Dürer has carefully etched the castles and cityscape in the background, he (probably intentionally) blurs the boundary between Samson, the lion and its wavy mane, and a cliff in the middle-ground. The viewer gets the sense that man and cat meld, and Samson is perhaps fighting not only an actual lion but also grappling with the inner beast that leads him to massacre Philistines and ultimately take his own life.

Dürer’s Samson, which is part of the exhibit “Albrecht Dürer: Art in Transition” at the Museum of Biblical Art, bears some resemblance to the biblical Samson, with a few important modifications. Samson seems to have encountered the lion descending from the top right corner, which follows the biblical account of Samson and his parents going down to Timnah.

According to Judges 14, Samson demanded that his parents take a Philistine wife for him from Timnah. His parents, not knowing that this intermarriage was divinely ordained, asked him, “Is there no wife for you among the daughters of your brothers and in my whole nation [the text uses the singular] – that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” Still, Samson persisted, so his parents accompanied him to Timnah. Along the way, at the vineyards of Timnah, Samson killed a young lion without his parents’ knowledge, which suggests his parents went through the vineyard while Samson circumvented it, not wanting to temp himself with the grapes that were forbidden to him as a Nazarite.

Dürer removes Samson’s parents from his woodcut, which explains why they are ignorant of their son’s wrestling feat. But the woodcut also removes the vineyard, replacing it with foliage that looks more European than Middle Eastern, a move that hardly surprises Ena Heller, executive director of MOBIA. “Very often Dürer’s landscapes reflect his German surroundings, or his trips, so they cannot necessarily be read as either historically accurate, or symbolic,” she said in an interview.

“Dürer’s fascination for nature led him to ‘portraying’ landscapes which may or may not connect directly with the narrative theme.” Heller added that artists in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance often set biblical scenes in contemporary landscapes, and mixed and matched contemporary and biblical characters to populate those scenes. 



Israhel van Meckenem. “Samson Slaying the Lion”, 1475. Engraving.

From the collection of the British Museum.


In fact, a good argument can be made that the woodcut was influenced by Dürer’s fellow German artist, Israhel van Meckenem. Van Meckenem’s 1475 engraving “Samson and the Lion”, which appears in several collections, including the British Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has many of the same elements as Dürer’s: Samson sitting on the lion’s back, the lion’s jaws being wrested apart, similar treatment of Samson’s and the lion’s curls, and a castle on a cliff in the background.

Surely there are also differences: van Meckenem shows a younger Samson with no beard, while Dürer turns the lion around so that he can see his antagonist, while van Meckenem lion faces away from Samson. Even though it seems clear that Dürer was influenced, at least in part, by his predecessor’s work, he adds an elaborate landscape and cityscape where van Meckenem’s remains relatively bare.


Van Meckenem’s Samson is by no means the first instance of artistic interpretation of this biblical narrative, which has been depicted quite a few times. The so-called Boucicaut Master, who worked in Paris in the early 15th century – often directly for the French king – created a “Samson and the Lion” in 1415, which shows Samson, dressed in a bright red robe with a pointed red hat, wrestling a lion by prying its jaws apart. The Boucicaut Master shows the lion’s tongue sticking out of its mouth almost like a cigarette, and he surrounds the scene with trees and cliffs. Two figures, clad like Samson with hats and robes, witness the scene from above, perhaps a Christian interpretation of the text, or perhaps alluding to Samson’s rivals who later learn the riddle of the honeycomb derived from the lion’s mane by bribing Samson’s wife. 




Albrecht Dürer. “Samson Slaying the Lion”, 1497-98. Woodcut.

Courtesy of the Museum of Biblical Art.


Another image, which dates from 1430, shows Samson attacking the lion’s jaws. The work, by the so-called Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, a Netherlandish illuminator named for his most important patron, is in the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek at The Hague. Like in the Boucicaut Master’s work, this Samson rides the lion, which faces away from the prophet, as if it is a horse. The rider and lion move from left to right, with their backs to a walled city, passing between green cliffs and trees.

This work follows another “Samson kills the lion with his bare hands”, created in 1332 by Michiel van der Borch. In the 14th century illumination on vellum, which was part of a bible by the Flemish poet, Jacob van Maerlant, Samson faces the lion and pulls its jaws apart.


Boucicaut Master. “Samson and the Lion”, Circa 1415. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and gold paint on parchment. From the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.


Similar interpretations surface in the Sub-Fauvel Master’s 1320-40 miniature (which provocatively adds Samson’s parents to the background), and a miniature by an unknown French master circa 1250-1300, both of which are also in the collection of The Hague. The unknown French illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale” (1372) also shows Samson’s parents, but they walk toward the right side of the page with their backs toward (and thus oblivious of) Samson’s wrestling match in the left corner.


It is unclear why all the artists discussed above interpreted Samson’s rout of the lion as an act of prying its jaws apart. Perhaps the artists drew their inspiration from the many (secular) depictions of Hercules fighting a lion that preceded them. According to mythology, Hercules was tasked with 12 labors by King Eurystheus, the first of which was slaying the Nemean Lion and bringing its skin back to the Mycenaean king. Artistic depictions of this scene show either Hercules clubbing the lion with a cudgel (which becomes his symbol in many artistic contexts), or pulling its jaws apart.



Unknown French illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s “Bible Historiale“, 1372.         

Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague.


I wonder if there may not also be an artistic fascination with the lion’s jaw that is rooted in the biblical text. After all, Samson later uses the jaw bone of a donkey he has killed to fight Philistines. Perhaps this revealed to the artists that Samson was in the habit of dismembering his victims, or at least the animals he defeated, and saving the jaw bone. Perhaps it also alludes to Samson’s tragic flaw – his mouth, which gets him into trouble when he reveals his secret to his traitorous wife.

Yet, as Heller warned, these sorts of hypotheses must all be carefully weighed and proven. “The scholar who wrote this exhibition’s catalog agrees with that influence; not only the open jaws but also Samson’s pose, with one foot on the lion’s neck, can be traced to Meckenem’s engraving”, she said. “On the other hand, I have not come across any interpretations that relate this to the jaw bone used later, so I would suspect that to be purely speculative.”



Michiel van der Borch. Samson kills the lion with his bare hands“, 1332. Illumination on vellum. Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague. From Jacob van Maerlant’s “Rhimebible” of Utrecht.


What is clear is that this depiction of the text, which Dürer inherited, was passed on to future artists, most immediately Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose “Samson vanquishing the lion” (circa 1520-25) picks up where Dürer left off; a sandaled Samson steps on the lion’s neck (a direct quotation from Dürer), while pulling its jaws apart, and the castle appears right where it belongs, on a cliff in the background.

But Cranach misses one aspect of Dürer’s work that might be his own invention. Where all the other artists show the lion flattened in profile (perhaps suggesting inspiration from the cartoon depictions of the Zodiac sign Leo), Dürer rounds the lion’s face out and makes it look real and three-dimensional. In fact, Dürer’s Samson has to cover the lion’s face with his hands to kill it, which might further reinforce the thesis that Dürer’s Samson is grappling, at least in part, with his inner lion.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Menachem Wecker

Visualizing Jewish Hair: Samson And The Sotah

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

Women’s Minyan: A Play

By Naomi Ragen

Toby Press (April, 2006), $12.95



Samson et Dalila

By Camille Saint-Saëns

The Metropolitan Opera

Lincoln Center, NY



Hair in Judaism carries multiple connotations. It is distracting and narcissistic, as when Joseph “plays with his hair” too much and finds his jail sentence under Potifar extended for his vanity. It is a source of shame, as when the 42 young boys mock the prophet Elijah, saying: “Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head,” and Elijah dispatches two bears to eat them. Hair can be a practical liability, as when Absalom gets stuck in an oak tree hanging by his hair and becomes a defenseless piñata of sorts for Joab’s army. And hair can prove a strategic guise, as when Jacob adorns his arms to mimic Esau’s hairy skin in a ploy to “steal” the birthright.

But most basically, hair in Judaism implies two things, power and seduction. They might best be typified by the models of Samson and the sotah (a woman accused of adultery). Samson’s hair is plainly visible to the public as the symbol of his power, while the priest (at her show trial) uncovers the hair of the sotah to signify her powerlessness.

Samson, like Esau, seems to derive strength from his hair (more like a beast than a man) and indeed his downfall lies in Dalila’s betrayal of her husband to the Philistines, who cut his hair. As a Nazarite – who sanctifies himself to G-d by abstaining from wine products, impurity and hair cutting – Samson’s loss of hair represents a serious offense. Only by sincere supplication to G-d does Samson manage to revive his strength one last time to topple the Philistine temple and those in it in a grand suicide-vengeance.

But the Nazarite is easily one of the most peculiar sorts of Jews discussed in Jewish texts. While he seems an ideal form of religious man who separates himself from materialism in pursuit of higher values, the Nazarite in fact must bring a series of sacrifices upon the completion of his Nazarite vows. One of the offerings is a ewe lamb as a sin offering, which begs the question: Why is the Nazarite – arguably the epitome of asceticism – a sinner?

Within this framework of the Nazarite as ascetic sinner, the model of the sotah emerges in Naomi Ragen’s “Women’s Minyan: A Play.” Ragen’s book does not explore women’s prayer. Instead Ragen presents a narrative set in Bnei Brak, where a mother of 12, Chana – who has deserted her family – returns home under police escort in an effort to see her children. Her family and in-laws are furious at her return, blaming her for not only abandoning her family, but also for being guilty of terrible charges (all of which are false rumors) leveled against her.

As the play unfolds, readers (and Chana’s family and friends) learn that Chana ran off in order to save her life from a dangerously abusive husband, Yankele. The women’s minyan – an ad hoc jury that Chana sets up, composed of her relatives and ex-friends – renders judgement in her favor, stipulating that she may be permitted to see her children. But one of the most fascinating aspects of Women’s Minyan is Ragen’s portrayal of hair, both covered and exposed.

As protagonist and villain of the play, Chana is described as simply wearing “a headscarf that covers her hair.” Bluma, her 19-year-old daughter, wears a “carefully coifed wig [which] proclaims her status as a married woman.” Chana’s mother-in-law, Goldie Sheinhoff, sports a gray wig that “exudes great moral power and authority,” while her own mother Frume, wears a “severe version of the traditional headscarf [that] covers all her hair.” Gitte Leah, Chana’s older sister, “wears the traditional pointed turban, called a schpitz, to denote her status. Her clothes are modest, but flashier than the others.” Eta, a neighbor, is dressed in a scarf that “seems to squeeze her face and thrust it forward”; Tovah, the mikvah lady, wears “a head scarf, big glasses and no makeup”; and Zehava, Chana’s friend, wears a “long snood, favored by Sephardic haredi women.” But most significantly, Chana’s sister-in-law Adina, 33, has her hair “cut short in a no-nonsense style and left completely uncovered to show her unmarried status, a stigma at her age.”

In the stage production, Naomi Ragen’s emphasis on hair and hair covering in her characters has a lot to do with the struggles for familial power. Ragen’s story is respectful; it never indicates that hair covering itself is controlling. But it does suggest that for some – the abusive Yankele, for example – women and wives are degraded and demoted.

The Metropolitan Opera production of Samson also picks up on this aspect of hair. Samson is perfectly cast as a large man with a goatee and long flowing curls. Perhaps the most brilliant interpretive move that the Met conducts is to illustrate the tension between Samson and the “conventional” Jews. Samson, as a Jewish super hero, is an outsider of sorts. Jewish heroes tend to be meager in stature; part of the aesthetic of Goliath’s slaying calls for the scrawny David. But Samson is a giant with brute strength, who captures foxes and sends them aflutter in the Philistine fields with torches fixed to their tails.

The Met production portrays Samson as a reckless revolutionary among the sages who is resigned in passive acceptance of G-d’s punishment by the hand of the Philistines. Like the rebellious son at the Passover Seder, Samson – in this production – wears no head covering, even among his rabbinic peers who wear kippas and taliths. This sacrilegious move on Samson’s part is consistent with tension that the Prophets often record between the judges and the prophets.

Samson’s dress then, immediately distinguishes him from his peers. He wears his hair long without head covering, while the rest of the Jews wear short hair and head coverings. This reversal of the implications of the sotah and of the married women in Ragen’s tale is telling. Samson thrives on being different, on standing out, and the same unconventionality (or flashiness) that proves the undoing of the sotah is Samson’s proud uniform.

It takes cutting Samson’s hair back down to size and reducing him to a powerless slave who the Philistines mock at their festivals for Samson to realize that his strength came from G-d, and not from his physical appearance. Stripped of his narcissism, Samson is able to revive his strength.

What is at play in the notion of hair as power is what contemporary metaphysics calls personal identity. Hair, like fingernails, represents parts of the body that are dispensable and thus transitory. When we lose hair or fingernails, we might ask ourselves whether the discarded materials are still parts of us. Jewish law requires that fingernails be burnt or disposed of. Hair carries no such requirement. But perhaps the transitory aspect of hair – attached to us but not inherent – accounts for its illusive power.

Perhaps this is why many chassidic masters called for men to wear their hair short and their beards long. Hair is considered to be symbolic of din (harsh judgment), while beards are symbolic of emunah (belief). The Nazarite’s long hair brings harsh judgments, which is why he must offer a sin offering upon the completion of his Nazarite service. Samson also must seek atonement; and only after he does and enriches his belief, is he reinstated to his leadership role. Only after Chana’s friends and family manage to see through the slanderous rumors that have surrounded her departure are they able to fully appreciate what she has suffered. Thus both Chana and Samson find their hair stripped (symbolic for the former and literal for the latter). Through their shame, both characters achieve a quasi-salvation.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

Menachem Wecker

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/visualizing-jewish-hair-samson-and-the-sotah/2006/03/01/

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