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What happened to the Sephardic community in German Danzig in the early part of the 17th century?

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Are The Greeks Still Nursing a Grudge Against Jews for Chanukah?



It’s September in Sparta, and the merciless Mediterranean sun beats down on the assembled crowd. The observer picks up a mingling of Greek and Hebrew words and phrases. Pleasantries are exchanged, with promises to keep in touch and strengthen cooperation and friendship and the like. This conference, titled SPARTA-ISRAEL CONFERENCE 2018: Renewing an Ancient Friendship, took place this previous September and was organized by the Greek branch of the fraternal B’nai Brith Organization.

The advertisers of this conference drew on history and current geopolitical realities to encourage an alliance between modern-day Jews and Greeks. The choice of Sparta as the location for this conference may have been deliberate. The brochure reads:

“At about 300 BC, a wise and long-reigning leader, King Areus of Sparta, sent a letter to the High Priests of Jerusalem addressing them as brothers and proposing a friendly alliance between the two peoples. The Areus initiative and ensuing consistent events are recorded in the Book of the Maccabees and the History of the Jewish People by the historian Josephus Flavius. Following the strong and long-standing symbolism of the above, the Sparta-Israel Forum aims to further promote Hellenic-Israeli cooperation within a worldwide horizon and toward the mutual benefit of the two historical peoples.”

What are these mentioned letters all about?

In the ancient Second Book of Maccabees, Chapter 12, verse 20–23 there is an interesting passage:

“Arius, king of the Spartans, sends greetings to Onias (Chonyo), the chief priest. It has been found in a writing concerning the Spartans and Jews that they are a kinsmen, and that they are descended from Abraham. Now since we have learned this, please write us about your welfare. We for our part write you that your cattle and property are ours and ours are yours. So we command them to report to you to this effect.”

Josephus also quotes this letter and also records correspondence between the Spartans and both Simon the Hasmonean and his brother Jonathan.

The current geopolitical realities that are seeing warming ties between the Jewish state and its non-Arab neighbors in the Mediterranean is not without its detractors. Some Greeks are still nursing a grudge against the Jews, it would seem.

In 2014, the Greek Political Party Syriza bumped one of its candidates, Theodoros Karypidis, after the latter alleged that “Nerit”, the acronym of Greece’s new public broadcaster, was derived from the Hebrew word for candle, which he linked to the Jewish festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the struggle of the Maccabees against the Greeks. He then lashed out against the Greek government. “Samaras [the then Greek prime minister] is lighting the candles in the seven-branched candelabra of the Jews,” Karypidis wrote on his Facebook page, adding that Samaras was “organizing a new Hanukkah against the Greeks.”

One of the delicious ironies about Chanukah is that the aforementioned Books of Maccabees form part of the Greek Orthodox canon (as well as that of other Christian denominations). This is astounding when one recalls that the Jews did not preserve those books at all (in fact, all current editions are re-translations from Koine Greek. However, it is also important to note that some rabbis — such as the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Mordechai Eliyahu — strongly encouraged the reading of the Books of Maccabees on Chanukah).

The Greek Orthodox Church also celebrates a Chanukkah of sorts of their own, the commemoration of the “Maccabean martyrs” takes place on August 1. The Church also considers Antiochus Epiphanes to have been an impious pagan.

As Jon D. Levenson wrote several years ago in an article in the Wall Street Journal:

“And so we encounter another oddity of Hanukkah: Jews know the fuller history of the holiday because Christians preserved the books that the Jews themselves lost. In a further twist, Jews in the Middle Ages encountered the story of the martyred mother and her seven sons anew in Christian literature and once again placed it in the time of the Maccabees.”

It is important to note that paganism and worship of Greek gods did survive in Greece up until modern times. In fact, these modern-day Zeus worshipping Greeks- calling themselves “Supreme Council of Ethnic Hellenes”- have experienced a renaissance as of late. They are not looked at with sympathy by most Greeks to be sure; in 2017 the BBC quoted Officials of the Orthodox Church who condemned the neo-pagan movement as “a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion”.

The relationship between Jews and Greece and Greek culture is complicated and nuanced.

In 1999, a book was published entitled Documents On The History Of The Greek Jews; Records from the Historical Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the introduction to this decidedly pro-Jewish and pro-Israel work, authors Photini Constantinoplou and Prof. Thanos Veremis, give a short overview of the history of Jewish encounters with Greece and Greek culture. They write, “Jewish scholars such as Aristobulus, Jason from Kyrenia, Josephus (who wrote a history of the Jews in Greek) and Philo from Alexandria represented the Jewish spirit in Greek garb. There was, however, a strong resistance to Hellenizing influences from conservative quarters. A break in the interaction of the two cultures occurred in 168 BC when Hellenized and conservative Jews clashed in Jerusalem. The Seleucids entered the conflict against the conservatives because the latter challenged the authority of the state.”

Leaving aside the inaccurate genesis of events and obvious bias, it is very interesting to see how some modern-day Greek would like to view the events of Chanukkah.

I find it ironic that there are only two orthographically kosher languages in which one can write a Torah scroll according to the Halacha: Ashurit (Assyrian script) and Greek. This is quite a remarkable thing, a Torah scroll written in ancient Paleo-Hebrew is invalid (perhaps there’s also an anti-Samaritan polemic hidden there).

It’s important to remember that Chanukah was not and is not an anti-Hellenistic Greek holiday it is also interesting to note that Greek Jews strategically translate “the wicked Greek kingdom,” which appears in the Al Hanisim prayer, into “The Syrian kingdom,” which is technically correct and also spares them a PR headache.

Professor Devin Naar, a scion of Salonikan Sephardim and historian of Balkan Sephardic Jewry writes:

Jewish leaders in Salonica published a new prayer book, Sha’are Tefilah, in March 1941. One of the pioneers in the field of the Sephardic Studies in the United States, the Istanbul-born and Seattle-based writer Albert Adatto acquired an exemplar of this rare book, thereby enabling us to access the long-lost world of Jewish Greece on the brink of destruction.

Remarkably, the editors of the prayer book — Salonican-born Jews who had been educated in Palestine — dedicated it to a Jewish soldier who had fallen on the battlefield defending “our beloved homeland, Greece.” Written not in Greek, but rather in Judeo-Spanish, the dedication aimed to show to Jews themselves that they ought to think of themselves not only as religiously Jewish and culturally Sephardi, but as Greek patriots, too. They believed that all of these allegiances could be held simultaneously.

The Al ha-nissim prayer from Siddur Sha’are Tefilah. It omits the standard reference to the “wicked Hellenic government.” (ST00348)

But in order to accommodate their Jewish and Greek identities, they made two noteworthy changes to the prayer book. In the Al ha-Nissim prayer added to the Hanukkah liturgy that refers to the miracles associated with the holiday, the traditional reference to the “wicked Hellenic government” is quietly changed to the “wicked government.”

More remarkably, in Maoz tzur (“Rock of Ages”), the popular Hanukkah song, the reference to the enemy as Yevanim (“Greeks”) is replaced by Suriim (“Syrians”). The editors accomplished this clever switch by reference to the historical record. The Seleucids, the Hellenistic empire in control of Judea at the time of the Maccabees, were indeed culturally Greek, but they were geographically based in Syria. Hence the Salonican Jewish leaders could transform the “Syrians” into the Hanukah enemies and thereby more easily embrace Greece as their beloved homeland.

Greek Siddur excising references to Greece (Credit: Devin Naar)

Syriasly (Credit: Devin Naar)

It is also interesting to note that in some versions of the Al Hanissim liturgy that came down to us from the Cairo Genizah, the formulation is interesting as it fails to characterize the “kingdom” as wicked (הרשעה) but merely has “the kingdom of Greece” (מלכות יון). A similar version is found in Saadiah Gaon’s Prayer Book (see Jewish Prayer Texts from the Cairo Genizah)

The Rabbis adopted a very nuanced attitude toward Hellenism throughout the Greco-Roman period. Many rabbis, beginning from the Mishnaic era, adopted Greek names, co-opted many Greek ideas and even praised the wisdom and beauty of the Greeks in their homiletic teachings.

The early rabbinic writings have only tender things to say about Alexander the Great. You may be familiar with the famous story of the Jewish High Priest going to meet the mighty general as the latter planned an invasion of Judea (this appears both in the Talmud and in Josephus with slight variations). The province of Judea, or “Coele-Syria,” switched hands several times after Alexander’s untimely demise. Whether under the Ptolemaic-Egyptians or the Seleucid-Syrians, there was little persecution under Alexander’s early generals/successors, and in fact, Antiochus III (father and predecessor of Antiochus Epiphanes- “the mad one”) was a very benevolent and tolerant ruler towards the Jews according to Josephus.

Yad ben Zvi’s exquisite edition of Maccabees
Dr. De Lange’s book on the enduring use of Greek among Jews up until Medieval times

Exploring the Fringe of Jewish History

Reviewing: “Mavericks Mystics and False Messiahs: Episodes from the Fringe of Jewish History” by Pinni Dunner. Toby Press, Jerusalem. 2018. English. 231 pages. ISBN-13: 978–1592645107.


Rabbi Pini Dunner’s Mavericks Mystics and False Messiahs: Episodes from the Fringe of Jewish History is an easy and light read. Dunner in his characteristic style reconstructs situations and (re)creates dialogue in order to bring the reader into the story.

Dunner chose to focus on specific individuals and episodes; some of which are well-known, and others less so.

The reader is first introduced to the 17th century notorious false Messiah Shabbetai Zvi and the peoples and situations that made him possible. The story is presented in a very linear manner which makes it easy to stay focused and process the information transmitted.

From there, he moves on to discuss the very colorful Polish-born, London-based Jewish mystic, Samuel Falk. I had come across Falk in my research on Sephardic Jews who settled in Eastern Europe (it is also indicative of how often -and successfully- Sephardim and Ashkenazim assimilated into each other’s culture). Dunner did not mention this factoid; Falk was apparently the son of a Sephardic Jew who apparently immigrated from somewhere in the Ottoman Empire. His original surname seemed to have been Laniado and he pronounced his Hebrew in a Sephardic dialect. (this is based on the research by British Chief Rabbi Dr. Herman Adler-from whence Dunner drew his information).

His focus on mystics takes a sharp turn towards the controversial when he devotes considerable space to the infamous fight between Rabbis Yaakov Emden and Yonatan Eybeschutz. I especially appreciated the quote cited from Emden in the introduction to this section whereas “a Rabbinic scholar cannot be ignorant of history and changing times”.

A notorious Jewish divorce case from 18th century Western Europe is put into context in his section on the “Get of Cleves” where power dynamics and Halakhic consensus experienced a standoff.

The very eccentric British convert to Judaism, Lord George Gordon is the focus of Dunner’s next article and it contains no shortage of drama and intrigue.

Rabbi Yehuda Rosenberg, whose more famous grandson was Mordecai Richler, often dubbed “the Canadian Phillip Roth”, is given a proper treatment by Dunner. His exposition on the intersection of fact and fiction is fascinating to say the least.

Finally the book concludes with the 20th century Hungarian adventurer/ rogue Ignac Trebitsch-Lincoln whose life story reads like a work of fiction proving the age old adage, Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Dunner takes pains to point out that he deliberately decided not to include footnotes and copious endnotes in this volume so as not to detract from the focus of the work. I applaud this move, as-in my estimation- this decreases the intimidation factor and makes it more user-friendly.

My only critique is the necessity for a bit more elucidation and detail. In the section on Shabbetai Sevi, for instance, I wish a word about the Donmeh was included. The Donmeh were Shabbetai Sevi’s hardcore followers who emulated his conversion into Islam, yet kept many Jewish traditions and only married among themselves up until recent times (they would also practice heterodox customs such as deliberately eating right before the end of the Ramadan fast).

I also wished that he would have devoted a bit more space to other individuals and movements. Perhaps I could suggest a sequel. Contenders for a future volume would include characters like: Zusia Zussman, the notorious forger of the Talmud Yerushalmi; Abraham Uri Kovner, forger and correspondent of Dostoyevsky; David Camden de Leon of South Carolina; Warder Cresson, America’s consul to Palestine who developed Jerusalem Syndrome and converted to Judaism; Two-Gun Cohen; Moses Wilhelm Shapira; Abraham Firkovich; Seraya Shapshal; Solomon Molkho; Kurban Said; Muhammed Weiss; Emin Pasha; Daniel Burros; Erik Jan Hanussen; Samuel Joseph Shereshevsky and others.


The Rabbi Who Recorded the Holocaust as it Unfolded Before His Eyes


Dr. Henry Abramson‘s TORAH FROM THE YEARS OF WRATH 1939-1943 is one of the most moving and surreal holocaust books ever published. The work follows the life and writings of the remarkable Hasidic Rabbi, Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piasezcno, Poland.

Shapira was a prolific writer who experienced upon his flesh the horrific Nazi occupation of the Warsaw Ghetto. He both lived and died to tell about it. His words are not merely a diary of happenings but events recounted couched in the language of the Jewish sages of old.

These writings would have been lost but for our people’s remarkable devotion and sacrifice toward preserving our history and our heritage.

In December of 1950, Abramson writes in the introduction, “a Polish construction worker clearing rubble from the ruined Warsaw Ghetto unearthed a tin milk container containing a trove of Hebrew and Yiddish language manuscripts. The papers proved to be one of the three caches buried in the last months of the war by “Oneg Shabbat”, a secret society of amateur historians working under the direction of Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, dedicated to the task of recording the life and death of Warsaw Jewry under the Nazi occupation. Included among the documents were the wartime writings of Rabbi Shapira. His Saturday afternoon sermons, delivered between September 1939 and July 1942 and with annotations through January 1943, were published in 1960 under the Hebrew title “Aish Kodesh”: Holy Fire”.

Because, as Abramson, points out, the writings lack a proper context; nowhere in the works do the words ‘nazi’ or ‘german’ appear, it was imperative to provide this classic Jewish work a historical context.

Who better to do this than the master historian Dr. Abramson.

One cannot help but be moved already at the outset as Abramson describes how an intrepid Israeli researcher and public figure discovered among the papers what amounts to Rabbi Shapira’s final will and testament.

Written in Yiddish with the heading “Attention!!!”, the letter goes on to implore the individual(s) who would come across the collection of writings to send them to Rabbi Yeshaya Shapira, a brother of Rabbi Kalonymous who resided in Tel Aviv. One cannot help but shudder when reading the concluding lines, “When the blessed one will show mercy, and I and the remaining Jews survive the war, please return all materials to me..may God have mercy upon us, the remnant of Israel in every place, and rescue us, and sustain us, and save us in the blink of an eye”.

What follows is a personal message to his brother, written in Hebrew. The missive goes on to implore “every Jew to study my books, and the merit of my holy ancestors will stand by every student and his family, now and forever”.

Now a brief glance into some of the writings as translated and annotated by Abramson.

Rabbi Shapira, though penning sermons in his inimitable Rabbinic style was not averse to the problems affecting his kinsmen of all stripes.

He was very much aware of the lowered spiritual state of large sections of Eastern European Jewry. Assimilation and the lure of various anti-religious movements were taking a toll on Jewish youth.

He was not averse in his earlier published works (two of which predated the Holocaust) to call out the Jewish leadership for what he deemed their failure to inspire Jewish youth.

Abramson aptly describes the Rabbis passage in his (Shapira’s) “Obligation of the Students” (published before the war), as the words of “a kindly grandfather bending down and smiling as he explained how a child should slowly incorporate the spiritual wealth of Judaism into his or her being”


“You love to play with friends, to be wild and mischievous sometimes. Along we come and approach you with the intent of depriving you of your childhood, making you silent, sedentary, and old before your time. This is absolutely not so. You will remain young. You will go on playing with your friends. And you will reach the spiritual goal we’ve portrayed. You just have to know how to play and how to be wild, and to realize and have faith at the same time that God’s kingship extends everywhere…no matter how spiritually developed a human being may become, he must still continue to eat and drink and attend to his physical needs. Similarly, a child must play.”

In another work called “Bnei Machshava Tova” Rabbi Shapira outlines the goals of a Hasidic fellowship that he envisioned creating. Aside from the expected Torah and Kabbalah study, “from time to time it is good to have a drink together-not to grow drunk and rowdy, heaven forbid, but in the Hasidic manner: in order to bond more closely and also to awaken your spirit. This is followed by a resolution that calls for sing and dance-all in moderation”.

Back to the war-time writings.

In 1939, the Rebbe ran a small study house and Synagogue at 5 Dzielna in the Warsaw Ghetto. There he would deliver his sermons usually during the third meal of the Sabbath (“Seudah Shlishit”) which Hasidim (and other adherents of Kabbalah) consider a special time time of divine favor. These sermons would be recorded on paper after the Sabbath by either Rabbi Shapira or one of his faithful students.

Abramson calls attention to the striking originality and the uniqueness of these writings. Only one other Rabbi under Nazi occupation penned writings of a theological nature. It is almost as if the Rabbi is “live tweeting” to use modern parlance, but his words are layered and couched in Talmudic and Kabbalistic terms.


“It is important to recall that Torah from the Years of Wrath cannot be approached as a scholarly monograph on suffering, which merely happens to have been written during the Holocaust. It is more like a transcript of a live discussion, marred by large and uneven gaps, conducted over three years of intense persecution”

On September 25, 1939 during the Luftwaffe’s merciless bombardment of Warsaw, the Rebbe’s only son was grievously wounded and eventually died. Shortly thereafter another German payload killed the Rabbi’s sister-in-law as well as his daughter-in-law. These horrific tragedies would have been enough to silence the strongest of people. Abramson cites an excerpt from the American Yiddish “Forverts” newspaper, which described the Rebbe’s reaction at time:

“For a time, the Hasidim who were with the Rebbe thought he would collapse, though this lasted only a moment. The Rebbe composed himself, recited the verse, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away”, and directed that the deceased be taken to the cemetery for eulogy and burial”.

The papers are silent but not for long. On November 4, he continued to give his sermons which contained allusions to his personal tragedy and the lessons that can be learned from them.

The passage in the book (cited from the writings of Rabbi Shimon Huberband-a close confidante of Rabbi Shapira) which describes how shortly thereafter the Rebbe and his Hasidim risked their lives to immerse in a Mikveh (ritual bath) before the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (an important custom) makes for some edge of the seat reading.

As the historical recounting transitions to the years 1941 and 1942, the narrative sometimes becomes unbearable. Children starving to death, widesperead hunger, disease, unbelievable cruelty, and millions seemingly resigned to their fate.

Abramson provides a great discussion (with numerous citations) regarding the Rebbe’s theodic and/or anti-theodic approach to human suffering.

Equally fascinating is the Rebbe’s historical sense.

In one passage, Shapira:

“It is true that trials such as we are enduring now come only once every few centuries. In any case, how can they help us understand the current acts of God? Historical knowledge has the potential to cause damage, Heaven forbid, if we do not understand history…How can out historical awareness help our minds to understand that which the Blessed and Exalted One knows and understands? Why people are hurt under our current tribulations, more than the trials the Jews endured in the past? When one learns a verse, Talmud, or Midrash, and hears of the suffering of Jews from earlier times, how did faith remain intact, yet nowadays faith is weakened? Those people who say that trials such as these never existed in Jewish history are in error-what of the destruction of the Temple, and the fall of Beitar?”.

In 1942, the Warsaw Ghetto was ablaze with the arrival of a Jewish escapee from the Chelmno death camp who described the horrors that awaited them. As dejection and despair spread, the Rebbe, initially shaken, rebounded in a powerful sermon that expressed confidence that the Germans would be defeated and that the Jews will ultimately emerge victorious.

His final sermon was delivered on July 18 of that year. As always it is filled with messages of hope and strength. Eyewitnesses recount how he continued to devote himself to public service and religious tradition to the very end

Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, he was apparently among the survivors who were deported to a labor camp where he probably died.

The book ends with a powerful affirmation of faith penned by the Rebbe himself, “Even in the depths of hell I shall not fear, for You are with me”.

The Eretz Israel Liturgical Poet on Parashat Vayechi


Yannai was one of the great liturgical poets who flourished in the Land of Israel in either the 6th or 7th centuries. For many years little of his poetry was thought to have survived. This changed with the gradual discovery of numerous fragments from the Cairo Genizah.

In 1937, the scholar Menachem Zulai (formerly Billig), published a collection of his poetry recovered from the Genizah
In 2010, Dr. Laura Lieber published a selection of Yannai’s “Qedushtaot” (a Qedushta was the section of liturgical poetry recited in Eretz Israel congregations during the Sabbath morning services. It was arranged according to the weekly Torah portion) on the book of Genesis.

Many of Yannai’s verses are based on Genesis Rabbah- the earliest of the Midrashic corpus. Reading this poetry often gives us Yannai’s unique take on a given topic.

This week marks the last portion of the book of Genesis.

The portion of Vayechi tells of the the last days of the patriarch Jacob; the blessings of Jacob to his sons and the eventual mourning and celebration of his life and legacy.

Yannai begins with the tradition cited in Genesis Rabba 48:1 that sickness began with Jacob. This was instituted in order to encourage repentance and to give a person the chance to settle all his matters before he departs from the world


לנביאי צדק ומהם החילות

ימי תמימים אתה יודע
ויום מיתה להם לא מודיע
למען אם יחלו ואם יזקינו
מלאכתם יתקינו ויורשימו יתקינו
כאב ויחידו אשר בטו
כי לימות זקנה נטו
ודאגו פן יום מיתה יהיה
וציוו על בתיהם מה יהיה
ותם בעת חלה קרא לבנו ליוסף
עד לא יאסף
עליו להוסיף תוספת ברכות

אז בזקנה התחיל אב בא בימים
להודיע כי זקנה הוא סוף ימים

הן מאיש תם החולי התחיל
כי אם יחלה אדם ייחת ויחיל

In Genesis 48:1, Joseph is summoned to his father’s deathbed where he makes him swear that he will not bury him his Egypt but rather carry him back to Canaan.

זעק תם לנחסך מלטמא ירך
הישבעה לי בחותם ירך
חלילה לך מלקבור שה בצד חמורים
כי אם באשר קנינו מאמורים

The symbolism here is unmistakable. Yannai is of the opinion that Joseph did indeed swear an oath on his circumcision that he will not bury his father “a lamb among asses”. Israel is likened to a lamb among wolves and the Egyptians as the “land of asses” in other Midrashic literature.


אב אשר נפשו לך אהבה
בעבור אהבתך אשר כלהבה
נמשך בעבותות אהבה
גוע ונטה למיתה

לכן לא התמהמה לעלות
ואת בניו עמו להעלות
מאהיבך בן הבנים
וחלה ולך קרא מכל בנים
ניחל בניו ברכה מגדולי בנים
כי בני בנים כבנים

Here the theme of paternal love is emphasized. Yannai also emphasizes the great love that Joseph had for his father (and his own two sons).

Jacob gathers his remaining strength to sit up for his beloved son. He calls on Joseph first because he is still his favorite. Joseph honors his father and brings along his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim so they too can receive paternal blessings as “grandson are considered as sons” (a concept found in other early literature and in the Talmud).


אפרים ומנשה זה וזה צמודים
שקולים זה בזה
פעמים מנשה ואפרים
פעמים אפרים ומנשה
לא זה גדול מזה
ולא זה גדול מזה
מזה תוערץ ומזה תוקדש
בסוד צבאותך הקוראים

Although in Genesis 48:1, Jacob famously reverses the order; putting his right hand on the younger Ephraim rather than the first born Manasseh (seemingly continuing a pattern that did not end well last time around), Yannai stresses that there is no inferior or superior brother; both are equal and will be great in their own right.

אותותי יום הבא
בלבך סתום ונחבא
גם מעוצם רוב חיבה
דמיוניות גיליתה לכל אב הניבא

טעמי עניניו
יה עילמתה מעיניו
כי סוד אשר היה בינך לבניו
לגלותו קרא לבניו

This reflects many early Midrashic traditions wherein Jacob intended to reveal to his children the secrets of the final redemption but upon seeing the divine presence hovering above him he demurred and offered ethical advice instead (either because he changes his mind or he experienced divinely inspired amnesia)

מותמם אשר תם נקרא
ניניו לפי תומן קרא
סובו ואליכם אקרא
עת אשר לאדם לא חקרה

יום מובאך מי יכלכל בואו
כי כתנור בוער הוא מובאו
נכמס באוצרך ונגנז בלבך
ולפיך מאז לא גילה לבך
יגעת בי נמתה לאיש תם
להודיע אחרית אשר מימך נחתם

כמוס וסתום גנוז וחתום
טמון וספון עמום וצפון

ליבך לפיך לא גילה
וקיצו איך לברייה נגלה
מקצת מנו גילית ליעקב
המגיד דבריו ליעקב
ונם הקבצו ושמעו בני יעקב
וישרו לב עקוב
ואודיעכם מראשית
מה יהיה באחרית
ואתה הוא המגיד אחרית מראשית

A fitting ending. Yannai lived in a Byzantine milieu where security and prosperity was hardly assured for the long term. As tempting as it would be to know the meaning of the present and the mysteries of the future, it is better for man to live in the moment and leave the mysteries to the divine.

Post-genesis, the relatively prosperous and secure future of the Israelites will undergo a radical change but it is all for an eventual greater good. Above all, there is hope and faith that whatever happens is divinely ordained.

Shabbat Shalom

שבת שלום

חזק חזק ונתחזק!

Part II of my article on the “forgotten” Rosh Hashana

“Few people realize that Jews have had politically independent states outside of the land traditionally associated with Jewish political independence, or the area roughly equivalent to the State of Israel”.


So begins Eric Maroney’s ever fascinating book The Other Zions.

Maroney provides an important overview of Jewish history in various locations and time periods, focusing on Jews who formed their own autonomous or independent entities throughout history.

This is a refreshing read for one who wants to a break from the emotionally taxing and towering literature about Jewish persecution.

Maroney’s book is about tough Jews, clever Jews, the heroes, the rogues and all those in between.

As a young boy I remember reading Monroe Rosenthal and Isaac Mozeson’s Wars of the Jews and how it fired my imagination at the time. Maroney’s book is aptly subtitled “the lost histories of jewish nations”, because many of the stories recounted within are virtually unknown.

Attending school and reading the required literature familiarized me with the classic stories of Jewish loss and bravery; Hanukkah, Purim etc. but who knew that in the early part of the 6th century, a Jewish King named Yosef Dhu Nuwas ruled what is today Saudi Arabia. Who would have imagined that this Jewish king, upon hearing of the persecution of Jews in Christian-dominated lands appointed himself the Jewish avenger and destroyed Churches and persecuted Christians (ironically, it was Dhu Nuwas’s massacre of Christians at Najran that would seal his fate and would nearly erase the Jewish presence in Arabia replacing it with Christianity before both were subsumed by the rising tide of Islam).

It is instructive to note that virtually all of the entities discussed in Maroney’s work were founded by people who were not ethnically Jewish, but rather proselytes to Judaism (perhaps forms of Judaisms in the plural would a more proper way to put it).

The first such state was the Aramaic-speaking land of Adiabene. Its Jewish character was taken on shortly before the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth (to which Adiebene sent supplies and fighters).

This is followed by a description of the enduring myth of the Ten Lost Tribes and their possible locations.

Maroney seems to prefer working with material and sources that are as provenanced as possible. This seems to be why he neglects to discuss the Pashtun tribesman of Afghanistan. This fiercely independent ethnic population has long been rumored to be of Israelite descent (see here).

Chapter 3 discusses the fascinating and complicated history of the Beta Israel- Jews of Ethiopia.

Chapter 4 discusses the kingdom of the Khazars and the various truths and myths surrounding this very controversial subject. Recently a Hebrew University professor named Shaul Stampfer claimed that the entire story is a myth see here 
However Maroney provides a sober and concise history of this mysterious kingdom citing various documents and traditions that leaves the reader with little doubt as to the actual existence of such an entity.

This is followed in Chapter 5 by a fascinating look into Medieval Arabia and the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom that once existed there.

In Chapter 6 Maroney discusses the Kingdom of Adiebene in deatil.

Chapter 7 deals with the North African Berber Jews and their semi-legendary leader Qahina.

In this chapter Maroney as his scholarly manner does not engage in the citation of folklore that may be legendary in nature. One such tradition from North Africa comes to mind.

Rabbi Ya’akov Toledano was an Israeli Rabbi of North African extraction who wrote various works including a book called Ner Ha-ma’arav (Light of the Maghreb) on the history of Moroccan Jewry. The book can be read in its entirely online here. It is worth citing one interesting passage from the book.

Toledano cites an ancient tradition namely that the first Jews of North Africa were members of the “Ten Lost Tribes”. It was members of the tribe of Efraim who settled in the town of Ifrane (allegedly named after/by the Ephraimites) on the Atlas mountain range in southern Morocco. According to this tradition they grew in numbers and in power until they ruled over other non-Jewish tribes in the area. Their first king, according to this tradition, was named Abraham Ha-efrati (literally, from the tribe of Ephraim) and the mantle of kingship was passed on to his descendants for many generations afterwards. The legend continues that when Ezra the scribe summoned the Jews of this region to join him in reconstructing the Second Jewish Commonwealth, they refused and they were punished as a result with the gradual loss of their power and prestige (interestingly, similar legends regarding refusal and punishment are recounted in the stories of other Jewish Diasporas, most famously among the Jews of Yemen and medieval Ashkenaz). Their final downfall came when they were vanquished by one of their long time foes who forced the royal family to change their royal moniker from “Efrati” to “Afariat”. This surname is common among many Jews who stem from that area.

Maroney also omits any mention of the fascinating Zenobia, queen of Palmyra. This audacious woman who defied the might of Rome may have been a proselyte or of Jewish extraction, see here.

Surprisingly, no mention is made of the Edomites either. The Edomites are an ancient people that dwelled in Transjordan. During the Hellenic period they are referred to as Idumeans. The Hasmonean monarch, John Hyrcanus famously forcibly converted this nation to Judaism (some scholars claim that the Idumeans were in fact descendants of the Israelite settlers; the tribes of Reuben, Gad and part of Manasseh that had famously petitioned Moses for permission to settle there) and they continued to dwell in their ancestral lands under some sort of autonomous arrangement. This fierce people would eventually aid the Jewish zealots in their revolt against Rome sending, according to Josephus, 20,000 troops under the leadership of commanders bearing typical Jewish biblical names.

And finally, in chapter 8, we get to the somewhat bizarre former Jewish Autonomous Republic of Birobidzhan. Birobidzhan was a Stalinist experiment to offset the attraction of the Zionists and provide those Jews who wanted to exercise their right of self-determination to do that within the parameters of the “soviet paradise”.

Chapter 9 is entitled “Who is a Jew” and it raises important and interesting points regarding who is was and even who ought to be a Jew. The people who made up the other Zions long ceased to exist (with the exception of the Beta Israel), however their memory endures and it is of little doubt that it was the existence of these other Zions that provided inspiration to scores of Jews living in far-flung corners of the world from ancient times until the founding of the State of Israel.

Emissaries from the Holy Land or Shlukhei D’rakhmana


I remember during my college days, I loved browsing through the well-stocked book stacks of my Hillel Rabbi’s library. My fingers ran across a row of books arranged by topical order and they fell on an English translation of the travelogue of the very colorful 18th-century Sephardic scholar and bibliophile, Hayyim Joseph David Azulai

Azulai was an unusually cosmopolitan Rabbinic scholar for his time and place. Deeply Kabbalistic and traditional, he traveled the world and marveled at its sites. Azulai was of a class of scholars from the land of Israel dubbed “shadarim”. The term is an abbreviation of the Hebrew “shelukhei D’rakhmana”, meaning the emissaries of the merciful. These emissaries were sent from the often impoverished communities of Torah scholars (in Azulai’s case the Sephardic community of Hebron) to the Jewish Diaspora in order to raise funds.

Azulai traversed an impressive number of countries in his two tours as Shadar. He recorded many of his impressions of the people he met and the places he saw in a journal which was probably not meant for publication. Be it as it may, the document was eventually published several times and more recently in an English translation. Back to my encounter with the Hillel Rabbi. I remarked how interesting and colorful a figure Azulai was. The Rabbi -who incidentally is Sephardic-retorted that he was indeed remarkable but “have you read his experiences trying to raise money from various Jewish communities? he was, in essence, basically a “schnorrer!” (a slightly derogatory Yiddish term for an itinerant beggar).

This ancient conversation came to my mind as I was reading Matthias B. Lehman’s very informative book EMISSARIES FROM THE HOLY LAND; THE SEPHARDIC DIASPORA AND THE PRACTICE OF PAN-JUDAISM IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

The book endeavors to provide a comprehensive portrait of the often convoluted and complicated network of Jewish philanthropy and beneficence vis-a-vis the Jewish communities of the Land of Israel (referred to by later historians as “The Old Yishuv”) and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. It is a story of divisiveness and interconnectedness; modernity and fierce traditionalism and of center and periphery.

The early modern period saw a reshuffling of large parts of the “Jewish world”. As Elisheva Carlebach put it, “pieces of a cultural mosaic that had been placed precisely and not moved for centuries were suddenly shaken up and scattered about in entirely new combinations”.

The “shaking up” was chiefly a result of wars, massacres and mass expulsions. The expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century and the massacres of Jews in mid 17th century Poland brought many Jews from different backgrounds into contact with each other for the first time.

Jacob Katz in his Tradition and Crisis postulates that “it is doubtful there ever was a time since the decline of the Roman Empire when Jewry’s political organization was still centralized in which contacts between Jewish groups was as intense as in this period”.

One of the locations of this point of contact was the Jewish communities in Ottoman-controlled Palestine or as the Jews traditionally referred to it, Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel).

This new somewhat new state of affairs created opportunities for cooperation, integration but also conflict.

Ottoman-ruled Palestine was something of a backwater province. Ruled by corrupt governors called pachas, the Jewish communities were not given too many incentives to flourish. Nonetheless, Israel continued to be the destination of many Jews. From pious scholars and repentant Sephardic Conversos, who wanted to dedicate their lives to living in The Holy Land, to elderly Italians or Ashkenazim who sought to spend their waning years in the shadow of the Temple ruins, the “Old Yishuv” was never stagnant.

Due to the fact that infrastructure was poor and corruption was rampant, poverty often reigned supreme. This necessitated a system whereby emissaries from various communities would undertake journeys in order to raise much-needed funds.

This state-of-affairs was not new to the early modern period; as Rabbi Azulai pointed out in his writings, the 15th century Italian Rabbi Joseph Colon already wrote in support of an emissary from the Holy Land (the earliest written evidence of this phenomenon, in fact, dates back to the second half of the 10th century). What was different this time is that the system became more centralized, somewhat organized, and entrenched.

The Jewish community who would come to play a pivotal rule in this centralized system was the Sephardic community of Istanbul. The impetus for the founding of the “Committee of Officials for the Land of Israel” was the appalling situation of the Ashkenazic community in Jerusalem in 1720 when the Muslim authorities destroyed the Synagogue and living quarters of the Ashkenazim. These particular Ashkenazim, who made up the majority of their kind in the city at that time, were disciples of a mystical Messianic Rabbi named Judah the Pious (not to be confused with his medieval namesake)

They had arrived en-masse to Jerusalem in 1700. By the second decade of the 18th century, they had so mismanaged their funds and incurred a mountain of debt that the entire enterprise was on the verge of imploding.

It was at that point that the Sephardic Jews of Istanbul swooped in to bail them out by founding the aforementioned organization (henceforth referred to by their Hebrew name, “Pekidei Kushta”. This factoid is ironic in light of the later discord between the two communities-chiefly the oft-cited accusation by Ashkenazim that the Sephardim only look out for their own).

It was only natural for the Istanbul Jews to assume responsibility-and, more importantly, to see results, as they were close in all senses to the main seat of imperial power.

Where did the bailout money come from? In large part from taxes imposed on the community (of Istanbul) members. To be sure, this was met with some resistance by certain community members, which necessitated a declaration from Istanbul’s leading Rabbis that anyone who shirks his payment duties “authority is granted to detain him and he can be taken by force…his refusal is the cause of the destruction of Jerusalem”. Fines and imprisonment were also options in a community that wielded significant autonomy.

The collections were not limited for the sake of Jerusalem alone, the other three “holy cities” of Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias, respectively, likewise hosted significant Jewish populations who desperately needed funds and they too would fall under the auspices of the Pekidei Kushta (to varying degrees).

The existence of the Pekidei Kushta sought to eliminate the potential for corruption and mismanagement that had too often characterized fund-raising missions in the past. In the new system that was devised, the Pekidei Kushta were authorized to handle all of the financial affairs of Jerusalem and they were to be given an exact accounting of funds raised and disbursed. The Pekidei Kushta would now be in charge of appointing and vetting the emissaries as well as provide them with the proper documentation and credentials.

Lehman also introduces the reader to another very important city in the context of our study, Livorno, Italy. Livorno (or Leghorn) was the busiest port in 18th century Italy, and a trading center with international connections. Settled by a prestigious community of wealthy Sephardic merchants, It served as a point of contact between Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and North Africa. Livorno was the destination of many a Shadar. The community was also a desired destination for any and all Jewish communities that found themselves in need (this was not limited to Jews, Lehman recounts a plea from the Convento Della Maddona to assist with a donation).

The arrangement between Jerusalem and Istanbul was far from smooth. In addition to the painstakingly slow pace of communication and differences in mentality, the Jerusalem community often proved uncooperative. Numbers often did not match (due to carelessness and also embezzlement) and repeated entreaties for clarification were all but ignored. Still, the Pekidei Kushta persisted.

There were also many cases of private individuals who sought to create an endowment in memory of a loved one or to perpetuate their own name. Ideally, this would be handled via the Pekidei Kushta but evidently, they too were not trusted by everyone. Lehman cites a case where a wealthy German Jew endowed 6,000 florins for the Jewish community of Hebron, half of the interest generated by this endowment was to go to the Ashkenazic community and the other half to the Sephardim. The anonymous donor gave strict instructions that the money be deposited with the community administration of either Istanbul or Livorno but not to the emissaries or the Pekidei Kushta because “he had heard what he had heard and seen what he had seen”.

What was life like for a typical emissary? Lehman explains.

An emissary would generally spend about three or four years away from his family. The hardships and dangers of journeying were plenty (at least one shadar was killed by highway robbers in Italy in the 1730s). At the same time there was a great material incentive in the job; they typically kept a third of the funds they collected.

Establishing trustworthiness was an important first step for any emissary. They needed to convince their hosts of the importance of their mission and establish a good rapport. This was not always the case; some shadarim would take the opportunity to berate their host communities for laxities in religious behavior or gruffly demand and even issue threats if communities did not meet their obligations.

This brings us back to my original anecdote. The Shadarim did not perceive themselves as “shnorrers” at all (although they were often perceived as such by their benefactors). Many of them saw themselves as the benefactors and the donors as recipients, what Lehman calls an “inversion of the relationship”. The emissaries maintained that it was in the merit of their settling the Land of Israel- with all its attendant hardships- that enabled the Jews of the Diaspora to reap material divine benefits. The very title that they granted themselves (emissaries of the merciful one, i.e emissaries from G-d) gives us an understanding of how they saw themselves.

By the mid 18th century, voices were heard calling for the abolishing of the shadar system. This would become a lightning rod for controversy and would not abate until the major aliyot of Jews from Eastern Europe. Many complained that the system resulted in a colossal waste of money, as the travel expenses and the remuneration ate up such a large portion of the funding. Yet others countered, in their defense, that the shadarim were not merely collectors of funds but fulfilled a much more important role, namely fostering and maintaining a connection and a love between the Land of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. Moreover, without the actual physical presence of a representative, hearts grew cold and pledged annual donations became less and less. The records do bear this out.

In addition to the roles of the shadarim enumerated above, many of them were also called upon to offer their opinions on Halakhic rulings. In some cases (as in the case of Jacob Safir), shadarim were credited with salvaging entire Jewish communities from assimilation and oblivion.

The early 20th century Zionist and historian, Nahum Slouschz, who visited North Africa, claimed “that a large part of the population of the interior of Africa owe their preservation of Judaism to the emissaries of the Holy Land and that it was the shadarim who were responsible for bringing to the inaccessible corners of the earth greetings from Zion, news of all things Jewish, memories of the past and hopes for a glorious future.”

Nonetheless, the critics of this system would include such tireless benefactors as the Portuguese Court Jew in Vienna, Baron Diego de Aguilar in Vienna and Sir Moses Montefiore in London. With the advent of Jewish newspapers, the Turkish Ladino newspaper El Tiempo would likewise express harsh criticism (among Ashkenazim, Tzvi Hersh Lehren of Amsterdam

would found the Pekidim V’amarkalim of Amsterdam and seek to inherit the role formerly played by Istanbul. More on this later).

On the other side, predictably, stood such Rabbinic luminaries as Rabbi Moses Hagiz (who mounted a passionate defense in his 1707 book Sefat Emet), Rabbi Hayyim Joseph Azulai and others. These Rabbis vociferously defended this institution in their many writings.

Hagiz in his aforementioned book devoted many passages to defending the very settlement of the Land of Israel against an imagined or real interlocutor who opined that perhaps Jews should not live in Palestine but rather await the Messiah in exile (it is often in the writings of Hagiz and others that sentiments of Proto-Religious Zionism were first articulated ans expressed).

Lehman also provides tantalizing details about the travels of some of the shadarim. Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal

was a 18th century Hebron emissary who was one of the few if not the only one who ventured as far as the British Colonies of North America. There he met and became close friends with a Protestant theologian named Ezra Stiles. Stiles would later become president of Yale College.

The emissary system, evidently, not only served to create a sense of pan-Jewish unity as it brought members of various far-flung communities in contact with each other, it also provided opportunities for ecumenical activity. The aforementioned Carigal, for instance, attended a sermon by Stiles given in the former’s Church in Newport, Rhode Island. Stiles also mentioned that Carigal had no compunction in visiting various Churches and having friendly discussions with Christian clergy. According to Stiles “he said he wished well to others besides his own nation, he loves all Mankind”.

Lehman also devotes a considerable amount of space to the rivalry between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the Old Yishuv, as well as the grumblings from other communities who felt they were being discriminated against in the allocation (Chalukah) system (such as the North African “Maghrebim”).

These complaints were often groundless as is illustrated by a case cited in the book. In the late 18th century a man by the name of Haim Aharon Kottover went on a fundraising mission for the Ashkenazic community of Jerusalem, seeking to raise funds for it alone on the pretext that the Ashkenazim receive no support from the Sephardi-dominated community. This accusation was not looked upon kindly by all.

The case came to the leading Ashkenazic authority of that time, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau of Prague who rejected this assertion out of hand, concluding, “do we, not all have one father, are we not the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” (this motif and appeal for unity would be utilized by many on both sides).

The controversies endured, however. It would only become more exacerbated as the Ashkenazic community exploded in population and in fact, became the majority by 1870.

Eliezer ben Yehuda, who is credited with reviving Hebrew as a spoken language complained in his newspaper in 1890 that the division between Sephardim and Ashkenazim is caused chiefly as a result of two reasons, differences in language and differences in the financial allocation of the contributions from abroad. He joined the growing chorus of people advocating the abrogation of the current system.

By 1827, a Dutch Ashkenazic Jew by the name of Tzvi Hersh Lehren sought to negotiate with the Pekidei Kushta for the abolition of the shadar system and the establishment of a fixed philanthropic operation. The declining fortunes of Turkish Jewry and the ascendancy of the Ashkenazic communities caused a reshuffling of the Jewish geopolitical situation.

Lehren’s efforts were met with mixed results. Although his network endured, shadarim still went on their missions throughout Europe and North Africa.

What more, during the crisis of 1865, when the land was ravished by famine, Lehren had to contend with calls from various quarters to liquidate the Yishuv and move elsewhere. “Der Israelit” newspaper, which served as a mouthpiece of Lehren’s Orthodox outfit, responded with indignant outrage, “who would council our co-coreligionists to emigrate”, the editorial intoned. “The ruins of the Holy Temple are still standing; Palestine is ours and will remain ours as long as heaven extends over the earth”, it concluded.

In the last chapter of the book, Lehman examines the attitude of four different Sephardic Rabbis toward the settling of the Land of Israel. While Rabbis Bibas, Alkalai and Palache are more or less well known, such is not the case with Rabbi Moses Hai Altaras who published an intriguing text Zikhron Yerushalaim in Ladino in 1887. In this book, among other things, he heaped praise on the Ashkenazic communities for their proactive approach, “[they] go up to the land in large numbers and buy up land (while conversely criticizing “we, the ones in the Orient who are still asleep, let us awaken”). In an early echo of later “practical Zionists”, Altras maintains that many Jewish calamities would have been avoided had the Jews had a place of safety and refuge.

The epilogue includes a fascinating description of the travels of another colorful Shadar, Rabbi Jacob Safir

who represented the Ashkenazi non-Chasidic community of Jerusalem. Safir’s travels (and sense of adventure) took him as far as Egypt, Yemen, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand

The Myth of the Cultural Jew by Roberta Rosenthal Kwall REVIEW


Are you a secular Jew? Think that Jewish law is irrelevant in the formation of your purely cultural areligious (0r even anti-religious) identity? Think again.
Dr. Roberta Rosenthal Kwall in her very informative book The Myth of the Cultural Jew seeks to lay down a comprehensive and cohesive description of what Judaism was, is, and even what it ought to be.

It is instructive that Benedict Spinoza, who is often referred to as the “first secular Jew” was contrary to what one might expect deeply enmeshed in Jewish law and ethics. In my article “The Curious Case of Benedict Spinoza”, I elaborate how the eminent philosopher, (the anniversary of his excommunication by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam happens to be today incidentally), was in fact deeply Jewish in ways that many contemporary secular Jews would find incongruous with current conceptions of secular Judaism. Some examples of Spinoza’s Jewishness includes his extolling of ritual circumcision; his praise of the Jewish unique national character and identity, and the fervently-expressed hope for restored nationhood (some would later call this “proto-Zionism”). Spinoza was no atheist; Some Orthodox Rabbis, such as Chaim Hirschensohn were even convinced that Spinoza comprehended God in a way that nobody of his generation was yet ready to process.

In her masterful study of what shapes Jewish identity, Kwall utilizes the cultural analysis paradigm. As Kwall puts it, “cultural analysis rejects the view that law is objectively neutral and coherent and thus lacking a relationship to its surrounding cultural environment. Instead…[it] understands both law and culture as products of social context and historically specific circumstances. It also sees law as the product of discourse and debate, shaped in response to the push and pull of social forces. Halakah [Jewish law], like all law, both reflects and constitutes social and cultural practices. Jewish law which is binding upon Jews…produces Jewish culture, and Jewish culture produces Jewish law.

The study of the connection between culture and law is a fairly new discipline, Kwall points out and a comprehensive study of the interrelationship between Jewish culture and law is in its infancy and forms, of course, the substance of the book.
In order to better understand this interrelationship, Kwall lays down some definitions of law. Law is said to be a product of creation much like culture. Social stratification and power dynamics are likewise taken into account. As a former Supreme Court Justice put it, the law is not always necessarily a reflection of objectivity and laws are not necessarily always promulgated for the benefit of the greater good.

This is followed by a sweeping overview of the history of the development of the Halakha or Jewish law. Halakha, the oral law, tradition, and customs are discussed at length in Chapter 1.
Chapter 2 focuses on what Kwall calls the top-down view; that is the law as well as its accouterments as given over from on high down through the chain of command, all the way down to the layman. The chapter also discusses the pervasive influence of Hellenistic culture on Jewish law and methods of law; be it hermeneutic principles as well as the binary written/oral system.

According to Kwall, “the leaders of the Jews in Hellenistic Palestine saw no inherent contradiction between a Hellenized lifestyle and Jewish practice”. Even pagan imagery was tolerated if not eventually co-opted. Professor Eric Myers maintains that this “became the paradigm for future accommodations to other major world civilizations, such as Rome, Byzantium, Islam, and Christianity”.

This cross-cultural fertilization was apparent even in areas of law. For instance, Kwall quotes the Middle East scholar, Bernard Lewis who illustrates this point by looking to the issue of polygamy. “Islam permits polygamy and concubinage, Christianity bans both. In the Christian world, the Jews adopted and practiced monogamy to the point of making it a rule of law; in the Muslim world most Jewish communities practiced, or at least permitted, polygamy and concubinage until almost the present day”.
And while the Jewish communities in France and Germany were small and tight-knit, seemingly living in a shielded bubble, this was not, in fact, the case. Kwall cites the many sources that describe how Jews in Ashkenaz pulled back the restrictions on dealing with non-kosher wine and lending on credit-things that are seemingly blanketly prohibited in Jewish law. The Jewish authorities offered substantial latitude in fields that were essential to Jewish economic success in the societies within which they lived.
Chapter 3 devotes substantial space to what Kwall calls the bottom-up approach in the development of Jewish law. The bottom-up approach refers to practices by the people that were eventually enshrined into local Jewish law. One example cited is the famed medieval French sage knows as Rabbenu Tam restricting the ability of a husband to inherit from his deceased wife’s estate if she died within 12 months after the marriage. This is in seeming contravention of a law clearly set down in the Bible but it caught on quickly among the people-so much so that when the Rabbi wanted to overturn this rule, it was too late; it had already become deeply enshrined.

Other examples of Rabbinic toleration (and eventually validation) of bottom-up practices are the widespread custom, stemming from Central Europe, to make an early Shabbat; to pray Maariv/Arvit way before the Halakhically mandated time for evening prayers (The custom originates at a time when towns were not regularly illuminated and evenings often came early. It was done for reasons of safety and practicality).

The safety aspect is also evident in other customs of early Ashkenaz. For instance the use of amulets and other seemingly superstitious rituals to guard newborns and the like. The Rabbis did not necessarily look upon these things with favor but were forced to concede to the powerful will of the people. These practices often became enshrined customs which became almost legally binding.
It is interesting to note, (because of the timeliness of the subject), in this context, the custom among German Jews to drink wine and eat meat on the night before the circumcision. So attached were the German Jews to this custom that the Rabbis were forced to allow this, (with a proviso that the celebrants give up either wine or meat), even when it fell during the nine days preceding the Ninth of Av-a time where Ashkenazim customarily enter a minor period of mourning sans consuming flesh or imbibing wine.

The bottom-up also takes into account what David Biale observes, namely the fact that “the people themselves actively participated in the redaction of the Talmud’s authority by virtue of their embracing and reaffirming the Talmud’s tradition and worldview”.
Other elements of dominant local Christian culture assimilated and “kosherized” by Jews are cited. For instance the institution of “sandek” (literally, Godfather), at a ritual circumcision and many of its attendant customs (such as the nighttime vigil) which resemble a Christian baptism.

Jewish mourning customs too, closely resembled, the Christian monastic practice of reading necrologies and the lighting of candles.

Interestingly, the term “yahrtzeit”, Kwall informs us, is taken from the same term used by German Christians to recall the souls of the departed on the anniversary of their deaths. Also interesting to note, observance of “yahrtzeit” was initially resisted by Sephardic Jews given its Ashkenazic origins (this is unrelated to the ancient and North African custom of sage veneration and gravesite vigils).
Kashrut standards too were often a bottom up affair.
It is interesting to note that the stringencies regarding separate dishes for meat and milk are just that: stringencies. The same goes for the 6 hour waiting period between meat and milk. The early Ashkenazic Rabbis were extremely lenient on this front often requiring no waiting period at all, (let alone separate sets of dishes). The stringencies in this area were a product of the actions of “the people” (apparently it was the German-Jewish Pietist movement known as Hasidim-not to be confused with their much later namesakes to the east) which eventually took on the force of enshrined custom.
Chapter 4 provides a sustained look into various Jewish denominations and their divergent views of Halakha.

It is interesting to note the development of early Reform. Aside from the sustained influence on the movement by a liberal German Protestant theologian named Julius Wellhausen, early Reform vociferously opposed assimilation and in fact called for strong, distinct religious identity among the movement’s adherents.

The initial reformers were proud of their Jewish heritage and sought to work within the Halakhic framework. Kwall: “consistent with their support of universal ethical monotheism, they invoked the ethical commandments of the Biblical prophets as their primary source of authority for change”.
When the first Reform Temple opened in Hamburg, its radical introduction of choral singing and the use of an organ on the Sabbath was defended on Talmudic grounds. They genuinely believed they were upholding “mesorah” (tradition) as Kwall puts it.
It was only, later, beginning in Frankfurt of the 19th century, under the leadership of leaders like Samuel Holdheim, that Reform took a turn toward the radical, with the latter for instance seeking to switch the Sabbath to Sunday as well as abolish circumcision.
Orthodoxy is also given the autopsy treatment. Kwall discusses the various groups and subgroups that make up Orthodoxy. The clear picture that emerges is that Orthodoxy was not and is not a monolith by any stretch of the imagination.

I do take issue with Kwall’s characterization of the German Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as “Modern Orthodox” in the modern sense of the term. Rabbi Hirsch is often described as such, giving off the erroneous assumption that institutions like Yeshiva University and the philosophy of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, for instance, grew out of this school of Orthodox thought.

But the truth is far more nuanced than that. While YU and the Hirschian Orthodox community, by a twist of fate, both ended up in the Washington Heights section of New York, they were as often ideological adversaries as they were allies (it is also important to note Hirsch’s sharp criticism of Maimonides in this context. Kwall mentions it on p. 111). The important differences revolved/s around the elevation of secular studies as an end in and of itself and Religious Zionism (which the Hirschians did not embrace at all).
Kwall does indeed hit the bull’s eye with her characterization of Orthodoxy’s steady shift to the right during the post-war years. I’ve covered the kosher aspect in my review of Roger Horowitz’s Kosher USA; how “glatt” suddenly became the standard, modes of dress became much more conservative (a glance at photos of Orthodox American Rabbis wives’ from the earlier part of the last century bears this out; Yeshiva boys did not perpetually garb themselves in black and white but took part in the prevailing fashion et al).

A brief discussion of the highly complex and paradoxical Chabad movement is also offered.

Kwall then moves on to a history of the development of the Conservative movement. It is interesting that the early advocates of this denomination were likewise deeply traditional (the name does give it away). Solomon Schecter’s avid Zionism is ironically juxtaposed with the anti-Zionism of contemporary Reform as well as that of large sections of the Orthodox.

Lawmaking in the Conservative movement is interesting and complex if nothing else. The Halakahic-making body is for instance not beholden to its Israeli counterpart (interesting, but not mentioned by Kwall is the effusive praise once offered by none that the Sephardic Orthodox Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to some Israeli Conservatives, better known as Masorti for their serious approach to — and keeping of Halakah).
Space is also devoted to the first homegrown American version of Judaism, namely Reconstructionism and its founder Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan is said by some to be the harbinger of a “Copernican revolution”.
Chapter 5 wades into the dicy areas of Who is a Jew and Sabbath Laws.
When the Reform movement (as a result of heightening intermarriage) introduced the so-called patrilineal principle which decreed that children born of non-Jewish mothers are still Jews (granted that they identify as Jewish), it all but guaranteed a firestorm of controversy and discord among traditionalists (it also ignited controversy among Conservatives and even among some Reformers; Reform Rabbi Donald Tam, for instance, called it destructive and harmful to Jewish unity and continuity).

Kwall cites Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen, who in turn cites a very interesting responsum from the Sephardic sage Rabbi Yomtob Algaze which allegedly “foreshadows reform’s position”. According to this, Algaze interpreted the Talmud’s matrilineal principle, (namely that only one born to a Jewish mother is considered Jewish.) only when the child was raised by the mother and given a Jewish identity.

The Conservative analog to the aforementioned controversy is arguably the issue of driving on the Sabbath. In 1950, the Conservative Halakhic body published the famous Sabbath Responsum. In short, it maintained that being that operating a motor vehicle is a mild Sabbath prohibition (in Halakhic parlance, a “shevut” rather than a “Melakha”,), driving to the Synagogue in order to attend services (only!) is permitted. The responsum sought to justify this from within the Halakhic framework.

Significantly, the Masorti Conservative Jews in Israel did not accept this.
Within the ranks of Conservative American Jews, the issue was, likewise, far from accepted without controversy initially
Chapter 6 discusses the issue of homosexuality and its attendant controversies among the three different denominations. Of interest is that as late as 1973, the Reform Rabbinic body issued a responsum that referred to homosexuality as a sin, and stressed that “Judaism places great emphasis on family, children and the future”. It also advocated against establishing gay Synagogues in order “to decrease their mutual availability to one another”, although, it took pains to instruct that homosexuals are not to be excluded from the community or synagogue.

Within Orthodox Judaism, mention is made of a minority of left-wing Rabbis who seek a greater role for the Orthodox homosexual. While not agreeing with the eventual Reform and Conservative stances regarding homosexuals (namely full admission and recognition), Rabbi Asher Lopatin of the left-wing Open Orthodox Hovevei Torah pleads for Rabbis to plunge into the vast seas of our tradition in the hope of an eventual breakthrough on the issue.

Chapter 8 discusses the role of the State of Israel in forging Jewish law and culture.
The Who is a Jew controversy of the 70s still resonates to this day. In fact with the influx of so many immigrants whose ties to Jews and Judaism are not (historically) certain, it has taken on an even harsher and more immediate tone of urgency.

Who is a Jew? Who is an Israeli? Concrete answers to these questions don’t look like they will materialize anytime soon. Kwall mentions a group of Israelis who petitioned the High Court to have the ethnicity of “jew” erased from their identity cards because they identify as Israeli and see the category as discriminatory toward other Israelis who don’t happen to be Jewish. This radical move was turned down by the High Court.
I disagree with Professor Anita Shapira who saw this move as “something very revolutionary”, the “Canaanite movement” of the early 20th century is indicative of this type of disassociation which some Jews felt was essential to a revivified nation and people.

Different categories of Jews are enumerated. Aside from the Religious, the secular and the Ultra Orthodox, there are other still emerging categories such as “familists” (which sees the nation as one cohesive and distinct family). The people that are not easily placed into neat categories; those who are traditional (I am surprised that Kwall didn’t mention the Mizrahim Jews from Arab countries who are not Orthodox in the strict sense of the term but tend to be deeply traditional; they might sit down for a Sabbath lunch after prayer in the Synagogue and then drive down to the stadium and watch a soccer game) can occupy a valuable “middle ground” and may be the key to solving latent conflicts among various sectors of the population.
I don’t think that any of the categories listed are particularly new; in the pre-state Yishuv labels like “Torah Observant Seculars” and “Religious-Seculars” were not unknown.
Kwall cites the upsurge of interest in Judaism among a young generation of Israelis. Secular Yeshivot where religious texts are intensely studied -sans the fire and brimstone aspect- is now a ubiquitous thing.

Kwall feels that the study of Jewish lore (Aggadah) can serve to unify a people whose views of what Judaism is or ought to be, differ so significantly. I was immediately reminded of the great secular poet Hayyim Bialik who published a highly popular compendium of Agadic sayings from Rabbinic literature. I often find this very book, well thumbed, at my local Orthodox Synagogue (granted I live in the US).
While Israelis tend to not be drawn to non-Orthodox forms of Judaism (this is due to their tendency to see things in black and white; Orthodox or not. I also think this is due to that fact that a large number of Israelis are of non-Ashkenazic stock where non-Orthodox denominations seem utterly foreign).

Chapter 9 deals with Jewish identity in the United States
The Pew Research Poll of 2013 is liberally cited although its drawbacks are recognized. Not surprisingly, Orthodox Jews are still in the minority; the vast majority of Jews identify with liberal denominations of Judaism or eschew denominations altogether (an increasingly large and growing group among the youth).
Most American Jews identify with Israel but a growing minority among the youth feel increasingly alienated.

Political liberalism constitutes the belief of the vast majority of American Jews.
Chapter 10 concludes with the introduction that sums up the entirety of the book: “The myth of the cultural Jew is that one can adhere to Judaism on just a cultural level. In reality, those who claim to be “cultural Jews” still are embracing Jewish law and tradition regardless of whether they are aware of this reality or acknowledge it”.
Further: “From a cultural analysis perspective, the human element of Halakah is of vital importance..cultural analysis of law concentrates on how law reflects and shapes humans and their world. This human component of Halakha not only represents a search for the divine will but also establishes that Halakah is embedded figuratively into the DNA of the Jewish people regardless of the level of the religiosity of any one person. Recognition of this reality may help explain why people are proud to be Jewish even if they do not explicitly recognize the role of Halakah with respect to their pride. further, because Halakha as it has been developed over the centuries also is the product of culture, environment, and historical circumstances, it essentially embodies the entirety of the Jewish people’s existence and experience.

I can only conclude myself by paraphrasing the Talmud, This is indeed Torah, the rest, go out and learn.

STOLEN WORDS Tells the Story of the Jewish Books Plundered by the Nazis and What Became of Them.


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Rabbi Mark Glickman delights once again with his latest book Stolen Words. This book recounts the saga of an overlooked group of survivors. The Jewish people are known as “People of the Book”. For millennia we have cherished the written word. Before the era of printing, scrolls were painstakingly compiled. Much love and care was put into the composition of documents. The generous contents of the Cairo Genizah indicate that Medieval Mediterranean Jews were often loathe to part with writings, even with those of a mundane nature.

Rabbi Glickman leads the reader into the saga of Jewish books that survived the savage Nazi onslaught by recounting his acquisition of a rare copy of the Laws of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi. Inside he discovered a strange marking which puzzled him. The stamp bore the legend “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction”. Some more digging opened up an entire portal into a story not often told, of post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Jewish people.

The Nazis, unlike their medieval Jew-hating predecessors, were determined to get their hands on all the literary treasures of the Jewish nation. If their Jew-hating forbears were in the habit of looting and burning the precious holy books of the Jews, the Nazis had other plans. In Glickman’s words “Nazi Germany worked hard NOT to destroy Jewish books but to save them”…They weren’t interested in editing or censoring..they wanted to study the volumes in their original form…they weren’t scared of Jewish books; they were fascinated by them…their efforts to preserve Jewish literature would have been utterly baffling to European leaders of the past..
The question, of course is, why? Why were the Nazis determined to preserve the Jewish literary riches?

Since the days of Luther, Goethe and Kant, the Germans were a bookish and book-loving people. For instance the Frankfurt Book Fair which began in the Middle Ages still continues going strong today.

By sequestering the Jewish books, the Nazis would not only accomplish the complete destruction of the flesh and blood Jew, but would also be in full control of everything that shaped his identity. In fact Glickman writes that the Nazis were even interested in the Yiddish language; a linguist named Franz Beranzek argued that Germans should “reclaim” the study of Yiddish, claiming that it was actually a dialect of German and it could reveal “the racial and unique cultural foundation of Jewry”.

A grandiose scheme was hatched whereas several different Nazi agencies under the directorships of Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler were to to collect all these items and eventually sort them and exhibit them in what was to become the Museum of the Extinct Jewish Nation.

Tons of books and precious ritual items were looted from both Municipal as well as private-owned libraries (such as the famed Vilna Strashun Library), from the centers of Ashkenazi Jewry to Salonika, Greece, known as “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, precious and priceless items such as incunabula and documents from the Cairo Genizah (pages from the ancient thought to be lost hebrew Book of ben Sira) that once belonged to the private library of Edmund Rothschild were shipped to various depots in Germany (Especially to the town of Offenbach) and Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.

The Nazis selected Jewish scholars to sort and organize what amounted to the detritus of a millennium of physical Jewish history of European Jewry. These Jews, scholars and librarians in their “former life, often risked their lives to hide and smuggle out their wares. A courageous Muslim curator at the Bosnian National Museum spirited the famed magnificent Sarajevo Haggada to safety.

The devastation of war resulted in the permanent disappearance of many of these items but there were tons of them still left once the smoke cleared.
Various organizations sent scholars to asses the items that were sitting in warehouses now under American military administration. Great Jewish historians and scholars like Salo Baron, Gershom Scholem, and Lucy Dawidowicz spent hours poring over books and manuscripts and sometimes resorted to subterfuge in order to spirit the documents out of the lands that have become so drenched with Jewish blood.

The book abounds with interesting facts and anecdotes. For instance:

*In 1559, partly to quell the rise of Protestant sedition, Pope Paul IV issued something called Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books). It included the Talmud as well as other Jewish books. Later Popes issued revised lists but as late as 1948 Pope Piux XII issued a final version which included large sections of the Talmud, and the writings of Maimonides. It was only in 1965 that Pope Paul VI abolished the list altogether.

*In Medieval times destruction of what was deemed objectionable Jewish material was also accomplished via less radical means than burning. In the late 13th century, King James I of Aragon introduced the Jewish book censor,history’s first official censor of Jewish books-Glickman informs us- was a Dominican priest by the name of Ramon Marti or Raymond Martini. Many documents that have come down from that period show instances where texts that were find offensive by the church were simply blacked out with ink or cut out.

It is worth noting a great irony of history here. By engaging in intense study of Jewish texts (in order to refute them but also often attempting to demonstrate the truth of the Christian faith from within them), the Dominican did the Jewish people and the world of scholarship a great favor by inadvertently leaving us a wealth of ancient Jewish material that was otherwise lost of censored into oblivion. According to Alexander Fidora in his THE LATIN TALMUD AND ITS INFLUENCE ON JEWISH-CHRISTIAN POLEMIC, “Martini completed (in ca. 1280) his magisterial Pugio fidei (‘Dagger of Faith’) containing
innumerable citations from the Talmud and further rabbinical writings proving
that the Messiah had already come. Unlike his earlier work, the Capistrum Iudaeorum (‘Muzzle of the Jews’),where he also included Latin quotations from
the Talmud, here he first cites the texts in their original language and then provides Latin translations, which in their entirety constitute a considerable corpus
that is also deserving of our close attention”.
See here:…/…/files/LATTAL.pdf


The last page of STOLEN WORDS features a photo which provides the story with a fitting bookend. It shows Rabbi Glickman with his edition of Alfasi-the one that propelled him on this journey- surrounded by curious Jewish youngsters. Words can never truly be stolen.