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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

June 15-16 Parsha Korach

Throughout the Jewish world, every attempt is made to bury the dead as soon as possible after death, and to try and avoid leaving the deceased unburied overnight. It is the accepted custom in Jerusalem that a dead body is not left overnight in the city. In Jerusalem funerals will take place even in the evening. This is a literal interpretation of the biblical command (Deut. 21:22-23): “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him that day”.

The Sages of the Talmud hold that this regulation applies to all the dead, not just those executed. It is considered a disgrace to Hashem, in whose image man was created, if the body is left unburied. Furthermore, it is deemed inconsiderate to the deceased. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague, basing himself on the Midrash [Levit. Rabba, 18:1], taught that the soul hovered over the body as long as it was not buried, resulting in unnecessary suffering. However, the Mishna delineates special circumstances under which burial may be delayed. “If the body has been left (unburied) overnight ... in order to provide a coffin or shrouds, there is no transgression (of the law)” [Sanhedrin 46a]. There is no prohibition to delay burial out of respect for the dead (לכבודו (in order, for instance, to provide time to inform others of the death and for the arrival of relatives from a far or to summon (professional) mourners.

Throughout history there have been issues with determining death. Galen (2nd cent.) was the putative author of a dissertation on The Interdiction of (Early) Burial. His argument was that mistakes could be made and a rush to burial might actually be killing a living person. Literature is full of horror stories (perhaps fanciful) where the presumed dead were found to really be alive. This concern conflicts with the Jewish value of swift burial. A vivid example of this controversy on premature burial took place among German Jews in 1772, when Duke Friedrich von Mecklenburg-Schwerin ordered that no body, in his estates, be buried until seventy-two hours had elapsed after death. The Jews of Mecklenburg were thrown into panic. This event took place at the dawn of the enlightenment when tolerance for Jews was being discussed in society. The desire to acquiesce to the will of the Duke was strong, as was the deeply held value of respect for the dead.

The controversy would ultimately involve a disparate cast of characters, including Rabbi Landau, Rabbi Yaacov Emden and Moses Mendelssohn, and bring into question the appropriate balance between modernity and orthodox. To be continued....

June 8-9 Parsha Shelach

The Exile

The Torah makes a prophesy that seems to be an impossibility — the exile of the Jews from their own land and their eventual return. This seems to be an impossibility because, throughout the history of the world, no other nation ever survived an exile. What’s more, the Torah prophesied two different exiles for the Jewish people to survive (Lev. 26:14-46, and Deut. 28:15-69)! In addition to this, the Torah spells out another uniqueness ...You will be torn from the land which you are about to occupy. And G-d shall scatter you among all the peoples, from one end of the earth to the other… Deut. 28:63-64 .

❖ The only nation ever to survive and return from an exile
❖ The only nation to be exiled a second time
❖ The only nation to be scattered to all four corners of the earth.

Without even physical unity, this would definitely seem to be the “kiss of death” for the Jews. 3330 years, two exiles and a complete scattering later, nearly 50% of the world’s Jews live in Israel. Many others, like you and I, live identifiably Jewish lives around the world.

Jewish history itself is therefore the most fascinating fact of all history.

Winston Churchill wrote, “Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.“

June 1-2 Parsha Beah'aloscha

This week Sunday June 3rd is the 20th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan.

The 20th of Sivan was historically observed as a Fast day. It was first instituted in 1171 after the first European blood libel which took place in Blois, France and resulted in the burning alive of the town's 30+ Jewish residents. Among them were: Isaac ben Eleazar (the "perpetrator"), Rabbi Yechiel the son ofRabbi David HaKohen, Rabbi Yekuthiel the son of Rabbi Judah HaKohen and Rabbi Judah the son of
Aaron. All have Yahrzeits on the 20th of Sivan.

At that time Rabbi Yaakov Tam declared the 20th of Sivan to be a day of mourning and fasting. With time, this observance was forgotten. However, in the year 1648, a terrible national calamity, known in Jewish history as "Gzeros TaCh vTaT" (the Massacres of the years 5408-5409) struck the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. The Cossacks, under the leadership of Bogdan Chmelnicki, y'mach
shemo (may his name be wiped out), revolted against Poland.

When Chmielnitcki was plotting his revolt, a Jew turned him in to the Polish authorities. After a period of incarceration, he managed to escape but his rabid hatred of the Jews was confirmed. His rebellion was against the Polish government, but punishing the Jews was his passion. The first attack on the Jews was on the 20th Sivan, when 6,000 Jews were slaughtered in the city of Nemirov. As the rebellion continued, he put to the sword and flame countless Jewish communities. Untold thousands of Jews (historians estimate 300,000 - 500,000, nearly 50% of the Jewish population of eastern Europe) were butchered by the Cossacks during their bloody march through the Ukraine, Volhynia, Podolia, Poland
proper and Lithuania. The great city of Vilna also fell into the hands of the fanatical Cossacks. They ravaged the city and carried out a mass slaughter of the Jewish inhabitants.

In 1650 Rabbi Shabsi Cohen declared 20 Sivan as a fast for his community, and in 1652, the Council of the Four Lands which was the governing body of Jewish Eastern Europe mandated 20 Sivan as a fast for all Jews in Eastern Europe. The Shaarei Teshuvah 580:9 quotes the Shach as citing an additional reason why the Vaad Arba Ha’aratzos established the day of commemoration for the gezeiros Tach veTat on the 20th of Sivan: this date never falls on Shabbos and therefore would be observed every year. It is unclear when the custom to observe this fast ended, but the Mishnah Berurah (580:16) quotes it as being a common practice in Poland in his day early in the 20th century.

At Shalosh Seudos this week, Rabbi Friedman will discuss the halachic basis for the observance of commemorative fasts.


May 25-26 Parsha Naso


A few weeks ago I mentioned that Rambam had discovered the Torah of Ezra the Scribe and had proclaimed that day a holiday. On Shavuos I followed that up with a talk on the accuracy of our Torah scrolls. For those who would like to see the sources on these topics I refer you to a wonderful article by Rabbi Dovid Lichtman; The Accuracy of Our Written Torah.


In the 1530's, the Pope wanted to encourage trade between Italy and the Ottoman Empire. He declared the city of Ancona to be a duty free port and invited Jews to come live there. The Jews who had fled the Inquisition from Spain to Portugal were particularly well-suited for this task, as they had a reputation as master merchant traders.

For two decades, ex-conversos from the Iberian Peninsula lived as openly-practicing Jews in Ancona, with explicit papal consent and protection from inquisitorial prosecution. (They were technically liable to such prosecution because, having been baptized, their practice of Judaism made them apostates and heretics in the eyes of the Church.)

However, in May 1555, there was a fateful change at the Vatican: Paul IV (1476–1559; Pope 1555), ascended to the papacy. Only two months later, the new pope took sudden action against the ex-conversos in Ancona. Overriding the guarantees granted them by his predecessors, he initiated inquisitorial proceedings against them. The entire community of Portuguese Jews in Ancona was placed under arrest. In the spring and summer of 1556, twenty-four were burned at the stake.

As a protest and punitive measure, some merchants, who had escaped to Pesaro, initiated the idea of a Jewish commercial boycott of Ancona and a diversion of the Ancona commerce to Pesaro. Rabbinic support was enlisted and merchants throughout the Ottoman empire were asked to join. The boycott lasted eight months and the city of Ancona was economically devastated. It seemed that the Pope would soon learn his lesson.

Then an interesting development took place. The Jews of Ancona sent a letter to the Jewish world begging for the boycott to be lifted. They complained that the actions of the Pope were directed against ex-conversos, but that all Jews were being reduced to paupers. They also feared that the Pope would take his anger out on them. The question of whether the boycott should be supported soon bitterly divided the Ottoman Jewish rabbis and communities, and, under these circumstances, the boycott fizzled out.

Which side would you have taken?

Sat, June 23 2018 10 Tammuz 5778