October 17, 2017
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1089, Noach, Parsha Thought


The Tower of Babel narrative underscores the double-edged sword nature of unity.

To be sure, Judaism hails unity and peace as most important ideals. The climax of the Amidah (our most important prayer) is a heartfelt request for Shalom-peace. The Mishnah and Talmud also end with the idea of peace. The Mishnah regards Shalom as the “vessel for all blessings.”

Yet, when evil people get together for a nefarious purpose, peace and unity can become weapons of destruction.

Nowhere are the double-edges of peace and unity more pronounced than in the events that led to the dispersion and disunity of nations when G-d caused the Tower of Babel to collapse.


The Torah introduces the story of the Tower of Babel with these two verses:

“And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there.”

Note that the Torah names this location as Shinar. However, after G-d “confounded their language” and scattered them, the land of Shinar was renamed Babel, “because G-d did there confound the language of all the earth.” The word Babel is related to the Hebrew word for confounded.

Babel, or as we know it more familiarly, Babylonia, is where the majority of Jews lived after Nebuchadnezzar exiled them following the destruction of the First Temple.

Indeed, the Jewish exiles in Babylonia compiled the Babylonian Talmud, the authoritative source of Jewish law which has shaped and molded Judaism ever since.


The Baal Shem Tov taught us that there are no coincidences in life. Whenever and wherever two events intersect, it is by Divine Providence. Certainly, when the connection is highlighted in the Torah, there must be a connection between them.

The fact that the Babylonian Talmud, arguably Judaism’s most important and influential body of literature, was composed where the Tower of Babel was built indicates that there is a strong connection between them.

Indeed, the Babylonian Talmud itself (Sanhedrin 24a) expounds on the connection:

“What is Babel? Said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘it is mixed-belulah with Scripture, mixed with Mishnah, mixed with Talmud.’”

In other words, the Babylonian Talmud is a potpourri of various strands of Torah knowledge. The implication is that it contains a myriad of teachings all mixed together, which can leave the novice at a loss to comprehend its teachings. Moreover, in order to reach a clear conclusion, one must be able to navigate its intricacies and follow its winding paths.

The Talmud then quotes an even sharper critique of the Babylonian Talmud by Rabbi Yirmiyahu, referring to this verse in the Book of Lamentations: “He has placed me in the darkness like the eternally dead.” “This verse,” Rabbi Yirmiyahu states “alludes to the Babylonian Talmud.”

Rashi explains that the argumentative style of the Babylonian scholars can leave their students in the dark, incapable of determining the law with clarity.

Obviously, the Babylonian Talmud was not trying to criticize its own style of learning, which continued for centuries after Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yirmiyahu made these sharp statements. Rather, the Babylonian Talmud sees itself as a challenge to those who study it to find light even in times of darkness. The myriad questions, multiple opinions and often sheer confusion are reminiscent of the original confusion G-d caused to the builders of the Tower of Babel. Despite this taxing challenge, we must continue to struggle to find the light.

Moreover, according to the teachings of Kabbalah, the struggle which accompanies the study of the Babylonian Talmud actually has the power to refine us by getting rid of the Klipos (literally, the shells or husks); these are the forces of darkness in the world that obscure G-dly light.


In light of the above analysis, a further question arises. It concerns the way Maimonides refers to Babylonia and the Babylonian Talmud in the introduction to his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, and in several other places throughout this work. Maimonides refers to the geographical area as Shinar, its original name in the Torah before it was renamed Babel after the Tower of Babel debacle.

Knowing the precision with which Maimonides wrote, particularly in his Mishneh Torah, it is puzzling that he insisted on calling this location Shinar and not Babylonia.


The answer to this question perhaps lies in the unique character of the Mishneh Torah. While the Mishneh Torah captures all of the rulings in the Babylonian Talmud, among other sources, Maimonides employs a diametrically opposite style to that used in the Babylonian Talmud.

First, Maimonides’ work was written in lucid “Lashon HaKodesh” (the Holy Tongue-Hebrew), whereas the Babylonian Talmud is written in a mixture of Aramaic dialects, some Hebrew, and a smattering of Greek, Persian, etc. Indeed, the Mishneh Torah is the only work Maimonides wrote in Hebrew. All the others he wrote in Arabic or in Talmudic jargon.

Second, whereas the Babylonian Talmud is replete with questions and answers, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah states the final outcome. No one gets lost in the dialectic exchanges that characterize the Talmud.

Third, whereas the Babylonian Talmud mixes together different subjects and freely leaps from one topic to another, Maimonides systemized Jewish law. Now one can find everything in its proper place.

In short, Maimonides revolutionized the approach to the study of Jewish law.

King Solomon, in Ecclesiastes (7:14), states that “G-d has created one thing opposite the other.” This means that every phenomenon in the world of holiness has an unholy counterpart.

The idea of language, unity, lucidity and organization which characterizes the Mishneh Torah has its counterpart in the world of impurity, as illustrated by the people who sought to build the Tower of Babel.

They spoke “one language,” which Rashi says was Lashon HaKodesh. This language distinguishes itself by its purity and clarity.

The Torah also describes their united cause; a city and tower that would foster unity in the realm of un-holiness.

This was the converse of Maimonides’ work of Torah knowledge; the Mishneh Torah.

Maimonides too built a city and a tower. Seifer Yetzira teaches that every letter is like a brick and every word is like a house. A book is thus a city; it is a collection of many words (houses). Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, with its 1,000 chapters, can aptly be described as a major metropolis.

The Mishneh Torah, which stands out among other Torah works, is a towering accomplishment. Moreover, unlike most works of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah includes the laws concerning the future Third Temple, the spiritual tower to which all nations shall stream.

Maimonides, in his inimitable unified and lucid style, constructed the ultimate city and tower of holy unity and clarity.

This might help us understand why Maimonides was reluctant to use the term Babylonia and instead replaced it with the name Shinar.

Babylonia represents the dispersion and confusion caused when G-d foiled the tower project. In its wake we were confronted with a world of broken pieces, which left its mark in the way we have to navigate our way through the labyrinth of the Babylonian Talmud.

The failure of the Tower of Babel project was directly related to the false sense of unity the builders tried to generate.

Shinar, however, is where they conceived of the idea of creating a unified existence for the entire world. Babel or Babylonia is where the experiment ended in dismal failure.

Maimonides therefore took their unifying Shinar idea and sought to redirect it by implementing it in the world of Torah. And where the generation of the Tower failed, Maimonides succeeded. He created a magnificent metropolis, citadel and tower of Torah.


The Maimonidean phenomenon was seen by the Rebbe as a prelude to the coming of Moshiach, when the authentic ideal of unity and peace will spread to the entire world.

This unity will pervade all of life, including the way we approach Torah knowledge. At that time, we will not have to struggle through the maze of the Babylonian Talmud or sort through the differing opinions to know what to do. Our knowledge of right and wrong will be intuitive and the world will return to speaking one language, the Holy Tongue, both literally and figuratively.

We can now understand why the Rebbe emphasized two areas of Torah study as preparations for the Messianic Age.

The Rebbe called for the study of the inner dimension of Torah, the mystical/rational teachings of Chassidus, and the study of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Both portend the future, when the floodgates of esoteric knowledge will be opened and the practice of Jewish law will no longer be shrouded in darkness.

Both these areas of study are alluded to in this week’s parsha:

The first part of the parsha is about the flood which destroyed virtually the entire world. The second part deals with the Tower of Babel debacle.

These two events allude to the twofold phenomena that will be manifest in the Messianic Age.

Maimonides, citing Isaiah in the last paragraph of the Mishneh Torah (the 36th annual study of which we completed less than a month ago), describes this age to come as featuring a deluge of hidden knowledge. The ancient flood that destroyed the world will recur in the spiritual sense, only this time to rehabilitate and elevate the world.

In addition, as mentioned above, in the Messianic Age we will no longer have to labor to find the answers to all of our questions. We will intuitively know how to observe all of the 613 commandments. G-d’s will, as manifested through the observance of Jewish law, will not be subject to disputes because of a lack of clarity, as exists today. We will see the rebuilding of the ultimate Tower, the Third Beis HaMikdash, which will facilitate our complete observance of Jewish law and generate genuine unity.

The Messianic Age will be a reenactment of the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel, but in their most positive and holy forms.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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