Letters from Antioch The transfiguration and watching a group of 120 men recite the first four Books of Moses

As Salvador continued to relate the transfiguration to Mass, he told his friends, “In Deuteronomy 30:1-14 we read, ‘This Mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, nor is it far off. It is not in sky, that you say, ‘Who shall go up for us to the sky, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ It is not beyond the sea, that you say, ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ But the word is touches you; it is in your mouth, and in your heart, that you do it.”

Salvador’s words transported us into a grand daydream as he related the beginning of Torah and liturgy, as we know it today.

Men of the Great Assembly preparing to speak the Word of God to the people.

We stepped into a great hall of Greek architecture. Inside was white marble with a head table where three men sat. The nametag for one man read, “Nehemiah.”

The nametag for the second read, “Ezra.”[1] The nametag for the third man read, “Ezekiel.”[2] Also inside the great hall, we noted that on our left sat ten rows of seats followed by a break. At the head of the front table sat a sign with a letter “D.”

There were another ten rows of seats. At the front table was a sign with the letter “J.” On the right side also, there were ten rows of seats. At the front of this table was a sign with the letter “P.” Behind these tables followed another ten rows of seats. At the front of this section was a sign with the letter, “E.” At each table sat three men. The total number of men sitting at the tables was 120 men.[3]

The man with the nametag, which read, “Nehemiah” asked, “Who wants to begin this exercise?” A man in the back right corner began, “Elohist desires to be recognized.” Nehemiah advised him, “You may begin.” Elohist began, “We need to begin this exercise with a verbal landscape. In the beginning God created…”

As he completed reciting Genesis 2:3 a man from the opposite side of the room started, “The J group needs recognition.” Nehemiah asked, “Begin.” The man began, “These are the generations of the sky and the ground…” We watched in amazement as the men of the Great Assembly recited the entire Torah, from Genesis 1:1 until Numbers 36: 13 to us.

As the men recited the text, men from the “J,” section and the “E,” section often took turns, seeming to interrupt each other. The “P,” group interrupted the discussion to make corrections every once in a while. Soon the readings were at Genesis chapter 6.

A person from the “J,” tables began chanting from Memory, “The Personal Name recited, “My breath shall not remain in man forever, since he is but flesh. His days shall comprise one hundred and twenty years.”

He emphasized, “My Breath.” The man at the “J” table continued, “At that time the Fallen Ones appeared on earth after the sons of the sky, which is in the heights of their offices, had intercourse with the daughters of man, who bore them sons. They were the strong ones of old, the men of renown.”

The man at the “J” table lowered his head as he chanted, “When the Personal Name saw the great rot of man in the earth, and how every desire in the imagination of his heart conceived only rot, he regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart grieved.”

The man bobbed his head as if in disgust as he continued, “The Personal Name grumbled,  “I will wipe out the men I created from the earth, and not only the men, but also the beasts and the creeping things and the birds of the air; I am sorry that I made them.”

He picked up his head just a bit as he added, “The Mensch of Rest found favor with the Personal Name.”


A man from the “E,” table took up the discussion, “These are the descendants of the man of Rest. The Mensch of Rest, a charitable Tzadic at least for his generation, and a simple man, for he walked alongside the Mighty Judge, brought forth from his loins three sons: Name, Hot, and Beauty. Before the face of the Mighty Judge, the earth was bent and full of violence.”

The man from the “E,” table continued, “The Personal Name saw the earth, and how all flesh bent his way, he told Noah: “I have decided to put an end to all flesh on this earth; the earth is full of violence because of them.” He bowed his head again as he continued, “So I will destroy them and all life on earth.”

The man from the “E,” table gave directions for the ark, “Make yourself a Tavah of gopher wood, put various compartments in it, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you will build it: the length of the ark will be three hundred forearms, its width fifty forearms, and its height thirty forearms.”

He gave further details, “Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and finish the ark a forearm above it. Put an entrance in the side of the Tavah, which you will make with bottom, second and third decks.”

He told how the Personal Name was to bring a flood, “I, on my part, am about to bring a flood on the earth, to destroy everywhere all creatures in which there is the breath of life; everything on earth shall perish. The man from the “E,” table related the promise, “With you I will establish my Social Contract; you and your sons, your wife and your sons’ wives, will go into the Tavah.”

He added the same for all flesh, “Of all other living creatures you will bring two into the ark, one male, and one female, to keep them alive with you. Of all kinds of birds, of all kinds of beasts, and of all kinds of creeping things, two of each will come into the ark with you, to stay alive.”

He spoke of food for the animals, “Moreover, you are to provide yourself with all the food you need to eat, and store it away, a provisions for you and for them.’ This the Mensch of Rest did; he carried out all the commands that the Mighty Judge gave him.”

A man from the “J,” table continued the presentation, correcting the man from the “E,” table’s understanding of how many animals came aboard the Tavah, “The Personal Name told the Mensch of Rest, ‘Come, you and all your house into the Tavah; I have seen your charity before Me in this generation. Of every clean beast you will take seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the beasts that are not clean two, each with his mate.”

Later in the recitation, when they reached Genesis 18, a man from the “J,” table recited, “The Personal Name appeared unto him by the Bitter Oaks as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; he lifted up his eyes and looked. Three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, bowed down to the earth, and told him, ‘My Kyrie, if now I have found favor in your sight, do not pass away, I request of you, your servant.”

The recitation continued, “Let me fetch a little water for you now, wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread, so you can rest your heart; after that you may pass on; as you came to your servant.’ They told him, do, as you said.”

He continued with the menu for the meal, “Abraham, E Pluribus Unum, rushed into the tent and to his wife Lee Dar, and told her, ‘Make ready, quickly, three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.”

The man also recited what was to go with the meal, “Abraham ran unto the herd, fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; who rushed to dress it. He took curd, and milk, and the calf which he dressed, and set it before them; he stood by them under the tree, and they ate.”

[1] A Dictionary of the Targumim, Knesset, Knesset Hagedal, Marcus Jastrow, Phd. ISBN 0-91818-05-3, p 650

[2] Tanna Debe Eliyyahu, Eliyyahu Rabbah  page 138, Chapter (27) 25, p341, ISBN 0-8276-0174-3

[3] The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, ISBN 0-89906-655-0 p xv


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