Jewish History Blog

The Three Barons

Jews of the Vineland, NJ farming community

Jews of the Vineland, NJ farming community

In Europe in the 19th century, there were three Jews whose wealth and social connections earned them a title of nobility: baron. Each of the three barons devoted their time, wealth, and efforts to help solve or at least alleviate the “Jewish problem” in Europe. But their tactics, aims and solutions were markedly different from one another.

 

Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France was a scion of the famous and fabulously wealthy Rothschild banking family. He was a traditional Jew, and in a most unlikely pairing, teamed up with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, the rabbi of Bialystok and leader of the Chovevei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) organization. Rabbi Mohilever was interested in creating “colonies” for Jews in the Land of Israel, and until they became self-sufficient, the Baron was willing to foot the bills. Eventually there were thirty-nine such “colonies,” many of which have grown into major cities in Israel that still exist today.

 

Baron Rothschild was not a supporter of Theodore Herzl or the early Zionist movement. He refused to advance to Herzl the fifteen million dollars that he requested to “buy” the Land of Israel from the sick and corrupt Ottoman Empire. Yet, he invested much more money than that in building the colonies. His company, the Carmel Wine Corporation, was founded in 1882 and continues to be the leading wine producer in Israel until this day. He later gave the company to the farmers and vintners of the company who ran it as a cooperative venture. The Rothschild family contributed funds for the building of the Knesset building in Jerusalem, and there is a beautiful room in that building dedicated to the memory of the Baron. He was the great philanthropist behind the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. (more…)

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Posted in:
European Jewish History
by
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • August 11, 2015

Love, Jewish Style

ring

Photo by Bentzion Elisha

Today is the 15th of the Jewish month of Av, known as Tu B’Av. In Israel, it is called “the holiday of love,” or “Chag Ha Ahava.” Some have called it “a Jewish Valentine’s Day,” but the history and customs of the two days are very different. It is a popular day for weddings, but it celebrates love in its broadest sense: unity and continuity among the Jewish people and not the love between two individuals.

The Talmudic tractate Taanis 30b-31a describes the way Tu B’Av was celebrated in the times of the Holy Temple. The unmarried girls of Jerusalem would borrow clothing from one another, and in order not to embarrass the ones who did not have nice clothing, everyone wore plain white. Then they went out to the fields and they danced, and the young men would come to watch them. Torah Law does not permit such a thing these days, but in those times, people’s minds were purer. And the girls would call out to the men, advertising their advantages. Some have called this a “Jewish Sadie Hawkins dance,” but that is really a crass understanding of the matter.
The pretty girls would call out, “A woman is for beauty.” The ones who came from the most honorable families called out, “With me, you’ll build a great family.” Those who had wealth said, “We’ll never worry for money.” And the Talmudic Rabbis spoke for the girls who had none of these: “All Jewish women are beautiful. All Jewish women have great value. But poverty and circumstances sometimes hide them. A woman who fears G-d – she is worthy of praise.” In other words, look for character. That’s what counts.

The Talmudic commentators ask: what happened to a man who wanted it all? What if he wanted money and beauty and family and fear of G-d? One of my great teachers once said that if you find love with someone, you’ll find that she has everything you need. When you look past yourself, you see the greater value.

Many, many matches were made this way on Tu B’Av. That is how it became the “holiday of love,” not in today’s romantic sense of love, but in terms of a lasting relationship that builds a family and a future for the Jewish people.

But as I said, this was an ancient custom amongst the Jewish people. After that, marriages came about through matchmaking.

Yenta, the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof

Yenta, the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof

Matchmaking is an old and traditionally honored Jewish occupation. The Midrash teaches that matchmaking has been G-d’s primary preoccupation since Creation. (Bereishis Rabba 68:4). But reliance on “professional” matchmakers has waxed and waned throughout the centuries. So even when the professionals weren’t much in demand (as in pre-Internet twentieth century America), unofficial matchmakers have always operated. They recommend matches to their friends, scout for their relatives, and generally make themselves useful (or annoying, depending on the person) in influencing the search for the right mate.

Professional matchmakers charge a fee for their services, and this too is a long-standing tradition in the Jewish world. The rabbinic responsa books are full of recorded disputes between matchmakers and their clients over the payment of fees. What if the couple became engaged and then later agreed not to marry? Was the matchmaker nevertheless entitled to the fee? What if he or she knowingly misrepresented or withheld vital information? A little “puffing” is allowed, and even expected, but what is the limit? These are just some of the complex, sometimes humorous, and sometimes painful questions the responsa deals with. The general opinion of the rabbis is that a matchmaker is legitimately entitled to be paid a reasonable fee if the couple marries. It is considered to be truly “kosher” money, earned honorably in furthering the personal happiness of others and for the general public good.

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Posted in:
Modern Jewish History
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Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • July 31, 2015

Will You Carry the Torah?

 

Kevin and Amy Lefcoe with the Sefer Torah

Kevin and Amy Lefcoe with the Sefer Torah

“Will you carry the Torah?”

 

…our trip captain asked me. “What would be involved?” I wondered aloud, contemplating the gravity of transporting, guarding, and actually carrying a borrowed Sefer Torah in an army issue duffel through 4 South African countries over I 0 days.

 

The word of G-d, given to the Jewish People, and transmitted over the generations since Mount Sinai – in this very form, without change – it was there, with me, all the time.  I did not stop thinking about it, that Torah scroll, and its significance.

 

During this summer’s Safari adventure and exploration of the dazzling and remote of this world, the Torah lived in my hotel closet.  I was sure to close the door, so it would not be subjected to the physical and mundane of hotel events.   It also rested on a shelf above

my bed in another venue.  Always there, it seemed to ask for the better me. (more…)

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Jewish Thought, Modern Jewish History
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Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • July 27, 2015

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
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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
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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
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Rabbi 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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Rabbi 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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Rabbi 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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Posted in:
Biographies
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Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • June 2, 2014