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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

February 14-15, Parsha Yisro

On the wings of Alaska Airlines Eagles
According to some sources, Jews lived in Yemen even before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. The community expanded following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Composed mostly of small communities living in relative isolation to one another, the Jews of Yemen experienced a checkered history of good and bad times.

By 1872, the Ottoman Empire gained control of large sections of Yemen, including Sana’a, which had a large Jewish population. With both Palestine and Yemen under Ottoman control, it became easier for Yemen’s Jews to move to the Land of Israel. Between 1881 and 1917, approximately 5,000 Yemeni Jews made Aliya. Not only was travel easier, but many felt that by moving to the Land of Israel they would hasten the coming of the Messiah. All of that stopped in 1922, when the government banned immigration to Palestine as relations between Arabs and Jews deteriorated.

Following the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Muslim rioters attacked the Jewish community in Aden, killed at least 82 Jews and destroying a number of Jewish homes. Early in 1948, there were riots and looting of Jewish property.  In 1948, there were 55,000 Jews living in Yemen and another 8,000 in the British Colony of Aden. At the conclusion of Israel’s War of Independence in 1949, Yemen changed its official policy, despite the objections of the Arab League. Jews were now allowed to leave the country, provided that they sold their homes and property before leaving. Yemeni authorities benefited handsomely from the fleeing Jews who sold their possessions for pennies.

As rumors spread of a planned Israeli operation to airlift the country’s Jews to Israel, thousands of Yemeni Jews began to travel towards the British held colony of Aden. Some walked for as many as three weeks to complete the journey. Hundreds died on the journey and many more died in Aden awaiting transport to Israel. There was no food, shelter or medicine for them. Word reached Israel that Yemeni Jews were leaving their homes expecting to be transported to Israel. In Israel, they were hardly aware of the community’s existence. Representatives were
dispatched and confirmed the rumors. The nascent State of Israel was wholly unprepared to handle an operation of that magnitude. The government turned the entire project over to the Joint Distribution Committee which had half a century of experience in immigrant affairs.

The JDC began searching for planes to transport the Jews on a long and risky flight over hostile Arab countries where a landing was not an option. The company they found was Alaska Airlines. The owners of Alaska Airlines embraced the cause of rescuing stranded Jews. Together with British planes, Alaska Airline crews flew 378 flights which brought over 40,00 Jews from Yemen to Israel between 1948 and 1950. The last of those flights landed in Tel Aviv on Shevat 25 5710 / 1950.

The conditions awaiting the Yemenite Jews in Israel were harsh. They suffered physically and spiritually. Nonetheless, the ingathering of the exiles on the Wings of Alaskan Airline’s Eagles is another episode in the amazing history of the Jewish people.


February 7-8, Parsha Beshalach

Rabbi Ze'ev (Wolf) Yavetz was born in Kolno in the Russian Empire (today in Poland) in 1860.

Rabbi Yavetz is remembered for many outstanding accomplishments. He was a prodigious historian writing a 14-volume history of the Jews entitled Toldot Yisrael. In 1887, he immigrated to Ottoman Palestine. Yavetz believed in the revival of ancient Judaism. In Palestine, Yavetz was a member of the Hebrew Language Committee and coined several modern Hebrew words, including tarbut (culture) and kvish (road).

When Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement, Orthodox Jews were split in their feelings about it. Although they embraced the eternal yearning for Israel many were repulsed by the secular orientation of the organization. Rabbi Yavetz was one of the early founders of the Mizrachi, an Orthodox organization that embraced the concept of Zionism. 

For all of his notable accomplishments, Zeev Yavetz’s greatest legacy perhaps comes from one small event in his life. When Rabbi Yavetz initially arrived in Palestine, he worked in a vineyard in the Yehud settlement. Later he was recruited by Edmond James de Rothschild to be headmaster of a school in Zichron Yaakov. The town of Zichron Ya’akov was established and developed by Baron Rothschild and centered around the
Rothschild winery.

On Tu Bishvat that year, Rabbi Yavetz took his students out of school and they spent the day planting trees in Zichron Yaakov. This custom continued in ensuing years. In 1908, the Jewish Teachers Union adopted it for schools throughout Palestine. The Jewish National Fund subsequently took over the idea and planting trees in Israel became part of modern Zionism. Today it has become a national observance. It is estimated that one million Jews participate in tree planting in Israel every Tu Bshvat. 

In his later years, Rabbi Yavetz moved to England, where he died in London in 1924. He is remembered by 240 million trees planted in Israel to date by the JNF, and by Tree Planting Certificates in Jewish homes all around the world.


January 31-February 1, 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 yahrtzeit 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. He did so in a way that would
show them the profound depth and relevance of traditional Torah and Judaism.

He wrote curriculums that accomplished this purpose. The 48 Ways to Wisdom, based on the Mishna in the 6th Chapter 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 – 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 Deutsch, “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."   Yehi zichro boruch - May his memory be a blessing.


January 24-25, Parsha Va'eira

Gush Etzion is a block of settlements that straddles the Hebron  - Jerusalem road and guards the south approach to Jerusalem. In November 1947, after the UN vote to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, Gush Etzion came under attack. The locals heroically held off the Arab attackers. They were reinforced by Haganah and Palmah combatants. Arab attack forces numbered as many as a thousand people at times, and the situation deteriorated. The armed convoys of food, petrol, and equipment headed for the Etzion Bloc drew fire and suffered casualties. By January 1948, supply convoys could no longer get through to Gush Etzion.

On January 15, 1948, 35 Haganah members, under the cover of darkness, made their way on foot from Har Tuv (near Beit Shemesh) to resupply Gush Etzion. As they were proceeding, they came upon an Arab shepherd boy and apprehended him. A debate ensued as to what to do with the boy. If he was released, he would alert the Arabs and they would be killed. To kill the boy in cold blood was unacceptable to the 35. They made him promise to keep their secret and released him. At dawn, the 35 were attacked by a large group of armed locals. The battle lasted all the next day. The soldiers fought to the last bullet, until the last of the group was killed at about 4:30 p.m. The Arab attackers mutilated the bodies of “the 35.” The murdered convoy became known as the “Lamed Hey”, Lamed being the Hebrew letter for 30 and Hey the letter for 5. The residents of the four Gush Etzion settlements concentrated in Kfar Etzion and for nearly five more months they prevented Arab forces from advancing on Jerusalem. On May 12, 1948, two days before the proclamation of the State of Israel, thousands of Arabs and Arab Legionnaires attacked the Etzion Bloc. The fighting went on for three long days, and 30 defenders were killed. On Friday, the day that the state was proclaimed, the defenders could no longer hold out. They surrendered. Their Arab captors murdered 127 men and women and took others in captivity to Transjordan. The bodies of the dead lay in the fields for a year-and-a-half, until Transjordan allowed Israel to retrieve the corpses and bury them at Mount Herzl. The four kibbutzim were totally destroyed. Two hundred and forty settlers, Haganah and Palmah fighters were killed at the Etzion Bloc during five-and-a-half months of war.

 A British soldier took pictures of the mutilated bodies of the “Lamed Hey convoy” and left his roll of film to be developed in Jerusalem and never came back for it. Several decades later the negatives were discovered, but it was decided not to publish the atrocities. Today Gush Etzion is a thriving Jewish center. The site of the massacre of the Lamed Hey is memorialized.

Their Yahrtzeit is this week on 4 Shevat.


January 17-18, Parsha Shemos

Rav Shimshon Raphael (ben Raphael Aryeh) Hirsch, Frankfurt am Main, Germany (1808-1888) was the grandson of Rav Menachem Mendel Frankfurter of Altuna, Rav of the three famous communities of Altuna, Hamburg, and Wandsbeck (“AHU”).

Hirsch was a pupil of Ḥakam Bernays, and the Torah education which he received, combined with his teacher's influence, led him to determine not to become a merchant, as his parents had desired, but to choose the rabbinical vocation. In furtherance of this plan, he studied Talmud from 1823 to 1829 in Mannheim under Jacob Ettlinger. He then entered the University of Bonn, where he studied together with his future antagonist, Abraham Geiger, the founder of Reform Judaism. The two of them founded what would today be considered a Hillel house on campus.

In 1830 Hirsch was elected chief rabbi of Oldenburg, where he remained until 1841, when he was elected chief rabbi of the Hanoverian districts of Aurich and Osnabrück, with his residence in Emden. During this period, he wrote his classic Nineteen Letters on Judaism which were published under a pseudonym. This work made a profound impression in German Jewish circles because it was something new—a brilliant, intellectual presentation of Orthodox Judaism in classic German, and a fearless, uncompromising defense of all its institutions and ordinances.

From the appearance of the "Nineteen Letters" dates the origin of the so-called "Neo-Orthodoxy," or the revival of Orthodox Judaism in somewhat modernized and esthetic form. In 1846 Hirsch was called to the rabbinate of Nikolsburg in Moravia, and in 1847 he became chief rabbi of Moravia and Austrian Silesia. In Austria he passed five years in the reorganization of the Jewish congregations and the instruction of numerous disciples; he was also, in his official capacity as chief rabbi, a member of the Moravian Landtag or General Assembly.

In 1851 he accepted a call as Rabbi of an Orthodox separatist group in Frankfort-on-Main, who refused to become part of the dominant Reform community. Under his administration this group became a great congregation, numbering about 500 families. Here Hirsch continued to labor until his death. It was in Frankfurt that Hircsh created the living model of his credo of Torah, Im Derech Eretz. Based on the mishna in the Ethics of the Fathers, Hirsch taught that Torah can thrive under any Derech Eretz prevailing environment.

Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsh passed away on 27 Teves 1880. His books are as fresh as if they had been written yesterday.


January 10-11, Parsha Vayechi

Iraq - Iran in the old days

The Jews were exiled to Babylon by the Emperor Nebuchadnezzer in 486 BC. Babylon (current day Iraq) became part of the Persian Empire (Iran) when it was conquered by Cyrus and Darius in 539 BC. The Persians had a long history, as they by and large held off the Greeks and Romans, and maintained control until they were invaded by the Mongols in the 13th-century CE.

For the more than 12 centuries of Jewish settlement in Babylon, Jews were internally managed by a succession of hereditary exilarchs, each of whom served as a political leader administering the Jewish community’s affairs while also representing the Jews to their various overlords. The exilarch (head of the exile) was known in Aramaic as the resh galuta (in Hebrew, rosh golah;), and recognized as a royal scion of Davidic lineage. The imperial regimes accorded the exilarch an official status, and exilarchs wore a distinguishing sash of office known as a kamara.

Starting around the 2nd century BC, the Persian empire embraced Zoroastrianism. Based on the teachings of Zoroaster (Zarathustra), Zoroastrianism believed that life is a struggle between the deities of good and evil. The relationship between Jews and Persians had its ups and downs.

The reign of the Sassanid Persians was a low point. Around 450 CE, King Peroz came to power. Peroz was a devout Zoroaster and took a dim view of the Jews. In 469 - 470 CE Peroz initiated persecutions of the Jews. He slew half the Jews of Isfahan, forcibly converted Jewish children, closed the rabbinical academies, and pillaged the town of Sura, home of a major Yeshiva. He rounded up a group of prominent Jews including Rav Huna V, son of Mar Zutra I, the Resh Galusa. Rav Huna and the others were executed on Teves 18 and Torah scholarship almost disappeared.

Thereafter the exilarchate was left vacant for some years. In 513 CE, in response to religious persecution, the Resh Galusa, Mar Zutra II, led an armed rebellion against the Sassanid forces, achieving seven years of political independence for Babylonian Jewry. In the end, Mar Zutra II and his grandfather Mar Hanina were decapitated then crucified by Emperor Kavad I of Persia on the bridge of Mahoza. It was not until 642 CE when the Arabs, under the banner of Islam, conquered the Sassanid Empire. At that point, the Resh Galusa Bustanai was confirmed in his role by Caliph Ali (or else Caliph Omar) and Jewish life began to revive.


January 3-4, 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 and built 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.’ (Kings II 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 9th of Av (Tisha B'Av) and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. This marked the end of the first Kingdom of Israel. These three dates, the Tenth of Tevet, Shivah Asar B' Tammuz (17th of Tammuz) and Tisha B'Av (9th of Av) are all observed as days of fasting.

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:
After seventy years of Babylonian exile, Ezra the Scribe led a group of Jews back to repopulate Israel. Undeterred by tremendous opposition from the local tribes, the pioneers reestablished a community in Israel and built the second Temple. With his prestige, Ezra 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. Ezra the Scribe passed away on the 9th of Tevet of the year 3448 (313 BCE), exactly 1000 years after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

On the eighth of Tevet in the year 245 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. Ptolemy suspected that the Jewish translators would collaborate and produce a sanitized version of the Torah. To get around this he placed seventy-two sages in solitary confinement and ordered them to translate the Torah into Greek. Ptolemy figured that the variation in translation would give away the self-censored passages. All seventy-two sages did in fact self-censor but miraculously made identical translations into Greek. Even with this miraculous intervention, 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.


December 27-28, Parsha Mikeitz

All Torah sources that discuss the Chanukah story focus on the spiritual struggle. The details of the war between the Seleucid Greeks and the Maccabees are taken almost entirely from secular sources. What follows is a brief retelling from Josephus, the Book of the Maccabees and the Antiochus Scroll of the war of the Jews against the Greeks.

After rebelling against the Greek armies in Modiin, Matisyahu and his family fled to the hills. Matisyahu soon died and Judah his son took command of the 6,000 or so loyalists who had joined them. They engaged the Greek army on two separate occasions and defeated them. Realizing he had a real fight on his hands, Antiochus sent 40,000 troops and 7,000 cavalry under the command of his best general, Lysias.

The night before their battle at Mitzpe, Lysius launched a nighttime surprise attack. Judah, however, was expecting that, and launched his own surprise attack against the Greek base camp, and overran it. Lysius’s forces retreated in disarray. A year later, Lysius returned with 60,000 soldiers and 5,000 cavalry. Judah attacked first and killed ,5000 Greeks. Lysius fled back to Antioch.

Judah now marched on Jerusalem and retook it. He entered the Bais Hamikdash and began to purify it. After three weeks they were ready to rededicate it. The 25th of Kislev was chosen as the date because it was exactly three years after hogs had first been offered in the Temple. The year was 164 BC and it was at this point that the miracle of the oil occurred.

The recapture of Jerusalem did not mean the capitulation of the Greeks or the Hellenist Jews. Antiochus Epiphanes died, and his son Antiochus Eupator took over. Antiochus Eupator dispatched Lysius again, this time with 100,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry and 32 battle elephants. Jerusalem was about to fall when Providence intervened. Lysius heard of an attempted coup brewing in Antioch. He concluded a treaty and hurried back to Antioch to quell the coup. Eventually, Demetrius, uncle of Antiochus, seized power and executed Antiochus and Lysias. The Hellenists in Israel convinced Demetrius to retake Israel.

Demetrius dispatched his general Nicanor with 35,000 troops. Nicanor confronted a Jewish force of 3,000 and was defeated. Nicanor’s head, hands and feet were hung from the gates of Jerusalem. At this point, the Seleucid empire began to crumble and they never again invaded Israel. Simon the Maccabee, last surviving son of Matisyahu, moved to eradicate the last Hellenist strongholds. 25 years after the Chanukah miracle, the war against the Greeks came to a close.


December 20-21, Parsha Vayeishev

As the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great and his Greek armies, so did Israel. Alexander entered Israel peacefully and for the Jews the Persian era ended and the Greek era began. Many Jews were enamored with the new Greek culture that Alexander brough to Israel and adopted it. They are called Hellenists. After Alexander died, his empire was divided in three parts. One part was Egypt, ruled by the Ptolemeys. Another was Syria, ruled by the Selucids. For many years Israel was under Ptolemaic rule, but around the year 200 BC, the Selucids wrested control of Israel from the Ptolemies.

In 174 BC, Antiouchus IV assumed the Selucid throne. Antiochus IV was dedicated to unifying his kingdom through the medium of common religion and culture. This meant bringing the Jews into the Greek world. To accomplish this, he allied himself with the Hellenist Jews. Antiochus IV had the Kohen Gadol Yochanan replaced with his Hellenist brother Joshua - or Jason, as the Greeks called him.

Subsequently Meneleaus, who may not have even been a Kohen, made him a better offer and he deposed Jason in favor of Meneleaus. When Yochanan protested this, Antiochus had him killed. While off fighting in Egypt, a rumor spread that Antiochus had been killed. Jason seized the opportunity and attacked Jerusalem, killing many Jews. Meneleaus was forced to flee Jerusalem. However, the rumor was false. As Antiochus was about to conquer Egypt, the nascent Romans, mindful of a potential shift in the balance of power, exerted their political muscle and forced him to withdraw. Antiochus returned to Jerusalem, seething at the Romans for thwarting his plans, only to find that Jason had deposed Meneleaus in his absence. Antiochus went berserk. He restored Meneleaus to power killing some 40,000 Jews in the process. He looted the Temple and offered hogs there. He issued harsh decrees against the Jewish religion outlawing circumcision, Shabbos and the Jewish calendar. Women caught with circumcised children were executed. Public slaughtering of pigs to Greek gods was instituted . Refusal to partake carried the death penalty. Jerusalem became totally Hellenised and then Antiochus turned his attention to the countryside.

Modiin was a small town. Matisyahu and his family had fled there in the hopes of avoiding Greek persecution. When Greek soldiers assembled all of the Jews of Modiin in the town square to participate in the pig offering, Matisyahu decided to take action. He attacked and killed the Greeks soldiers. Matisyahu cried out, Mi L’ Hashem Elai - whoever is for Hashem join me. He then fled for the hills. The revolt had begun.


December 13-14, Parsha Vayishlach

When the news of the Bolshevik Revolution reached the saintly Chofetz Chaim in 1917, he commented: “it will last a lifetime”. 70 years later, in 1987, Communist regimes across Eastern Europe were crumbling.

On the 18th of Kislev 5669, Zionist pioneers of the Yishuv, as the settlement in Israel was then called, established Degania, the first Kibbutz or Commune in Israel. The location was south-west of the Sea of Galilee, near where the Jordan River exits the Sea of Galilee. It was founded by a
group of ten men and two women.

Many famous people are associated with Kibbutz Degania. The second child to be born in Degania was the prominent Israeli general and politician, Moshe Dayan. Dayan was named after Moshe Barsky, a member of Degania who was the first kibbutz member killed in an Arab
attack.

The philosophy of Degania was molded by one of its most prominent residents, A. D. (Aharon Dovid) Gordon, the "prophet of labor". Raised in a Torah observant home, Gordon became a Zionist ideologue and the spiritual force behind practical Zionism and Labor Zionism. He
founded Hapoel Hatzair, a movement that set the tone for the Zionist movement for many years to come. Influenced by Leo Tolstoy and others, it is said that in effect he made a religion of labor. However, he himself wrote in 1920, "Surely in our day it is possible to live without
religion”. The Degania of Gordon did not include a synagogue or any formal Judaism.

In 2005, the first synagogue opened on Kibbutz Degania, reflecting a wave of change sweeping the legacy Kibbutzim of Israel. Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, head of the Ayelet HaShachar (Morning Star) association that - among its many other activities - accompanies secular communities that
wish to build a synagogue or otherwise enhance their connection to Judaism, wrote  “A few years ago, I was in Degania [Israel’s first kibbutz], and I asked where the synagogue was. The secretary told me, ‘For 100 years we haven’t had one, and we won't have one in the next 100
years either.’ Two years ago, I was again in Degania, on Simchat Torah, and I pointed to the newly-opened synagogue and said, ‘This is our true Torah joy.’”

In 2007, at age 97 Degania moved to undergo privatization.  Instead of assigned jobs and equal pay under the former communal economy, the reorganization requires members to find employment, live on their own income and allows them to own their homes. Degania still offers
a form of a social "safety net" supplement for members whose livelihood is inadequate to meet their expenses. This move to privatization was
chronicled in Yitzhak Rubin's 2008 documentary, Degania: The First Kibbutz Fights Its Last Battle.


December 6-7, Parsha Vayeitzei

The artist Rembrandt painted this portrait of his friend, Rabbi Menashe ben Israel. It hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Samuel Menashe ben Israel was born in 1604 on Madeira, an Island in the Atlantic Ocean that is part of Portugal. Due to the Inquisition, the family moved to Amsterdam, where Menashe was educated. By age 18 the brilliant young scholar was ordained and appointed to the four-man
Rabbinical Council of Amsterdam. In the ensuing years, his fame as a scholar and as an expert on all matters of learning and science spread far beyond Holland. Some of the greatest scholars of the world sought his friendship and advice. Queen Christina of Sweden, the painter
Rembrandt and the statesman and philosopher Hugo Grotius, were among his non-Jewish correspondents and friends.

Yet, with all his secular knowledge and fame, Menashe ben Israel devoted most of his time and interest to Jewish studies and to the defense of the Bible against many critics. Among his most famous works was a book called El Conciliiador. El Conciliiador reconciled seeming contradictions and inconsistencies in the Torah. It was designed for Jews who were subjected to the pressures of the church to convert.  

Menashe ben Israel was fascinated by the possibility that the newly discovered natives in South America may be remnants of the Lost Tribes. He journeyed to Recife off the coast of Brazil and even considered settling there for financial reasons. However, two brothers in Amsterdam put
up money to start a Yeshiva and induced him to come back and head the Yeshiva.

Yearning for the Mashiach was very strong in the days of the Inquisition. One of the tenets of the Mashiach is that the Jews will live in all lands of the earth before the ingathering. To this end, Menashe ben Israel was deeply involved in obtaining permission for Jews to live in all
countries. He prevailed upon his friend Queen Christina to readmit Jews to Sweden and he was almost successful when she suddenly abdicated. He spent two years in England working to convince Oliver Cromwell to allow Jews to settle in England from where they had been barred for hundreds of years.  Cromwell consented and even honored Menashe by granting him an annual stipend of 100 Sterling pounds.

However tragedy struck. His son, who was with him in England, suddenly died. On the way back to Amsterdam to bury his son, this great defender of the Jewish faith and the Jewish people also died. Father and son were laid to rest at the Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam. Their graves
are visited until this day.


November 29-30, Parsha Toldos

After the State of Israel declared its independence in 1948, Jews in Arab lands suffered greatly. This was not the situation in Morocco.  Morocco was under French control, and the Jews of Morocco were very attached to the Holy Land. Over 72,000 Moroccan Jews made aliyah to Israel between 1948 and 1955. I personally read a letter received by a Rabbi in Morocco in 1951 from a friend in Israel. The letter urged him to come quickly to Israel and bring his community,  because “Moshiach is walking in the streets of Tel Aviv”.

In 1956 the French gave up on North Africa and Morocco became an independent country under King Mohammed the Fifth. Mohammed seems to have had a benevolent attitude toward the Jews but Gamal Abdul Nasse,r President of Egypt, pressured him to freeze emigration saying ‘every Jew you allow to leave becomes a soldier’. King Mohammed caved in to Arab pressure and banned the immigration of Jews from his country. That, however, did not deter Moroccan Jewry.

Moroccan Jews fled the country in a variety of ways. By 1961, over 30,000 more Jews had risked the high seas and emigrated to Israel. On the night of January 10, 1961, 44 Jews who had traveled from Casablanca to the Mediterranean port of Al Hoceimea boarded the Egoz. The Egoz was a small fishing boat operated by the Mossad that was embarking on it’s 12th clandestine voyage to Gibraltar. They never arrived. The boat capsized killing all 44 men, women and children, as well as a Mossad radio operator and one of the Spanish crew members. 22 bodies were recovered, and the rest were lost at sea. According to a Mossad report compiled years later, the boat experienced mechanical difficulties. No blame was ascribed. Allegations linger that the Mossad knew full well that the boat was not seaworthy, but was willing to risk the voyage because if tragedy struck it could be used to political advantage.

When the news of the tragedy was publicized, there was an uproar. Israel directly blamed the Moroccan Government for the tragedy. The United States and France were enlisted to pressure Morocco to free its Jews. King Mohamed now caved to Western pressure. A deal was worked out whereby Morocco’s Jews would be allowed to emigrate to France or Gibraltar. This new policy led to 80,000 more Jews making aliyah to Israel by 1964, with many others moving to France.

In 1992 King Hassan II of Morocco sanctioned the restitution of the bodies to Israel. On the 7th day of Kislev of that year, the 22 bodies that were recovered were reinterred in Israel. A monument was erected in their memory on Mt. Herzl.

Mon, February 17 2020 22 Shevat 5780