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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

May 16-17 Parsha Emor

The 18th day of Iyar is always the 33rd day of the Omer. In Hebrew, the letter Lamed = 30 and the letter Gimmel = 3, hence the name L’g Ba'Omer. Lag Ba’omer is celebrated because the plague which claimed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva (2 CE ) stopped on that day.

Lag Ba’omer is also celebrated because it is the yahrtzeit of Rav Shimon bar Yochai (121 CE), author (or at least organizer and editor) of the Holy Zohar, and a disciple of Rabbi Akiva. After Rabbi Akiva was murdered by the Romans, Rav Shimon bar Yochai, together with his son Rabbi Elazar, went into hiding in a cave in the mountains near Peki'in in the Galilee, where they stayed for 13 years.

There, he wrote the Zohar. This body of mystical knowledge was given orally by G-d to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. With the passage of Israel's history, these teachings were lost to most people, until R' Shimon, fearing a permanent loss of this knowledge, recorded them in the Zohar. The Zohar means the “shine or glow”, referring to the illumination of G-d in this world. R’ Shimon chose the day of his passing to revel the Zohar to his students. The event is described in an addendum to the Zohar known as Idra Zuta.

Rebbe Shimon said, “Now is an auspicious time [to reveal the secrets of the Torah]. I wish to enter the World to Come without shame. For the holy matters that I did not reveal until now, I wish to reveal in the presence of the Shechinah, so that no one will say that I left the world without fulfilling my task, and that I concealed [these secrets] in my heart until now so that they would come with me to the World to Come. I will present them to you; Rabbi Abba shall write, and Rabbi Elazar my son will review them, and the remaining disciples must whisper them in their hearts.” I see that today is special, for G-d and all the tzaddikim are rejoicing in my celebration.

Since then, Lag Ba’omer is celebrated with bonfires, in commemoration of the shine of the Zohar and the holy flame that engulfed the home of R’ Shimon on the day of his passing.


May 10-11 Parsha Kedoshim

From approximately the year 500 to 1000, the primary center of Judaism was located in Babylon, current day Iraq. The people were led by Geonim, great sages who were heads of the different Talmudical Academies. As the economic fortunes of Babylon waned, Jews began migrating westward and Jewish communities sprang up across North Africa and into Spain.

The younger, more prosperous communities increasingly were called upon to support the declining communities in Babylon. At this time, one of the great sages of Babylon, Rav Chushiel Gaon, set out from Babylon to collect funds for a needy bride and was seized by pirates. He was sold as a slave in Africa, but was later redeemed by the members of the Jewish community. From Africa, he headed to Kairouan, a city in Tunisia with a large Jewish population. Rav Chushiel settled in Kairouan and his son Chanael was born there. Rabbainu Chanael established a great Yeshiva in Kairouan and wrote an extensive commentary to the Talmud. The establishment of the Academy in Kairouan helped seal the fate of Babylon. Now that there was a Torah center in the west, people stopped looking back to Babylon for leadership.

A young student from the Algerian city of Kal’a asked to be admitted to Rav Chananel’s Yeshiva. His name was Yitzchok HaKohen. As Rav Yitzchok advanced in his studies, he became keenly aware of the fact that many people were unable to elucidate the halacha from the Gemora due to the vast amount of material it contains, and because many students are not able to identify the conclusions of the lengthy Talmudic debates. As a result, he conceived of the idea of compiling a comprehensive and extensive halachic work that would present all the halachos and the practical conclusions of the Gemora in a clear, definitive manner.

To achieve this goal, he retreated to his father-in-law’s attic, where he worked on his sefer for ten consecutive years. During this period, however, a Moslem tyrant gained control of Tunisia, and persecuted all those who did not accept his faith, especially the Jews of Kairouan. As a result, all the city’s Jewish residents fled to places more tolerant of the Jews.

Among the fugitives was Rav Yitzchok, who, with his wife and two children, moved to the Moroccan city of Fez. Rav Yitzchok remained in Fez for forty years, during which time he completed his Sefer HaHalochos, which is considered the first fundamental work in halachic literature. The Sefer Halachos is one of the three pillars that the
Shulchan Aruch, the Jewish Code of Law, is based upon. Sefer Halachos became so popular that it became a standard feature printed in the back of all editions of the Talmud. Eventually, Rav Yitzchok from Fez became known as Alfasi, or the one from Fez. Later generations use the acronym Rabbi Yitzchok Fez or RIF. As an old man, RIF was slandered to the local government and was forced to relocate to Spain where he spent his final years. Rav Yitzchok passed away on Iyar 10 at the age of ninety, in the year 1103.


May 4-5 Parsha Achrei Mos

Rav Chaim Vital (1543–1620), passed away on the 30th day of Nissan. He was born in Safed, two years after his family moved there from Italy. Rav Chaim’s father, Rav Yosef, was famed as an expert scribe whose tefillin were much sought after, having been written in holiness and
purity, and with special kabbalistic intentions.

At age fourteen, Rav Chaim studied the revealed aspects of Torah under Rav Moshe Alshich, one of the foremost Rabbis in Safed. He then studied Kabbala under the leading kabbalistic luminary in the world at that time, Rav Moshe Cordovero (Ramak). In the year 5330 (1570), Rav
Yitzchok Luria (known as Adonanu / our master Rav. Itzchak. the Ari) came to Tzefas from Egypt. After the passing of his teacher, Rav Moshe Cordovero, Rav Chaim became attached to the Ari, quickly becoming his chief talmid. He describes his initiation into the Ari’s new approach
to Kabbala as follows:

“When I [first] came to my teacher of saintly memory [the Ari] to study this wisdom under him, he was about to leave for Tiberiss. He took me with him. We boarded a boat, and as we were sailing [across the Kinneret] at a point opposite the arches of the Old Shul of Tiberius, my
teacher dipped a cup into the water and gave it to me to drink. He told me that now I would be able to grasp this wisdom [the teachings of Kabbala] for I had just drunk water from the well of Miriam [which is buried in the Kinneret]. From that time on I began to enter the depth of this
wisdom.”

Within a year of his initiation into the Ari’s teachings, Rav Chaim had become famous throughout Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora as one of the great Kabbalists. When the Ari passed away in 5332 (1572), a mere two years after Rav Chaim had begun studying with him, Rav Chaim was almost universally regarded as his successor. He began teaching the kabbalistic insights he had received from his master to his many students and thus he became the revered leader of a significant group of Kabbalists. He also gained a reputation as a miracle worker, a healer and a master of practical Kabbala. He was able to discern the nature and history of the souls of men.

In 5347 (1587), Rav Chaim was appointed a leading judge in the rabbinical courts in Yerushalayim. He remained in Yerushalayim for several years and then returned to Tzefas. He moved to Damascus in 5354 (1594) where he passed away in 5380 (1620) at the age of seventy-seven. Rav Chaim Vital edited and organized and published all existing manuscripts of the words of the Arizal under the title Writing of Arizal. He also composed a number of kabbalistic works based on the teachings of the Ari, the most famous of which is Etz Chaim.

Arizal is the source of all contemporary Kabbalistic thought. Since the Ari never wrote anything for publication it is safe to say that the dissemination of all of his thought can be credited exclusively to Rav Chaim Vital. May his memory be a blessing.


April 20-27 Pesach

In the second half of the Seder there are two songs. The refrain of one is “and it was at midnight” and the refrain of the other “and you shall say, ‘The Pesach offering’” These two songs recount the many miracles that have occurred to the Jewish people some at midnight, others on seder night, and many at midnight on Seder night. Below are a few that appear in the songs, and others that do not.

On the night of the 15th of Nissan in year 2, Adam said to his sons Cain and Abel “bring offerings to Hashem tonight for this night is destined to become a night of offerings”. Cain brought fruit and Abel brought a fat lamb - and you know how that turned out.

In the year 2047, on the night of Pesach Abraham was visited by the angels who promised him that next year he would have a son. The angels then went on to destroy Sodom.

On the eve of Pesach, in the year 2172, Isaac sent his son Esau to hunt for the venison he so enjoyed, and he would bless him. Rivkah intervened and ....

15 Nissan 2684, Gideon said to the angel “last night my father sang praises to Hashem for saving us from Egypt. Why does He not save us from the Midianites. The angel replied “with this strength (that you cry out for the welfare of the Israelites) you will save Israel”. He then told Gideon to take ten men and they routed the Midianite army and freed the Israelites.

In the year 3213, Sanchereb, King of Assyria, was set to destroy Jerusalem, when over 200,000 of his troops died mysteriously on the night of Pesach. Sancherev and the remnant of his army fled, and the Jewish people rejoiced, but the King did not sing Hallel. Had he done so, our sages
say, he would have been Moshiach.

In the year 3395, after months of partying and drinking in the royal palace in Shushan, Achshverosh executed Queen Vashti on the first night of Pesach. Ten years later, on the same evening, Haman was hung.

May we all experience miracles and salvation personally, and for
Klal Yisroel, this Pesach - the time of our Freedom.


April 12-13 Parsha Metzora

This week, 11 Nissan, marks the Yahrtzeit of Rav Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban, (1194 or 95–1270). Rav Moshe ben Nachman was born a scion of a renowned rabbinical family, in Gerona, Spain, where he lived most of his life. Rav Moshe ben Nachman was a renowned Talmudist, Kabbalist, and Halachist.

Commonly spoken of as the Ramban (after the initials in his name Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman), or as Nachmanides, he was described by the Ari HaKodosh (Rabbi Isaac Luria) as the last of the ancient Kabbalistic school, who received direct transmission of the mystical secrets that were later concealed. The Rivash (Rav Yitzchok ben Sheshet Perfet) wrote of him: “All his words are like sparks of fire, and the entire community of Castille relies upon his halachic ruling as if given directly from Hashem to Moshe Rabbeinu.”

The Ramban also studied medicine, which he practiced professionally, as well as languages and physics. He was a defender of tradition, and authored major works defending earlier Rabbis against critiques by later sages, and he wrote the famous Iggeres HaRamban, an ethical will to his children. All of Ramban’s works are part of the core curriculum of contemporary Torah studies. Ramban penned an account of his public disputation in defense of the Torah in Barcelona with the convert Pablo Christiani in 1263. After the disputation, the Ramban sojourned in Castille of Provence, where he began writing his monumental Torah Commentary, unique in that it not only interprets the verses, as does Rashi and others, but also analyzes the topics, presenting them from a Torah perspective. The Ramban’s commentary on Torah is multi-dimensional, including all methods of interpretation from straight forward explanation known as pshat to esoteric Kabbala.

Ramban held that the mitzva of settling Eretz Yisrael applies even after the destruction of the Temple. In 1267, at the age of seventy-two, after a difficult journey and much suffering, he settled there himself, in Acco, a Torah center at that time. Ramban spent Rosh HaShana in Yerushalayim, which was in a deplorable condition as a result of the havoc wrought by the Crusaders. He designated a desolate house as a shul, and brought in a Torah scroll from Shechem (Nablus). In this shul, he gave a derosha (sermon) on the laws of Shofar, and exhorted the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael to be exceedingly careful that their actions be righteous, for they were like servants in the King’s palace. With Rambam’s help, the Jewish community in Yerushalayim, which had all but ceased to exist, began its revival. He passed away in the Holy Land in 1270.

Famous birthdays on 11 Nissan include the recent Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson a”h, and the current Dunwoody Rebbitzen, Rebbitzen Dena Friedman.


March 29-30 Parsha Shemini - Parah

Adar 25
On Saturday, March 25, 1911, a pleasant springtime afternoon, a fire broke out in a garment factory near Washington Square in New York City's Greenwich Village. Within minutes, the entire eighth floor of the ten-story tower was full of flames. Onlookers, drawn by the column of
smoke and the clamor of converging fire wagons, watched helplessly and in horror as dozens of workers screamed from the ninth-floor windows. They were trapped by flames, a collapsed fire escape, and a locked door. Pressed by the advancing blaze, workers began leaping and tumbling to their deaths on the sidewalk. Other workers perished in the flames, still others plunged into an open elevator shaft, while behind the factory two dozen fell from the flimsy fire escape. In all, 146 workers, most of them immigrant young women and girls, mostly Jewish, perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. This event sparked a movement to improve working conditions in New York and across America.


Sometime in 1910, two sisters fleeing pogroms and oppression, arrived in America to start new lives. They had been raised in a strictly Torah observant home and attempted to maintain their observance in America. This proved very difficult. At the time, everyone worked a half day
Saturday and many, especially immigrants trying to establish themselves, worked more. Most businesses did not give days off and accommodation of religious observance was an unknown concept. The rule was: if you don’t come to work on Saturday, don’t bother showing up on Monday.

After obtaining and losing a series of jobs due to Shabbos observance, the sisters landed jobs at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Shabbos however loomed. One of the sisters decided that she was not going to work on Shabbos. No matter what, she would not compromise. The other said it’s hopeless and without work, we will starve. Shabbos March 25th dawned and one sister went to work. She would perish that day in the tragedy. The other, disheartened and disgusted with America, booked passage and returned to Europe. She would return years later as a married woman before the Holocaust. Her granddaughter lives in Atlanta and she told me this story.


March 22-23 Parsha Tzav

Choni HaMa'agal Prayed For Rain on 18 Adar
One year, the Land of Israel was afflicted with a terrible drought. There lived at that time a great man named Choni, and it was to him that the Jews pleaded to pray for rain. Choni prayed fervently but to no avail.

Choni grabbed a stick and planted himself firmly in one spot in a field. With the end of the stick, he drew a circle around himself on the earth. Then he cried out, "Master of the Universe, Your children need rain desperately. They have asked me to pray to You, and I swear that I will not step out of this circle until You have answered Your children."

The hint of a cloud appeared in the sky. The air became heavy. Slowly, tiny droplets began to fall. The excited people ran outside, but when they saw the meager rainfall they asked, "Will a rain like thissuffice to help us?”

A delegation returned to Choni and begged him to pray again, but this time for a strong rain to satisfy the parched fields. Choni  prayed once more and in minutes clouds overtook the sky. A heavy rain burst forth, flooding the earth and sending people running for shelter from the sheets of rain. This was a rain never before seen. The terrified people ran to Choni. He prayed once more, crying out, "This is not the kind of rain I requested. Please send your children good rain." Slowly a blessed rain descended, filling wells, drenching the cracked earth, falling and falling without end.

The people left their homes and gathered high on the Temple Mount to escape the flood. Alas, again they came to Choni, pleading for him to pray that the rain stop. But this time he refused, saying: "My teachers taught me that it is not permitted to pray to take away a blessing."

Finally they brought Choni a cow to be used as a thanksgiving sacrifice. Laying his hands on the cow's head, Choni said the following prayer: "Master of the Universe, Your children are unable to stand too much bad or too much good. Please, G-d, stop this rain and bring peace to the world."

Choni's prayers were accepted. The recently barren fields were full of ripe mushrooms and other edible plants that they picked and ate. Then, the people were able to understand that the rains had been a true blessing, and they offered thanks to G-d.

From that time on, Choni became known as "Choni HaMa'agal - Choni the circle-maker" because of the circle he drew around himself and refused to leave until his prayers were answered.

Tue, May 21 2019 16 Iyyar 5779