Jewish History Blog
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. (more…)
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.
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.” (more…)
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.” (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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?” (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)
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. (more…)