Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD
8 min readFeb 3, 2024

LOST IN TRANSLATION AND WHY WE PRAY FOR ELIYA COHEN’S LIBERATION

We have a problem with translation here. How often do we say “Ten Commandments”? But that’s inaccurate! Not once in the Bible, let alone in Rabbinic literature, the Ten Commandments are called “Ten Commandments”. In the Bible (Exodus 34:28) we find the expression Aseret haDvarim [עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים.]. And in Rabbinic literature (and on the top of page 352 of our prayerbook), we find the expression Asseret haDibrot [עשרת הדיברות]

Asseret עשרת means Ten. Dvarim/Dibrot, דְּבָרִים / דיברות are two equivalent words, both from the Hebrew root Davar דבר. Davar is one of these Hebrew words that are difficult to translate, as it means “word” and “thing” simultaneously. The Ten Commandments are indeed not just commandments but Divine words and Divine things at the same time. So, avoiding the translation and sticking to the original is better. Let’s call them Aseret haDibrot.

Because of commandments, of mitzvot, we have a lot. Many more than 10: 613, indeed.

These Ten Words, these Ten Things, these Ten Statements are particularly relevant because, as the Midrash teaches, when they were given by God to the Israelites, all the Jewish souls were present. All our souls, the souls of the previous generations, and the souls of all the following generations -including those who embraced Judaism later in life, say the Medieval Rabbis. Yes, they include the converts to Judaism. Conversion to Judaism was not unknown in the Middle Ages. Do you think it’s a contemporary phenomenon? You are wrong. But let’s not digress.

Let me stress it again. These are the Asseret haDibrot, not the “Ten Commandments”. Because we have a lot of commandments, many more than just ten. It’s a serious business to be a Jew. Embracing what the Christians call the Ten Commandments is not enough.

But you already know it. Perhaps you have heard it from someone, and most certainly, you have found it on the Internet. There are 613 commandments in the Torah. And maybe you even know that there are 248 You must do”, or positive mitzvot, as they are called, and 365 You must not do, negative mitzvot: that’s the calculation of the Rambam.

Well, 613 commandments are a massive amount of commandments. A life shaped by 613 religious imperatives is a remarkable example of devotion. Indeed, some religious folks admire us Jews because they think we keep all the commandments.

But such an intensely religious life can also be a neurosis. Indeed, nowadays, chattering academics take pleasure in portraiting Judaism as a psychological illness. Some decades ago (when I was young), we laughed about Woody Allen and his psychotherapist. Today, both Sigmund Freud and Woody Allen are considered faces of “systemic oppression”. Hence, those Jews who keep all the 613 commandments -because they think they serve God- are considered part of “the Patriarchate”, and it is believed that their observances replicate some kind of trauma.

Except that, no Jew can keep all the 613 commandments. Shocking, isn’t it? But that’s true. Keeping all the 613 commandments is impossible.

Suppose you look at the list of the commandments. You will see that there are mitzvot, commandments -more than half of the list- that cannot be done nowadays because they are about sacrifices in the Temple, and the Temple is not anymore. And there are, for example, mitzvot that apply to women and not men (I hate being specific, but these are, for instance, about menstruation). In the same way, some other mitzvot apply to men only. And some mitzvot must be done only by specific categories of Jews, such as the Cohanim.

Commandments are very specific business. Any statement about “keeping all the 613 commandments” is a gross inaccuracy, and -as we have seen- it provides a basis for the antisemitic prejudices.

The point missing in our individualistic society is as follows: there is no such thing as keeping all the commandments at the individual level. No individual Jew -as I have explained- can keep all the commandments. Instead, the Jewish people are expected to observe all the commandments as a whole, as a nation, because Judaism is a collective enterprise.

When I visit schools and meet with RE students to talk about Judaism, I am often asked questions such as “Who is your Prophet?” or “Who is the most important Jew?” and I never know how to answer. Our religion is not centred around the individual. Commandments and many practices remind us that there is a community, and we must be part of it. For example, you have come to synagogue this morning, even if the seats are uncomfortable or the Rabbi cannot sing. This is praiseworthy because by doing so, you connect with the community you are part of. And allow other Jews to pray with their community. You do a very important mitzvah just by being here.

At this point, it is worth explaining better what community means; what is the Jewish community? It includes Jews who keep the mitzvot that apply to their situation and those who do not know which mitzvot to follow and when. Belonging to the Jewish community is not an intellectual exercise. Can you imagine yourself looking at the list of the mitzvot to pick and choose those you like? “Uhm.. not to kill? -That’s fine. Appoint judges to rule for matters like theft. Okay, this fits my idea of morality. Not to contaminate myself with Sherez, crawling animals … no, I don’t like it. I so love my collection of reptiles!”

We are not supposed to filter the mitzvot according to the moral standard of the society in which we live. It does not work this way (and by the way, you are allowed to keep your collection of reptiles!) We belong to the Jewish people, to the Jewish community, not because our rationality drives us. Not because we find the mitzvot intellectually satisfying or our political ideology becomes somehow more persuasive if and when we find some commandment to support it. We belong to the Jewish people, we are part of the Jewish community, because we feel it.

And we especially feel this sense of belonging when our community is under attack. Indeed, we suffer, not intellectually, but with our emotions, with our hearts, with our kishkes, when other Jews suffer. Even if we do not know them or only know they are Jewish.

Do you know the young Jerusalemite Eliya Cohen, 26, from Jerusalem? No, we don’t. We only know that on October 7, he was at the Supernova desert rave with his girlfriend, Ziv, when Hamas gunmen came. Eliya and Ziv tried to escape the falling rockets; terrorists chased them and were both shot. They ran and hid, looked at each other and held hands. They were hidden by a pile of dead bodies when Ziv felt Eliya being pulled up and then heard the terrorists placing him on a pickup truck and driving away Since that moment, we haven’t known where Eliya Cohen is. The story is here, and it’s chilling

We pray for Eliya’s freedom and health. We have reserved a seat for him in our shul. We look forward to Ziv (his girlfriend) and Sigi (his Mother) embracing him again. We want to celebrate Eliya’s freedom together with them. We pray for his safety and his health.

And we know, we deeply know, that only for a highly fortunate and casual series of circumstances we are here, in Hove, and not in the dark prison where the barbarians of Hamas keep Eliya Cohen, those human animals (I will repeat it, Hamas are human animals and feel free to call me racist for this).

We are here (relatively) safe, in a multicultural city on England’s relatively quiet Southern shore. But if things were just a little bit different, each of us could have been born elsewhere and have to endure torture and death by the evil antisemitic beasts in whatever variety they come: the Nazi variety, the Communist variety or -like Eliya Cohen, the Islamist variety, like Elijah-. And God knows whether we would have survived.

Each of us could be Eliya Cohen. We are not enduring what Eliya Cohen is enduring only because of good luck. Because of this, because we could be where he is now, we feel his pain. Eliya’s and his family’s and friends’ pain is our pain. Their hope is our hope. Their anxiety is our anxiety.

That is the sense of belonging I am talking about. Knowing, more: feeling, connection with people whom we know nothing about, except that they are Jews. Jews like us. And the sense of solidarity, of feeling the need for support and prayer, this chord deep in our souls that in these days resonates powerfully and loudly…. that is the sense of belonging that keeps us together.

Look beyond me. You see on the Ark’s doors the first words of each of the Asseret haDibrot. We all were there when God gave them to us. Somebody says that God has given the Asseret haDibrot to us because we Jews are special — having experienced generations of slavery, we have developed a sense of justice.

Others say that God gave the Asseret haDibrot to the Jews because of love. God wanted to provide us with many opportunities to make the world a better place. Whatever the reason, I believe God gave the Asseret Dibrot to the Jews because of the strength of the feeling that binds us together. We have survived racism and discrimination, massacres and pogroms because of that undeniable strength. We are people naturally inclined to care for each other. We are people who truly can teach morality. So let us pray for Eliya, this young man of our people, this member of our community. Let us pray for his liberation. May Elya Cohen return safely and in complete health to his family and those who love him.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים: Blessed are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who releases the captives.

Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, Shabbat Yithro 5784, 3 February 2024

Rabbi Dr Andrea Zanardo, PhD

I’m the first Rabbi ever to be called “a gangster”. Also, I am a Zionist.