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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

August 16-17 Parsha Va'Eschanan, Shabbos Nachamu

The last Mishnah in Masechet Taanit says, “There were no holidays so joyous for the Jewish People as the Fifteenth of Av and Yom HaKippurim, for on those days, daughters of Yerushalayim would go out dressed in borrowed clothing (so as not to embarrass those who didn’t have) and white clothing (so that they would all look the same”).

Many matches were made as a result, hence the joyous nature of the day. The focus on marriage as the celebration of this day is based on two decrees which were annulled on the Fifteenth of Av. The Torah tells us of the daughters of Tzelafchad who had no brothers. The daughters felt they were entitled to their father’s share of the land of Israel. G-d told Moshe that the daughters were correct - however, to ensure that the land did not move outside the tribe, the women were required to marry within their tribe.

This limitation on the marital prospects of Jewish woman who inherited land was lifted once the Jewish People were settled in Israel; and it was lifted on the Fifteenth of Av. The other limitation that was lifted on the Fifteenth of Av came in the Period of the Judges, approximately 1395 B.C.E. The last chapters of the Book of Judges tell the story. A woman was abused, and eventually died, at the hands of a mob in a city of the Tribe of Benjamin. The other Tribes were outraged and demanded justice be served. When the Tribe of Benjamin did not punish the perpetrators, the other Tribes declared war on Benjamin. In addition, they all took an oath that no one would marry their daughter to a Benjaminite.

When the was over, Benjamin was annihilated, leaving only some 700 Benjaminite men hiding in caves. The other tribes felt guilty at their overreaction. On the 15th of Av, the prohibition of marrying into the Tribe of Benjamin was lifted to allow the tribe to repopulate.

Nowadays we do not marry during the three weeks. Shabbos Nachamu, which comes just days after Tisha B’av, signals the resumption of wedding season. On it we look forward to a bright future for the Jewish people and Mazal Tov.

August 9-10 Parsha Devarim

One of the most common stories heard on Tisha b’Av is about the Emperor Napoleon walking by a Paris synagogue on this day, hearing the lamentations and loud weeping of the Jews. In the story, he asks what the Jews are crying about, and after being told about the destruction of the Temple nearly two millennia ago, remarks something along the lines of: “A nation that cries and fasts for 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their Temple.” The internet is full of debate and investigation as to whether or not the story is actually true. I don’t know if it is or is not, but as Rabbi Berl Wein has often quipped “if it didn’t happen, it should have”

Napoleon was the quintessential Emperor. One might even name a complex after him. Napoleon set out to conquer the world and almost achieved his goal. In the process, he spread the French values of the Enlightenment which have altered the course of humankind. Napoleon was a military man who lived by the sword. Would a man obsessed with glory not stand in awe of an unarmed, powerless, despised and degraded people, who refuse to forget their glorious past? Would a man of power not wonder,  “from whence does the power of these Jews come”?

Surely Napoleon spent much energy to deny the reality that his days on this earth were few and that his empire would ultimately end up in the dustbin of history, with all of its predecessors. A man such as Napoleon, if he was honest, should have been moved by the eternal Israel and its dream of Redemption.

Napoleon surely understood that crying for the past can only last so long. If, after nearly two millenia they are still crying, it must be because they have a dream for the future. The Jewish people were everything the great Napoleon yearned for but would never have.

The first night of Pesach always falls on the same day of the week as Tisha B’av. This is no coincidence. When we celebrate Pesach, we celebrate our redemption and the launch of our mission. When we mourn Tisha Bav, we mourn the fact that the mission has not yet been realized. The story of Napoleon teaches us that those who sit on the floor and contemplate that past are great and powerful conquerors. And that those who mourn what the Temple gave the world are connected to an immortal reality. Two hundred years have passed and the message of the story rings ever truer.

August 2-3 Parsha Matos-Masei

n the year 1855, Alexander II became Czar of Russia. Alexander II was a reform-minded man and set about making important changes to the backward Russian Empire. He is most notably remembered for freeing the serfs - peasant farmers who were until then the property of the owners of the estates upon which they lived.

Alexander II tried to homogenize his country by banning all distinctive dress and national customs. The Jews bore the brunt of this severe decree. They were not allowed to appear in public in distinctive Jewish garb, beard and peyos, and women were not allowed to wear the traditional head covering. Alexander II also sought to reform the educational system by allowing Jews into the general school system or setting up secular schools for the Jews. This was intended to break the cheder system where Jewish children learned exclusively Torah subjects.

Alexander II was extremely controversial within the Jewish community. The maskilim, or intellectuals, embraced his reforms. They felt that Russia was entering a new era and that this was their opportunity to join the mainstream as had been modeled in Western Europe.

The traditionalists did everything they could to fight the changes. As the years progressed, more and more Jewish youth attended secular schools, became prominent in business and moved into the professions and the arts. In many cases, Jews were baptized or had their children baptized to gain acceptance into Russian society.

The Czarist aristocracy took a decidedly dim view of Alexander II’s reform as it meant loosening their hold on the country. Alexander II walked a tight rope between modernizing Russian and maintaining his empire with an iron fist.

The winds of change however were blowing across the world and a variety of anti- czarist movements were at work in Russia. On Mach 31st 1881, a member of a terrorist group called “Peoples Will’ assassinated Czar Alexander II near his Winter Palace. The assassination was all the aristocracy needed to prove to themselves that Russia needed to veer sharply back to its traditional course. The anarchist was not Jewish, but he had a Jewish girlfriend which clearly implicated the Jews in the crime.

In May of 1881, a series of regressive laws were issued, many of which were directed at the Jews. Soon, government-sanctioned pogroms were unleashed across Russia as a method of turning the attention of the populace against the age-old enemy, the Jews. Those Jews who had hoped that this time it would be different were devastated. Many turned to revolutionary movements: Communism, Socialism, Anarchism, and the Bund trade union movement.

Many however decided that enough was enough, and the concept of emigration came to the fore. On the 3rd day of Av 1881, the first ship from Europe carrying Jews emigrating from Russia arrived in New York. Over the next 20 years, more than 2 million Jews would leave Russia for the United States. In 1924 the United States passed very restrictive immigration rules which effectively barred Jews from entering the country. Most of us reading this can trace our presence in America and various parts of the United Kingdom to this wave of emigration.

July 26-27 Parsha Pinchas

Rabbi Nachman Bulman was born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1925.

Rav Bulman’s father Meir had already buried two wives and two children in Europe and his mother was in her mid-forties when they wrote to the Gerrer Rebbe, know, as the Imrei Emes, for a Bracha that they should yet be blessed with children. Rav Bulman was the fruit of that Bracha.

Everything was cosmic in his eyes, and he responded accordingly. Anything might trigger a welter of emotions, without diminishing his analytical clarity. While still in his early thirties, he was already the most sought-after orator in the American Orthodox world. His speeches were not mere entertainments, but intense learning experiences. Even those who could not follow the profundity of his thought felt themselves being transported to higher realms as he spoke.

Starting softly, there came a point in every speech where Rav Bulman would become so carried away with his subject that his voice would crack, and with it the hearts of his listeners. Nowhere was his passion more evident than in his davening.  Bochurim would slip out of their yeshivos before Neilah to go to hear Rav Bulman plead with the Ribbono shel Olam for each and every member of Klal Yisrael. Kohanim who gazed upon Rav Bulman's face as they prepared to duchan for the last time on Yom Kippur sensed that he was in another world, directly in front of the Kisei HaKavod (Throne of Glory).

Rabbi Bulman served as Rabbi in Danville, VA and Newport News, then in Far Rockaway, New York. He was active in national organizations and founded a number of schools. Upon moving to Eretz Yisrael in 1975, Rav Bulman became the Mashgiach Spiritual mentor at Ohr Somayach. His office was the address for all those seeking to be convinced of the truth of Torah. He found a way to connect to each student according to his needs. One former student, who went on to become a Hillel Rabbi on several large campuses, recalls that the turning point for him was when he told Rav Bulman that he intended to spend Pesach vacation sightseeing in Egypt. Rav Bulman began crying. Those tears not only marked the end of the travel plans to Egypt, but the beginning of the young man’s taking his studies seriously.

Rav Bulman's lectures on a variety of topics were spellbinding, particularly his classes on the Prophets, yet Rav Bulman had a desire to teach a daily Talmud class. The Yeshiva acquiesced and I was chosen to be part of Rav Bulman's Gemara shiur. The first day of class was a sweltering hot Jerusalem day. The classroom was on the third floor and there was no elevator. Rav Bulman had heart problems all of his life. Rav Bulman entered perspiring profusely. He sat at the head of the table and looked up at the wall opposite him. Each classroom was adorned with a picture of a great Jew. Hanging on the wall of this room was a picture of the Imrei Emes. In a pleading voice, Rav Bulman explained that the honor of the Torah requires the teacher to be dressed in a dignified manner when he teaches. However, he was not feeling well and asked our permission to remove his jacket and tie. He then apologized to his teachers for this breach of decorum.

He left an indelible mark on everyone who came in contact with him. I am fortunate to count myself in their number.  His yahrtzeit is the 26th of Tammuz.

Excerpts were borrowed from fellow student Jonathan Rosenblum’s obituary of Rav Bulman.

July 19-20 Parsha Balak

Sunday, July 21st
Fast begins 5:13AM. Fast ends 9:21PM

The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz commemorates the breaching of the wall of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 AD. When the 17th falls on Shabbos, as it does this year, the Fast is moved to the next day.

The 17th of Tammuz ushers in the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem. We do not schedule weddings during this time, or listen to music, to remind ourselves of the sadness that descended upon Israel during this period.

Among other historical tragedies, the 17th day of Tammuz marks the day the:

(1) Roman decree outlawing sacrifices in the Temple was put in place, and the daily Tamid offering was forced to end.

(2) The following year (70 AD), the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army, leading to the fall of the Second Holy Temple.
(3) The Roman military leader Apostomus burned a Torah scroll on this day, before the Bar Kochba Rebellion.
(4) An idol was placed in the Holy Temple, profaning the sacred space.
(5) During Biblical times, the 17th day of Tammuz is believed to be the day Moshe broke the Luchot, or Tablets, as he descended from Mount Sinai and saw the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. The terrible sin of the Golden Calf marked the day for suffering and tragedy on the Jewish calendar.
(6) In 1095, the walls of Jerusalem were breached again during the First Crusade.

The 17th of Tammuz is the first of four fast days mentioned in the prophets. The purpose of a fast day is to awaken our sense of loss over the destroyed Temple – and the subsequent Jewish journey into exile. Agonizing over these events is meant to help us conquer those spiritual deficiencies which brought about these tragic events. Through the process of "Teshuva" – self introspection and a commitment to improve – we have the power to transform tragedy into joy.

The Talmud teaches us that whoever mourns for Jerusalem will see its rebuilding.

In fact, the Talmud says that after the future redemption of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple, these fast days will be re-dedicated as days of rejoicing and festivity. For as the prophet Zechariah says: the 17th of Tammuz will become a day of "joy to the House of Judah, and gladness and cheerful feasts."

May the promise be realized speedily and in our days.

July 12-13 Parsha Chukas

Rabbi Yaacov Yitzchok Halevi Ruderman passed away on the 14th of Tammuz  5747 - 1987. Rabbi Ruderman was the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of the Ner Israel Rabbinical Academy for 54 years. Ner Israel has had a great impact on the development of the Atlanta Torah observant community, beginning with alumnus Rabbi Emmanual Feldman taking the helm at Congregation Beth Jacob, later Ner Yisrael alumni founding of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel, and the many alumni who live in Atlanta and make its Jewish community so vibrant.

What was it about this Yiddish speaking Torah giant that impacted so many to impact so many? Rabbi Ruderman was recognized as a genius as a young child. His parents sent him to learn Torah in the famed Slobodka Yeshiva before his Bar Mitzvah. The spiritual head of the Yeshiva was Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, known as the Alter (Elder) of Slobodka. Due to his tender age, the Alter took the young Ruderman into his own home.

A few years later tragedy struck when Rav Ruderman’s parents perished in a plague. At the time the youth had dedicated himself to an intensive program to complete the entire Talmud. The Alter withheld the news of the passing of the parents so as not to disrupt the ambitious learning program.  Others questioned this decision. “But no one is saying kaddish for the parents”. The Alter responded that the Torah that is being learned with such intensity is the greatest kaddish. When the goal was reached, the boy was informed of the tragedy. Decades later he was grateful for the sagacity of the Alter that enabled him to acquire knowledge of the entire Talmud.

In 1930, at age 29, having mastered and memorized all areas of Torah, he moved to America to help his father-in-law start a yeshiva. Attempts were made in New Haven, Connecticut and later Cleveland, Ohio, but both failed. In 1933 the Rudermans moved to Baltimore and began teaching a handful of students in their home. The Yeshiva grew into the hundreds and now occupies a 75-acre campus in suburban Baltimore.

How did Rabbi Ruderman turn American students on to the Talmud with its foreign language and decidedly un-Western thought process? I’m sure it was many different ways for many different people. For myself knowing him in the last seven years of his life, it was crystal clear. Rav Ruderman was a living embodiment of the Torah. He thought it, he talked it and he lived it.  His life was defined by his connection to his predecessors, and by extension, anyone who was connected to him shared that connection.

The Torah says that when Moshe Rabbeinu would go to his tent the people would stand until he entered his tent. The custom in Ner Israel was that when Rav Ruderman entered everyone stood until he reached his seat. Those moments are my finest recollections of my days in Ner Israel. The door opened and hundreds of men stood as the Rosh Yeshiva slowly made his way to his seat at the front of the room. Standing for the heir of Moshe Rabbeinu until he reached his place.

July 5-6 Parsha Korach

For nearly 1,500 years, the Jewish people called Babylon home. During that time the Jews created a veritable Kingdom in Babylon complete with Resh Galusa - Kings in Exile  - descendants of King David. The Babylonian Jewish community produced the cornerstone of Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud and scores of works by a host of great Chachamim. It all began on the 5th of Tammuz 433 B.C.

In the first year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar set out to conquer the world. His armies soon reached and subdued Israel. He appointed King Yehoyakim as his vassal. Three years later Yehoyakim rebelled against Babylon. The Babylonians put down the rebellion, killed Yehoyakim, and installed his 18-year-old son Yehoyachin as a vassal.  After only a few months on the throne, Yehoyachin also rebelled. The Babylonians came back and rounded up the entire Royal family and most of the Jerusalem aristocracy. They also looted two of Israel’s greatest treasures. They stripped the Temple of many of its gold ornaments and rounded up 1,000 young budding Torah scholars, known as the Cheresh and Masger. Cheresh – “Silencers” -  because their arguments silenced the opposition,  and Masger – “Closers” because everyone closed their mouths before them. All of these they exiled to Babylon.

The 1,000 Torah Scholars were of particular importance to Nebuchadnezzar because he needed to create a bureaucracy to run his ever-expanding empire. These young men were exceptionally bright and well educated, so he felt they were just what he needed. Nebuchadnezzar was correct and the Cheresh and Masger soon rose to prominence in Babylon. This prominence gave them considerable clout in powerful places. These 1,000 scholars were also very important to the destiny of the Jewish people.

Nine years after the Cheresh and Masger arrived in Babylon, Zedkiyahu the last king of Israel rebelled against Babylon. This time Nebuchadnezzar had no more patience. He destroyed the Temple and exiled most of the Jews to Babylon in chains. Our long history tells us that forced migrations from the old country generally entail a severe drop in the quality of Jewish life and knowledge. The immigrants are primarily focused on surviving in a new and often hostile environment and religious life takes a backseat. What these new immigrants found in Babylon was just the opposite. In Babylon, the Cheresh and Masger were well placed and ready to spring into action. The Cheresh and Masger immediately organized the exiles into a community with all the communal institutions. Finances were provided, community structure was instituted and Torah learning resumed almost immediately.

We have an adage that Hashem sends the cure before the disease. The Cheresh and Masger is the case in point. What made Nebuchadnezzar think that the answer to his problem lay in these 1,000 young Torah scholars? The answer is our Father in Heaven, who is always preparing the cure for His children before the disease.

June 28-29 Parsha Shlach

Yonoson ben Uziel was a student of Hillel and he died in the waning days of the Second Temple. During his lifetime Yonaon ben Uziel wrote an interpretive Aramaic translation of the Torah. The Targum (translation) of Yonoson ben Uziel is printed today in all of the Mikraos Gedolos (commentator's) editions of the Torah and is an important tool for Torah study.

The Talmud tells us that Yonoson ben Uziels’ love for Torah was all-consuming. As he studied, birds flying over his head were burned by the fiery intensity of his learning. His dedication to Torah even exceeded its rightful bounds. Yonoson ben Uziel could not divide his attention between his Torah and a wife so he decided not to marry. He passed away at a young age, unmarried, but just before his passing, he realized he had made a mistake by never marrying since he would have ascended to even higher levels with a wife, because a wife brings completion.

From then on, a tradition developed that those seeking their soulmates would meet their intended within a year if they came to daven at his gravesite in Amuka, a deep valley near Tsfat. On the day of his passing, thousands come to his gravesite for this very purpose. Many have seen miracles.

Diane was an unobservant, thirtyish single when she started attending classes with the newly formed Atlanta Scholars Kollel. In time she became observant and desired greatly to settle down and start a family. Harvey, 40ish, had a similar story in Chicago. A Kollel Rabbi in Atlanta was speaking to a Kollel rabbi in Chicago and a shidduch was proposed. Diane and Harvey dated and Mazal Tov! they became engaged. The engagement party was held in the home of Diane’s good friends, Rabbi Binyomin and Dena Friedman. Harvey, an amateur photographer, took many pictures of the happy event, reloading his camera as the rolls of film (yes, film) ran out. At one point he handed his camera to someone to take a picture of himself and his fiancee. After the event, Harvey went back to Chicago where he developed his film.

A few weeks later the Friedmans received a most amazing photograph.

Some months before he was introduced to Diane, Harvey, frustrated and burnt out on dating, decided to take a trip to Israel. While in Israel he was told of the tradition of visiting the grave of Rabbi Yonoson ben Uziel and its reported effects, so he journeyed to Amuka. While in Amuka, someone took his camera and took a picture of him praying there. When that roll of film was complete, he tossed it into his camera bag.

Harvey then returned to America. Soon thereafter, he was introduced to Diane and now they were celebrating the engagement. With all of the excitement of the engagement party, Harvey accidentally reloaded the already exposed film from his trip to Israel into his camera. Now we were holding the results in our hands. There in the same frame is Harvey davening for a wife at Amuka and Harvey and his fiancee celebrating their engagement a few months later.

This week Monday, 28 Sivan, is the Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yonoson ben Uziel. It behooves us to consider our friends and family who are earnestly seeking their soulmate and to pray for their success in the coming year. And if you have any ideas, pick up the phone.

June 21-22 Parsha Behaaloscha

There was a wedding in Hungary of one of the leaders of the community, to which all the greatest Rabbonim were all invited. There they rejoiced, sang, danced and sat to enjoy the mitzva feast. In honor of the momentous occasion, Rav Avrohom Binyomin Shmuel Sofer, stood up and declared, “In order to mark this happy event, I wanted to share something precious and unique with you all and something that will add to the joy of the event,” and so saying, he removed from his pocket a silver coin and held it up for all to see. “This,” explained Rabbi Sofer, “is a genuine Half Shekel from the time of Second Temple. I have this rare coin to share with you. Pass it around and see it for yourselves!”

All the great Rabbonim assembled were excited to see a genuine artifact, a real Half Shekel, and they excitedly passed around the coin. After everyone had a chance to see the coin, the request was sent to pass it back up to Rabbi Sofer, but the coin did not make its way back. They tried unsuccessfully to determine who had it last but unfortunately, no one knew; the coin had simply vanished.

At this point, someone locked the doors to the Simcha hall and declared that there was no choice but to have everyone empty out their pockets. Obviously, someone’s desire for the coin had gotten the better of him and he had stolen the Half Shekel. Hearing this, one of the Rabbonim stood up. It was the Rabbi Yehudah of Assad, Hungary (1796 -1866), known as Mahari Assad, and he made an unusual request. “Please, let us not ask the assembled to turn out their pockets; instead, let us all wait patiently for a half hour to see if the coin turns up.”

The Mahari Assad’s request caused some eyebrows to go up and some murmurs, but the assembled agreed. The feast continued and a half hour passed with no new developments. “Again, I beg your patience and indulgence and ask you all to wait another fifteen minutes!” asked the Mahari Assad. During this time, he was seen silently davening. Just then a waiter burst into the room excitedly. “I have it! I have the missing coin!”

The room burst our in cries of “The coin has been found!” The waiter explained how he had found the coin in the garbage. During the commotion passing it around from hand to hand, it must have been placed on the table and inadvertently been swept off the table when the waiters made their rounds clearing up. The Mahari Assad’s face showed visible relief and as he explained he drew out from his identical half Shekel coin! “Now I shall explain why I asked your patience and indulgence. You see, when I saw the Ksav Sofer’s delight, I didn’t want to spoil it by showing everyone my coin as well. Then I heard of the lost coin and the request to empty out our pockets and I was afraid no one would believe I had an almost identical rare coin in my pocket! So, I asked for a delay so that the coin might be found, and davened to Hashem that He spare me the shame of accusation and others the sin of falsely accusing me and suspecting me of wrongdoing and – Boruch Hashem Tefillos were heard.”

The Yahrtzeit of the Mahari Assad is this week 23 Sivan.

June 14-15 Parsha Naso

When I was a kid, Jewish men belonged to Bnai Brith Lodges. Like all fraternal lodges, Bnai Brith brought Jewish men together for camaraderie and social service. Bnai Brith lodges focused primarily on the needs of the Jewish community worldwide. My father was a member of Aaron
Milstein Lodge #49. He never attended any of their meetings or activities, and I never knew him to socialize with the other members.

One day I saw him making out a check to pay annual lodge dues. My father was a hard-working 24/6 guy and was not the ‘go bowling with the guys at the lodge’ type. Furthermore, his social circle was contained almost wholly within the Shul/day school community. I asked him why he
belonged to a Bnai Brith lodge. He told me that the lodge was named after a kid he grew up with, and when they founded the lodge, he felt an obligation to join. Curious, I pressed him for details.

My father told me that the Milsteins were a family in the old neighborhood of his youth, composed entirely of Jewish immigrants. The Milsteins had only one child, a slight, quiet boy named Aaron. Aaron’s mother doted over her only child exceedingly. When the boys went to play ball, Mrs. Milstein came to the park to bring Aaron his scarf. The boys made fun of this quiet boy and his doting mother as boys will do, especially children of Yiddish speaking immigrants eager to show their American independence. My father felt for Aaron but never said anything. He even joined in and got a laugh at the overweight Mrs. Milstein, her babushka scarf and apron waddling after ‘mein Aron’.

A decade passed. The depression-era boys graduated high school and WWII broke out. Everyone was drafted. This “greatest generation” was sent around the globe to fight tyrants and save the world. My father got as far as Hawaii. He was being trained to assault the Pacific Islands when Hiroshima ended the war.

Over the next number of months, the boys from the old neighborhood began to trickle home. They all had big dreams, most of which would take them far from the old neighborhood. At some point, one of the guys suggested that before they all scattered, they should get together
to share war stories.

My father went to the meeting. Many of the guys came in uniform; some had achieved considerable rank. Everyone wanted to catch up. “What happened to this one?” “What happened to that one?” Then someone said, “What happened to Milstein?” Someone else answered “He shipped out to Europe. Landed on D- Day. Took one step onto the beach and an artillery shell took his head off. His mother hasn’t stopped crying.” As he said those words, my father started crying. I don’t know if he was mourning the loss of quiet gentle Aaron Milstein or reliving the agony of the mother bereaved of her only offspring, or perhaps he was suffering the embarrassment of a man who would never be able to rectify the sins of his youth.

This Tuesday will be Aaron Milsteins’ 75th yartzeit. He died on Normandy Beach on the 15th of Sivan 5704, June 6, 1944. I hope to say kaddish for him.

Sun, August 18 2019 17 Av 5779