Jewish History Blog

Mourning Transformed

800px-Arch_of_Titus_Menorah

Arch of Titus in Rome

We are currently in the midst of the weeks of mourning that mark the commemoration of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. The loss of the Temples was not only a blow to the religion of the Jews, but it also symbolized the loss of Jewish national sovereignty in Israel and was the beginning of the Exile and the Diaspora. Sixty-five years after the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus and the Romans, the Jews rose in a rebellion led by Bar Kochba and Rabbi Akiva to attempt to regain their national independence and rebuild the Temple. This attempt crashed in bloody failure. But Bar Kochba’s defeat came to symbolize more than a failed attempt at Jewish national independence. It signaled the dangers and frustrations of false messianism, a disease that has taken a great toll on the Jewish people throughout its Diaspora history. Thus, this mourning period also tolls the bell for the destruction that false messiahs have extracted from the Jewish people over the ages. (more…)

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Posted in:
Ancient Jewish History, Bible/ Tanach, Sabbath/ Holidays
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • July 21, 2015

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

Big 3I have always been struck by Thomas Jefferson’s phrase “the pursuit of happiness” as it appears in the Declaration of Independence. In that document, he proclaimed that life and liberty are the basic and inalienable entitlements – absolute and automatic – of all human beings having been created equal by God. But he apparently held that happiness is not such a given and automatic state of entitlement. He only proclaimed that the new country would strive to guarantee for its citizens merely the right to pursue happiness.

There is no outside power, governmental or otherwise, that can truly promise and achieve happiness for human beings. Happiness is a spiritual emotion, a character trait of the soul and not of the body. In the realm of spirit, there are no outside forces that can aid an individual in his or her quest for spiritual fulfillment. We can only pursue happiness; there is no promise or guarantee that we will ever truly achieve it.

Many of the problems that now afflict human society stem from the confusion of physical comfort with happiness. No one willingly preaches illness and poverty as a way of life. The idea of bodily self-mortification passed from the scene in Europe in the late Middle Ages (though it still resonates within certain Catholic orders even today.) It is a fact of life that good health and a modicum of comfortable living are necessary in order to help generate a feeling of inner happiness. (more…)

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Posted in:
American Jewish history, Ethics
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • July 3, 2015

FIFE ON FIFA

FIFA head, Sepp Blatter

FIFA head, Sepp Blatter

This month has seen the ongoing drama surrounding the international soccer association known as FIFA. Many of its top officials have been arrested and indicted for accepting millions of dollars in bribes when assigning venues for the World Cup and other major soccer sporting events. The head of the association, Sepp Blatter, resigned in shame. But as far as Israel is concerned, all of this is only a sideshow to what to us was the main issue up for vote: the resolution put forward by the Palestinian Authority to expel Israel from FIFA membership.

This tactic of the Palestinian Authority was part of its overall strategy of conducting a diplomatic intifada against Israel in all international bodies where Israel is a member. It is part of the Palestinian campaign to have the United Nations pass Security Council resolutions against Israel and to make the State of Israel vulnerable to international sanctions in the event that these resolutions are somehow not abided by. So the question as to whether Israel would be expelled from the world soccer federation carried with it grave potential for more serious damage to the Jewish state in the future. (more…)

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Posted in:
Ethics, Modern Jewish History
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • June 15, 2015

Wandering Jews

The Hasidic Movement ignited Jewish masses in remote communities with love of Judaism, but the movement had its roots in an earlier era of wandering Jews.

The Hasidic Movement ignited Jewish masses in remote communities with love of Judaism, but the movement had its roots in an earlier era of wandering Jews.

In the early 1700s there existed in Eastern Europe groups of people called Penitents, pious who went from city to city in the hopes of spreading their piety. They were people who felt they had to do public penance for sins they had committed. Often their behavior included whipping themselves and drawing themselves into a frenzy until they drew blood. They tended to attract a great deal of riffraff. Instead of being a pious group, they became synonymous with immorality, theft, murder and illicit behavior. Finally, they were banned by the government.

In the world of Eastern European Jewry, there also were groups who traveled from town to town to inspire the masses. They did not self-flagellate, but as penance for their sins they never slept twice in the same bed. They subjected themselves to suffering, hunger and pain – often leading to early death. Nevertheless, they were viewed as holy people.

Most of these people delved into practical Kabbalah. They wrote and distributed amulets to people who had problems and who had waited for them to come to town. These holy people served especially in the smaller Jewish communities where there were no great scholars, and where visitors rarely came. When a band of holy people appeared – or one holy person – it left an impression that could last a lifetime.

Even though one can find veiled criticisms of them from many of the rabbis of the time, they gained great popularity. Few were willing to criticize them openly and they were given a wide berth.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden records an event at the time involving someone named Rabbi Judah HeHasid (“Judah the Pious”), who came from the city of Siedlce (Shedlitz in Yiddish). He organized a group consisting of hundreds of Jews to walk from Poland to Jerusalem. The group marched throughout Jewish Poland wearing white burial shrouds, encouraging others to join them. Most of them died on the road. Yet, on October 17, 1700, the remnants arrived in Jerusalem. (more…)

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Posted in:
European Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • March 3, 2015

The Holiness of the Sdei Chemed

Rabbi Yechezkiya Chaim Chizkiya Medini (1813-1905) is famous as the author of an incredible encyclopedic work of Jewish scholarship called Sdei Chemed. And, as is Jewish custom, he became identified by the title of that book.

Despite his accomplishments, in his personal life the Sdei Chemed knew only tragedy. His only son died before the son married. He himself was struck by blindness. Then, almost miraculously, two years later he recovered and was to see again.

He had three daughters. There were no Torah scholars in Crimea, so he married them off to artisans: a tailor, a shoemaker and a hat-maker. He joked that if nothing else he would always be well supplied with clothing.

He was well known for his piety and charity. There was a period in his life during which he spent or gave away every penny he made during the day; he would start every day over again from zero. That is the same story we find also concerning many Chassidic rebbes. It was the level of the Jews in the desert. When they ate the manna, they only had for that day (except on Friday, when they had for Shabbos, too). A person who doesn’t have anything has to rely on God. (more…)

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Biographies
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Berel Wein
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  • July 1, 2014

Sdei Chemed: An Encyclopedia Before Its Time

The Sdei Chemed is an encyclopedia of topics in the Talmud and Jewish law, and in which the decisions and discussions of 1800 years are quoted and crystallized.

The Sdei Chemed is an encyclopedia of topics in the Talmud and Jewish law, and in which the decisions and discussions of 1800 years are quoted and crystallized.

Rabbi Yechezkiya Chaim Chizkiya Medini is known for, and called by, his magnum opus, the Sdei Chemed, which is an encyclopedia of topics in the Talmud and Jewish law, and in which the decisions and discussions of 1800 years are quoted and crystallized. It is really the cornerstone of modern encyclopedic scholarship. In our times, we live in an age of encyclopedic scholarship; this type of scholarship has become very popular and continues to be popular. Rabbi Medini was the forerunner and pioneer of it. The remarkable thing is that he accomplished it mainly all alone by himself.

Rabbi Medini had a photographic memory. Once he saw a book, he would memorize it, until he literally had thousands of books in his mind. In the Crimea, there was no Bodleian Library at Oxford, Library of Congress in Washington or Vatican Library, which were all libraries where many great Jewish scholars had access to books. Rabbi Medini lived in a town where the library barely had one full set of the Talmud! (more…)

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Biographies
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Berel Wein
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  • June 22, 2014

The Chief Rabbi of Crimea

Portrait of Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini (1833-1904), author of Sdei Chemed and Chief Rabbi of Crimea for 33 years.

Portrait of Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini (1833-1904), author of Sdei Chemed and Chief Rabbi of Crimea for 33 years.

Rabbi Yechezkiya Chaim Chizkiya Medini (1813-1905), author of the Sdei Chemed, was not only a great scholar and genius but father of the modern Torah encyclopedia. His life spanned many lands, touching all types of Jews and even non-Jews.

He was born in the Old City of Yerushalayim, which at the time housed a large Sephardic population – “large” meaning maybe 800-1,000 in 1813. The Sdei Chemed’s father, Rabbi Rafael Medini, was a long-time settler in Yerushalayim. He traced his lineage back generations upon generations. According to some scholars, the name Medini comes from the word medina and indicated that the person was a legal resident. Jews were often denied permission to live in Jerusalem. Those who did were called “Medini,” signifying that they had the legal right to live there.

Rabbi Rafael Medini’s son, Yechezkiya Chaim Chizkiya, earned a reputation among both the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim in Yerushalayim by the time he was 10. He was raised and taught by his father; he never went to a formal yeshiva.

He married before his bar-mitzvah, at the age of 12. This was not unheard of among the Sephardim. In Yemen, some married as early as 10 or 11. His father supported him in his learning, enabling him to learn until he was 19.

Then, suddenly, his father died. At that time, not only did he feel the yoke of earning a living for his wife and himself, but for his widowed mother and his younger brothers and sisters as well. He tried his hand at a number of trades: he was a textile broker/merchant, but that failed; he tried to deal in wheat and grain, but that failed. The Jews in Jerusalem did not have an economy to speak of. (more…)

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Biographies
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Berel Wein
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  • June 2, 2014

The Cantonist Decree

During the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Jewish were required to fill a quota of boys aged between 12-25 (it was 18-35 for non-Jews) for the Russian army to serve for a period of 25 years. It was, in effect, a spiritual death sentence.

During the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Jewish were required to fill a quota of boys aged between 12-25 (it was 18-35 for non-Jews) for the Russian army to serve for a period of 25 years. It was, in effect, a spiritual death sentence.

The infamous Cantonist Decree by the Russia Czar was awful by itself. The decree was that Jewish children—some as young as eight years old, most at the age of 12—were taken from their homes and inducted in training camps in order to prepare them so that at the age of 18 they could begin the 25 years of service in the Russian army. But then the Czar did something which was emulated later by Hitler. He would have the Jews themselves choose their own victims, so that in effect he would morally destroy the Jewish people as well.

Every Jewish community had a quota to fill. If the quota was not filled, there were various methods to ensure that it would be filled. One method was that members of the families of the community leaders would be taken, or that they would be exiled to Siberia, which in many cases was certain death. Or, the entire town would be exiled and destroyed.

These draconian measures put the authority of the Jewish establishment in that town in a dilemma from which there was no escape. Imagine a decree which ordered the local authorities to deliver 300 children. Which 300? How does one choose them?

Certain communities chose them by lot, as terrible as that sounds. Other communities sent the sick, infirm, orphaned or the children of the poor—those who had no defense. There arose within the Jewish community an underworld of gangsters who were called chappers (“grabbers”). They were kidnappers who would take children off the street to fill the quota. If parents sent a child to school in the morning, they were not sure if the child would return home at night.

Wealthy Jews of the towns, even if their children were taken, would bribe the Russian officials to have their children released. The Russian officials always were corrupt. The poor people, though, had no way out. Therefore, the division in the Jewish community between the poor and the wealthy was no longer just a question of money, but of blood. (more…)

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Posted in:
European Jewish History
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Berel Wein
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  • February 17, 2014

Czarist Attempts At Converting Jews

Czar Alexander gave Jews incentives to convert. But during his incentive period more Russians converted to Judaism than Jewish to Russian Orthodoxy!

Czar Alexander gave Jews incentives to convert. But during his incentive period more Russians converted to Judaism than Jewish to Russian Orthodoxy!

In 1817, Czar Alexander was convinced by the Holy Synod of the Russian Church that his ticket to heaven was to convert all the Jews in Russia to Russian Orthodoxy. He therefore attempted to do so by granting special privileges to those Jews who would convert. They would live outside the Pale of Settlement, be entitled to freedom from taxes and other privileges. Stubborn Jews who remained Jewish would have everything taken away from them.

In order to make conversion more attractive, remaining a Jew had to be made more distasteful. Toward that end Alexander banned the Jews from having distilleries, which was traditionally a Jewish business. He also did not allow them to be landlords’ agents for the collection of rents, another traditional Jewish line of work. He granted these rights to the converts. He established an organization called “The Society of Jewish Christians” of which he was the patron.

One of the ironies of history is that if you try to make Jews good they are stubborn and if you try to make them bad they are stubborn. From 1817 to 1850, more Russians converted to Judaism than Jews converted to Christianity! (more…)

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Posted in:
Biographies, European Jewish History
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Berel Wein
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  • February 3, 2014

Urbanization of Jews

Baron Maurice (Zvi) de Hirsch (1831–1896), who built the Russian railway system, was an example of the new Jew in the rapidly urbanizing Russia: upwardly mobile but an increasing source of anti-Semitism.

Baron Maurice (Zvi) de Hirsch (1831–1896), who built the Russian railway system, was an example of the new Jew in the rapidly urbanizing Russia: upwardly mobile but an increasing source of anti-Semitism.

Throughout the 1400s, 1500s, 1600s, and most of the 1700s, Jews lived in small, isolated communities—villages, farms, rural areas—as an agricultural-based people who lived among the peasants of Russia and Poland. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the Jews were transformed from an agricultural people to an urban one. This urbanization was taking place among all the peoples of Europe. However the Jews seemed to adapt quicker and more naturally – for better or worse.

For the first time, in the Diaspora at least, there was a substantial entrepreneurial class of Jews for whom other Jews worked. This was the beginnings of what would almost become class warfare among Jews, because the owners naturally saw things one way and the workers saw them another way. The workers saw themselves as being exploited under terrible conditions. Trapped in the middle would be the religious authorities, who somehow would have to make this decision who was right based upon the hard economic realities that they could not control. (more…)

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Posted in:
Biographies
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Berel Wein
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  • January 27, 2014