Category Archives: Archaeology & History

Origins and Mysteries of Shabbat Candles

1723 Illustration of Shabbat Candle-Lighting

This week’s parasha, Tetzave, begins with the command to take “pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.” (Exodus 27:20) This refers to lighting the “eternal flame”, ner tamid, of the Temple Menorah. Since the destruction of the Temple, we are no longer able to fulfil this mitzvah exactly. However, the Sages say we can still fulfil this mitzvah through the lighting of Shabbat candles. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) presents some mathematical proof for this as well: the gematria of ner tamid (נר תמיד) is 704, equal to “on the Sabbath” (בשבת), while the gematria of tetzave (תצוה) is 501, equal to “[God] commanded the women” (נשים צוה). In other words, God commanded women to light Shabbat candles as a way to keep the Temple’s eternal flame going.

This beautiful teaching actually helps us pinpoint the origins of lighting Shabbat candles, since the mitzvah is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah. Where exactly did it come from, why was it instituted, and why is it women specifically that are instructed to light these candles? Continue reading

The Secret, Secret Story of Stalin’s Purim Death

Josef Stalin in 1920

 – לעילוי נשמת אמנון בן אסתר –

On the night of March 1st, 1953, when Jews around the world had just finished celebrating Purim, attendants of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin found him laying semi-conscious on the floor of his bedroom. He was sick and hemorrhaging blood for the next several days until finally dying on the 5th of March. His death was announced to the public the following day. While most Jews around the world were probably jubilant at the news, little could they know of the incredible events—both political and spiritual—which were transpiring in the fateful days before.

A couple of months earlier, on the 9th of January, state-owned mouthpiece Pravda published a propaganda article about a “Doctor’s Plot” to secretly poison top Soviet leaders, including Stalin. Six of the named doctors were Jewish, and the others were supposedly Jewish-Zionist sympathizers, working together with American spies to destroy the Soviet Union. The article said:

The majority of the participants of the terrorist group… recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence, the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization called “Joint”. The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed…

Not surprisingly, a huge wave of anti-Semitism spread across the Soviet Union. Stalin used this as a pretext to order the construction of four new concentration camps in Kazakhstan and Siberia, arguing that he will gather Soviet Jews there, “for their own protection”, to save them from angry Russian mobs. Stalin’s real intent was to finish what Hitler had started. Records suggest that the deportations were set to begin on March 6th, 1953—ironically, the same day his death was announced. After his death, Stalin’s successors quickly absolved the doctors of any wrongdoing and buried the Doctors’ Plot for good. Stalin’s impending holocaust was scrapped. Millions of Jews across the Soviet Union (my family included), were saved—a Purim miracle. But there is much, much more to the story.

My grandfathers, David Palvanov (1915-1985), left, and Anton Amnon Mirzayev (1923-1981, whose 40th yahrzeit is this Sunday, the 9th of Adar), Red Army veterans of World War II, who served with distinction in both the European and Pacific Theatres.

The Rebbe’s Farbrengen

Back in New York City, on March 1st, 1953, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was starting a motzei-Purim farbrengen. In his discourse, the Rebbe recounted how when the czar was deposed in 1917, the Rebbe Rashab (Sholom Dov Ber, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1860-1920) urged his followers to go vote. After voting, one simple Hasid saw some Russians shouting hoora! and joined in as well, thinking they meant hu-ra (הוא רע), “he is evil!”—happy that the evil, anti-Semitic czars that had caused the Jews so much anguish were finally gone. Bizarrely, the Rebbe (the seventh one, that is) started to shout hu-ra, too, and repeated the same story three separate times, each concluding with more hu-ra’s. No one in the room understood what was going on. They assumed the Rebbe had done a spiritual rectification of some sort.

A farbrengen with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the early 1950s

Nothing more was said of the Rebbe’s strange actions until March 6th, when Stalin’s death was announced. Turns out, at the same time that the Rebbe was making his hu-ra’s—while recounting the fall of an old anti-Semitic Russian dictator—the contemporary anti-Semitic Russian dictator, Stalin, had collapsed in his room and was writhing in pain. It was only then that the Hasidim that were with the Rebbe on the night of March 1st began to piece together what had happened. Did the Rebbe put an end to Stalin? Well, not directly; the Rebbe was no assassin! (Not even a spiritual one.) So, what was really going on that night of March 1st?

Stalin’s Purim Feast

While Jews around the world were enjoying their Purim feast, Stalin was getting together for a feast of his own back in Moscow. As recounted in Stalin’s Last Crime (written by Russian historian Vladimir Naumov and Yale professor Jonathan Brent), in his last dinner Stalin was accompanied by secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, Georgi Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev (his soon-to-be successor) and Nikolai Bulganin. Appropriately (being Purim and all), the five got drunk, and many scholars believe that Beria slipped Stalin a poison. Despite being discovered later that night, investigations showed that no doctor was called in until the following day. High-ranking Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986, of “Molotov cocktail” fame) would recall in his memoirs that Beria boasted about how he managed to terminate Stalin: “I did him in! I saved all of you!” Altogether, the evidence is very strong that Stalin’s own inner circle killed him. Why?

For Stalin, the Doctor’s Plot was only the start of something much bigger. As we saw from the Pravda article above, Stalin had tied the doctors to American agents in Moscow. His plans were to accuse the US of plotting to nuke Moscow, and he supposedly had proof from a spy captured and interrogated in 1951. Stalin was gearing up to spark World War III (and possibly drawing up plans for an attack on American soil). His inner circle knew that he had absolutely lost it. And Stalin knew that they did not support him anymore, so he planned another purge of the Communist Party to eliminate dissenters. This was confirmed in the 1956 “Secret Speech” given by Khrushchev, who said:

It is not excluded that had Stalin remained at the helm for another several months, Comrades Molotov and Mikoyan would probably have not delivered any speeches at this congress. Stalin evidently had plans to finish off the old members of the political bureau. He often stated that political bureau members should be replaced by new ones… We can assume that this was also a design for the future annihilation of the old political bureau members and in this way a cover for all shameful acts of Stalin, acts which we are now considering.

This is why Beria had boasted that he had saved his comrades. Khrushchev and the others were in on it. They got rid of Stalin just in time to avoid another Jewish holocaust, to save their own skin, and to prevent World War III. What they did was incredibly risky, and no doubt needed help from Above. The Rebbe must have sensed something going on in the Heavens, and perhaps really did play some spiritual role in the plan’s success.

Indeed, it was a great miracle that the plan succeeded. That it happened on Purim specifically is certainly no coincidence. After all, Purim is all about how the Jews avoided a holocaust in the nick of time: “…on the very day when the enemies of the Jews sought to dominate them, v’nahafokh hu”—everything was turned upside down and the Jews were saved instead. On the very day Stalin planned to start deporting Jews, his death was announced instead.

And Purim is about the defeat of Amalek which, like Communism, is that atheistic force in the universe seeking to undermine Godliness at every opportunity. The Communists tried so hard to expunge religion that they even attempted to change their calendar to a five-day week so that there could be no commemoration of the Sabbath! Thankfully, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, right at the moment when the Messianic Age was set to begin according to ancient prophecy (as explained here). However, Communism is not quite dead, and the forces of Amalek continue to rear their ugly heads around the world today. And so, we continue to read Parashat Zachor each year before Purim, as we will this Shabbat, to remind ourselves that there is yet work to be done until we can celebrate Amalek’s final defeat. May we merit to see it soon.

The Economics of Jewish History

In addition to the weekly parasha and Rosh Chodesh reading, this week we also read an extra portion called Parashat Shekalim. In the weeks leading up to Purim and Pesach, there are a number of additional readings to commemorate the key events surrounding those holidays. One of these readings is Shekalim, literally “shekels”, where we recount how the Israelites had each donated a half-shekel in order to conduct a census. The Torah forbids counting souls for several reasons, including the simple fact that people shouldn’t be treated like numbers. So, each adult Israelite male gave a half-shekel (a “substitute for the soul” as the Torah says), the result being the collection of some 300,000 shekels of silver.

Silver half-shekel from the Second Temple era

In the Purim story, we read how Haman promised to pay the king 10,000 kikar of silver to finance the extermination of the Jewish people. One kikar is equivalent to 3000 shekels, meaning Haman amassed 30 million shekels for his final solution. This is an astronomical amount of money, especially back in those days. Where did Haman get it? Rav Ovadia Yosef explained: The Persian and Babylonian businessmen at the time were losing income because the Jewish exiles had come and set up their own superior businesses. The Persians and Babylonians couldn’t compete with the Jews. So, Haman told the businessmen that he can get rid of the Jews for them, and all he needed was a little financial support. They all gladly pitched in for his campaign. This is why the Megillah has Haman saying “I will pay ten thousand kikar of silver al yadei osei hamelakhah [by the hand of those who do business].” (Esther 3:9)

Without those funds, there would be no Purim story! This is one small example of how the shekel—money—drives historical events. We find that, beneath the surface, most of history is a result of economics and business. While so much of Judaism is built upon commemorating the distant past, we seldom think about the financial aspects of those ancient events. Of course, the root reasons for those events are entirely spiritual, yet the way they are brought to actualization is financial. This is hinted to by the Torah’s language itself, where the numerical value of shekel (שקל) is 430, equal to nefesh (נפש), “soul”. It is further alluded to by the Talmud where money is referred to as zuz, literally “move”. Money is the prime “mover” of history. What follows, therefore, is a look at some of the key events of Jewish history—from an economical perspective. Continue reading