Feb 152021

On this date in 399 BCE, the profoundly influential philosopher Socrates was condemned to death by an Athenian jury. Not their proudest moment by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly one that confirms my low opinion of democracy (with which Socrates agreed, btw). The jury at his trial is conjectured to have been around 500 δικάστοί (male-citizen judges/jurors chosen by lot), and their verdict was based on a simple majority vote. They used shells or potsherds to record their votes, which in Greek are known as οστράκα (ostraca), giving us the word “ostracize” because the same method of voting was used to exile citizens. The trial was held to determine whether Socrates was guilty of two charges: ασέβεια  (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state. The accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities,” and also held that it was an illegal act to train his students to ask political questions. As you may suspect already, the accusers had ulterior motives. Politicians have never been happy with an electorate that knows how to think critically. Primary-source accounts of the trial and execution of Socrates are the Apology of Socrates by Plato and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury by Xenophon of Athens. The accuracy of these accounts has been the subject of debate for over two thousand years, as has been the ways in which they can be interpreted. Nonetheless, some broad strokes are generally agreed upon.

According to the portraits left by some of Socrates’ followers, Socrates seems to have openly espoused certain anti-democratic views, the most prominent perhaps being the view that it is not majority opinion that yields correct policy but rather genuine knowledge and professional competence, which is possessed by only a few. Plato also portrays him as being severely critical of some of the more prominent and well-respected leaders of the Athenian democracy, and even has him claim that the officials selected by the Athenian system of governance cannot credibly be regarded as benefactors. Also, Socrates was known as often praising the laws of the undemocratic regimes of Sparta and Crete. Plato, Socrates’ student, reinforced anti-democratic ideas in The Republic, advocating rule by elite, enlightened philosopher-kings.

At the time of the trial of Socrates, the city-state of Athens had recently endured the trials and tribulations of Spartan hegemony and the thirteen-month régime of the Thirty Tyrants, which had been imposed consequent to the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). At the request of Lysander, a Spartan admiral, the Thirty Tyrants, led by Critias and Theramenes, were to administer Athens and revise the city’s democratic laws, which were inscribed on a wall of the Stoa Basileios. Their actions were to facilitate the transition of the Athenian government from a democracy to an oligarchy in service to Sparta. Moreover, the Thirty Tyrants appointed a council of 500 men to perform the judicial functions that once had belonged to every Athenian citizen. In their brief régime, the Spartan oligarchs killed about 5% of the Athenian population, confiscated a great deal of property, and exiled democrats from the city. The fact that Critias had been a pupil of Socrates was held against him at trial.

Socrates was duly convicted and condemned to death. Both Xenophon and Plato agree that Socrates had an opportunity to escape, following his conviction because his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. There have been several suggestions offered as reasons why he chose to stay:

  1. He believed such a flight would indicate a fear of death, which he believed no true philosopher has.
  2. If he fled Athens his teaching would fare no better in another country, as he would continue questioning all he met and undoubtedly incur their displeasure.
  3. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city’s laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his “social contract” with the state, and so harm the state, an unprincipled act.
  4. If he escaped at the instigation of his friends, then his friends would become liable in law.
  5. At 70 years old he was willing to die rather than decline into the sicknesses associated with old age.

The full reasoning behind his refusal to flee is the main subject of the Crito.

His mode of execution was drinking a potion laced with hemlock. I don’t think it would be suitable to give a recipe for a hemlock drink unless I was interested in decimating my readership, but hemlock is a member of a family that includes carrots, parsnips, fennel, and dill, so we have some alternatives.  Here are a couple of suggestions:

Dilled Carrots or Parsnips

Roasting carrots or parsnips is always a great option. Cut the tops off and either scrub them thoroughly or peel them.  Place them on a baking tray, drizzle them with olive oil to coat well, and bake in a very hot oven (500°F/260°C) for 15 minutes.  Carefully use tongs to rotate the vegetables, sprinkle with chopped fresh dill, and return to bake for another 15 minutes. Remove to a serving dish and sprinkle a little fresh dill over the vegetables.

Alternatively, poach the carrots or parsnips (or mix), which can be either whole or sliced, until they are barely al dente. Heat butter in a skillet, drain the vegetables well, and sauté them in the butter with some chopped fresh dill.



Oct 072013


The current Jewish calendar’s reference date, 1 Tishrei AM 1, is equivalent to Monday, 7 October 3761 BCE in the proleptic Julian calendar.  In other words, the Jewish calendar begins on this date in the equivalent of 3761 BCE.  It’s a bit complicated to explain why.  Let me ramble around the houses a bit first and circle back to that question.  As a cultural historian I have always had a fascination with calendars and how they work (obviously, or I would not be writing this kind of blog).  As a Biblical scholar I am interested in the reckoning of time in the ancient Near East.

Calendars in general are created for a variety of uses, secular and sacred, such as planning agricultural activities, annual festivals, marking anniversaries, and the like.  They also help record historical events.  Before the days of global communications, cultures used their own calendars based on their own needs. All of them, however, rely on astronomical phenomena in one way or another, and there are not too many variations in how they do it.  Obviously the period of a day is universal in all cultures, although there are slight differences in what counts as a day. The month may be either roughly or exactly one lunar cycle, and a year may be determined by the sun or the moon.  Lunar years are usually 12 moon cycles (months) long, which makes a year about 354 days long, and means that lunar calendars constantly drift away from solar calendars which are roughly 365 days long (marked from one summer/winter solstice to the next).  The Jewish calendar is called lunisolar because the months are reckoned according to 12 moon cycles, but then a month (called an intercalary month) is added every few years to keep it meshed with the solar year.  Jewish festivals, such as Passover, are linked to agricultural and pastoral activities and so need to stay synchronized with the solar year.  Passover does not have to be exactly the same day every year, but it must be in the spring when lambs are butchered.  Otherwise it loses its meaning. The Islamic calendar which is mostly lunar (with some odd wrinkles), is not synchronized with the solar year, hence important ritual dates, such as the holy month of Ramadan, wander all over the solar calendar.

The other big calendric question concerns the date that anchors the whole system.  The Gregorian calendar uses the putative year of Christ’s birth, the ancient Roman calendar dated from the year of the founding of Rome, and so forth.  The Jewish calendar is tied to the creation as described in Genesis, but, rather curiously, year 1 is not the year of creation, but the year before. Creation occurred in year 2. We’ll get to that in a minute.

The calendar used by Jews has evolved over time. Until the Tannaic period (approximately 10–220 CE), the calendar employed a new crescent moon as the monthly marker, with an additional month normally added every two or three years to correct for the difference between twelve lunar months and the solar year. When to add it was based on observation of natural agriculture-related events. Through the Amoraic period (220–589 CE) and into the Geonic period (589-1038 CE), this system was gradually displaced by the mathematical rules used today.



The principles and rules were fully codified by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah in the 12th century. Maimonides’ work also replaced the previously used Seleucid-era year numbering system with the modern creation-era Anno Mundi (AM), that is “year of the world.” The Seleucid era dates from the return of Seleucus I Nicator to Babylon in 311 BCE after his exile in Ptolemaic Egypt, considered by Seleucus and his court to mark the founding of the Seleucid Empire. Maimonides wanted a fixed starting point that was connected with Torah, and not with some foreign empire.

Occasionally in Talmudic writings, reference was made to starting points for eras, that were linked to Jewish history, such as Destruction Era dating, being the number of years since the 70 CE destruction of the Second Temple, or Creation Era dating based on calculations in the Seder Olam Rabbah of Rabbi Jose ben Halafta of 160 CE. By his calculation, based on the Masoretic Text, Adam was created in 3760 BCE.

According to Maimonides’ reckoning, the beginning of  AM 1 is not Creation, but about one year before Creation, with the new moon of its first month (Tishrei) to be called molad tohu, the new moon of  “tohu” (chaos or nothing). Maimonides used ben Halafta’s calculation, but added an extra year.  Hence AM 1 is equivalent to 3761 BCE. Starting the calendar BEFORE Creation may seem odd, and I am not fully sure of the rationale. I believe it is an acknowledgement that before the Creation, God existed, and the additional year is simply symbolic of that fact. Starting with Creation might imply that God came into existence at that time as well. So . . . before Creation there was God. Marking the time period of God’s existence prior to Creation as one year has no deep theological meaning.  It is a token.


Modern people are often hung up on the fact that God did not create the sun and moon until the 4th day, so how could days and years be reckoned prior to that?  Surely days and years are based on the sun and moon?  This is modern ethnocentric thinking in action. The answer is actually staggeringly simple, but usually overlooked (stay tuned for my next book). According to Genesis, God did not create the sun and moon to MAKE time; he created them to MARK time:

“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years . . .’ ” (Genesis 1:14)

By this reasoning, time has always existed; the sun and moon merely act as markers to help humans keep track of it.  The sun and moon are like celestial clocks to indicate the passage of time, which previously was known only to God. Simple!

Picking a recipe for today was exceptionally difficult.  Maimonides was a doctor and wrote several volumes that included recipes of one sort or another as well as offering general advice about diet.  Many of the detailed “recipes” were for medicines rather than food per se, and occasionally included ingredients such as rooster testicles and songbird brains. He is also famous for advocating chicken soup (“Jewish penicillin”) for respiratory distress.  All well and good, but I presume most of my readers can either make chicken soup or can find a decent recipe. I finally decided on something associated with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, given that we are talking about the calendar.  In the Ashkenazi tradition it is customary to eat something sweet, such as apples with honey, on this day to symbolize the hope for a sweet coming year.  Tzimmes, with carrots, seems like a suitable recipe choice because it is traditional for Rosh Hashanah, and because Maimonides was an advocate of carrots.  The simplest recipe involves nothing more than carrots in a honey glaze.  Others add dried fruits, such as dates or raisins, and occasionally braised meat.  Tzimmes is a tad sweet for my tastes but I find that it works well as a side dish alongside other more savory ones. The combination of orange juice and carrots is particularly felicitous. Make sure you cut the carrots into rounds to look like coins, symbolizing wealth in the coming year.



2 lbs carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons brown sugar
½ cup dried fruit such as golden raisins, apples, or cherries (or a combination)
½ cup orange juice
kosher salt to taste


Put all the ingredients in a pot and add water to just cover.

Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the carrots are tender, about 25 minutes.

Bring the liquid to a rapid boil and reduce until it makes a thick glaze.

Yield: 6-8 servings

May 302013


loony toons

Today is the birthday (1908) of Mel Blanc (born Mervin Jerome Blank), the vocal artist who provided the voices for a vast array of Warner Brothers’ cartoon characters, such as Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester the cat, Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Tasmanian Devil, Pepé LePew, Marvin the Martian and Yosemite Sam. Blanc also voiced dozens of Hanna-Barbera characters, starting in 1960 with Barney Rubble of The Flintstones.

Blanc was born in San Francisco, California, the younger of two children. He grew up in the neighborhood of Western Addition in San Francisco, and later in Portland, Oregon, where he attended Lincoln High School. Growing up, he had a fondness for voices and dialect, which he began voicing at the age of ten. He claimed when he was sixteen he changed the spelling from “Blank” to “Blanc,” because a teacher told him that he would amount to nothing and be like his name, a “blank.” He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and split his time between leading an orchestra, becoming the youngest conductor in the country at the age of 17, and performing shtick in vaudeville shows around Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

Blanc began his radio career in 1927 as a voice actor on the KGW program The Hoot Owls, where his ability to provide voices for multiple characters first attracted attention. He moved to Los Angeles in 1932, where he met Estelle Rosenbaum, whom he married a year later, before returning to Portland. He moved to KEX in 1933 to produce and co-host his Cobweb And Nuts show with his wife Estelle, which debuted on June 15.

Blanc returned to Los Angeles and joined Warner Brothers owned KFWB in Hollywood, California, in 1935. He joined The Johnny Murray Show, but the following year switched to CBS Radio and The Joe Penner Show. Blanc was a regular on the NBC Red Network show  The Jack Benny Program in various roles, including voicing Benny’s Maxwell automobile (in desperate need of a tune-up), violin teacher Professor LeBlanc, Polly the Parrot, Benny’s pet polar bear Carmichael, the tormented department store clerk, and the train announcer. The first role came from a mishap when the recording of the automobile’s sounds failed to play on cue, prompting Blanc to take the microphone and improvise the sounds himself. The audience reacted so positively that Benny decided to dispense with the recording altogether and have Blanc continue in that role. One of Blanc’s most memorable characters from Benny’s radio (and later TV) programs was “Sy, the Little Mexican”, who spoke one word at a time. The famous “Sí…Sy…sew…Sue” routine was so effective that no matter how many times it was performed, the audience always laughed,  thanks to the comedic timing of Blanc and Benny.

In March 1937, Mel Blanc joined Leon Schlesinger Productions, which made animated cartoons distributed by Warner Brothers. After sound man Treg Brown was put in charge of cartoon voices, and Carl Stalling became music director, Brown introduced Blanc to animation directors Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, and Frank Tashlin, who loved his voices. The first cartoon Blanc worked on was “Picador Porky” as the voice of a drunken bull. He replaced Joe Dougherty as Porky Pig’s voice in “Porky’s Duck Hunt,” which marked the debut of Daffy Duck, also voiced by Blanc.

Blanc soon became noted for voicing a wide variety of cartoon characters from Looney Tunes, adding Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Pepé Le Pew and many others.

Blanc continued to voice his classic characters, and invent new ones, in cartoons, shorts, and movies almost up to his death in 1989, including a period in 1961 when he was in a full body cast following a near fatal head on car crash in Los Angeles. The sound crew came to his hospital room along with the other voice artists.  As he got older, though, he passed off the yelling characters, such as Yosemite Sam and Tasmanian Devil, to other artists, including his son, Noel, who ghosted for him but never took up voice acting as a profession. Blanc’s tombstone has the epitaph  “That’s All Folks!”

His character Bugs Bunny always ate carrots, and when Blanc would bite into a carrot he would quickly spit it out into a spittoon before voicing the lines. It became spread about because of this that he was allergic to carrots.  But Blanc always denied this. The spitting was just so that he could get the lines out. Nonetheless a carrot recipe seems appropriate. I am a big fan of soups, and also love the combination of carrots and fresh ginger.  So here is a blended carrot and ginger soup.

Carrot and Ginger Soup


3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 ½ lbs (675 g) carrots, peeled and diced
2 cups chopped onion
1 tsp grated fresh ginger (powered can be substituted but it does not work well)
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
3 large strips of zest of orange
chopped chives and parsley for garnish (or cilantro if you prefer)


Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat and cook the onions and carrot, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften, about 5 to 8 minutes. Do not let the onions or carrots brown. Sprinkle a teaspoon of salt over the carrots and onions as they cook.

Add the stock and water, the ginger, and the strips of orange zest. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until the carrots soften, about 20 minutes.

Working in small batches, pour the soup into a blender and purée until completely smooth. Add more salt to taste.

Garnish with chopped chives and parsley (or cilantro).

Serves 4