Jewish History Blog

Two Legacies of the Hasmoneans

Remains of one of the many fortifications built by the Hasmonean kings. In the end, internal strife rendered the great defensive armaments useless.

Remains of one of the many fortifications built by the Hasmonean kings. In the end, internal strife rendered the great defensive armaments useless.

At the end of the Jewish quarter, there are ruins of a Hasmonean fortress tower that apparently marked the western border of Jerusalem in the second century before the Common Era. The Hasmonean kings were vitally and understandably interested in fortifying Jerusalem. The Syrian Greeks who were defeated by the Hasmoneans in the Chanukah war did not disappear and remained a threat to the Jewish kingdom. The new and powerful Roman Empire loomed as a threat to the small state. Fortifications and defense measures, security concerns and other arrangements were certainly in order.

Looking at the massive foundation of stones of the Hasmonean tower, one wonders what really brought down the Hasmonean kingdom and led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for almost two millennia? The true cause had little to do with the strength of the fortifications or the solidity of the defensive towers.

The Hasmonean kingdom fell because of its internal divisions. The civil war between the two Hasmonean brothers – Hyrkanos and Aristobulus – over the right of succession to their father’s throne, the prejudice against the Torah scholars (official policy of the previous Hasmonean rulers), the mistaken belief in the mass conversion of thousands of Idumeans who were not really committed to living a Jewish lifestyle, and the misplaced and fatally erroneous policy of trusting Rome to protect Jewish interests and independence in the Land of Israel all conspired to bring down the Hasmoneans.

The Hasmoneans who triumphed because of faith and loyalty to the Torah and Jewish values fell when they deserted those causes and cast their lot with the then-prevailing cultures and societal norms.

Maimonides in Mishnah Torah at the conclusion of his review of the laws of Chanukah states as follows: “If one has only one candle for the Sabbath candle and thereby will not be able to light a Chanukah candle, the Sabbath candle for the home takes precedence because the Sabbath candle represents peace in the household and we say that God allows His name to be erased in order to help bring about peace in the household. Great is the value of peace for the entire Torah was given in order to advance the value of peace throughout the world, for it is written that ‘Its paths are the ways of pleasantness and all of its roads are to lead to peace.’”

Chanukah celebrates war victories and courageous fighting. But Maimonides states that even though war is sometimes unavoidable and necessary, the goal of Judaism is to advance the value of peace throughout the world and that this is the Torah’s overriding value in addressing life. The task of the truly religious person is to reconcile and conciliate and not to divide and cause quarrels, divisions and enmity. “Great is the value of peace.”

The Hasmoneans left us two different memorials. One is the great holiday of Chanukah and the other is the ruins of the great defensive towers meant to preserve their kingdom and rule. The lights of Chanukah represent a unity of purpose, an ability to subdue personal pettiness and ego for the advancement of the common good. They symbolize a loyalty to Jewish tradition, a love for Torah and its scholars and teachers, a self-reliance and faith that encourages Jewish pride and identity and an optimistic view of life and the future.

The fortress mentality represents the unnecessary ideological and social division within the nation. None of the defensive towers that we build, no matter how mighty they may appear to be, will be sufficient in the long run to guarantee our security and survival. Rather, it is the lights of Chanukah and the values they symbolize that will carry the day for us.

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Posted in:
Ancient Jewish History, Bible/ Tanach, Medieval Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • November 28, 2013

Rav Ovadia Yosef

On October 7, 2013, Rabbi Chaim Ovadia Yosef passed away. By some estimates, one million people attended his funeral. 93-years-old at the time of his passing, he was the undisputed leader of Sefardic Jewry, and one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation. He was also one of the great heroes of the century and to a certain extent he revitalized Sefardic Jewry. His motto was lehachazir atara l’yoshna, “restore the crown [of Torah] to its original glory.”

Rav Ovadia Yosef was one of the great heroes of the century and to a certain extent he revitalized Sefardic Jewry.

Rav Ovadia Yosef was one of the great heroes of the century and to a certain extent he revitalized Sefardic Jewry.

In the long history of the Jewish people, the Sefardim and the Ashkenazim have not often met. However, when they did meet, the Sefardim usually became “Ashkenized,” i.e. they took on the customs and lifestyle of Central and Eastern European Jews. For instance, there is a proportion of the Lithuanian Jewry who really is Sefardic. After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, some Sefardim ended up in Lithuania and became known as “Litvaks” (Lithuanian Jews). There was a great Lithuanian rabbi, Don Yichye in the 19th century, whose family originated from Spain. Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein – a great early 20th century scholar whose works on Jewish law are seminal – wrote that anyone whose name is Epstein and is a Levi, is really named Benveniste, originating from a famous Sefardic family. The reason they are called Epstein is that on the way from Cordova to Vilna, they stopped in the German city of Eppstein and became “Epstein.”

Contemporary Jewish historian Rabbi Berel Wein comes from a line of seven generations of rabbis from a small town in Lithuania, but the family also originated from Spain. The name Wein is really Vien because on the way from Spain to Lithuania they stopped in Vienna and became Vien. Basically, that is how Sefardim became “Ashkenized.”

When the Sefardic communities came to Israel, the secular Ashkenazim immediately attempted to secularize and Ashkenize them. Rav Ovadia Yosef is the one who reversed that injustice. He was able to rally the Sefardim all over the world, not just in Israel.

Part of our culture, certainly in the religious world, includes a lack of reverence for authority. There always is another rabbi. Why do I have to listen to him? I can listen to somebody else. There is no unity. One of the great things Rav Ovadia Yosef did was that in his incomparable scholarly greatness no one could dispute his rulings. There was no other Rav Ovadia. He thereby unified people and restored the idea of reverence for Torah, reverence for Torah scholars. Whatever he said — whether you liked it or didn’t like it, whether he said it nicely or didn’t say it nicely, whether he was correct or more correct – once he said it, it had authority. That is how he was able to restore the crown of Torah to its original glory.

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Posted in:
Biographies, Sephardic Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • November 12, 2013

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev

Tomb of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, the Chassidic Rebbe who became famous for always defending otherwise indefensible Jews and see the good in every situation. His tomb is still visited today by thousands of admirers and followers.

Tomb of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, the Chassidic Rebbe who became famous for always defending otherwise indefensible Jews and see the good in every situation. His tomb is still visited today by thousands of admirers and followers.

When the Chassidic Movement burst onto the Jewish scene in the mid-1700s it changed the face of Jewry. Among its many catalyzing elements were a series of ideas. For the most part, these were not so much new ideas as a new emphasis on ideas already extant in Judaism. Nevertheless, their impact was no less earth shattering.

One of the ideas that Chassidism introduced was the idea that evil is necessarily not all bad. One of the great philosophical problems is to explain how evil exists in a world created by God, who is all good and all powerful. One of the attempted answers is that what we think is evil is not really evil. It is an imperfect form of good that requires greater refinement; with work it will eventually become good.

The founder of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, said that evil is the seat of good; good rests upon it. In other words, it is a necessary ingredient somehow in the process of human life. In evil itself there are many heavenly sparks that are covered and hidden. The righteous person is able to recognize and elevate those sparks, and therefore draw forth good even from evil. Consequently, the attitude of Chassidism – in its early revolutionary stage at least – was much more tolerant toward backsliding Jews. They saw the good sparks even in those “bad” Jews.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740–1809), one of the renowned Chassidic masters, became famous for this. For instance, the story goes, he once saw a Jew adorned with his prayer shawl and tefillin as he was greasing the wheels to his wagon. Someone remarked, “Look at that fool. He dresses in piety while he dirties himself with work.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok responded, “Look at that holy person. Even while greasing his wagon he is wearing his prayer shawl and tefillin.”

berdh

Modern translation and adaptation of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev’s teachings.

And there are many similar stories told about how Rabbi Levi Yitzchok always defended otherwise indefensible Jews and saw the good in every situation. He was not naïve that Jews did bad. Nevertheless, even in the bad that a fellow Jew did, he would strive to see the good. It was a life philosophy. King David in Psalms said: “Turn away from evil and do good.” That is typically understood as: first stop doing evil and then do good. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok interpreted it: “Take the evil and make good out of it.”

This was one of the major points of philosophic dispute between the Chassidim and their opponents, the Misnagdim. A major proponent of the latter, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, wrote very strongly against it; that it was a misrepresentation of the idea of evil in the world.

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Posted in:
Biographies, European Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • November 5, 2013

Jewish Self-Hatred And Ignorance

The title of the book is naturally taken from the Pesach Seder’s scenario of the four sons of the Jewish people and their attitudes towards Pesach particularly and the Jewish people generally. It is a polemic against Jewish self-hatred and Jewish Israel bashing from the self-appointed Leftist self-righteous denizens of academia and the media world. It is a powerful book and Mamet takes no prisoners.

The title of the book is naturally taken from the Pesach Seder’s scenario of the four sons of the Jewish people and their attitudes towards Pesach particularly and the Jewish people generally. It is a polemic against Jewish self-hatred and Jewish Israel bashing from the self-appointed Leftist self-righteous denizens of academia and the media world. It is a powerful book and Mamet takes no prisoners.

David Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway playwright as well as a well-established Hollywood movie script writer. His book, “The Wicked Son – Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews,” is a polemic against Jewish self-hatred. It is a powerful book and Mamet takes no prisoners.

He states his case as follows: “To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who in the nineties envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the Seder; who might take your curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den, but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bishvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow their heads reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris – to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.”

Mamet recognizes that there is no one book that will convince these people of their recklessness, self-hatred and apostasy. He writes: “It is unlikely that any self-professed antagonist to Israel, and so to the Jews, can be brought by force of outside reason to recognize and correct their self-serving apostasy.”

But Mamet writes for the committed Jew and for the millions of Jews who like to be Jewish but just don’t know how to go about it. The remedy that he himself espouses is ritual observance and thus belonging to a large and ancient people who have an unbroken chain of tradition and historic achievements. No people can satisfactorily survive without a ritual and sense of belonging.

Mamet is a Reform Jew but he is a Reform Jew who takes Jewish beliefs and ritual seriously and studiously. In this he represents a slowly growing trend within the Reform movement of Jews who want and demand more tradition and ritual and less liberal social agendas and guitar playing services in their temples.

Mamet compares the alienated Jew trying to come back to his soul and roots to the challenges of a good actor performing on stage: Say the lines exactly as they are written. Try observing religious rites and allow them to lead you back to the theme of the play. Go to the synagogue and search there for a haven of belonging, learning and mutual support.

Jewish self-haters are not restricted to the Diaspora. The avant-garde in Israel despises religious Jewry for its crime of somehow not disappearing and for the temerity to be not just hanging on here in Israel but actually visibly expanding and growing. It blames Jews, Judaism and Israel for all of the faults and ills of the world. It sympathizes with our enemies, being blindly unaware that they too, as Jews, are in the crosshairs of those who would wish to destroy us.

Mamet’s book should be translated into Hebrew and distributed free of charge. His concluding words about being a Jew ring true with prophetic resonance: “We are the children of kings and queens, a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. We are the children of a mystery that has not abandoned us and that has come for us; it is both described and contained in the Torah.”

Mamet has said all that is necessary to be said. The rest is to go and study and practice.

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Posted in:
American Jewish history, Biographies, Modern Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • July 29, 2013

Rumors About the Demise of Orthodoxy…

In the 35 years of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s responses to questions on most pressing questions of Jewish law, one can trace the incredible social change that took place in the Jewish world, including the revitalization of Torah observant Jewry.

In the 35 years of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s responses to questions on most pressing questions of Jewish law, one can trace the incredible social change that took place in the Jewish world, including the revitalization of Torah observant Jewry.

When Reform swept through Germany in the early eighteenth century, it looked like the end of Traditional/Orthodox Judaism. An observer during the time would predict without any hesitation was that there would be no Orthodox Jews whatsoever in a very short period of time. Ironically, the same predictions were made in the 1950s when it was also obvious that Orthodoxy would disappear and any Jews who cared enough would be either Conservative or Reform. One of the great ironies of our time is that not only have the Orthodox survived, but continue to grow and thrive, whereas the Conservative and Reform are dying out.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the great Torah scholar, was asked the toughest questions on Jewish law and recorded them from the very early 1950s for the next 35 years. In one of his early responses, he wrote about an Orthodox minyan that had moved upstairs because it was shrinking while a Conservative minyan moved in downstairs. The question to Rabbi Feinstein was: Should they [the shrinking, aging Orthodox minyan] kick the young people out?

Toward the end of his life, in 1985, he was asked a question about a Conservative minyan upstairs and the young Orthodox one downstairs: Should they pray in the Conservative synagogue because their minyan is much bigger and in three to five years they are going to take it over anyway. In the space of 35 years, the roles had been completely reversed. Yet, in 1951 nobody believed that could happen.

That is what happened in the time of the Reform movement. It became heir in Germany, and to a lesser extent in France, to everything that the Jewish community had built up over 500 years, including its assets and traditions. It was a startling development, one to which the Orthodox really had no effective response for a long time. The Orthodox people were completely out of tune with the winds of change in society.

Reform and Conservative Judaism today look increasingly like relics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively. In the September 28, 2008, New York Magazine entitled “Assimilation and its Discontents – How Success Ruined the New York Jew” David Samuels’ main thesis, beautifully written and elegantly presented, is that the fact that Jews are now accepted and fully integrated and assimilated into American society, has worked to their detriment.

They have lost the drives, talents and specialness that made them so vital in American life in the twentieth century. The very fact of being an outsider forced them to strive harder and be better in all fields than their WASPish competitors. Jews were forced to create their own schools, universities, law schools, medical schools, hospitals, law firms, banks, clubs, social welfare organizations and out of this partially self-enforced and mainly outside enforced parallel society emerged Nobel laureates, great literary and artistic figures and talented financiers, business people and creative innovators in the arts and even politics.

Samuels’ final words are: “Jews of New York City, we don’t have to go out like that…. Perhaps we can finally relinquish our fantasies of universalistic omnipotence and return to the prickly particularity that made us great. We can reopen the delis and bakeries, and celebrate the wisdom of our sages who knew that worldly success is fleeting, and that the secret to happiness is fear of God, a bowl of hot chicken soup and a rent controlled apartment in Brooklyn.”

 

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Posted in:
American Jewish history, Biographies, European Jewish History, Modern Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • July 10, 2013

Legendary Meeting with the Dubno Maggid

The Dubno Maggid is recognized as one of the greatest teachers through the use of parables that the Jewish people have ever had.

The Dubno Maggid is recognized as one of the greatest teachers through the use of parables that the Jewish people have ever had.

One of the great personages who lived during the time of the Vilna Gaon (1721-1797) was Rabbi Jacob Kranz (1740-1804), the Maggid of Dubno. He was famous for his parables. They once asked him how his stories always hit the proverbial bull’s-eye. He answered that there were two ways to be a great archer. One was to set up the target, aim, shoot and hit it. That was rare, he said. One needed real skill for that.

What he did, he said, was first to shoot the arrow and then paint the target. That way he always hits the bulls-eye. Here also, he said, first he puts together the parable and then he finds what to fit it to.

There are many legends about the Vilna Gaon and one is that he invited the Maggid of Dubno to come to him once a year so that the Maggid could chastise the Gaon and tell him what was missing in him. The Maggid thought to himself, “What can I tell the Gaon, this angel of a man whose entire life is Torah, who learns 22 hours every day, and who never steps foot out of his house?”

Among the many legends about the Vilna Gaon is that he invited the Maggid of Dubno to come to him once a year so that the Maggid could chastise the Gaon.

Among the many legends about the Vilna Gaon is that he invited the Maggid of Dubno to come to him once a year so that the Maggid could chastise the Gaon.

It is told, in another legend, that once the Gaon’s sister came to visit him to talk to him after a separation of many years. He spent about two minutes with her and then said, “In 50 years we will have plenty of time to talk, but right now we are wasting time.”

What could the Maggid tell such a man?

The legend is that he told him, “It is no trick to be the Gaon here, to sit in your house and study 22 hours a day. You don’t have to go out to the market to sell your wares. You don’t have to deal with anybody. It is no trick to do that.”

It is said that the Gaon heard what the Maggid had to say and wept. However, he then said to the Maggid, “You’re right, it’s no trick, but I’m not obligated to do tricks. I’m not obligated to go out in the market.”

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Posted in:
Biographies, European Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • July 1, 2013

Vilna

Vilna, c. 1920. Peddlers under the arch on Jatkowa Street in the Jewish quarter.

Vilna, c. 1920. Peddlers under the arch on Jatkowa Street in the Jewish quarter.

Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, was called Vilna by its Jewish population. The Jews made Vilna a Jewish city in the sense that New York is a Jewish city in today’s world. The Jews called Vilna the Jerusalem of Lithuania. It was a city of vibrant Jewish life for more than five centuries. Great rabbis and scholars lived, taught, wrote and formed Jewish life here.

The Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer, was the greatest Talmudic mind of many centuries, past and present. The Enlightenment/Haskalah of eighteenth and nineteenth century European life found its Jewish home amongst the Jewish intelligentsia of Vilna. The Yiddish literature and theater were products of Vilna. The Jewish labor union, the Bund, had its home in Vilna. The Bund was militantly antireligious, even holding its annual banquet in Vilna on Yom Kippur night!

Vilna was a Jewish city of vivid and bitter contests and contrasts. The greatest printed edition of the Talmud was produced by the Romm press in Vilna in the nineteenth century. It has remained the standard face of the page and pagination of the Talmud until today. It is still called “the Vilna Shas (Talmud).” The original edition of the Vilna Shas contained over 12,000 typos that the editors painstakingly collected and were determined to correct in the next edition of that monumental work.

The Old Vilna cemetery before the Nazis invaded and the Soviets leveled it into a soccer field. Vilna is now a vast Jewish graveyard to the remembrance of what once was a remarkably vibrant center of Jewish life.

The Old Vilna cemetery before the Nazis invaded and the Soviets leveled it into a soccer field. Vilna is now a vast Jewish graveyard to the remembrance of what once was a remarkably vibrant center of Jewish life.

There were millions of characters of different fonts in that printing masterpiece so that 12,000 typos was really no big deal. However, in World War I German shells struck Vilna and the Romm press, destroying the list of typos, which are therefore still enshrined in most editions of the Talmud still being published today. There is an industry of Jewish scholarship extant today intent on ferreting out those typographical errors and correcting them. Vilna was the heart of Jewish scholarship and set the tone for the moderate, scholarly, and moral Lithuanian Jewish community.

Jewish Vilna was destroyed twice in the 1940s. It was first destroyed by the Soviets who, under the terms of the German-Russian pact of non-belligerence of 1939, swallowed up Lithuania and installed a puppet Communist government. Many of the great scholars were killed, the yeshivot closed and Jewish cultural life diminished under the Communist rule. Tragic and ironic it was that many of the Communist commissars that destroyed Jewish life in Vilna were themselves Jews. But this is a continuing irony that is reflected throughout all of Jewish history.

When Germany invaded Poland and later Lithuania, many Jews fled to Vilna for safety. Quite a few thousand Jews were saved by the interventions of the Dutch and Japanese consuls in Vilna. Nevertheless, by the end of 1941 the Jews of Vilna and Lithuania were doomed.

After the war there was almost no Jewish life allowed in Vilna by the Communist authorities. The ancient Jewish cemetery was leveled for a park and soccer field. The bodies of the Gaon of Vilna and other great scholars were reinterred. But since Vilna was in its totality a vast Jewish graveyard, the remembrance of what Vilna was to the Jewish people was systematically eradicated by the Communists.

Today Jewish Vilna exists but barely. It is safe to say that Vilna which was once 30% Jewish in population, and those Jews were heavily influential in the life of the city, will never again become the Jerusalem of Lithuania.

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Posted in:
European Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • June 20, 2013

The Gaon in Exile

The legendary genius, the Vilna Gaon, went into voluntary exile for several years dressed as an ordinary beggar.

The legendary genius, the Vilna Gaon, went into voluntary exile for several years dressed as an ordinary beggar.

In previous generations, some of the most pious Jews would leave their homes and cities to wander from city to city. They disguised themselves as ordinary beggars, took a walking stick and traveled from one Jewish community to the next. They did this in order to suffer the ignominies of exile. The practice of voluntary exile is mentioned by Maimonides (Laws of Repentance 2:4), who writes that it atones for a person’s sins. However, other reasons are suggested by various commentators, including feeling the pain of the Shechinah (Divine Presence), which is in exile, and to attain a truer picture of the world.

The legendary 18th century genius of the Jewish people, Rabbi Elijah Kremer, the “Vilna Gaon,” was the greatest Talmudic mind of many centuries, past and present. His immense scholarship and rigorous intellectual discipline influenced almost all of the later commentators to the Torah text until our day. When he was in his twenties he undertook a personal exile time. It is not clear whether the Gaon did so for three or five years. Either way, he did not advertise that he was the renowned scholar he already was and he was usually not recognized as such. However, on some occasions he was discovered. The rabbi of the town saw that this was no ordinary beggar.

There are numerous legends about the Gaon in exile. One is that he came to a town and a rabbi invited him to stay in his house overnight. The Gaon asked if he had any books and rabbi answered that he had only one book, the commentary of the Rashba, a great 14th century Talmudic commentator. The rabbi did not know that he was hosting the Vilna Gaon, and gave him the Rashba so as not to embarrass the poor, ignorant beggar. The Gaon took the book and studied it all night. The next morning he returned it to his host, thanked him and mentioned that the last two pages had been missing but he had written them out for him.

In his wanderings, he attempted to discover not only rare manuscripts but rare people — those whom he felt had potential for Torah greatness. Many times there are great people who find themselves in small and unknown communities. They can easily become discouraged and feel that they are never going to get anywhere. The Gaon looked for such people and attempted to strengthen them in knowledge of the Torah.

In the course of his travels, the Vilna Gaon once asked his gentile wagon driver to stop at the side of the road so that he could daven. As he was praying, the wagon driver whipped the horse and disappeared in a cloud of dust, taking with him all of the Gaon’s meager possessions. He was stranded with absolutely nothing to his name – nothing, that is, except for his prayer.

Think about this story the next time you travel. You land in an airport and wait for your luggage to appear on the carousel. You follow the bags as they revolve upon the carousel until your neck is sore. Then when the last piece of luggage has been removed and your battered suitcase is nowhere in sight, you trudge down endless corridors to the lost-and-found. They tell you that your luggage has gone to Omaha. You are not in Omaha.

How will you react? Will you get angry? Or will you say, “Ahah! That is what happened to the Vilna Gaon. I am in exile just like him.”

That is when you can begin to identify with the Creator. The airline can take everything away from you, but your connection to the Shechinah stays with you. Instead of feeling humiliated by your helplessness and dependency, you will come to see it as a way of connecting to God.

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Posted in:
Biographies, European Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • June 10, 2013

A Portrait of Lithuania Jewry

Lithuanian_state_in_13-15th_centuries

Jews lived in Lithuania for centuries. They were by nature a secretive, quiet, humble people. They did not make the noise that other sections of Eastern European and Central European Jewry made. Therefore, we do not really have the accurate picture of them to the degree we should. There is unfortunately very little written about them even today.

Lithuanian Jewry was, first, much poorer than most of Polish Jewry; certainly poorer than Hungarian and Czechoslovakian Jewry. The country itself does not have much in natural resources, except timber and swamps. Winter came early and summer late. Summer was broiling hot and winter was bitter cold. No one went to Lithuania for the weather.

There were two large cities: Vilna and Kovno. The main one was Vilna. There also were smaller places like Ponevezh (often pronounced Ponevitch), which was large by Jewish standards, and Telz, which was the county seat of a city. Overall, their numbers were not large. Before the Second World War, there were only about 250,000 Jews in Lithuania. Nevertheless, the influence of Lithuania was such that it was as though it had millions of Jews, because intellectually it was the crown of Eastern European Jewry. Out of Lithuania came a tremendous amount of Torah, yeshivas, and even intellectuals in the later secular movements connected to Haskalah. Lithuanian Jewish genius was disproportionate to its numbers.

Lithuania was the hub of Jewish intellectual life for many centuries.

Lithuania was the hub of Jewish intellectual life for many centuries.

The Jews of Lithuania had lived their own life in little towns for hundreds of years. For instance, in the little-known town called Vashky, Jews had lived for almost 600 years. At the turn of the 20th century it had 41 Jewish families and 26 non-Jewish families. Yet, it was large enough and well-known enough to have a rabbi and for there to be competition when the position opened.

The non-Jewish neighbors knew all sorts of details about Jewish life and lore. They were often very well-versed in the Shulchan Aruch, the codebook of Jewish law. Even the calendar of the non-Jews followed the Jewish calendar. Of course, none of that prevented them from destroying the Jews when the time came. Nevertheless, it shows how the Jews took root in those towns.

The Jews did not converse in Lithuanian. They knew enough words to get by in a conversation, when necessary, but Lithuanian was not their tongue. Yiddish was. Lithuanian Jews had a special accent, which one can still hear today in their pronunciation of Hebrew and of Yiddish. They are famous for mixing the “sh” and “s” sound. Either way, their ability to remain Jewish was extraordinary.

They also had a very ironic view of life, expressed with a very sardonic, wry sense of humor. They made up all sorts of folk sayings which really characterize life.

There were about 250,000 before the Holocaust. Today, less than 5,000.

There were about 250,000 before the Holocaust. Today, less than 5,000.

Most of all, they respected scholarship, especially Torah scholarship. A person who was a talmid chacham — a genuine Torah scholar—was worthy of honor. Wealthy Lithuanian Jews were in the minority. The height of achievement in Lithuania was to be a talmid chacham. That was the treasure.

Finally, Lithuanian Jewry was known for its impeccable honesty and commitment to ethics. That is why Lithuania turned out to be the most fertile ground for the Mussar Movement. In Lithuania it found an audience. The Jews were extremely committed to ethics and self-improvement.

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Posted in:
European Jewish History, Holocaust
by
Berel Wein
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  • May 29, 2013

The Path of the Righteous

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s “Path of the Righteous” became the primer on Jewish ethics.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s “Path of the Righteous” became the primer on Jewish ethics.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto was not only a first rate genius, but also a truly holy person. When he was yet a very young man, before his twentieth birthday, he already had a reputation in northern Italy as a great master of Kabbalah. In the early 1700s, he authored one of the premier works in all of rabbinic literature, Mesillas Yesharim (“The Path of the Righteous”). The book is based on a passage of the Talmud attributed to Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair (Phinehas ben Jair), one of the great holy men of the Talmud. He was such a holy man, the Talmud says, that even his donkey was able to discern whether the hay it was given had been tithed or not.

In the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b), Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair is quoted as describing a series of ethical steps by which one can achieve the apex of saintliness: Ruach Hakodesh, “Divine Inspiration.” Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s book, Mesillas Yesharim, is based on that statement. In it, he expounds each of those steps.

Within each step, Rabbi Luzzatto explains the step itself, its elements, how it can be acquired, and what might distract from its acquisition. For example: Watchfulness can be acquired by setting aside time for introspection. Acquiring watchfulness can be impaired by excessive mundane responsibilities, wrong company or a cynical stance in life. The same pattern is used for each of the traits mentioned.

In his introduction, he makes one of the most famous statements in all of rabbinic literature: “I did not write this book to tell you that which you do not know. Rather, I am only putting it down in book form to remind you of that which you already know.” The book is therefore deceptive. At first glance, it looks very simple. But it is bursting with seminal ideas in philosophy and ethics.

The Gaon of Vilna lived a half century later and was a very young man when he read the book. He said that in the first ten chapters he did not find one extra word. In part due to this resounding approbation by the next generation’s undisputed leader, the book became widely popular, and became the primer on Jewish ethics when it was advocated by the Mussar Movement in the mid-1800s. Even today it is studied in most of the yeshivas in the world. A yeshiva student cannot consider his experience complete if he has not studied The Mesillas Yesharim.

Even though it is a very hard book to live up to, nevertheless it sets a code of human behavior and a truly Jewish value system and outlook on life. Jews tend to take on the coloration of the society in which they live, sometimes ingesting and displaying values that are not really Jewish – even though people are convinced that they are Jewish. “The Path of the Righteous” represents authentic Jewish ethics of the highest standard.

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Posted in:
Bible/ Tanach, Ethics
by
Berel Wein
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  • May 1, 2013