One of the curious (and annoying) things about researching the early Jewish history of the city of Hebron is the dearth of material evidence discovered thus far. Hebron, long considered to be one of “The Four Holy Cities” in Judaism (along with Safed, Jerusalem and Tiberias) may have been only sparsely populated by Jews during most of its history. One of the reasons for that may be because of a lack of water resources; there are only several small springs in the area (an aqueduct providing an abundant water supply to the area was not built until the Mamluke and Ottoman occupations of the area). Yes, David’s original kingdom was established there (where ‘there’ is exactly is a question that archaeologists are still trying to figure out). Various theories have been propounded as to where the Biblical Hebron was situated exactly. The current consensus among scholars is that it was at a place called Jebel Rumeida. The strategic location of the site; it’s topographical advantage (it oversees a major intersection that runs from Beersheba in the south and Jerusalem in the north). As early as 1970, Professor Benjamin Mazar was convinced that Jebel Rumeida (or Tel Rumeida) contains within it the remnants of ancient Hebron. Archaeological excavations have been conducted in the area shortly after Mazar published his paper and are still ongoing.
I don’t want to focus on the history of the Jews of Hevron during the Biblical Period or The Middle Ages (also referred to as The Geonic Period) in this post (look out for another post on the subject in the near future) but rather focus ON ONE curious fact about the city.
There is an ancient cemetery in the area of Jebel Rumedia which would have been a goldmine for researchers had it not been for one “annoying” fact: apparently there was an ancient custom among the Jews of Hevron not to inscribe names or dates on tombstones. As a result we have a collection of slabs of anonymous chiseled stones. The terrible massacre of Jews by the local Arabs in 1929, saw the destruction of large parts of the cemetery, a road was built right in the middle of it and parts of it were used for agriculture and construction of houses.
When the massacre of 1929 occurred, there was a question regarding engraving the names of the dead. A query was sent to Rav Kook, then Chief Rabbi of Jaffa. He replied in no uncertain terms that this case was an exception and that the graves should be marked “so that it also stand as an eternal remembrance of the horrific crime that occurred”. This courageous Halakhic decision enabled the Jews to recover some of the remains of the murdered (whose tombstones were shattered and their remains scattered in the period 1948-1967) when Israel re entered the area after the Six Day War in ’67.
Noam Arnon (a leader of the modern Hevron Jewish community) writes:
למרות המנהג שהיה מקובל בחברון לא לכתוב שמות על המצבות, הורה הרב הראשי הראשון לא”י, הראי”ה קוק זצ”ל, לכתוב שמות על מצבות חללי תרפ”ט כדי לזכור את האירוע המחריד. הוא כתב: “הצרה שבאה עלינו ע”י הרוצחים הטמאים ימ”ש, שהוא דבר נורא ואיום שלא נשמע כמוהו בארצנו הקדושה מימי החורבן, לא שייך לגביו תוכן של מנהג, וחובתנו היא לחקוק לזכרון עולם את המאורע הנורא עם שמות הקדושים הי”ד…והשי”ת ינקום לנו מצרינו, וחרפת צוררינו אל חיקם ישיב, וירים רן עמו ונחלתו בב”א..”. הוראה זו אפשרה לשחזר חלקה זו אחרי שחרור חברון.
This is also mentioned in the book דרכי חסד מאת הרב יצחק אושפאל. See here He claims that this is based on the famous passage (also quoted by Rambam in Hilkhot Avel) from the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shekalim: אמר רשב”ג אין בונין נפשות לצדיקים דבריהם הם זכרונם, which I discussed in my post about praying at graves.
This is a a bit of a strange claim since we find plenty of inscribed tombstones from that era which commemorate great people (Including the mentioned Rabban Shimon Ben Gamaliel himself![possibly the same person; there were several members of this family referred to by that name] at the Beth Shearim necropolis, the High Priest Joseph Caipha et al). 1
see also here, end of n. 122
Back to the anonymous tombstones. From whence did this strange custom originate? It is certainly neither a Rabbanite nor Karaite custom, for we don’t see anything of the kind in any of the other graveyards belonging to either (in fact one of the largest graveyards outside of Israel is the Karaite necropolis of Chufut Kale, about which I blogged about here).
It appears that this was a very early local Arab custom which made its way to the Jews of the area. I don’t have any hard evidence on this yet, however this from Sepher Hevron:
It is the first time I see it mentioned as an ancient custom of the Arabs from the area (meaz umitamid..), so I put forth my modest proposal that this was an non-Jewish custom, probably followed by the Mustara’abin, down to to the 20th c.
However I should point out that like every other rule, there are always exceptions to the rule. It does not appear to have been strictly followed even before 1929. I spoke to a local resident who is an expert on local antiquities and I was made aware of several interesting facts about the area-not all of which I am at liberty to reveal. But I will say this much: on the day following the Shavuot holiday, there will be a conference which will focus on new findings and research on the Hevron area. Said resident archaeologist revealed to me (in response to my query about the lack of tombstone inscriptions) that with much effort he was able to extract some writing from several ancient tombstones, one from the Karaite graveyard and two from the Rabbanite. He plans to reveals the contents of these inscriptions at said conference. 2
See also the testimony of former Hevron resident of Shlomo Zalman Shalman החריתה שעל המצבות in Sepher Hevron, p. 398:
1. In this book, Israel Zeev Horowitz (Vienna, 1922) claims that Josephus does not speak about ‘a cave’ for the Patriarchs at Hevron but rather actual tombstones מצבות
2. Videos from the last two conferences can be found here
The following is a letter written by Rabbi Leon Da Modena, the Chief Rabbi of Venice, to the the Jewish community of Capodistria. Apparently the community was having trouble with membership attendance (more specifically: completing the ‘ten men quorum’ for Synagogue prayers) and thus turned to the esteemed Da Modena for help. In this letter, written in flowery Hebrew, Da Modena is decidedly stern; he decrees that all male members of the community must attend synagogue services, twice daily (presumably mincha and maariv(arvit) were conducted one right after the other, as was– and still is quite common), under penalty of ‘nachash’, an acronym which stands for נידוי חרם שמתא loosely meaning complete excommunication. Modena added ‘AND all the curses mentioned in the torah’ for good measure. I was struck by some phrases and their similarity to a similar missive penned by Abraham Firkovich in the 19th century for the Samaritan community in Nablus/Sichem, that experienced similar problems. I was particularly intrigued by Da Modena’s directive to appoint overseers to make sure that an attendee does not leave the Synagogue, if there are less than ten in the room. His ordinance that nobody engage in commerce before morning prayers, that nobody miss Synagogue unless one has a valid excuse (illness etc.). Compare Firkovich’s ‘contract’ with the Samaritans after the jump.
First Da Modena:
לקא”וו די איסטריא שילכו לב”ה
לא נפלא היא ולא רחוקה מלבות כל בני ישראל היות העולם מתקיים על העבודה שבלב זו תפלה ומה גם בהיותה בקהל ועדה אין פחות מעשרה כי תפילת ציבור אינה חוזרת ריקם וכל מי שיש לו ב”ה בעירו ואינו נכנס להתפלל נקרא שכן רע (ברכות ח עא) וקדוש לא יאמר לו, אשר לזאת הוגד לנו כי בעיר קאו”ו די איסטריאה יש ויש שתי בתי כנסיות בנויות כזוייות מחוטבטת להתפלל אל ה’ אחד בבית הישיש הנעלה כהר’ נפתלי יצ”ו ואחת בבית המעולה כמר’ מנחם מרקריאה יצ”ו ופעמים רבות כל איש מאנשי המקום לדרכו פנו לעסקיהם או כי עצלה תפיל תרדמה או למה שיהיה ואינם נמנים יחד להתפלל בעשרה ובטל התמיד ותהי זאת לפוקה ולמכשול ולמזכיר עון. ועל כן בזכרנו את ציון החרבה והשוממה וכי אין לנו כהיום הזה לא זבח ולא מנחה אלא מקדש מעט אלו בתי כנסיות (מגלה כט עא) וכמה גדול עונש המבטל תפלת הרבים ראה ראיתי לחזק את בדק הבית בית תפלה יקרא והנה אנחנו הבאים על החתום לכבוד ה’ להועיל לנפשותיהם של האנשים האלה אשר נקבו בשמות והנלוים אליהם גוזרים בגזירת נח”ש וכל אלות וקללות הכתובות בספר התורה ע”ד המקום ב”ה והרבים על כ”מ הירץ וכ”מ מנחם הנ”ל הם ובניהם ובני בניהם שכיניהם ותושביהם והגרים עמם והנלוים בבתיהם להיות זריזים וזהירים לילך כלם בקר וערב פעמים בכל יום ויום לבית הכנסת בשעה הראויה בבית אחד מאיזה שיהיה ולעמוד שם ולהתפלל תפלתם בהזמנים הנ”ל ובעלי בתים הנזכרים יחוייבו להשגיח לזרזם ולצוותם ואחד מהם לא ימנע מלבוא בשום אופן אם לא לאונס חולי ח”ו אם ד”א ניכר ומפורסם, ובחומר החומרא הנ”ל אנחנו גוזרים על כל אנשי העיר הנ”ל שלא יוכל שום אחד להתחיל ולהטפל בשום עסק מתן הבוקר אור טרם לכתו להתפלל שחרית וכן סמוך למנחה ישתדל כל אחד לפנות מעסקיו ללכת לב”ה ולא יקדימו ויכניעו הנפסד לקויים והיקר לזולל רק כאשר יהיה ידוע ודאי לאיש אחר כי כבר יש בבית הכנסת מנין עשרה בלתו או שיתחילו להתפלל כבר אז יהיה הרשות בידו להתעכב קצת אם יהיה מטופל באיזה דבר עסק אך יחשוב הפסד מצוה כנגד שכרה וכן יבואר כי כאשר ימצא מנין עשרה בבית אחד מהבע”ת הנז’ יוכל להתפלל בב”ה שלו גם אם יהיה החדש מגיע לחברו ולא יחוייב לצאת עם בעל ב”ב אל בית כנסת האחר–וסוף דבר כל מעשיהם יהיו לשם שמים להודות לו ולברך בשמו. וכל זה גזרנו עליהם במעמד שניהם לפנינו דהיינו הנעלה כמו”ה זלמן….והישיש אביו כ”מ הירץ והמעולה כ”מ מנחם הנ”ל בעצמו ונדרו לשמור ולעשות כל המצוה הזאת לשמוע אל הרנה ואל התפלה כי כן יברכו מפי עליון ומפינו ברכות שמים וארץ
ויניציאה מה טובו אהליך יעקב (פרשת בלר) למב”י השנ”ט
כתבי הרב יהודה אריה ממודינא (Blau, Budapest 1905) pp. 5,6
By the Mt. Sinai covenant and the decrees of Mount Horeb, we, the Israelites, the inhabitants of the town of Nablus in the gathering of the leaders of the community are making a covenant and appending our signets to this document of regulation in order to fulfill those conditions which are clarified in the Arabic language. It is the eve of the blessed Tuesday, the 28th day of the 12th month of the year 1280 n (4-5 june 1864 a.d.) in the presence of his excellency, the Chief Rabbi (!) of our respected brethren, rabbi אלחכם Abraham Firkovich, in the town of Nablus while meeting his excellency and in the footsteps of negotiation and listening to his magnificent spiritual counsel all we who append our names and signets below have agreed to come the House of God (Synagogue) itended for prayers in order to perform the ritual prayer twice a day in the evening and in the morning in accordance with our duty and the practice of our fathers of long standing. And we will not be restrained from doing so without a clear excuse .And for this agreement of ours we have composed this as notification of what we have agreed upon in the presence of his excellency referred to on the date mentioned above. We ask God to give us success (in achieving) what he chooses and wishes and may God’s peace rest upon Moses b Amram.
It is well and if one or 2 persons of the community come (to the Synagogue) then it will not be necessary for the priest to pray unless an assembly of ten persons at least (is present). With less than ten he (the priest), ought not to perform public prayers, and upon this agreement was reached.
See more here
1. I deliberately refer to the house of worship in question with the ashkenazic term ‘shul’ because the community, Modena addressed in this letter, was apparently composed of Ashkenazim (judging by the surnames mentioned in the letter). It is called ‘kehila kedosha Capo di Istria’.Also known as ‘koper’, it is now a city in southwestern Slovenia, with the other Slovenian coastal towns Ankaran, Izola, Piran, and Portorož, situated along the country’s 47-kilometre (29-mile) coastline, in the Istrian Region, approximately five kilometres (3.1 miles) from its border with Italy. It was part of the Republic of Venice at that time
The Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated from the 15th to the 22nd of the seventh moon in commemoration of the Exodus…There are special prayers but the Falashas do not make the booths required by scriptures. The reason given for the disregard of this ordinance is that the huts in which they live may be regarded as booths symbolical of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. They spread leaves of various trees, such as palm and a variety of weeping willow, over the floor of their houses and the Synagogue.
…..The first and last days are called holy and no work is allowed during the whole festival. On the last day, the priests or the deacons carry the Torah in the Synagogue and the people dance…
(Falasha Anthology, p. xxxii).
I found it very interesting and perhaps even odd that a community so isolated from the mainstream Jewish centers (they did not possess the mishna, talmud, mezuzot or phylacteries) do celebrate this day in this fashion. However, one must bear in mind that the Beta Israel, aside from their intermittent contacts throughout the centuries with the nearby Jews of Yemen and Arabia, were also known and sometimes even visited by Jews from as far away as the Levant and Eastern Europe. Maskilim, enlightened Jews began taking a deep interest in them in the 19th c, One of the most famous Ashkenazy Jews who became involved with the Beta Israel, was Jacques Faitlovich, a Polish born anthropologist and Zionist. Faitlovich was instrumental in bringing the plight of the Beta Israel to the influential Jews of the west, among them Baron Rothschild who donated generously to the cause. Though he doesn’t appear to have been an overly observant Jew, scholars agree that his activities had an indelible effect on the customs and mores of the Beta Israel. He introduced them to the Oral Law by composing booklets in Ge’ez and Amharic (which he studied and was proficient in). He read them letters from the Rabbis of Eretz Israel and Europe. He was also instrumental in stemming the tide of Beta Israel who were steadily being lost to Christianity (due to the presence in the country of Missionaries from Europe).
Simchat Torah is a fairly ‘modern concept’. It is essentially a celebration of the completion of the yearly Torah cycle. It is celebrated on the last day of Sukkot, which is referred to in the Bible as Shemini Azeret and dates back to the Geonic period. The name Simchat Torah does not appear in Rabbinic literature before the 11th c. (where it mentioned in the writings of the Sephardic sage Isaac Ibn Giat:
The celebration and reason for it is mentioned in a late Midrash known as Shir Hashirim Rabba:
“ויקץ שלמה והנה חלום ויבוא ירושלים ויעמוד לפני ארון ברית ה’ ויעל עולות ויעש שלמים ויעש משתה לכל עבדיו”, אמר ר’ אלעזר: מכאן שעושין סעודה לגמרה של תורה… לכך עושין סעודות גדולות ותענוגים גדולים ביום שמחת תורה לכבוד סיום התורה
However interestingly enough, the Hakkafot (dancing with the scrolls) are mentioned for the first time in the Book of Customs by the 14th c. Ashkenazy Rabbi Isaac of Tirnau, who interestingly enough only mentions the ‘haqafot’ of the night:
: “מפקין כל ס”ת שבארון וש”ץ נוטל ס”ת אחת ומתחיל אנא ד’ הושיעה נא אלוקי הרוחות ב’ או ג’ חרוזות ומסבב את המגדל והעם עמו עם הס”ת”. למחרת, בשחרית: “ומפקין כל ס”ת שבארון וש”ץ אומר שמע ישראל אחר גדלו ועומד אצל המגדל ואומר אנא ד’ הושיעה נא כאמש רק שאין מסבב המגדל
However, the pre eminent halahic decisor of Ashkenazi Jewry, Rabbi Moses Isserles (known as Rama) does seem to mention both haqafot:
נוהגין במדינות אלו להוציא בשמחת תורה ערבית ושחרית כל ספרי התורה שבהיכל ואומרים זמירות ותשבחות (הוצאת כל ספרי התורה נזכרה גם בראשונים) וכל מקום לפי מנהגו. ועוד נהגו להקיף עם ספרי התורה הבימה שבבית הכנסת כמו שמקיפים עם הלולב והכל משום שמחה”.
Back to our subject, it stands to reason that the Simchat Torah celebrations were indeed a custom brought in by either Faitlovich or perhaps someone who preceded him.
It should be pointed out the Beta Israel did not celebrate the holiday of Sukkot as we know it i.e. taking the four species in hand and building outdoor huts (some [like Leslau] have tried to claim that it was unnecessary for them to build mentioned huts since they lived in thatched huts year-round, but it still leaves the issue of the four species mentioned explicitly in the bible).
On the preceding, I have come across the following resource in Hebrew. Here it says (citing a primary source ?) that the Beta Israel do indeed build a sukkah and the materials used for its construction were the 4 species (just as the Karaim and Samaritans[and also according to one opinion in the Mishna, which requires the four species for the construcion of the Sukkah as well as taking it in hand]):
על-פי דברינו מובן הדבר ומסתבר שאכן פירשו יהודי אתיופיה את מצוות “ולקחתם” כלקיחה לשם בניית הסוכה, כמו שנהוג היה לפרש בימי נחמיה. הדבר מסתבר מאוד, שהרי ספר נחמיה נמצא בכתביהם ואף חוגגים הם חג מיוחד בכ”ט בחשון כשחזור לאירוע חידוש הברית בירושלים בתקופה זו. בחג זה קוראים הם את נחמיה פרקים ח-י המתארים את האירוע. אף “צום אסתר” נהוג אצלם שלושה ימים, ומכאן שהמסורת היהודית הידועה לנו מהכתובים בתקופה הפרסית, קיימת אצל יהודי אתיופיה ולפיה פירשו הם את ההלכות. לעומת זאת, אין להם חג חנוכה, שהוא כידוע מהתקופה ההלניסטית בימי הבית. על-כן מובן שמנהג נטילת הלולב ביד לא קיים אצלם, שהרי זוהי התפתחות מאוחרת יותר מיסודם של חז”ל בימי הבית, ולא היתה קיימת בהלכה הקדומה המשתקפת בספר נחמיה ובמנהגי האתיופים. (המידע על מנהגי האתיופים נלקח מתוך עבודה שעשתה וויבעלס טזזן בנושא. בעניין זה היא ראיינה את הקייסים וחכמי העדה. דברי כאן הם על-פי דבריה, ועל כך תודתי נתונה לה). לעניין ארבעת המינים שלא היו מוכרים לבני העדה האתיופית, ראה: שלוה ויל, סוגיות במסורת הדתית של יהודי אתיופיה, ירושלים, 1991, עמ’ 24; ר’ ולדמן, יהודי אתיופיה, ירושלים, 1985, עמ’ 38. לענין חידת מוצאם שעדיין לא נפתרה, ראה: מ’ קורינאלדי, יהדות אתיופיה זהות ומסורת, ירושלים, 1985, עמ’ 5 ואילך, 56-45, 64-63 (לעניין ההלכה האתיופית). נראה כי ההסבר המובא באוספי מנהגים שונים לזה שלא היו נוטלים ארבעת המינים אצל יהודי אתיופיה, והוא שהם לא היו קיימים באזור ההוא, או שהגויים לא נתנו ליהודים לגדלם, הוא הסבר חדש יותר על-פי המנהג המסורתי ליטול ארבעה מינים ביד. (ואולי הדיו הגיעו עם השנים אף לחכמי העדה באתיופיה). ראה למשל: א’ וסרטיל, (עורך), ילקוט מנהגים, ירושלים, 1996, עמ’ 146. וע”ע דף שבועי מאת המרכז ללימודי יסוד ביהדות – אונ’ בר אילן, מס’ 320 פרשת שמות, תש”ס, במאמרו של י’ גלר “שלח את עמי”.
It is also interesting to point out that the Beta Israel include The Book of Jubilees in their Canon. The commandment to build a sukkah and take several species (at least 2 out of the 4 are ‘explicitly’ mentioned there) is recorded there:
ספר היובלים ט”ז כ”ט-לא: “על כן הוקם בלוחות השמים על ישראל כי יהיו עושים את חג הסוכות שבעת ימים בשמחה בחודש בשביעי ויהי לרצון לפני ה’ חק עולם לדורותם בכל שנה ושנה. ואין לזה קץ הימים כי לעולם הוקם לישראל לעשותו וישבו בסוכות ושמו כתרים על ראשם ולקחו ענף עץ עבות וערבי נחל. ויקח אברהם לבות תמרים ופרי עץ הדר וסבב מדי יום ביומו את המזבח בענפים שבע ליום ובבוקר יהלל ויודה לאלוהיו על הכל בשמחה”.
There is so many contradictory testimony regarding the Beta Israel’s true customs. Aside from the one I just mentioned (that they DID in fact build sukot, contrary to Leslau’s contention), there is also contradictory evidence, for instance, on whether they allowed fires to burn into the Sabbath (the historian faces similar hurdles when researching the customs of the Samaritans). I’ve also recently read about an Ethiopian Rabbi in Israel who claims his father wore some sort of tefillin (phylacteries)
Rabbi Sharon Shalom, in his recently published מסיני לאתיופיה From Sinai to Ethiopia claims that his father wore arm tefillin back in Ethiopia. The same assertion (that it was a late custom introduced by an outside Jewish visitor) was made by some regarding that (although it’s odd that he would only wear arm tefillin and not the headpiece).
From the book review:
לאחר שמתקיימת השוואה בין המסורת האתיופית לתלמוד, מנסה הרב שלום להכריע כיצד ניתן למזג בין המסורות. כך למשל, ביחס לתפילין הוא כותב כי סבו נהג להניח תפילין (אמנם רק על ידו ולא על ראשו) אך צבען לא היה שחור. הרב שרון כותב כי בתלמוד אין חובה שהתפילין עצמן יהיו שחורות, אלא רק הרצועות. ולכן הוא ממליץ ליוצא אתיופיה להקפיד על החובה התלמודית ביחס לרצועות, בעוד שלגבי התפילין עצמן ניתן שיהיו בצבע אחר.
Happy Sukkot and Simchat Torah if you’re celebrating it.
See Intro to this series here
Hazal (our sages of blessed memory) did not hesitate to turn to experts on any given subject in order to better understand the nature and workings of various fields. Be it (directly) Torah-related or not, for instance, medicine, architecture (King Solomon procured the help of the gentile King of Tyre in order to construct the Temple) and also the historian.
In a footnote there (24) Korman quotes several Talmudic passages:
אי טעי היי תנא…לשיילא לספרא
‘ויחד עם זאת אי טעי ספרא נשיילא לתנא (עבודה זרה ט’ א
כלומר אם יש לתנא ספקות בנושא היסטורי עליו לפנות להיסטוריון אך גם להיסטוריון להיעזר בתנא בכל הקשור בנושאים שהוא בקי בו יותר ממנו כגון הלכה וכדומה
Is the Study of Jewish History a Mitzvah?
Joanna Weinberg in her essay on Rabbi Azariah De Rossi (also known as ‘min Haadaumim’) The Beautiful Soul: Azariah De Rossi’s Search for Truth writes:
….One of the main purposes of de Rossi’s work is to put the historical record right . The tools used to achieve this purpose are precise historical information or correct reading of ancient works, be it in the form of establishing authenticity through textual criticism or through interpretation that takes into account the specific hermeneutic mode in which a text was created….In 5 passages in Light of the Eyes, de Rossi speaks of the nefesh yafah or bel animo or bei (or elevati) spirit. In Hebrew the expression has little significance. There is a neoplatonic ring to the “beautiful soul”….it is an expression typical of Plotinus, Augustine, and Renaissance philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino and Leone Ebreo whose works de Rossi knew well..It may be that De Rossi was thinking of Augustine’s use of the term on the latter’s commentary on the verse in Psalm 30: “Lord by your favor you have made me firm as a high mountain. When you hid your face I was terrified”. Augustine writes: “This proves that every soul is only beautiful by virtue of its partaking of the light of God”…..Something of this, however vague and unspecific, is conveyed by De Rossi’s “beautiful soul”-the nefesh yafah belongs to the category of higher beings. It is invoked at crucial moments in the discussion. One example of his use of this phrase occurs at the end of chapter 12, in which he has been discussing various mishnaic and talmudic accounts that attribute the massacre of the Jewish population of Alexandria variously to Tarquin, Alexander of Macedon, Hadrian and even to Trajan-the real culprit. Amassing a large array of historians, de Rossi demonstrates that not only the Rabbis had a somewhat muddled view of this period of history but even interpreters of a later age, such as the Tosafists and Don Isaac Abravanel. He then states: “Now the greater part of this chapter has been devoted to inconsequential investigations which one could dismiss by saying ‘what happened, happened’ or on the grounds that it has no bearing on any law or precept. Nevertheless, the beautiful soul yearns to know the truth of every matter and the way of man in the world even when such issues are not directly relevant to it”
Such a statement, says Weinberg, despite its concern with historical-not philosophical truth would have met with Maimonides’ approval. Here we are given side by side 2 images of the historian that are constantly met throughout the book: oscillation between self-deprecation and assertion of the absolute value of scholarship. Ultimately the attention is on the beautiful soul, whose sole aim is the acquisition of truth.
In another passage, the beautiful soul rejects uncorrected texts. In Chapter 19, De Rossi, in good Renaissance fashion, examines various Rabbinic texts that in his view had become corrupt over the centuries. Included in the study is the text of Jossipon, the 10th century adaptations of Josephus Flavius, which was used by many Medieval writers to guide them through badly charted years of the 2nd Temple Period. de Rossi is suspicious of the work….he is suspicious of the work…demonstrates that it is flawed, full of anachronisms. In sum: it is not a basic text, but the beautiful soul still desires to know the truth of every matter.
…One of the chapters, that, on Rabbinic orders, he had to censure regards the Rabbinic use of the hyperbole….he demonstrates the literary use of numbers in Rabbinic texts …the use of exaggeration to communicate the message in the most effective way possible…numbers and figures matter and for correct accounting the most accurate reading in authentic texts must be obtained…In his desire to put on record the true account of events, he must necessarily expose the Rabbis’ lack of expertise in the field of history. here again, he dismisses his inquiries with the Talmudic dictum mai dehava hava “what happened, happened”–in other words his exploration into Jewish ancient history have no practical bearing on the life of the Jew, and are actually of supreme irrelevance. He writes: ” The fact is that from the very outset, I can imagine, you dear reader saying to yourself, that this investigation is a type of Halakha suitable for messianic times or of an even lesser significance . For what relevance does it hold for us? After all what happened, happened thousands of years ago or seven times again. But you could answer your own objection once you take into consideration the following points: First, the truth itself which is the quest of thousands of sages, in investigations more obscure than this one, is in fact like a seal of the true God, the characteristic of the beautiful soul and the good to which all aspire”
2 other advantages are then described: the interpretation of Scripture, for which reward is always forthcoming derosh vekabel sechar דרוש וקבל שכר (literally, study and collect your reward) and the eradication of current Messianic speculation about the imminent year 1575-if the true date cannot be known because all computations are, to a certain extent arbitrary–all calculation of the end of days can only be speculative.
But these 2 justifications of his scholarship are subordinated to one overriding goal: the truth.
To be continued
The Great Earthquake of 1837, which devastated Tzfat, is frequently mentioned as one of the major disasters that befell the city in the 19th century, contributing to the decline of the city’s population and its loss of status as a Jewish population center. However, two other events played an equally devastating role in the city’s wane, the 1834 Arab Pogrom and the 1838 Druze plunder.
Between the years 1831 and 1841 the Ottoman Turks lost control of a large portion of Palestine, including the area surrounding Tzfat. The area was claimed by the Egyptians though its governor, Ibrahim Pasha, was not able to exert effective control of the area. The local Bedouin and Druze tribes engaged in a continuous revolt against Pasha and in July 1838 they attacked the Egyptian garrison in Tzfat. Abd al Haji, the brother of Acre’s governor, sent soldiers to defend the Jews of Tzfat but the Druze tribesmen managed to overcome these soldiers as well and they swarmed into Tzfat to plunder the city.
The Druze rebels entered Tzfat on July 5th and proceeded to desecrate the synagogues and plunder the Jews’ homes. They, aided by the local Safed Arab population, chased the Jews into the cemetery where they stripped them of their clothes and beat them, demanding that the Jews tell them where their valuables were hidden. Many of the Jews fled to the ancient synagogue in Ein Zeitun where the local Druze continued to beat and harass them.
The Druze rebels located Tzfat’s illustrious rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Dov of Avritch. They kidnapped the rabbi and demanded that he write a ransom letter to his people but the rabbi refused. The Druze covered Rabbi Avraham Dov with a sack and beat him but they became frightened when they heard horses approaching and, in one of the miraculous stories of the pogrom, abandoned the rabbi who was able to return to Tzfat with his congregants.
After three days Ibrahim Pasha’s troops retook the city and drove out the Arab and Druze rebels. The Plunder of 1838 did not result in any fatalities but following the Pogrom of 1834 and the earthquake of 1837, it served as the final nail in the coffin, driving almost all of the remaining population to seek new homes in other areas of the country. Among those were Israel Beck who had moved to Tzfat in 1833 to set up the first printing press of Palestine.
Beck was wounded in the 1834 pogrom and in 1838 his printing press was destroyed. Beck moved to Jerusalem where he restarted his printing house.Sir Moses Montefiori visited Safed in 1839 and, according to a census which he undertook, found only 1,357 Jews left in the city. There were approximately 130 Sephardic families and 200 Ashkenazi families. Montefiori donated large sums of money so that the community could rebuild.
The activities of Sendler, the remarkable diminutive Polish social worker who managed to smuggle over 2500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto is being documented, explored and publicized at the LowellMilken Center Project where students create written and oral projects which honor “unsung heroes.”
Irena Sendler’s story is extraordinary, even more so in that it was almost relegated to the back pages of history until a group of Kansas high school students began to study the episode. Irena Sendler, a member of the Polish Resistance in Nazi-occupied Poland, foresaw the fate of the Jews who were interned in the Warsaw Ghetto.
She made daily forays into the ghetto and managed to persuade thousands of Jewish parents to allow her to smuggle their babies and toddlers out of the ghetto. Using a variety of methods she conveyed them to the Polish side of Warsaw and then placed them with adoptive families for safekeeping.
Sendler maintained a “list” of all of the children, noting their real names and the families with which they had been placed. She buried her list in glass jars in her yard so that, after the war, the children could be returned to their families or, at the very least, their communities.
Although Sendler was captured by the Nazis, she didn’t reveal any information about the children’s whereabouts. The Polish underground was able to secure her release and Sendler herself was forced into hiding.
The Center, sponsored by Jewish businessman Lowell Milken helped produce “Lifein a Jar“ which has been presented as a play to thousands of audiences worldwide. A large amount of material has been compiled into a written documentary and the story has been reported by news agencies throughout the world, ensuring that the account will be preserved for the generations to come.
In this introduction, the noted Rabbi and Maskil points out that the study of Jewish history is not merely to derive enjoyment from the reading of a ‘good story’ or to satiate one’s curiosity, but rather they are essential to every student and Rabbi. He points out how many have faltered in their studies by placing Talmudic personalities in the wrong era, confusing one tanna or ammora for another etc. In addition, the lessons to be learned from such study are many and important “How God punishes those who treated us wickedly and rewarded those who treated us kindly” increase faith in God and their importance cannot be emphasized enough. He continues in this vein for some time.
Perhaps, he did this to assuage a ‘traditional’ Jewish fear of such literature. Some claim that the Jews never labored much to write down their own history (this is undoubtedly true for the Karaite sect, whose own leaders admit that they never granted much effort to the recording of their own history, resulting in modern Historians attempting to reconstruct a movement whose origins are mired in obscurity, see Rise of the Karaite Sect by Dr. Zvi Cahn, Chapter 1).
That the Jews did not bother to record their own history is a curious claim for the ‘People of the Book’. Some may even call this claim a ridiculous one for several reasons: an inordinate amount of space in Scripture is devoted to the happenings of the Jews- down to minute details about names and numbers of the members of various clans. These facts are recorded and often repeated in painstaking detail (and I am not even referring to the books that are mentioned in the Bible itself but were lost, as well as apocrypha, psuedipigrapha etc).
Some claim that this is partially true-especially from the closure of the ‘Scriptual era’ until the rise of the Graeco-Roman one, i.e. it was only under the influence of the Greeks (who arguably invented this discipline) that the Jews finally ‘got into the act’ as well. It was thanks to the Greeks that we now have the historical recordings of the Hellenized Jew, Josephus. If this is indeed true, it took many years of Graeco-Roman influence for a personage like Josephus to arise among the Jews and do to his people what Herodotus to his own.
As in many things, there seems to be something in both sides of the argument.
Yes, it is curious that in the several centuries since the events described in scriptures took place, nobody bothered to record Jewish history. Yet that too is only partially true as Jesus ben Sirach, (whose own book seems to be a matter of contention and debate in the Babylonian Talmud, see here) for instance, devotes the last chapter of his popular book to listing all the Jewish greats who lived up until his own time.
His successors: the Hasmoneans received painstaking documentation. In the several Books of Maccabees (certainly the first two), the first of which was written by a contemporary in Biblical Hebrew- according to many scholars (one would assume an individual without an overly fond attitude towards the Hellenists and the culture that they imported into Judea…)
When we fast-forward to to the Andalusian (Spanish) Golden Age, we may detect a lack of enthusiasm towards this discipline on the part of Maimonides (some might even say hostility, though curiously the latter mandates the daily study of Tanakh, basing himself on what seems to be merely proper advice in BT Kiddushin 30a from R. Joshua B Hanania) (3).
This attitude may further be evidenced in the Sephardic reaction (particularly of R. Joseph Karo and the Safed Kabbalistic circles) to the work of Azariah De Rossi, especially his historical work Maor Einyai’im which was outright banned (though the reasoning given was that it accorded dishonor to the Rabbis of the Talmud, by challenging the latter’s system of chronology ).
During the European Enlightenment, this dichotomy between what I will call the ‘historists’ and the ‘a-historists’ or ‘anti-historists’ take on new and different (arguably more urgent) forms. The Maskilim of Eastern Europe strongly encouraged the study of Jewish history. The study of Tanakh (Scriptures) had already been almost abandoned among Ashkenazic Jews, in favor of intensive Talmudic study (See author of Peri Megadim and the Ashkenazi sage known as the Hakham Sevi who lament this state-of -affairs and praise Sephardim for studying Tanakh and Dikduk [Hebrew Grammar], disciplines that were largely abandoned among most Ashkenazi circles at that point) (4).
The Wissenschaft des Judentums and Haskalah‘s renewed stress on the aforementioned studies produced reactionary violent response which went as far as to outright forbid the study of even Tanakh. (although the’ abandonment’ of Tanakh may have already come about as a much earlier reaction to Sadduccees, who believed in its authority alone). (5)
It seems that Ashkenazic writers of Jewish history, such as the author of Seder Hadorot, David Gans, et-al (this seems less evident in the writings of De Rossi and Joseph Hakohen of Genoa for instance) were walking a tightrope between maintaining fealty to Rabbinic tradition and basing themselves heavily on ‘outside’ and ‘foreign’ material. This was risky business as the latter material often stood in conflict with the Rabbinic one (a classic example would be the aforementioned De Rossi’s issue with Rabbinic calculations and the resultant scandal and ban).
This is clearly evident in the writings of Rabbi Yehiel Heilprin, author of Seder Hadorot, especially in his own introduction, where he takes great pains to point out how important the study of Jewish history is in order to understand Talmud (the who’s who of Talmudic figures) and essentially be a better Jew.
In Heilprin’s and his contemporary’s worldview, the study of Jewish history is a very important means towards a noble end. This same attitude is even more evident (for obvious reasons, see here) in later works of this genre, such as the writings of Rabbi Isaac Rabinowich in his six-volume Dorot Harishonim. It continues to this day (see for instance the introductions to Seder Hadorot Hakatzar by R. Shelomo Benizri; Atlas Ets Hayyim, authored by the recently deceased Refael Heilprin (a direct descendant of R. Yehiel and Rabbi Shelomo Rottenberg in his multi-volume Toldos Am Olam).
The Hirschian ‘Neo-Orthodox’ stance on the subject is (arguably) best articulated in an articled penned by the late Rabbi Shimon Schwab where the latter states unequivocally that “History must be truthful otherwise it does not deserve its name…. What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity” see here for excerpts.
In Jewish Germany, the study of Jewish history (as part of wissenschaft) was a matter of identity and religion. Heinrich Graetz devoted the better part of his career to researching and then recording the Judische Geschichte.
His treatment may be judged by today’s (relatively) objective standards to have been something less than objective. Much of his writings are his own often less-than-charitable musings and therefore an editorialized, jaundiced take on Jewish history.
The latter also had a history with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a history the latter would probably have preferred be forgotten. Graetz himself shows a thinly veiled contempt for the venerable Rabbi-his former teacher, and his Talmudic studies (“who busies himself with the miniutate of the laws of an oxe who gored a cow”), though he did retain a fondness for the man himself. (6)
To be continued.
1. On this very eclectic family, see also here.
2. To read his edition online, go here
3. It is interesting to note the crucial word that makes all the difference when this is cited in Maimonides’ Code.
Spot the one crucial difference in choice of word:
וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו: שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה; ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר, וידין במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן
מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה–ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא תלמוד.
משנה תורה להרמב”ם*
הלכות תלמוד תורה א’ יג
אמר רב ספרא משום ר’ יהושע בן חנניא: מאי דכתיב (דברים ו, ז) “ושננתם לבניך”? אל תקרי “ושננתם” אלא “ושלשתם” – לעולם ישלש אדם שנותיו: שליש במקרא שליש במשנה שליש בתלמוד. מי יודע כמה חיי? לא צריכא אלא ליומי
קידושין ל’ א
(4). In contemporary Religious Zionist circles, the study of Tanakh is often strongly stressed, see here. There are yearly conferences on Tanakh at the Flagship Institution of Religious Zionism, Yeshivat Har Etzion.
(5). for instance:
תנו רבנן, רבו שאמרו רבו שלמדו חכמה, ולא רבו שלמדו מקרא ומשנה, דברי רבי מאיר, רבי יהודה אומר, כל שרוב חכמתו הימנו… תנו רבנן העוסקים במקרא מדה ואינה מדה, במשנה מדה ונוטלין עליה שכר, גמרא אין לך מדה גדולה מזה… אמרו אחיכם אלו בעלי מקרא, שנאיכם אלו בעלי משנה… (בבא מציעא לג א
See also Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 79b, where this appears in slightly different version in the name of R. Shimon bar Yohai. See also JT Horayot 19a
Although in a different place in the Jerusalem Talmud, it appears that EY Jews did stress the study of Tanakh very strongly:
לא כן אמר רבי פנחס בשם רבי הושעיה ארבע מאות וששים בתי כנסיות היו בירושלים, וכל אחת ואחת היה לה בית ספר ובית תלמוד, בית ספר למקרא ובית תלמוד למשנה… (כתובות סז ב)
see more here
(6) Another disciple of Hirsch who later went on to write extensively on Jewish (specifically Sephardic) history was Rabbi Meyer Kayserling.