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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

March 26-27, Parsha Vayikra

Jonas Salk, the son and grandson of Jewish immigrants, was born in New York in 1914. His parents worked in the garment industry but emphasized education to their son. Jonas Salk went to New York University and received his degree in medicine in 1939.

Albert Sabin (Abraham Saperstein) was born in Bialystok in 1909 and immigrated to the US at age 15. His family took up residence in Patterson, New Jersey. The Sapersteins also worked in the garment industry but emphasized education for their children. Albert Sabin went to New York University and received his degree in medicine in 1931.

In the middle of the 20th century, the world was gripped with fear of the dreaded Polio disease. This was true even though polio was not the number one cause of death. During those decades, 10 times as many children died in accidents and three times as many succumbed to cancer.
Polio inspired such fear because it struck without warning and researchers were unsure of how it spread from person to person. In the years following World War II, polls found the only thing Americans feared more than polio was nuclear war.  Salk and Sabin turned each joined research labs working to develop a vaccine for the Polio virus. While most scientists believed that effective vaccines could only be developed with live viruses, Salk developed a “killed-virus” vaccine.


Many researchers such as Sabin, who was developing an oral “live-virus” polio vaccine, called Salk’s approach dangerous. Sabin even belittled Salk as “a mere kitchen chemist.” The March of Dimes had grown impatient at the time-consuming process of developing a live-virus vaccine
and put their resources behind Salk.

On Nissan 5 1952, Salk announced to the world that he had discovered a vaccine for Polio. Trials began immediately and by April 1955 the US govt. had approved Salk’s vaccine for widespread distribution. Polio had been defeated. In 1962, Sabin introduced an oral (sugar cube) polio vaccine that contained a live (rather than killed) virus, and the U.S. government began using Sabin’s vaccine instead of Salk’s because it
was cheaper and still effective. Today, a reformulated version of Salk’s vaccine is used in most parts of the world except for parts of Africa and the Middle East where polio is still a problem, and where Sabin’s vaccine is used.

Dr. Sabin spent three years as the head of the Weitzmann Institute in Israel.


March 20-21, Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei

The word Mussar means Ethical Reproach. In the 1800s, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin of Salant (1810 - 1883), developed and promoted an approach to Torah living that focuses the entirety of one’s being on Ethical Development. It became known as the Mussar Movement.

Most ethical behavior displays itself by being sensitive to others. Rav Yisroel Salanter became famous and controversial for propagating this approach. Some questioned whether it was a distraction from true Divine service. Rav Yisroel’s outstanding Torah acumen and fealty to halacha was his strongest defense against his critics. These factors all came to bear during the Cholera epidemic of 1848. 

The second of eight cholera pandemics lasted from 1829 to 1852, spreading through all of Europe, and leaving a trail of devastation across much of Russia and the surrounding regions.  In contrast to the waxing and waning character of the contagion in Western Europe, the infection spread continuously in Eastern Europe throughout the mid-nineteenth century, killing millions in the process.

Vilnius, or Vilna as it was known to Jews, the city where Rav Yisroel lived and taught, had been hit hard by cholera in the summer of 1848. In the early fall, as the fast-day of Yom Kippur approached, he was concerned that fasting would make the community more vulnerable to the disease. This concern was born of one of the many theories about the cause of cholera.

What happened next was widely debated. As a matter of fact, the very historicity of the events is debated until today. There exists no  contemporaneous account of Rav Yisroel’s decision. According to some, he got up in shul on Yom Kippur, made kiddush and ate a piece of cake, to publicly show that there should be no fasting. This account seems unlikely and may have in fact been propagated by his opponents. 
Other accounts say that he limited the duration of services and added multiple breaks so that people could get fresh air. He also had food available and encouraged anyone who felt weak to partake.

Although we don’t know exactly what happened, a few facts are indisputable. Rav Yisroel of Salant was well known as an outstanding Torah scholar and not one to take halacha lightly. He was also known to be highly sensitive to the needs of each individual Jew. Rav Yisroel based his decisions on the medical opinion (however paltry) of his time. When all is said and done, Rav Yisroel confronted his circumstances and made the best decision he could and there was nothing more he - or you or I - could ever do.


March 13-14, Parsha Ki Sisa

Many have noted that it is normal for pious Jews from Lithuania, and those who have studied in Lithuanian style yeshivos, not to wear beards and peyos. It has also been noted that many married women who emigrated from these areas did not cover their hair. On the other hand, Chassidic communities maintain their distinctive beard, peyos, and kaftan until this very day. As you might well imagine there is a story behind this.

When Czar Alexander II succeeded his father Nicholas I as Czar of Russia in 1855, Russia was mired in a losing battle for Crimea. Alexander realized that his country was backward and set about modernizing it. Alexander II is primarily remembered as the Czar who freed the serfs. Alexander also initiated a number of other reforms in the judiciary and military. He promoted the building of railroads and lifted censorship. On the first anniversary of his ascension to the throne, corresponding to Adar 24, Alexander II issued a decree banning all distinctive forms of dress. His stated idea was to erase ethnic differences and create a new Russian subject of the Czar. In reality, his decree was primarily focused on the Jews. In addition to the distinctive belted kaftan and round fur hat that all Jews wore, Jews also grew beards and peyos and the married women wore a distinctive head covering. These last items were not ethnic, but a religious imperative. The decree threw the Jewish community into turmoil.

 

Soon, police walked the streets with large shears on their belts. If a Jew with a kaftan was apprehended, his kaftan was cut at the waist on the spot. At that time trousers were not worn under the kaftan so this treatment was a disgrace. Beards and peyos were similarly treated. A beard could be shorn by the police on the spot. Peyos were removed by holding them on the ground and rubbing them with a sharp rock until they were cut off or ripped out. Women had their hair covering ripped off and were ridiculed in public.

 

In time, the kaftan disappeared from Lithuania and White Russia to be replaced by the western jacket or the more formal frock coat for Rabbis and people of distinction. Although beards and peyos were standard for Jewish men since biblical times Rabbis ruled that one was not obligated to die to keep them. As long as a razor was not placed on the skin, cutting of beards and peyos with scissors was permitted. For the first time, wigs made an appearance as a form of head covering. Made mostly of horsehair, the wigs were unattractive but did not violate the new dress code. Some Rabbis ruled that women only had to cover long flowing hair, but short hair needn't be covered. Wearing hair in a bun pinned close to the head became a popular form for women at this time.

 

Outside of Russia, there were no similar decrees. While many Jews modernized their dress willingly, Chassidic communities in Hungary, Rumania, and Galicia in the Austro Hungarian empire and parts of Poland under Russian rule but exempted from the decrees, maintained distinctive Jewish garb. As a matter of fact, almost the only Chassidic group that comes from Lithuania is Chabad Lubavitch and they generally do not sport peyos, they wear frock coats and western-style hats. By the time the Czar’s decrees were eased, modernity made it hard to turn back the clock.


March 7-8, Parsha Tetzaveh

On the 14th day of Adar, the holiday of Purim celebrates our salvation from the hands of the wicked Amalekite, Haman Yimach shemo (may his name be obliterated), who intended to destroy all Jewish people.

Throughout history, many locales have experienced their own miraculous salvation. When these events occurred, the community would declare a local Purim. Even the 14th of Adar was celebrated as a local Purim in addition to the Purim of Mordechai and Esther due to local events.

In 1840 the Jewish community of the Isle of Rhodes was going to be destroyed due to a Blood Libel. A young boy went missing and the Jewish community was accused of murdering him for his blood. The community was blockaded on the eve of Purim. For 12 days their fate hung in the balance until a high official from the Ottoman government visited the island and ordered the Governor to drop the case. Subsequently on the 14th of Adar, in addition to Purim, Jews on the Isle of Rhodes annually celebrated Purim Rhodes.

In more recent times, another Purim miracle occurred. In 1991, Sadam Hussein, Dictator of Iraq, went to war with the intention of annihilating the Jewish community of Israel.  He threatened to bombard Israel with rockets loaded with chemical weapons. In fact, 39 missiles landed in the heartland of Israel in densely populated areas, including within the city of Tel Aviv. (I stood in the bomb crater). For weeks the population of Israel was terrorized, fleeing to sealed rooms and donning gas masks when the sirens went off.

The United States launched the 1st Iraq war at the end of January 1991. On Purim 1991, the all-clear was sounded and people emerged from their sealed rooms to celebrate the holiday of Purim. In the end, only one man died due to the missile attacks on Israel. Another Purim had been added to the annals of Jewish history - Purim Eretz Yisrael.


February 28-29, Parsha Terumah

Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, popularly known by the abbreviation 'MaHaRaM' (Moreinu Horav Reb Meir) of Rothenburg, was born in Worms, Germany, around the year 1220. In his youth, he went to France to study in the well known French Yeshivoth. In 1245 Rabbi Meir, already a famous Talmudist returned to Germany, where he became the rabbi of several large communities successively. Finally he settled in Rothenburg, where he maintained, at his own cost, a famous Yeshivah. 

Those days were full of persecution for the Jews of Germany, and they lived in constant fear for their property and life. In the year 1286, Rabbi Meir took his entire family and set out for the Land of Israel. However, while passing through Lombardy, Rabbi Meir was recognized by an apostate Jew who was accompanying the archbishop of Mainz. The archbishop had Rabbi Meir arrested and taken back to Germany. There, by order of King Rudolph, Rabbi Meir was imprisoned in the fortress of Ensisheim and held for ransom. The king knew that the Jews would give away their last mark to redeem their beloved Rabbi, and indeed the sum of 20,000 marks was raised for Rabbi Meir's freedom. Rabbi Meir, however, forbade his friends and followers to pay any ransom for him. In his selflessness, he knew that once the ransom was paid for him, every noted Rabbi in Germany would be arrested and held for ransom by the greedy and cruel German rulers of those days. Thus Rabbi Meir preferred to remain in prison, and even die there, in order to save many others from a similar fate.

For seven years Rabbi Meir remained a prisoner in that fortress, until his passing in 1293. During this time his disciples were permitted to meet with him, and he was even able to compose several of his works within the prison walls. After he died, his body was not surrendered until 14 years later, when a heavy ransom was paid by a generous Jew, Alexander Suskind Wimpfen of Frankfort. In return, Alexander Suskind requested only that after his own death his body should be laid to rest by the side of the saintly Rabbi Meir. His wish was carried out when he died a year later. Miraculously the cemetery in Worms survived World War II and the two graves can be visited to this very day.


ebruary 21-22, Parsha Mishpatim

Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld was born in Hungary on 21st February 1912. His family emigrated to England when he was a young boy and he attended public schooling there. As a teen, he traveled to Nitra in Slovakia to study in Yeshiva, and then pursued a doctorate at the University
of Konigsberg in East Prussia. Now an ordained Rabbi and a Doctor, Rabbi Schonfeld returned to England and dedicated the rest of his life to community service. He became active in the office of the Chief Rabbi and ultimately became the Chief Rabbi’s son- in -law.

In 1933 Hitler ym’sh came to power.  Jewish leaders in Britain recognized that they had to do something for those living under Nazi rule. Rabbi Schonfeld visited the Home Office to secure visas for rabbis and synagogue officials to come to Britain with their families. He was responsible for saving a number of families in the years prior to the war. After Kristallnacht, Rabbi Schonfeld convinced the British government to be more sympathetic to the plight of Jewish children trapped in Germany and Austria. The government relented and allowed children to travel to Britain where they would be sheltered.

Rabbi Schonfeld played a leading role in organizing trainloads of Jewish children to leave endangered areas to be resettled in Britain. These trains became known as the Kindertransport. Thousands of children were saved via the Kindertransport. Rabbi Schonfeld was intimately involved with each transport.

The first Kindertransport left on the 11th of December 1938. The last Kindertransport came to Britain from the Netherlands in April 1940, shortly before the Nazi invasion. Rabbi Schonfeld maintained responsibility for the children after they arrived in Britain. He organized kosher
places for them to stay and tried to obtain Jewish education for them. This required prodigious fundraising. England was severely impoverished at the time and many of the host homes could not afford to feed and clothe the children. 

In addition to all of his activities on behalf of the Jewish refugees, Rabbi Schonfeld served as the Chief Chaplain for the British Armed services during the war. After the war, Rabbi Schonfeld traveled extensively in Europe to help those who had survived the camps, especially children.
These children are also known today as Schonfeld’s Children.  He wore a military uniform while visiting the camps and was escorted by soldiers. Around 1,000 children from the Displaced Persons Camps were rescued by Rabbi Schonfeld’s work after the war. These post-war Kindertransports left Continental Europe in 1946 and 1947.

Rabbi Schonfeld is heralded as one of the most remarkable, yet least known of the Holocaust heroes. His valor and dedication remain an inspiration to all to never stop trying, even when the task is insurmountable. Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld died on Adar 4, 1984. May the memory of the Tzaddik be a blessing.


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.

Wed, April 8 2020 14 Nisan 5780