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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

August 10-11 Parsha Re'eh

Shmuel Hanagid 933- 1056 was one of the most colorful Jews who ever lived. He was born and raised in Cordoba, Spain, where he became a spice merchant.  Due to civil war he fled Cordoba to Malaga where he reopened his spice shop which was located near the Palace of the Vizier of
Granada. 

Shmuel was an outstanding Talmid Chacham, was well versed in the sciences and spoke and wrote Hebrew, Arabic and Latin fluently. He soon came to the attention of the Vizier of Granada who appointed him tax collector. Shmuel rose in influence and eventually became Vizier of Granada and Commanding General of the Army. In 1027 he assumed the title Hanagid (the Prince).  R’ Shmuel Hanagid’s prominence is all the more astonishing when one considers that Jews were considered heretics by the Muslims and not allowed to hold public office. 

R’ Shmuel was certainly the most influential Jew in Spain and many considered him the most influential person in Spain. The Caliphs that he served under would not make a decision without consulting Shmuel. Shmuel gained fame as a Judge and due to his knowledge of pharmaceuticals he was constantly sought out by the ill seeking cures. 

During this time R’ Shmuel had a Jewish career also.  He served as Chief Rabbi and as the head of the Yeshiva of Granada. He authored Mevo Hatalmud - Introduction to the Talmud, which is reprinted in nearly every Talmud published today. He commissioned scribes to copy numerous sets of Talmud and supported many Talmidei Chachamim. He was also a poet whose poems gained fame in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Many books have been written about this towering figure, but I would recommend one in particular. It is an illustrated book entitled Shmuel Hanagid Nagdila: A Tale of the Golden Age by Arye Mahr published by Feldheim.  It will delight young and old alike.


On the 1st day of the Month of Elul, R’ Shmuel led a Muslim army into battle against the army of Abu Abbas Vizier of Almirah. With R’ Shmuel’s brilliant tactics and leadership, his army was victorious. R’ Shmuel proclaimed 1 Elul as a day of holiday and thanksgiving for himself and his
descendants forevermore. This year 1 Elul is this week Sunday Aug 12th.


July 27-28 Parsha Va'eschanan

Sir Moses Montefiore was arguably the most famous and beloved Jew of his era.  Montefiore’s family were Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition to Italy.  Moses was born in Leghorn, Italy in 1784 and when he was a young boy his family emigrated to England.  Early in his career Moses amassed a great fortune in banking.  He was on a trajectory to become one of the wealthiest men in the world when, at age 42, he decided to “retire” and dedicate the rest of his life to the Jewish people.


His “second career” turned out to last almost 60 years as Moses Montefiore died in 1885 at the age of 100.  During this time, he involved himself in a host of projects and interceded on behalf of Jews in distress worldwide.  He and his wife traveled to the Holy Land seven times and the cause of the Jewish community there was dear to his heart.  As opposed to most Jewish philanthropists of his day, Moses Montefiore and his wife were also pious Jews.  His first trip to the Holy Land took place in 1827.  Already wealthy, and a confidant of Queen Victoria, the Montefiores traveled with a large entourage which included a shochet.  Excerpts from Montefiore’s diary give us an insight into his outstanding personality.

In Malta they broke off from “amusements” to celebrate Tisha b'Av. “Thank God,” Montefiore says in his diary on August 2, “we are quite well after breaking the fast, which we did at 9:35, several stars being then visible.  The day has been dreadfully hot and fatiguing. My poor wife suffered so much that I endeavored to persuade her to break her fast by about four o’clock, but she would not.”   

Disregarding the threats of war and plague, they finally arrived at Jaffa on October 16, and the following day approached Jerusalem on foot, dismounting, as all pilgrims did in those days, to express their sorrow at seeing the Holy City in ruins.  They stayed only a few days, visiting the holy places and all manner of synagogues.  Boarding their ship at Jaffa, he wrote in his diary: “This day I begin a new era. I fully intend to dedicate much more time to the welfare of the poor, and to attend synagogue as regularly as possible on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.”

His 100th birthday was celebrated around the world. Hundreds of Jewish communities issued proclamations and held tributes. His Yahrzeit is this Shabbos, 16 Av. May his memory be a blessing.


July 20-21 Parsha Devarim

The familiar tragedies of 9 Av are as follows.  The spies returned, and the Children of Israel despaired of conquering Israel, around 1312 BCE. The 1st Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed around 500 BCE.  The 2nd Temple was destroyed around 70 CE. The Expulsion from Spain took place in 1492, and the outbreak of WWI in 1914. I would like to add two more fascinating facts to the 9 Av timeline.

According to Kabbalistic sources, the struggle between Jacob and the angel occurred on 9 Av.  At the conclusion of the story, the Torah states “therefore the children of Israel shall not eat the sciatic sinew”.  The kabbalists make a connection between the words “the children of Israel shall not eat” … and the 9th of Av.  As we know, the angel who represents Eisav attempted to destroy Jacob.  Jacob survived but he was limping. This is a portent of things to come for the Jews who would be challenged over and over again on 9 Av by the forces of Eisav.  They would emerge alive but limping.

When the spies returned to the camp in the desert, the people lost hope and wanted to return to Egypt.  Moses told them that due to their lack of faith they would not enter the land but would instead die in the desert.  Upon hearing this evil decree, a group of people changed their mind and decided they would go to Israel.  They armed themselves and set out. Moshe warned them “Don’t do it. G-d is not with you” but they ignored him.  They were met by a force of Amalak and Canaan who defeated them.  The Torah says the enemy stung them like bees. This is a curious description. The midrash explains that just as some bees die after stinging their victim, so did these Amalek and Canaanite soldiers die after killing some of the Children of Israel.  G-d did not want the Jews to be successful and therefore they were defeated.  However, He also did not want their enemies to revel in their success.  Therefore, the victorious soldiers also died. So we have seen in our long history, that all who have smitten the Jews have ultimately met with destruction themselves.

May the 9th day of Av be celebrated next year as a holiday in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.


July 13-14 Parsha Matos-Masei

This week, on the 4th day of Av, we observe the yahrzeit of Menahem Azariah da Fano, also called Rema MiPano (1548 – 1620).  R' Menachem Azariah was an Italian rabbi, Talmudist, and Kabbalist.  He published an important collection of his halachic responsa, as well as being responsible for the publication of other important works, including those of R' Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch Code of Law.  R' Menachem Azariah would deliver lectures on the Fast Days.  These lectures often centered around Kabbalistic interpretations of the Torah.  Ten of these were published as Asarah Maamaros and are studied today.

R' Menachem Azariah was an optimist and had a very genial nature, which made him beloved by all.  One of his teachings illustrates his positive attitude toward the Jewish people and the Torah.  He taught "The prohibitions of the Torah never appear in the imperative, ‘Don't do’ but in the form of the future: 'You will not' e.g Thou will have no other gods'; 'Thou will not bow down to other gods'; 'Thou will not swear falsely'; etc. G-d means to tell us 'I know thou will not be guilty of these things, since human nature does not tolerate such crimes, and if sin occurs in this life it can be only a passing episode.'  On the other hand, the commandments are in the imperative: 'Kabbed,'Honor your Parents 'Zakor'; remember the Shabbos that is, 'I command you nothing new; the good instincts in you have always been there; they need only to be awakened and developed' ". 

This positive interpretation is a powerful lesson to all of us as we understand ourselves, others, and the Torah.  May his memory be a blessing.


July 6-7 Parsha Pinchas

Part Three on the topic of Jewish burial customs

The burial controversy, and the differing attitudes expressed by Rabbi Yaacov Emden and Moses Mendelssohn, highlight a difference of approach to modernity that was to define much of the next two centuries.

In 1772 the world was just moving into the era of rationalism, known as the Enlightenment. The ideas of John Locke would soon lead to the American Revolution, followed by the French Revolution, and in ensuing years would sweep the western world. With rationalism came the offer of emancipation as the revolutionaries in America declared that all men are created equal.

Jews saw the door of opportunity beginning to open and did not want to miss their chance. This entailed embracing the rationalistic, scientific underpinning of the philosophy that was offering them emancipation. While still loyal to their heritage, they felt that the world was changing. To them Mendelssohn embodied the resolution of the conflict between their heritage and the modern reality. Master of both disciplines and defender of both, he was the role model for the new Jew.

Rabbi Emden did not shy away from modernity but viewed it from a Torah perspective. Rabbi Emden believed in the importance of knowing Jewish as well as secular history, since without some historical reference it is impossible to ever grasp the essence of any teaching: “The rabbinic scholar should not be devoid of (any) knowledge of history and changing times. (He must possess this information) in order to know how to provide his questioner with an answer and not be considered a fool or simpleton in worldly affairs...There is an obligation to know history. In order to understand Chazal, halacha etc, you need to understand history.”

Moses Mendelssohn did not found any movements or espouse a particular religious philosophy. He dedicated himself to promoting the position of the Jew in the modern world. In the generation following his death, the Haskalah, the enlightenment movement, as well as the reform movement, became popular in Germany. Both movements identified themselves as spiritual heirs of Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had six children, of whom only his second-oldest daughter, Recha, and his oldest son, Joseph, retained the Jewish faith. Some intermarried, others were baptized. Many of his descendants went on to illustrious careers The famous composer Felix Mendelssohn was a grandson. Joseph Mendelssohn's son Alexander (d. 1871) was the last descendant of Moses Mendelssohn to practice Judaism.

Rabbi Emden and his many Torah works are embraced today by students of the Torah around the world.

Thu, August 16 2018 5 Elul 5778