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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

January 11-12 Parsha Bo

We live in a dark era of unprecedented ignorance of Torah. Due to this darkness, the light of Torah, where it shines, shines ever more brightly. Certainly, one of the personalities that waded into the darkness, to ignite the fire of return to Torah in the 20th century, was Rabbi Noach Weinberg.

This week on 11 Shevat we will observe the 10th yahrzeit of his passing. I believe it is important to pause and take stock of a man who created a revolution that directly impacted many of us reading this.

Rav Yisrael Noach (ben Yitzchak Mattisyahu ) Weinberg (1930-2009) was born in the Lower East Side of New York. He learned at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin in New York and Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, and completed undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins University and post-graduate studies at Loyola Graduate School.

He always considered his older brother, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel, his primary Rebbi. He married Denah Goldman and moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1958, where they raised their 12 children. Disturbed by the high rate of assimilation and lack of Jewish knowledge among Western youth, he opened his first yeshiva for assimilated young men in 1966. That short-lived effort was followed by several others before he co-founded Yeshivas Shma Yisrael (later renamed Ohr Somayach) with Rabbis Nota Schiller, Mendel Weinbach and Yaakov Rosenberg in 1970.

His difference in philosophy led to his creation of Aish Hatorah in 1974, which over the next 35 years expanded to 25 branches over five continents. He had the unique gift of being able to take the timeless principles of Torah, distill them to their essence, and then develop unbelievably creative ways of explaining and illustrating these concepts to the most uninitiated Jews, in a way that would show them the profound depth and relevance of traditional Torah and Judaism. He wrote curricula that accomplished this purpose: The 48 Ways to Wisdom, based on the Mishna in the 6th perek of Pirkei Avos, The Five Levels of Pleasure, based on the first paragraph of the Shema, The Six Constant Mitzvot, his Foundations Materials that present a comprehensive overview of Jewish philosophy and thought –they were all incredibly original in their presentation, but completely anchored to the chain of tradition.

Rabbi Weinberg viewed the Holocaust as ongoing. As he once said to Rabbi Menachem Deutch “they are loading Jews on to the cattle cars as we speak. What are you going to do about it?” His untiring devotion to teaching Torah, and his penetrating questions, inspired a generation of Jews who carry on his devotion to spreading Torah to this very day.

Rav Noach used to articulate two very basic but profound concepts. The first was, 'If you take real responsibility to do the will of God, you will succeed.' And the second was, 'If you really care, then you will take responsibility.' Important thoughts for each and every one of us.

Yehi zichro boruch - May his memory be a blessing.

December 14-15 Parsha Vayigash

And it was in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth (day) of the month, that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon came, he and all his hosts, upon Yerushalayim, and he encamped upon it andbuilt forts around it. And the city came under siege till the eleventh year of King Tzidkiyahu . On the ninth of the month, famine was intense in the city, the people had no bread, and the city was breached.’ (Second Melachim 25)

In the ninth year of Zedekiah's reign (425 BCE), Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, began the siege of Jerusalem. 18 months later, on the 17th of Tammuz, at the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah's reign, he broke through the city walls. The siege ended with the destruction of the Temple three weeks later, on the 9thof Av (Tisha B'Av), the end of the first Kingdoms and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. The Tenth ofTevet is thus considered part of the cycle of fasts connected with these events, which includes Shivah Asar B'Tammuz (17th of Tammuz) and Tisha B'Av (9th of Av).

According to tradition, as described by the liturgy for the day's selichos, the fast also commemorates other calamities that occurred throughout Jewish history on the tenth of Tevet and the two days preceding it: On the eighth of Tevet, one year during the 3rd century BCE, a time of Hellenistic rule of Judea during the Second Temple period, Ptolemy, King of Egypt, ordered the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, a work which later became known as the Septuagint. Seventy-two sages were placed in solitary confinement and ordered to translate the Torah into Greek. The expected outcome would be a multitude of different translations that would then be compared and critiqued by the Greeks to discover passages offensive to pagans. However, all seventy-two sages independently made identical translations into Greek. The Greeks saw this as a most impressive feat. However, our sages see this event as a tragedy. With translation into Greek, Jews were now more likely to read the Torah in Greek. Many Torah laws are formulated in terms of specific Hebrew words employed in the Torah; without the original Hebrew wording, the authenticity of the legal system would be damaged. The mystical ideas contained in the Torah are also drawn from the original Hebrew. As such, these would not be accessed by individuals studying the Torah in Greek (or any other language) alone. Another tragedy was that the Torah would now be open to scrutiny by people who are not part of the tradition from Sinai teaching us its correct interpretation. The Talmud says when the Torah was translated into Greek the world went dark for three days.

Ezra the Scribe passed away on the 9th of Tevet of the year 3448 (313 BCE), exactly 1,000 years after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It was he who led the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian exile, oversaw the building of the Second Temple, and helped put a stop to the wave of intermarriage that afflicted the Jews at that time. As head of the Great Assembly, he canonized the 24 books of
the Holy Scriptures (Tanach) and legislated a series of laws and practices, including formalized prayer, guaranteeing the continuation of authentic Judaism among the Jewish people to this very day.

November 20-December 1 Parsha Vayeshev

The 25th of Kislev is well known as the first day of Chanukah. It was on that day in 164 BCE that the Hasmoneans retook the Bais HaMikdash and decided to resume the Temple service. The Temple was a site of utter destruction. All of the vessels had been looted, the Alter had been destroyed, and the building was a shambles. The Hasmoneans did, however, find that one famous jug of oil, and they resolved to light the Menorah. They took seven spears, covered them with wood or perhaps lead, stuck them in the ground, and lit a makeshift Menorah with the single jug of pure oil they had found. And you know the rest of the story.

By the time of the Chanukah story, however, the 25th of Kislev was already an important day on the Jewish calendar. In the year 2450 from creation (1310 BCE), the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was completed in the desert. Although it was ready to go into service on 25 Kislev, Moshe was not given the green light to begin services until the following Nissan 1. G-d rectified this slight to the month of Kislev by repaying it with the Chanukah miracle. Today, 25 Kislev is universally celebrated as Chanukah, whereas very few know of the connection to the Mishkan.

The history of 25 Kislev does not begin there, however. The first important 25 Kislev occurred 193 years earlier, and it was a dark day for the Children of Israel.

According to our tradition, on the 15th of Tishrei in the year 2257, our patriarch Yaacov passed away, on his 147th birthday. After the days of embalming were completed, Yaacov’s children, accompanied by a huge Egyptian entourage, took their father back to Hebron for internment. Before the burial, Kings and noblemen from far and wide came to pay tribute to Joseph’s father, the Holy Yaacov. They took off their crowns and placed them on Yaacov’s bier. The burial bier covered in crowns looked like a silo of thorns, and the place was thus named the Silo of Thorns.
Yaacov was eulogized and mourned at the Silo of Thorns. Then, on the seventieth day after his passing, 25 Kislev, Yaacov was laid to rest in the cave of Machpelah. His sons spent the ensuing week sitting shiva. Their week of Shiva is known to their Children as the most festive Holiday of Chanukah. A week during which we may not eulogize.

November 23-24 Parsha Vayishlach

The 17th of Kislev 3412 (350 BCE) dawned cold and wet in Jerusalem. Only those who have experienced a Jerusalem winter can understand what that really means. The inhabitants of the city were shivering, but not just from the weather. The previous day, the venerated elder, Ezra the Scribe, last of the prophets of Israel, had been apprised of a dire situation. Ezra was told that many among the returnees from Babylon had married non-Jewish women, even in the families of the Kohanim. Early the next morning, Ezra entered the plaza in front of the newly reestablished Bais Hamikdash. Ezra fell to his knees and prayed to Hashem to save the people from the grievous sin they had committed. We pick up the story in Ezra Chapter 10:

1While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women, and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. 2 Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope
for Israel. 3 Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. 4 Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”

5 So Ezra rose up and put the leading priests and Levites and all Israel under oath to do what had been suggested. And they took the oath. 6 Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles. 7 A proclamation was then issued throughout Judah and Jerusalem for all the exiles to assemble in Jerusalem. 8 Anyone who failed to appear within three days would forfeit all his property, in accordance with the decision of the officials and elders, and would himself be expelled from the assembly of the exiles.

9 Within the three days, all the men of Judah and Benjamin had gathered in Jerusalem. And on the twentieth day of the ninth month (Kislev), all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain. 10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. 11 Now honor the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” 12 The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: “You are right! We must do as you say”.

Ezra understood that the new commonwealth of Israel would not survive or flourish under the destructive influence of intermarriage. With the support of the lay leadership Ezra was able to take bold action to ensure Jewish survival. The message Ezra sent on those cold and rainy days of 17 -20 Kislev over 2,300 years ago speaks loudly until this very day.

November 16-17 Parsha Vayetzei

13 Kislev. The date of the completion of the Babylonian Talmud.

Rabbi Judah HaNassi completed the Mishna in 189 CE. As soon as the Mishna was completed, yeshivos in Israel and Babylon began discussing and clarifying it. The sages who participated in these discussions are known as Amoraim; their discussions are the Gemara. The discussions of
the Amoraim in the land of Israel from around 200-350 CE form the Jerusalem Talmud. After 350 CE, Christian persecution made life untenable in Israel and the yeshivos closed. Many of the scholars fled to Babylon. Bolstered by the arrival of sages from Israel the Babylonian yeshivos continued a robust analysis of the Mishna.

In the first decades of the 5th century, Rav Ashi (d. 427) and Ravina I (d. 421) led a group of the Amoraim in the massive undertaking of compiling a Babylonian Talmud -- collecting and editing the discussions, debates, and rulings of hundreds of scholars and sages which had taken place since the compilation of the Mishnah. The last of these editors and compilers was Ravina II, who passed away on the 13th of Kislev of the year 4235 from creation (475 CE); after Ravina II, no further additions were made to the Talmud, with the exception of minimal editing
undertaken by the Rabbanan Savura'i (476-560). This date thus marks the point at which the Talmud was "closed" and became the basis for all further exegesis of Torah law. With the closing of the Talmud, no further interpretations of the Mishna are introduced, although interpretations of the Gemara abound until this very day.

Ravina II’s name is really Rav Avina, but he is almost always referred to in the Talmud as Ravina. Semicha (ordination) was only conferred in Israel. Therefore, all of the sages in Israel who received semicha are called Rebbe while Babylonian sages are called Rav (the great), a term of
respect. Ravina II‘s father was Rav Huna who died when Ravina was so young that he had no memory of him. Ravina’s mother undertook to communicate the halachic positions of her late husband to her son. Thus Ravina’s first Rebbe was his mother. As he grew older, Ravina b. R’
Huna came under the tutelage of his illustrious uncle Ravina I who was compiling the Babylonian Talmud with Rav Ashi. When Ravina I passed away his nephew Ravina b. R ’Huna took over and it was he and his colleagues who finished the Babylonian Talmud that we have today. The year before he passed away Ravina II became the head of the great Yeshiva in Sura, Babylon. Ravina II was the leader of the Jewish people for 22 years.

November 9-10 Parsha Toldos

For much of our history, we Jews have lived in foreign lands, where we were not in control of our destiny. Oftentimes, we were at the whim of some potentate, or another who could wreak havoc on the Jews at a whim. Unarmed and greatly outnumbered, Jews often had to choose between fleeing and leaving everything behind, or suffering through. However, this was not always the case. There are many instances where Jews defended themselves, and sometimes even made war on their enemies.

One such example of Jewish self-defense occurred in Posen on the 5th day of Kislev in the year 1687. Posen, as it is known in German, or Poznan in Polish, is a large city in western Poland. Due to persecution in Germany, Jews began to emigrate to Poland in the 16th century. The Polish government encouraged Jewish immigration because the growing empire needed Jewish expertise to help develop the frontier and create a functioning bureaucracy. By the 17th century, the Jewish community in Poland was large and prosperous. Posen was one of the four largest cities in Poland and boasted a large Jewish population. Many great Rabbis served in Posen, including Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague.

All of that came to an end with the Cossack uprising in 1648-49. The Cossacks allied with Russia in war against Poland. Poland lost the Ukraine and sections of southern and eastern Poland. In 1655, Sweden invaded western Poland and inflicted great damage. As Poland began to deteriorate, the status of the Jews became more precarious. The Poles, ever more frustrated with their losses, turned on the Jews. On the 5th day of Kislev 1687, with the support of the Mayor of Posen, a mob broke into the Jewish ghetto of Posan. The mob was intent on ransacking, looting, maiming and murdering, the inhabitants of the ghetto, but this time something else was in store for them. The residents of the ghetto, suspecting what was coming had organized a defense brigade. Bitter fighting ensued and the mob was ejected from the ghetto. Not giving up, the mob returned the next day and the results were the same. For a third day, the now outraged mob tried to invade the ghetto and the valiant defenders repelled them. They gave up and never attacked the Jewish ghetto again.

Rabbi Yeshaya Segal, the Rav of Posen, determined that G-d’s miraculous salvation had occurred primarily on the first day of the onslaught. Therefore 5 Kislev was observed as a holiday in Posen for years after. The happy turn of events in Posen is not an isolated example. Jews defended themselves in a number of locales over the years. Sadly, these events were outnumbered by the instances when they were unable to defend themselves.

Thu, January 17 2019 11 Shevat 5779