Category Archives: Archaeology & History

Red Sea or Reed Sea: Where is Mount Sinai?

This week’s parasha, Beshalach, recounts the Splitting of the Sea. It is common knowledge that this was the Red Sea, called yam suf in Hebrew. Yet, in recent decades scholars have tried to “debunk” that notion, preferring to associate yam suf with a smaller lake of some sort. They often start by pointing out that yam suf literally means “sea of reeds”. It is the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea. There are indeed several shallow, marshy lakes with reeds in that vicinity of Egypt, around the modern Suez Canal. The fact that the Torah speaks of the “Reed Sea” being near places like Pi-Hahirot, whose location is believed to be known, is used as further proof of yam suf not being the Red Sea.

Of course, this serves to diminish the great miracle of the Splitting of the Sea. It almost implies that the Israelites waded through a shallow lake, as opposed to crossing a vast expanse. The reality is that such a hypothesis does not at all fit with the descriptions we receive in the Torah. A careful look reveals what yam suf actually is, and further helps to locate an even bigger prize: Mount Sinai.  

A Sea or a Lake?

From the Torah’s description of the Splitting of the Sea, we learn that the waters stood as large walls to the left and right of the Israelites, and that the Egyptians later drowned in its depths (see, for instance, Exodus 14:28-29, 15:4, 8). This implies a deep sea, not a shallow, marshy lake.

Yam suf is mentioned well over twenty times in the Tanakh. When going through these verses and their context, one will find that it is a major geographical entity, not a small lake. For example, Numbers 14:25 says that the Amalekites and Canaanites live near yam suf, while Numbers 21:4 says the Edomites are near it, too. If it was a small lake somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula, or by the Suez Canal, this wouldn’t make much sense.

The Biblical lands of Edom, stretching down to the Red Sea (Credit: Briangotts)

In fact, the land of Edom is known to be in the area of what is today the Negev desert, roughly southern Israel and Jordan, going down to what is today Eilat. This is confirmed by I Kings 9:26, where we read that “King Solomon made a navy of ships in Etzion-Geber, which is beside Elot, on the shore of yam suf, in the land of Edom.” King Solomon built a navy-yard in a port near Elot (אֵלוֹת), undoubtedly related to today’s Eilat. And, like today’s Eilat, is in on the shore of yam suf, the Red Sea, in the land of Edom. This verse solves the entire puzzle. Scholars wonder why the sea became known as the Red Sea, when the answer might be right there in the Torah: to the Israelites, this was the sea by the land of Edom, which literally means “red”. It was the Edomite Sea, the “Red Sea”. And it is the selfsame body of water as yam suf.  

On that note, some have proposed that is isn’t yam suf, but yam sof, literally the sea “at the end”, since it is at the southernmost tip of Israel. Yet another idea is that it is yam sufa, “Storm Sea”, referring to the great wind storm that God sent to part the waters (Exodus 14:21). Whatever the case, there is little doubt that the Israelites did indeed cross what we know today as the Red Sea.

The bigger question is: where exactly did they cross?

Some believe that the Red Sea got its name from the red blooms of sea sawdust, Trichodesmium erythraeum (a type of cyanobacteria), that occasionally happen there.

Sinai or Saudi Arabia?

NASA Satellite Image of the Sinai Peninsula

It is commonly thought that Mount Sinai is somewhere in what is today called the Sinai Peninsula. In fact, back in the 6th century, Christians built a monastery on a mountain in the Peninsula which they believed to be Sinai. It still operates today as Saint Catherine’s Monastery, and is among the oldest Christian monasteries in the world. The only problem is that it isn’t anywhere near the real Mt. Sinai.

First off, the Torah introduces us to Mount Sinai when Moses is living far from Egypt in Midian. Recall that Moses had fled Egypt, and eventually ended up living among the Bedouins of Midian. This already confirms that Mount Sinai was probably not in today’s Sinai Peninsula, which would have still been under Egyptian control in those days. In fact, we know from historical and archaeological evidence that in those days, the Egyptians ruled at least as far as Canaan itself. Moses fled outside of Egypt’s domain, across the Red Sea, to what is today Saudi Arabia. This is the land traditionally associated with the Midianites. And the Torah tells us that Mt. Sinai is there (Exodus 3:1-2):

And Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horev. And the angel of God appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed…

The Torah famously tells us that Moses saw a burning bush during his first encounter on the “mountain of God”. In Hebrew, it is called a s’neh, which gives rise to the name Mount Sinai. This mountain is in the wilderness around Midian, in a land call Horev. Later on, the Israelites cross the Red Sea and journey towards this same mountain, where they receive the Ten Commandments. This implies that the Israelites crossed somewhere in the Gulf of Aqaba, ending up in what is today Saudi Arabia. This makes all the more sense since they can journey from there to the wilderness “on the other side of the Jordan”, where they spent forty years before crossing the Jordan River—from the East—into Israel.

Jebel Musa in Saudi Arabia

Amazingly, there is a mountain in Saudi Arabia which is completely sealed off by the authorities, and off limits to any historians or archaeologists. Nonetheless, some have been able to secretly get through, and report evidence of a large camp that was there millennia ago, with a sacrificial altar, and even engravings of an idolatrous calf! The locals who live near the mountain call it Jebel Musa, “mountain of Moses”. Mysteriously, its peak is entirely blackened, perhaps because the Torah states that God descended upon the mountain with great fire and smoke. (Several documentaries have been made about this mountain, such as this short one.)

The Talmud supports the notion that Sinai is in Arabia. We read how Rabbah bar bar Chanah—famed for his adventurous tales—was “once traveling in the desert and was met by an Arab merchant… he said to me: ‘Come and I will show you Mount Sinai.’” (Bava Batra 73b-74a) Bar bar Chanah goes on to say that he followed the Arab to the mountain, and heard a Bat Kol, a voice emanating from Heaven. Having said that, it must be mentioned that the Sages often rejected bar bar Chanah’s tales because they thought he made them up!

Putting It All Together

This week’s parasha begins by laying out the journey of the Israelites (Exodus 13:17-18):

And it came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, for it was near, because God said, “Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.” So God led the people around by way of the desert, around the Red Sea…

We learn from this that God did not lead the people directly along the coast of the Mediterranean to the Holy Land, which would have been the fastest and straightest route. This would have taken them through the coastal lands of the Philistines, and the Israelites would have feared them. So, God led them roundabout, along the coasts of the Red Sea in what is today the Sinai Peninsula.

We are told that the Israelites “travelled from Succoth, and they encamped in Etham, at the edge of the desert.” (Exodus 13:20) This means they went all the way down to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Fittingly, God then told them “turn around and encamp in front of Pi-Hahirot, between Migdol and the sea; in front of Baal-Tzfon, you shall encamp opposite it, by the sea.” (Exodus 14:2) Having journeyed south all the way to the “edge”, they were now being told to turn around and head back north, along the eastern coast, “by the sea”.

At this point, Pharaoh’s informers told him the Israelites were “confused” and lost in the desert (Exodus 14:3), and he thought he had a chance at revenge. Pharaoh and his chariots pursued the Israelites and trapped them along the Gulf of Aqaba. The Red Sea split, and the Israelites crossed the narrow gulf into Arabia, where they later received the Ten Commandments at Sinai. The narrative of the Ten Commandments is in parashat Yitro, because it begins with Jethro joining up with Moses and the Israelites. This further proves that Sinai is near Midian, in Arabia, and not in what is today called the “Sinai” Peninsula.

To summarize: yam suf is indeed the Red Sea, the Israelites most likely crossed the Gulf of Aqaba, and the best candidate for the location of Mount Sinai is in Saudi Arabia. It may be Jebel Musa, or perhaps another mountain unknown to anyone. It may not even be there at all, for as we’ve written in the past, one tradition has it that Mount Sinai descended to this world only to be the vessel for delivering the Torah, and has since disappeared.  

Pharaoh and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

‘Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh’ by Gustave Doré

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, we famously read how Pharaoh “hardened his heart” in refusing to give the Israelites freedom, despite seeing the great miracles wrought by God. It is in this week’s parasha more than any other that the term appears, whether it is God promising to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3), and actually doing so (9:12), or Pharaoh himself hardening his own heart (8:28). While several times it is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in order to bring about the sequence of supernatural events necessary to prove to the world that He exists, other times Pharaoh hardens his own heart, with no divine intervention. Pharaoh was indeed a most-stubborn and wicked person, refusing to see the Hand of the Divine, to the great detriment of his own people.

Recently, I was listening to an audiobook about the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and realized that same stubborn, wicked spirit exists in the world today. The particular thing that struck a chord was a reminder of the infamous events of the 2000 Camp David Accords. In these talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to almost every request that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had brought to the table. Even President Bill Clinton was surprised at Barak’s willingness, and was certain a landmark deal would be reached. And then, just like that, Arafat got up from the table and walked away. He did not offer a counter-proposal, nor give any feedback whatsoever. When speaking of this years later, Clinton said: “I killed myself to get the Palestinians a state. I had a deal they turned down, that would have given them all of Gaza, between 96 and 97% of the West Bank, compensating land in Israel—you name it.” No matter what they were offered, Arafat and the Palestinians refused time and again.

How can this be? It is beyond evident that neither Arafat, nor the Palestinian leaders after him, are interested in any kind of peace. Their only goal, as stated over and over again, is the extermination of Israel. Even if they would be given everything they claim to want, they will not stop their campaign of terror and jihad. Their fight will continue until Israel ceases to exist and the Jewish “infidel” is driven into the Sea. This is, after all, their most popular chant today—often mindlessly repeated by ignorant liberal Westerners—“From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.” What many of those Westerners don’t realize is that the Palestinians who shout this chant mean “free of Jews”, of course.

That’s why it is unlikely there could ever be a “two-state” solution. All this would do is give the Arabs a base-camp from which to launch the next phase of their war of extermination. Hamas makes this crystal clear, and Fatah believes it, too, although it has succeeded in convincing the world that they are “moderate” and willing to make peace. This is the same Fatah that recently fought against a motion at the UN to condemn Hamas. They admitted that Fatah and Hamas are really after the same thing, through different means. Fatah’s Abbas Zaki said: “If Hamas, which is involved in resistance, is considered a terrorist movement, this means that all groups of the Palestinian people are involved in terrorism.” In other words, there is little difference between Hamas and Fatah; their end goal is the same. Indeed, in both Fatah and Hamas homes, the same television shows repeat the same verses from the Muslim Hadith (Sahih Bukhari 4:52:176):

Allah’s Apostle said: “You [Muslims] will fight the Jews until they will hide behind stones. The stones will say: ‘Oh Abdullah [servant of Allah]! There is a Jew hiding behind me; come kill him.’”

Among others, the head of the Palestinian Islamic Council, Sheikh Mohammad Nimr Zaghmout said in 2007:

The Prophet of Allah has promised us that the Jews will gather in Palestine, and that the Muslims will fight them, and totally kill them. Even the stone and the tree will say: “Oh Muslims, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” You might tell me that I am relying on supernatural hadiths. I believe this is not supernatural but is the core of our belief.

To repeat: it is the core of their belief. And this is why the Palestinians have never genuinely agreed to any kind of peace deal. Even if they did, it would only be to further their ultimate goals, as they showed by turning Gaza (once hoped by the world to become a new “Dubai” or “Singapore”) into one giant rocket launcher.

Arafat and Pharaoh

Few can deny the miraculous nature of Israel’s rebirth and stunning success. (David Ben-Gurion probably said it best when he pointed out that “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.) The funny thing here is that the Arabs, too, have seen the miracles God has done for Israel. In 1948 everyone was convinced that Israel didn’t stand a chance against the invading Arab armies. Miraculously, Israel not only survived, but completely ousted all of its enemies. The same happened in the run-up to the Six-Day War. Just weeks earlier, on May 27, 1967, Egyptian President Nasser talked about his plans for the upcoming war and declared: “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.” Three days later, the confident Nasser said:

The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon are poised on the borders of Israel… standing behind us are the armies of Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan and the whole Arab nation. This act will astound the world. Today they will know that the Arabs are arranged for battle, the critical hour has arrived…

Two weeks later, Nasser was dealt a horrific defeat, in record time. The Arabs took a page out of Israel’s notebook and launched their own pre-emptive strike in 1973, on Yom Kippur no less, and were again soundly defeated.

My neighbour’s father happened to serve in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in the Sinai Peninsula. He told me how his division was being shelled from the Egyptian side one night. Everyone watched in awe as the projectiles flying towards them were getting deflected out of the sky to the left and right, inexplicably dropping like flies on either side of the camp. As an Iraqi Jew, speaking Arabic fluently, he was posted to guard the Egyptian prisoners of war—and to listen in on their conversations for any valuable intelligence. He relayed to me how the Egyptians themselves were stunned and spoke of nothing but the God of the Jews miraculously protecting His people.

Our enemies have seen the miracles, yet they remain obstinate, just like Pharaoh and the ancient Egyptians. The face of that resistance, more than any other, is Yasser Arafat, who has become even larger in his death than in his life. Arafat is that deceptive weasel who convinced the world he was working for peace—even winning himself a Nobel Peace Prize—while working behind closed doors to terrorize innocent people and undermine the peace process every step of the way. Arafat is a modern-day “pharaoh”. The root of his name, Arafat (ערפאת), is oref (ערפ), literally the “back of the neck”, a symbol of stubbornness. It just so happens that our Sages long ago described Pharaoh (פרעה) as having the same stiff-necked root.

At first glance, one might think that this connection is trivial. But let’s not forget that Arafat himself was an Egyptian! He was born, raised, and educated in Egypt. His father was born in Gaza City, but, ironically, fought the Egyptian courts for 25 years to essentially prove that he was Egyptian, in order to secure Egyptian land that he felt he should have inherited! Of course, in some publications Arafat’s early life has since been rewritten for political purposes, as if he was really born in Jerusalem, where supposedly both his parents lived happily, and only went to Cairo for business. In reality, there is nothing “Palestinian” about Arafat! To be fair, there is little that’s “Palestinian” about most Palestinian Arabs, as admitted by Fathi Hammad, Gaza’s Minister of the Interior, in a recent TV interview:

Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptians and the other half are Saudis. Who are the Palestinians? Egyptian! They may be from Alexandria, from Cairo, from Dumietta, from the North, from Aswan, from Upper Egypt. We are Egyptians. We are Arabs.

So, too, was Arafat: an Egyptian, an Arab. Not surprisingly, when he went to Israel to fight the establishment of the new State, he did not join the local “Palestinian” fedayeen, but was an agent of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. During that time, he adopted the Arab keffiyeh as his favourite headdress, with his own spin on the traditional design: Arafat wore the keffiyeh draped over his shoulder to form a triangle. This was supposed to represent the triangular shape of Israel that he was trying to “liberate”. At the same time, he coincidentally made it half-resemble the traditional headdress of the ancient pharaohs!

 

I do not wish to insinuate that Arafat was a pharaoh—he could only dream about having such power and authority. Nor is there any biological or cultural connection between the ancient Egyptians and the current dwellers of Egypt, who are Muslim Arabs. Rather, Arafat and the Pharaoh of this week’s parasha have that same wicked, obstinate spirit. They are rebellious by their very nature, hard of heart, and stubborn to the tremendous detriment of their own supporters (while themselves selfishly living in opulence).

Truly, most of the Arab-Muslim leaders historically have been cut from that same mold. They have refused to see the miraculous nature of Israel, and the great benefit that could be reaped from becoming friendlier. (Thankfully, that has changed somewhat of late, with more positive attitudes coming out of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States—hopefully a sign of things to come).

Worst of all, the Arab leaders have refused to heed the call of their own holy book, for the Koran (5:21) states: “[Moses said], ‘O my people! Enter the Holy Land which God has written for you, and do not turn tail, otherwise you will be losers.’” As well as (17:104): “And thereafter, We said to the Children of Israel: ‘Dwell in the land. When the promise of the Everlasting Life comes, We shall bring you all together.’” Based on such verses, Imam Abdul Hadi Palazzi, head of the Italian Muslim Assembly, has said:

…the Qur’an specifies that the Land of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, that God Himself gave that Land to them as heritage and ordered them to live therein. It also announces that—before the end of the time—the Jewish people will come from many different countries to retake possession of that heritage of theirs. Whoever denies this actually denies the Qur’an itself. If he is not a scholar, and in good faith believes what other people say about this issue, he is an ignorant Muslim. If, on the contrary, he is informed about what the Qur’an and openly opposes it, he ceases to be a Muslim.

Imam Palazzi is not alone. Egypt’s Dr. Tawfik Hamid, in his 2004 article Why I Love Israel Based on the Quran, concluded “No Muslim has the right to interfere with the gathering of the Jews in Israel, as this is the will of God himself”. That same year, Abdurrahman Wahid, then president of Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim country) said in an interview that “…there is a wrong perception that Islam is in disagreement with Israel. This is caused by Arab propaganda…” Jordan’s Sheikh Ahmad al-Adwan wrote: “Indeed, I recognize their sovereignty over their land. I believe in the Holy Koran, and this fact is stated many times in the book.” Unfortunately, these brave voices are drowned out by the ignorant, human-shield-supporting cowards.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember Who is pulling all the strings behind the scenes. Just as it was in Egypt millennia ago, God is orchestrating everything, setting the stage for the Final Redemption, which promises to be even more miraculous than the first, as Jeremiah (16:14-15) declared long ago:

Therefore, behold, days are coming, says the Lord, that it shall no more be said: “As the Lord lives, that brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but rather: “As the Lord lives, that brought the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the countries where He had driven them”; and I will bring them back into their land that I gave unto their fathers…

A time will come when the Exodus from Egypt will be overshadowed by the far greater Redemption at the End of Days. While we have started to see some miracles already, the best is yet to come.

Hold on to your seats.

How Many Messiahs Will There Be?

In this week’s parasha, Vayechi, Jacob relays his deathbed blessings and prophecies to his children. When blessing his son Dan, he says “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem!” (Genesis 49:18) The Midrash explains that Jacob foresaw the future Samson, of Dan’s tribe, who was a potential messiah in his generation, and got excited that the Redemption would finally come (Beresheet Rabbah 98:14). He then saw Samson die, and exclaimed, “Alas, this one, too, has died—I hope for Your salvation, Hashem!” Jacob looked far into the future and saw all the many potential messiahs that would attempt to redeem Israel, but ultimately fail. Samson was perhaps the closest to accomplishing the task, but then Jacob saw that “this one, too, has died.”

“Death of Samson”, by Gustav Doré

Over the past three millennia, Israel has seen a fair share of potential messiahs arise, some legitimate (but failing) and some entirely false. Jewish tradition holds that there is a potential messiah in each generation, and if the generation merits it, he would immediately come. The identity of some of these potential messiahs we know of, for our Sages have told us clearly who they are. These are the ones that actually revealed themselves in some capacity, but were unable to complete the task. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) might refer to these potential messiahs as being b’chezkat Mashiach, the “presumptive messiah”, but if they are unable to fulfil all the tasks that Mashiach must, whether because they died too early or otherwise, then we can be certain that they are not the messiah. It is worth reading the Rambam’s words directly (Mishneh Torah, Melachim u’Milchamot, ch. 11):

If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as did David, his ancestor, and will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach [בחזקת שהוא משיח].

If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Mashiach [הרי זה משיח בודאי]. He will then improve the entire world, motivating all the nations to serve God together, as Zephaniah 3:9 states: “I will transform the peoples to a purer language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.”

If he did not succeed to this degree, or was killed, he surely is not the redeemer promised by the Torah. Rather, he should be considered as all the other proper and complete kings of the Davidic dynasty who died. God caused him to arise only to test the many, as Daniel 11:35 states: “And some of the wise men will stumble, to try them, to refine, and to clarify until the appointed time, because the set time is in the future.”

Jesus of Nazareth, who aspired to be the Mashiach, and was executed by the court, was also alluded to in Daniel’s prophecies, as 11:14 states: “The vulgar among your people shall exalt themselves in an attempt to fulfill the vision, but they shall stumble.”

Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity? All the prophets spoke of Mashiach as the redeemer of Israel and their saviour who would gather their dispersed and strengthen their observance of the mitzvot. In contrast, Christianity caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord.

Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him [ie. Mohammed] will only serve to prepare the way for Mashiach’s coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together…

How will this come about? The entire world has already become filled with the mention of Mashiach, Torah, and mitzvot. These matters have been spread to the furthermost islands to many stubborn-hearted nations. They discuss these matters and the mitzvot of the Torah, saying: “These mitzvot were true, but were already negated in the present age and are not applicable for all time.” Others say: “Implied in the mitzvot are hidden concepts that cannot be understood simply. The Mashiach has already come and revealed those hidden truths.”

When the true Messianic king will arise and prove successful, his position becoming exalted and uplifted, they will all return and realize that their ancestors endowed them with a false heritage and their prophets and ancestors caused them to err.

The Rambam gives us much to ponder in these words. He explains the distinction between a true, righteous, potential messiah, who might do a great deal of good but unfortunately fail, versus a false messiah who causes Israel to go astray. The latter is a test sent by the God, as the Torah itself states that occasionally a false prophet will arise to make Israel go astray, and God warns us that “you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord, your God, is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 13:4)

The Four Saviours

When we take a look back through Jewish history we find a number of people who claimed, or were proclaimed, to be the messiah, some false and some failed. While there have been dozens (if not hundreds) of such figures, we see that only 15 actually had some kind of significant following, or left an indelible mark on Judaism. I believe these 15 were alluded to by the prophet Micah, who said: “… Then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight princes of men.” (Micah 5:4) The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:1) comments on this perplexing verse:

There is a great debate with regards to how many messiahs there will be. Some say there will be seven, as it is said “then shall we raise against him seven shepherds…” And some say there will be eight, as it is said, “and eight princes of men.” And it is neither of these, but actually four, as it is said, “And the Lord showed me four craftsmen…” (Zechariah 2:3)

And David came to explain who these four craftsmen are [in Psalms 60:9 and 108:9, where God declares: “Gilead is mine, Menashe is mine; Ephraim also is the defence of my head; Judah is my sceptre”]: “Gilead is mine” refers to Elijah, who is from the land of Gilead; “Menashe is mine” refers to the messiah who comes from the tribe of Menashe… “Ephraim is the defence of my head” refers to the Warrior Messiah who comes from Ephraim… “Judah is my sceptre” refers to the Great Redeemer, who is a descendant of David.

The Midrash rejects the notion that there are seven or eight saviours, based on the prophet Micah, and sides with the prophet Zechariah who says there will be four messianic figures. The Talmud agrees, and says that four figures will come at the End of Days: “Mashiach ben David, Mashiach ben Yosef, Eliyahu, and the Righteous Priest” (Sukkah 52b). These clearly parallel the four of the Midrash above (“Mashiach ben Yosef” being “Ephraim”), except that the Sages of the Talmud have “Righteous Priest” instead of the messiah from Menashe. They are nonetheless referring to the same person. When the time comes, we will see four messianic figures:

First comes Elijah. His role is to announce the End of Days and to inspire people to repent, as the prophet Malachi says (3:23-24). It is Elijah, as a prophet, who will confirm the identity of Mashiach and actually anoint him, since the Torah requires that a valid prophet anoint a king of Israel. (Mashiach literally means “the anointed one”.)  Then there’s Mashiach ben Yosef, the “Warrior Messiah”, to fight the great wars of the End of Days. After him comes Mashiach ben David, the rightful heir to the throne. It appears the Righteous Priest is the one who will serve as the first Kohen Gadol in the Third Temple, and will have an important role to play in the process of Redemption. These are the four “saviours” of End Times, and this is the meaning of the prophet Ovadia’s statement: “And saviours will arise upon Mount Zion…” (Ovadiah 1:21) The prophet says saviours in the plural, not saviour in the singular, because there isn’t just one messianic figure, but four saviours working together.

‘Micah Extorting the Israelites to Repentance’, by Gustave Doré

If this is the case, what was Micah referring to in his prophecy of seven or eight saviours? We cannot say that Micah is wrong, for he is a holy prophet in his own right. Rather, when we read that verse in its context, we find that God is not speaking about the Final Redemption at all. On the contrary, two verses later we see that “the remnant of Jacob will be in the midst of many people… and there will be none to save them” (Micah 5:7). It seems that the leaders that Micah is speaking of are the false and failed messiahs, who promise the redemption but are unable to deliver, and Jacob remains “in the midst of many people” with none to save them! Fittingly, in Jewish history we see 15 such potential messiahs. Seven of these—possibly corresponding to Micah’s seven “shepherds”—we know of for sure because our Sages already told us about them. The remaining eight—corresponding to the “princes of men” we learn of from the pages of history. Who were these people?

“Shepherds”

The first legitimate, potential messiah was Samson, as we learn from this week’s parasha. He was a righteous judge and teacher, defeated the enemies of Israel, and brought peace to the land, but did not build a Temple or establish a lasting monarchy. The next one after him was King David. David similarly defeated Israel’s enemies and brought peace, and went one step further in establishing a monarchy and setting the foundations for the Temple. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a) tells us explicitly that David was a potential messiah, and in the same passage reveals the identity of another candidate:

The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to appoint Hezekiah as the Messiah, and Sennacherib as Gog and Magog; whereupon the Attribute of Justice said before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the Universe! If You did not make David the Messiah, who uttered so many hymns and psalms before You, will You appoint Hezekiah as such, who did not sing for You in spite of all these miracles which You have done for him? Therefore it was closed…

God was ready to reveal Hezekiah as Mashiach, but the angels protested. After all, David was greater and was not revealed as Mashiach, so how could Hezekiah be? We see from this that both David and Hezekiah were potential messiahs of their generations.

Between them arose another potential messiah: King Solomon. He was literally a ben David, presided over an era of complete peace, and was the one who built the First Temple. Were it not for his many wives that led him astray, he would have undoubtedly fulfilled the role of Mashiach.

When Solomon’s Temple was destroyed four centuries later the Jews were exiled to Babylon, and there lived the prophet Daniel. He was the leader of the exiled Jews, and was well-respected in the Babylonian Court. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) tells us that he, too, was a potential messiah. In fact, the Sages here are debating whether Mashiach must be a currently-living person, or if it could be a historical figure who returns from the grave. If the latter is possible, the Talmud concludes that it would be Daniel, “the most desirable man”. It seems he had the potential to return the Jews to their Holy Land and to rebuild the Temple. Instead, it would be another man who set out to accomplish that goal.

“The Rebuilding of the Temple” by Gustave Doré

This other man is the little-known Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of Judah following the fall of Babylon. Zerubbabel, a descendent of King David, led the first group of 42,360 Jews back to Israel from Babylon, and started the rebuilding of the Temple. In the Books of Haggai and Zechariah, we are told how God had chosen Zerubbabel to be the messiah, together with Joshua the Priest (who would fill the role of “Righteous Priest”). Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, Zerubbabel failed to fulfil the ultimate goal, though he did begin the process of the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple (see Ezra 3:8).

There is one more potential messiah that the Sages tell us about: Shimon bar Kochva. In 132 CE, Bar Kochva started a rebellion against the Romans, and was initially hugely successful. He was able to push the Romans out of Jerusalem, reclaim the Temple Mount, and even start rebuilding the Temple! He had everyone convinced that the End was near, and the great Rabbi Akiva declared him to be the presumptive messiah. Sadly, Bar Kochva’s power got to his head and he became a cruel dictator. The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 24b) says that the last straw was when he killed his own uncle, Rabbi Elazar haMuda’i. At that point, a Heavenly Voice declared the end of Bar Kochva, “son of a star”, henceforth to be called Bar Koziva, “son of a lie”.

“Princes”

The above seven were righteous leaders who, although unable to realize the role of Mashiach, nonetheless had a tremendous positive impact on Judaism. Samson brought peace to the Holy Land and set the stage for the Jewish monarchy. David made Jerusalem the eternal capital of Israel and composed the invaluable Psalms, which still make up the bulk of our prayers. Solomon built the First Temple and composed another three books of the Tanakh. Hezekiah ensured the survival of the tribe of Judah while the rest of Israel was destroyed and exiled—ultimately giving rise to “Jews”, ie. Judahites. Daniel kept Judaism alive in exile and wrote an important book of prophecies. Zerubbabel restored the Jews to Israel and began the construction of the Second Temple. Bar Kochva nearly succeeded in defeating Rome, and out of his failure came out the necessity to compose the Mishnah, which led to the Talmud, and all of Judaism as we know it.

David didn’t make it because he had too much blood on his hands (I Chronicles 22:8), Solomon because of his many wives (I Kings 11:4-6), and Hezekiah because he lacked gratitude (Sanhedrin 94a). It seems Samson failed because of his hubris (Judges 15:16-18), or because he married Philistine women, while Bar Kochva became a murderous dictator (TY, Ta’anit 24b). Of the others we are not certain.

There are another seven notable Jewish “messianic” figures. Although each of them started a mass movement of some sort, unlike the figures above their actions did not lead to any positive development for Israel or Judaism, and in some cases led to Israel’s great detriment. Some of these were righteous, some were not; some had good intentions, and some didn’t; yet all failed at the end.

The first is undoubtedly the most famous, and was already described for us by the Rambam cited above: Jesus. There isn’t much we can say about him for certain, and whether he ever even intended to start a new religion (as certain passages in the New Testament, such as Matthew ch. 5 and ch. 15 imply), but the result of his activity was devastating for Israel. Just forty years after his death, the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews exiled yet again. Although a Christian would argue otherwise, one might easily make the connection that the rise of the “Christian” Jewish sect was the final straw for God, and sealed the decree for the Temple’s destruction. (The Talmud affirms that God did not decree the destruction until the Jews of Jerusalem had split into a whopping 24 bickering factions! See Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 10:5.) The Christian world would go on to oppress the Jews for two millennia—all in the name of Jesus, ironically a Jew himself!

Six centuries later lived a man named Nehemiah ben Hushiel. Little is known of his origins. What historical records do affirm is that in the year 614 CE, he allied himself with the Persian Sassanian forces and went to war against the Byzantines, capturing Jerusalem and being appointed its governor. He opened up a synagogue on the Temple Mount and began planning the rebuilding of the Temple. His rule didn’t last long, for the Christians revolted several months later. It isn’t clear whether Nehemiah was killed then, or several years after when the Persians switched their allegiance to the Christian side. Whatever the case, within a decade Mohammed would conquer Arabia, and his successors would destroy the Persian Empire, take over Jerusalem, and build the Dome of the Rock.

Despite this, Nehemiah’s name still survives with messianic overtones in a number of Medieval Jewish texts. Sefer Zerubbabel, which was probably written around the time of Nehemiah’s conquest, links him with the Biblical Zerubbabel, and labels him Mashiach ben Yosef. A couple of other texts from that time period, some falsely attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to give them legitimacy (and likely used as propaganda), also mention Nehemiah as messiah.

Persian Warriors, and the Pope’s Messiahs

About one hundred and fifty years later lived another Persian Jew with messianic aspirations. This was Is’hak al-Isfahani, also known as Ovadiah, and better known as Abu Isa. He led a revolt against the Arab Caliph Al Mansur, and actually managed a victory before being crushed. He claimed to be a prophet, supposedly sent to usher in the Messianic Age. Though he did not state he was the messiah, he styled himself as an Eliyahu figure, or perhaps the warrior Mashiach ben Yosef. His disciple, Yudghan (Yehuda), aka. Al-Ra’i (“the Shepherd”), did declare himself Mashiach ben David. In familiar fashion, when he was killed his followers ended up forming a new sect called the Yudghanites, who awaited his imminent return.

While Abu Isa and Yudghan were religious Jews, they nonetheless instituted some changes. In some ways they were stricter, for example, occasionally following the Mishnaic rulings of Shammai (as opposed to the more lenient Hillel). They avoided meat and alcohol, and added several extra prayer services throughout the day. At the same time, they seem to have accepted Jesus and Mohammad as valid prophets to the non-Jews. They softened the rules of Shabbat and annulled a number of mitzvot. Intriguingly, some scholars believe Abu Isa and the Yudghanites influenced the development of Shi’ite Islam, which was emerging around the same time period. Others believe they may have similarly influenced the development of Karaite Judaism, or that the Yudghanites eventually fused with the Karaite movement.

A few hundred years later another Persian Jewish false messiah appears, named Menachem ben Sulayman. He was a very popular leader in the city of Amadiya, calling himself David Alroy, “the Shepherd” (or possibly al-Ruhi, “the inspired one”). When the Muslim rulers imposed heavy taxes on the Jews, Alroy started an armed rebellion. The Jews of neighbouring cities joined him, and he found some success, taking advantage of an already-weakened Muslim caliphate. At this point, he thought he could declare himself the messiah, and begin leading the Jews to their Promised Land. It wasn’t too long before Alroy was assassinated and his rebellion suppressed. The Jews were punished severely for this escapade. Once again, his devoted followers continued to believe in his return from the dead, and formed a sect referred to as the Menachemites.

Switching over to Europe, in the 16th century there was the German Jew Asher Lämmlein. He appeared near Venice in 1502 and promised the Redemption within a year if the people repented. So eloquent and charismatic was he that he drew a large Christian following, too. His disciples spread out across Europe to spread the message and, amazingly, 1502 was declared in Europe as the “Year of Penance”. Many Jews started to sell everything they had to prepare for their journey to Jerusalem. And then, just as suddenly, Lämmlein mysteriously disappeared. Sadly, a multitude of Jews were so dejected that they converted to Christianity. Among those were Victor von Carben and Johannes Pfefferkorn, Jews who had become Catholic priests bent on destroying Judaism once and for all. They went on to cause the Jewish communities of their day tremendous harm.

The next messianic pair was David Reubeni and Shlomo Molcho. Like others, they operated as a Mashiach ben Yosef/Mashiach ben David combo. Reubeni claimed to come from the hidden Jewish Kingdom of Khaybar, where the Lost Tribes of Israel prospered. He managed to convince several European monarchs, as well as the Pope, that Khaybar had a vast army ready to conquer Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Portuguese king promised him eight ships and 4000 cannons to help in the war. However, the king soon feared that the Sephardic crypto-Jews of Portugal would join Reubeni in a rebellion, and had Reubeni expelled.

Reubeni continued to preach, and inspired a convert named Shlomo Molcho, born Diego Pires. The two convinced many naïve souls including, it seems, Pope Clement VIII (1478-1534). Unfortunately for them, the Pope was in a feud with the Spanish King Charles V (1500-1558), who had the two arrested. Reubeni died in prison, while Molcho was burned at the stake in 1531. He predicted that the Redemption would come in 1540. He was wrong. (To read more about their fascinating story, and the impact they had on the study of Kabbalah, see Rabbi Gavin Michal’s piece here.)

Then came the most infamous Jewish failed messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676). Little needs to be said of this man, and we have written of his actions before. More than anyone else, he had nearly the entire Jewish world convinced that he was the messiah. He would end up converting to Islam under pressure from the Ottoman sultan. His followers continued to believe in him, after his conversion and long after his death, developing a new religion completely distinct from Judaism referred to as Sabbateanism. A small number of their descendants still live in Turkey today, where they are known as the Donmeh. Sabbateanism had a massively negative effect on Judaism, as history has proven. (For more on the Shabbatai Tzvi affair and its side-effects, see the works of Gershom Scholem.)

Abulafia’s 1285 treatise “Light of the Intellect”

It is important to mention again that there have been other false messiahs in history, but they have been excluded from the present discussion because they found very little success. For example, there was the case of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, the kabbalist who declared himself the messiah in Sicily. He was immediately condemned by other rabbis, and failed to generate any kind of movement. There were also a number of messianic claimants in Yemen. Most notable were Shukr Kuhayl, followed by Yehuda ben Shalom, who considered himself a reincarnation of Shukr Kuhayl. While popular in their communities—even among some Muslim Arabs—they were essentially unknown outside of Yemen.

There have also been other potential messiahs. As mentioned previously, Jewish tradition affirms that each generation has someone who is truly worthy of being Mashiach. One example comes from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620), who writes that his master, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), revealed to him that the two of them were the Mashiach ben David and Mashiach ben Yosef, respectively, of the time. They did not publicly reveal this, or act on it in any way. It appears they recognized their generation was not quite ready. This brings us to the most recent worthy candidate, in our own generation.

The Rebbe

The Lubavitcher Rebbe

No discussion of messianic figures would be complete without the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It is very important to affirm, lehavdil, that the Rebbe was not a false messiah like the previously mentioned individuals. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), was undoubtedly a righteous man with the purest of intentions, and a most-impressive list of achievements. He certainly revolutionized Judaism—for the better—and had a tremendous impact all over the world, playing a central role in the baal teshuva movement, and the spread of the Torah to the farthest corners of the globe. He inspired both Jews and non-Jews alike, and to him we owe much. It therefore isn’t surprising that there are still a great many people within Chabad-Lubavitch (though not all) that believe him to be the messiah, despite his passing over two decades ago. This is a troubling development, and will hopefully fade away, although there are frightening signs that suggest the opposite. (See ‘Is the Lubavitcher Rebbe Mashiach?’)

It is much too early to tell what will happen with the messianic faction inside Chabad. Will they simply disappear as time goes on, like the Yudghanites and the Menachemites? Will they separate completely and evolve into their own cult, like the Shabbateans? Or perhaps, considering their global reach and passionate activity, they will become like the Christians, with billions of followers endlessly awaiting the return of their messiah? Time will tell.

In the meantime, we continue to await the Final Redemption, and the appearance of those four true messianic figures, as agreed upon by the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the Midrash, and as our Sages taught long ago: Eliyahu, the Prophet; the Righteous Priest; the Warrior, Mashiach ben Yosef; and the King, Mashiach ben David. May we merit to greet them soon.


A Summary of the 15 Most Impactful “Potential Messiahs” in Jewish History

How Esau Became Rome

In this week’s parasha, Toldot, we are introduced to the twin sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau. The Torah tells us that the boys grew up and Esau became a “man of the field” while Jacob was “an innocent man sitting in tents” (Genesis 25:27). In rabbinic literature, Esau takes on a very negative aura. Although the Torah doesn’t really portray him as such a bad guy, extra-Biblical texts depict him as the worst kind of person.

A 1728 Illustration of Esau selling his birthright.

Take, for instance, the first interaction between Jacob and Esau that the Torah relates. Esau comes back from the field extremely tired. At that moment, Jacob is cooking a stew. Esau asks his brother for some food, and Jacob demands in exchange that Esau give up his birthright (ie. his status as firstborn, and the privileges that come with that). Esau agrees because “behold, I am going to die” (Genesis 25:32). The plain text of the Torah makes it seem like Jacob took advantage of Esau’s near-fatal weariness and tricked him into selling his birthright. This is later confirmed when Esau says that Jacob had deceived him (Genesis 27:36), implying that Esau never really wished to rid of it.

Yet, the Torah commentaries appear to flip the story upside down. When Esau comes back from the field exhausted, it isn’t because he just returned from a difficult hunt, but rather because, as Rashi comments, he had just come back from committing murder! When Esau says “I am going to die”, it isn’t because he was on the verge of death at that moment, but because he didn’t care about the birthright at all, choosing to live by the old adage of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. This is a very different perspective on the same narrative.

Another example is when, many years later, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and Esau comes to meet him. Jacob assumes Esau wants to kill him, and prepares for battle. Instead, Esau genuinely seems to have missed his brother, and runs towards him, “embracing him, falling upon his neck, and kissing him” (Genesis 33:4). Again, some of the commentaries turn these words upside down, saying that Esau didn’t really lovingly kiss his brother, but actually bit him! Rashi’s commentary on this verse cites both versions. He concludes by citing Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in stating that although Esau, as a rule, hates Jacob, at that moment he really did love his brother.

So, how bad was Esau really?

Seeing the Good in Esau

Occasionally, we read about Esau’s good qualities. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 1:15) famously states that no one honoured their parents better than Esau did. This is clear from a simple reading of the Torah, too, where Esau is always standing by to fulfil his parents’ wishes. For instance, as soon as he learns that his parents are unhappy with his choice of wives, he immediately goes off to marry someone they might approve of (Genesis 28:8-9).

We should be asking why his parents didn’t simply tell him from the start that his original wives were no good? Why did they allow him to marry them in the first place? If Esau really was the person who most honours his parents, he would have surely listened to them! We may learn from this that Esau’s parents didn’t put too much effort into him. It’s almost like Rebecca gave up on her son from the moment she heard the prophecy about the twins in her belly. The Torah says as much when it states, right after the birth of the twins, that “Isaac loved Esau because his game-meat was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28) Rebecca showed affection to Jacob alone, while Isaac’s love for Esau was apparently conditional. Of course, children always feel their parents’ inner sentiments, and there is no doubt Esau felt his parents’ lack of concern for him. Is it any wonder he tried so hard to please them?

From this perspective, one starts to feel a great deal of pity for Esau. How can anyone read Esau’s heartfelt words after being tricked out of his blessing and not be filled with empathy?:

When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, “Bless me, too, O my father! …Do you not have a blessing left for me?” (Genesis 27:34-36)

Esau was handed a bad deal right from the start. He was born different, not just in appearance, but with a serious life challenge. He was gifted (or cursed) with a particularly strong yetzer hara, from birth. His fate was already foretold, and his parents believed it. They invested little into him. And it seems all he ever wanted was to make them proud.

Incidentally, this is one of the major problems with fortune-telling, and why the Torah is so adamant about not consulting any kind of psychic. The psychic’s words, even if entirely wrong, will shape the person’s views. It is very much like the Talmud’s statement (Berakhot 55b) that a dream is fulfilled according to how it is interpreted. A person believes the interpreter, and inadvertently brings about that interpretation upon themselves. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Who knows what might have happened if Rebecca never bothered to consult a prophet about her pregnancy? After all, Jewish tradition is clear on the fact that negative prophecies do not have to come true. God relays such a prophecy in order to inspire people to change, and thus avert the negative decree. Such was precisely the case with Jonah and his prophecy regarding Nineveh. The people heard the warning, repented, and the prophecy was averted.

Perhaps this is what Isaac and Rebecca should have done. Instead of giving up on Esau, they should have worked extra hard to guide him in the right direction. (Isaac indirectly did the opposite, motivating his son’s hunting since he loved the “game-meat in his mouth”.) The Sages affirm that Esau was not a lost case, and state that had Jacob allowed his daughter Dinah to marry Esau, she would have reformed him (see, for example, Beresheet Rabbah 76:9).

At the end, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and, instead of the war with Esau that he was expecting, his brother welcomes him back with open arms. He weeps, and genuinely misses him. Esau has forgiven his brother, yet again, and buries the past. He hopes to live with his brother in peace henceforth, and invites him to live together in Seir. Esau offers to safely escort Jacob and his family. Jacob rejects the offer, and tells Esau to go along and he will join him later (Genesis 33:14). This never happens. Jacob has no intention to live with Esau, and as soon as his brother leaves, Jacob a completely different course. Esau is tricked one last time.

We only hear about Esau once more in the Torah. When Isaac dies, Esau is there to give his father a proper burial (Genesis 35:29). In fact, the Book of Jubilees, which doesn’t portray Esau too kindly either, nonetheless suggests that Esau had repented at the end of his life. There we read that it was his sons that turned evil, and even coerced him into wrongdoing (37:1-5). In Jubilees, Esau tells his parents that he has no interest in killing Jacob, and loves his brother wholeheartedly, more than anyone else (35:22). He admits that Jacob is the one that deserves the birthright, and a double portion as the assumed firstborn (36:12).

The Torah never tells us what ends up happening to Esau. The Midrash states that he was still there when Jacob’s sons came to bury their father in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Esau tried to stop them, at which point Jacob’s deaf grandson Hushim decapitated him. (A slightly different version is found in the Talmud as well, Sotah 13a.) Esau’s head rolled down into the Cave of the Patriarchs, while the rest of his body was buried elsewhere. Perhaps what this is meant to teach us is that while Esau’s body was indeed mired in sin, his head was completely sound, and he certainly had the potential to be a righteous man—maybe even one of the forefathers, hence his partial burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

At the end of the day, Esau is not so much a villain as he is a tragically failed hero.

Why Did Esau Become so Evil?

Esau meets Jacob, by Charles Foster (1897)

As we’ve seen, the Torah itself doesn’t portray Esau as such a bad person. Conversely, one of the 613 mitzvot is “not to despise an Edomite, for he is your brother.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) The Torah reminds us that the children of Israel and the children of Esau (known as Edomites) are siblings, and should treat each other as such.

Nearly a millennium later, the prophet Malachi—generally considered the last prophet and, according to one tradition, identified with Ezra the Scribe—says (Malachi 1:2-3):

“I have loved you,” says Hashem, “Yet you say: ‘How have You loved us?’ Was not Esau a brother to Jacob?” says Hashem, “yet I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated…”

The text goes on to differentiate between Israel and Edom, stating that while Israel will be restored, Edom will be permanently extinguished. We have seen this prophecy fulfilled in history; Israel is still here, of course, while Edom has long disappeared from the historical record. Jacob’s descendants continue to thrive, while Esau’s are long gone.

By the times of the Talmud, there were no real Edomites left, so the Sages began to associate Edom with a new entity: the Roman Empire. The Sages certainly didn’t believe that the Romans were the direct genetic descendants of Esau, but rather that they were their spiritual heirs. Why did the Sages make this connection?

I believe the answers lies with King Herod the Great.

Recall that approximately two thousand years ago Herod ruled as the Roman-approved puppet king of Judea. He was a tremendous tyrant, and is vilified in both Jewish and Christian tradition. The Talmud (Bava Batra 3b-4a) relates how Herod slaughtered all the rabbis in his day, leaving only Bava ben Buta, whom he had blinded. Later, Herod had an exchange with Bava and realized how wise the rabbis were:

Herod then said: “I am Herod. Had I known that the Rabbis were so circumspect, I should not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make.”

Bava ben Buta replied: “As you have extinguished the light of the world, [for so the Torah Sages are called] as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp’ (Proverbs 6:23), go now and attend to the light of the world [which is the Temple] as it is written, ‘And all the nations become enlightened by it.’” (Isaiah 2:2)

A model of Herod’s version of the Second Temple in Jerusalem

Herod did just that, and renovated the Temple to be the most beautiful building of all time, according to the Talmud. It wouldn’t last long, as that same Temple would be destroyed by his Roman overlords within about a century.

What many forget is that Herod was not a native Jew, but an Idumean. And “Idumea” was simply the Roman name for Edom. Herod was a real, red-blooded Edomite. (Though it should be noted that the Idumeans had loosely, or perhaps forcibly, converted to Judaism in the time of the Hasmoneans.) Herod took over the Jewish monarchy, and began the horrible persecutions that the Roman Empire—of which he was a part—was all too happy to continue. It seems quite likely, therefore, that the association between Edom and Rome began at that point. The people resented that Roman-Edomite tyrant Herod that persecuted them so harshly.

Henceforth, it was easy for the Sages to spill their wrath upon Edom, and their progenitor Esau. Esau became a symbol of the Roman oppressor. “Esau” and “Edom” were code words, used for speaking disparagingly about Rome to avoid alarming the authorities. Indeed, when the Sages speak about the evils of Esau, they are often really referring to the evils of the Roman Empire. It is therefore not surprising that Esau becomes possibly the most reviled figure in the Torah—as the Romans were unquestionably the most reviled entity in Talmudic times.

Before Rome had collapsed, it had adopted Christianity as a state religion. The seat of Christianity would remain in Rome forever after. The Bishop of Rome, ie. the pope, would soon become Europe’s most powerful figure. Thus, when the Roman Empire itself collapsed, the Jews of the time saw the entire European-Christian world that arose in its place as Esau. 

There is a great deal of irony here: The mighty Roman Empire that so violently suppressed the Jews and their Torah soon adopted a quasi-Jewish cult as the state religion, and worshipped a Jewish man from Judea (Jesus) as their god! Christians would go on to push a “replacement theology”: that they are the new “Israel”, that God had abandoned the Jews in favour of Christians, and that the New Testament supersedes the “Old Testament”. In some ways, this is little more than Esau trying to take his old birthright back!

It is interesting to see that just as Esau teetered back and forth between loving Jacob wholeheartedly and wanting to exterminate him, Christian history displays much the same love-hate relationship with the Jews. There were times when the two happily coexisted side-by-side, and times that were the exact opposite. We see the same today, when there are Christian groups that are some of Israel’s biggest supporters and the staunchest opponents of anti-Semitism, and at the same time, other Christian groups that are some of Israel’s staunchest opponents and the biggest supporters of anti-Semitism. As a whole, Christians really do look like the spiritual descendants of Esau.

And “Is not Esau a brother to Jacob?” God asks (Malachi 1:2). From a religious perspective, Jacob and Esau are undeniably brothers, for Christianity emerged out of Judaism, and believes in the same ancient origins, texts, and traditions. So why does God “hate Esau” (Malachi 1:3)? Maybe He hates that Esau who is obsessed with converting Jews, or falsely accusing them of all sorts of horrible things, or constantly persecuting them; that Esau who simply won’t leave Jacob alone to “sit in his tents”.

Martin Buber once summarized the difference between Jews and Christians as such:

…to the Christian, the Jew is the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened; and to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished. This is a gulf which no human power can bridge.

Hopefully the true Mashiach will soon come to bridge that gulf, and Esau and Jacob will finally reunite as old brothers.

The Origins and Kabbalah of Kaddish

This week’s parasha begins with the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch. We read how Abraham “eulogized Sarah and bewailed her” (Genesis 23:2). Today, the ritual most associated with Jewish death and mourning is undoubtedly the recitation of Kaddish. This has become one of those quintessentially Jewish things that all Jews—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—tend to be very careful about. It is quite common to see people who otherwise never come to the synagogue to show up regularly when a parent or spouse dies, only to never be seen again as soon as the mourning period is over. Kaddish has become so prevalent that it has gone mainstream, featured in film and on TV (as in Rocky III and in the popular Rugrats cartoon), on stage (in Angels in America and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3), and in literature (with bestselling novels like Kaddish in Dublin, and Kaddish For an Unborn Child).

 

Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, recites Kaddish for his beloved coach and mentor. 

And yet, the origins of Kaddish are entirely clouded in mystery. It isn’t mentioned in the Tanakh, nor is there any discussion of reciting Kaddish for the dead in the Mishnah or Talmud. Even in the Rambam’s monumental Jewish legal code, the Mishneh Torah—just over 800 years old—there is no discussion of a Mourner’s Kaddish. Where did it come from?

Praying for Redemption

The Talmud refers to Kaddish in a number of places (such as Berakhot 3a, for example), though not in association with mourning the dead. Around the same time, we see a prayer very similar to Kaddish in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13), which has since become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” among Christians. This suggests that Kaddish existed before the schism between Judaism and Christianity, and this is one reason scholars date the composition of Kaddish to the late Second Temple era.

Many believe that it was composed in response to Roman persecution. The text of the Kaddish makes it clear from the very beginning that it is a request for God to speedily bring about His great salvation. It certainly makes sense that such a prayer would be composed in those difficult Roman times. In fact, the first words of Kaddish are based on Ezekiel 38:23, in the midst of the Prophet’s description of the End of Days (the famous “Gog u’Magog”), where God says v’itgadalti v’itkadashti. The Sages hoped the travails they were struggling through were the last “birth pangs” of the End Times.

In Why We Pray What We Pray, Barry Freundel argues that Kaddish was originally recited at the end of a lecture or a Torah learning session—as continues to be done today. It likely came at a time when public Torah learning or preaching was forbidden, as we know was the case in the time of Rabbi Akiva. So, the Sages ended their secret learning sessions with a prayer hoping that the Redemption would soon come, and they would once more be able to safely preach in public.

If that’s the case, how did Kaddish become associated with mourning the dead?

The Mourner’s Kaddish

Freundel points out that the earliest connection between Kaddish and the souls of the dead is from the Heikhalot texts. These are the most ancient works of Jewish mystical literature, going as far back as the early post-Second Temple era. (Scholars date the earliest texts to the 3rd century CE). One of these texts reads:

In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal the depths of Torah to Israel… and David will recite a song before God, and the righteous will respond after him: “Amen, yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya itbarach” from the midst of the Garden of Eden. And the sinners of Israel will answer “Amen” from Gehinnom.

Immediately, God says to the angels: “Who are these that answer ‘Amen’ from Gehinnom?” [The angels] say before Him: “Master of the Universe, these are the sinners of Israel who, even though they are in great distress, they strengthen themselves and say ‘Amen’ before You.” Immediately, God says to the angels: “Open for them the gates of the Garden of Eden, so that they can come and sing before Me…”

The Heikhalot connect Kaddish (specifically its central verse, “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”) to a Heavenly prayer that will be recited at the End of Days, when the souls in Gehinnom will finally have reprieve. We can already start to see how this might relate to mourning, or spiritually assisting, the recently deceased.

This is related to another well-known story that is by far the most-oft used as the origin of Kaddish. In this narrative, a certain great sage—usually Rabbi Akiva, but sometimes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai—sees a person covered in ash and struggling with piles of lumber. The poor person explains that he is actually dead, and his eternal punishment (reminiscent of popular Greek mythology) is to forever gather wood, only to be burned in the flames of that wood, and to repeat it all over again. The Sage asks if there is anything he could do to help, to which the dead man replies that if only his son would say a particular prayer, he would be relieved of his eternal torment.

The nature of that prayer varies from one story to the next. In some, it is the Shema, in others it is Barchu, and in others it is a reading of the Haftarah (see, for example, Kallah Rabbati 2, Machzor Vitry 144, Zohar Hadash on Acharei Mot, and Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zuta 17). It is only in later versions of the story that the prayer the son must say is Kaddish. Whatever the case, between the Heikhalot texts, and these Midrashic accounts, we now have a firm connection linking Kaddish with the deceased.

I believe there is one more significant (yet overlooked) source to point out:

The most important part of the Kaddish is undoubtedly the verse yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya. As we saw in the Heikhalot above, this is the part that especially arouses God’s mercy. The Talmud (Berakhot 3a) agrees when it says essentially the same thing about the entire congregation reciting aloud “yehe sheme hagadol mevorach”. These special words are based on several Scriptural verses, such as Psalm 113:2 and Daniel 2:20. It also appears in Job 1:21.

Here, Job suffers the death of all of his children. Upon hearing the tragic news, he famously says: “…naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Hebrew it reads: Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai mevorach. The parallel is striking. The first person in history to recite the great “yehe sheme rabba” upon the death of a family member is none other than Job. In some way, Job may be the originator of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Birth of a Custom

Officially, the earliest known mention of reciting Kaddish for the dead is Sefer HaRokeach, by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176-1238). Shortly after, his student Rabbi Itzchak of Vienna (1200-1270) writes in his Ohr Zarua that Ashkenazim have a custom to recite Kaddish upon the dead. He explicitly states that Tzarfati Jews (and as an extension, Sephardic Jews) do not have such a custom.

That much is already clear from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest of Sephardic sages in his day, who makes no mention of a Mourner’s Kaddish anywhere in his comprehensive Mishneh Torah. (The Rambam does speak about the regular Kaddish, unrelated to the dead, which is recited throughout the daily prayers.) We see that in his time, Kaddish was still a strictly Ashkenazi practice. Why is it that Ashkenazi Jews in particular began to say Kaddish for the dead?

Most scholars believe the answer lies within the Crusades. The First Crusade (1095-1099) was a massive disaster for Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. While the Crusades were meant to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, many local Christians argued that there was no need to fight the heathen all the way in the Holy Land when there were so many local Jewish “heathens” among them. The result is what is referred to as “the Rhineland massacres”, described by some as “the First Holocaust”. Countless Jews were slaughtered.

‘Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099’ by Émile Signol

Like in the times of Roman persecution a millennium earlier, the Ashkenazi Sages sought comfort in the words of Kaddish, beseeching the coming of God’s Final Redemption, and at the same time seeking to honour the poor souls of the murdered. It therefore isn’t surprising that Rabbi Elazar of Worms is the first to speak of Kaddish for the dead, as his hometown of Worms (along with the town of Speyer) was among the first to be attacked, in May of 1096.

It is important to remember that Rabbi Elazar was a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the “German Pietist” movement known for its mysticism and asceticism (not to be confused with the much later Hasidic movement). The Hasidei Ashkenaz would have been particularly well-versed in Heikhalot and Midrashim. Everything points to this group as being the true originators of reciting Kaddish for the dead.

The practice spread from there. Indeed, there was a great deal of Jewish migration in those turbulent times. For example, one of the greatest Ashkenazi sages, Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), was born in Cologne, Germany, but fled persecution and settled in Toledo, Spain. His renowned sons, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (Ba’al HaTurim, c. 1269-1343), and Yehudah ben Asher (c. 1270-1349) continued to lead the Sephardic Jewish community of Toledo. And it was there in Toledo that was born one of the greatest of Sephardi sages, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Arukh, still the primary code of Jewish law.

In the Shulchan Arukh we read how reciting Kaddish at a funeral is a must (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). We are then told that there is a custom based on the Midrash to continue reciting Kaddish for twelve months, though only for a parent, and possibly only for a father. The reasoning for the latter is entirely different: since it is a father’s obligation to teach his son Torah, by reciting Kaddish the son demonstrates that the father had fulfilled the mitzvah, and left behind a proper Jewish legacy.

It is quite amazing to see that as late as 500 years ago, Mourner’s Kaddish was still defined in very narrow terms, and described as more of a custom based on Midrash than an absolute halachic necessity. How did it transform into a supreme Jewish prayer?

Enter the Arizal

As with many other Jewish practices we find so common today, it looks like it was the influence of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), history’s foremost Kabbalist, that made the Mourner’s Kaddish so universal, and so essential. Fittingly, he was the perfect candidate for the job, being the product of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and ending his life as the leader of the Sephardi sages of Tzfat.

The Arizal discussed the mysteries of Kaddish at great length. Like most of his teachings, they were put to paper by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). The latter devotes a dozen dense pages to Kaddish in Sha’ar HaKavanot. He first explains the various forms of Kaddish recited during the regular prayer services. In brief, we find that Kaddish is recited between the major prayer sections because each part of the prayer is associated with a different mystical universe, and a different Heavenly Palace, and Kaddish facilitates the migration from one world to the next.

Recall that Kabbalah describes Creation in four universes or dimensions: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The four sections of prayer correspond to the four ascending universes: the morning blessings and the first prayers up until Hodu correspond to Asiyah; the Pesukei d’Zimrah corresponds to Yetzirah; the Shema and its blessings parallel Beriah; and the climax of the prayer, the Amidah, is Atzilut, the level of pure Divine Emanation. For this reason, the Amidah is recited in complete silence and stillness, for at the level of Atzilut, one is entirely unified with God.

The Arizal delves in depth into the individual letters and gematrias of Kaddish, its words and phrases, and how they correspond to various names of God and Heavenly Palaces. He relays the proper meditations to have in mind when reciting the different types of Kaddish, at different stages of prayer. To simplify, the Arizal teaches that Kaddish helps us move ever higher from one world to the next, and more cosmically, serves to elevate the entire universe into higher dimensions. We can already see how this would be related to assisting the dead, spiritually escorting the soul of the deceased higher and higher through the Heavenly realms.

More intriguingly, Rabbi Vital writes that Kaddish is meant to prepare the soul for the Resurrection of the Dead. He goes on to cite his master in saying that Kaddish should be recited every single day, including Shabbat and holidays, for an entire year following the passing of a parent. He says that Kaddish not only helps to free a soul from Gehinnom, but more importantly to help it attain Gan Eden. It elevates all souls, even righteous ones. This is why one should say Kaddish for a righteous person just as much as for a wicked person, and this is why it should be said even on Shabbat (when souls in Gehinnom are given rest). Rabbi Vital then says how the Arizal would also say Kaddish every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, which is now the norm as well.

Ironically, while Kaddish began as an Ashkenazi custom, Rabbi Vital writes that the Arizal made sure to recite Kaddish according to the Sephardi text!

Repairing the World

Another interesting point that Rabbi Vital explains is why Kaddish is in Aramaic, and not Hebrew like the rest of the prayers. He reminds us the words of the Zohar that both Hebrew and Aramaic are written with the exact same letters because these are the Divine Letters of Creation, but Hebrew comes from the side of purity and holiness, while Aramaic is from the “other side” of impurity and darkness. Hebrew is the language of the angels, while Aramaic is the language of the impure spirits. The angels speak Hebrew, but do not understand Aramaic, while their antagonists speak Aramaic, and do not understand Hebrew. When we learn Torah and Mishnah, in Hebrew, we please the angels who take our words up to Heaven. When we learn Talmud and Zohar, in Aramaic, we destroy those dark spirits who cannot stand the fact that a person is using their tongue for words of light and holiness.

The same applies to our prayers. The bulk of our prayers are in holy Hebrew, the language of angels. Kaddish is in Aramaic because it is meant to elevate us, and the universe around us, into higher dimensions. In this vital task, we cannot risk elevating the impure spirits along with us, contaminating the upper worlds. Thus, by saying it in Aramaic, we push away the impure spirits who are unable to withstand us using their language in purity. Those evil forces are driven away, and we can ascend and rectify in complete purity.

This, in brief, is the tremendous power of Kaddish. This is why we recite it so many times over the course of the day. And this is why every Jew is so mysteriously drawn to this prayer and ritual, possibly above all others. Deep inside the soul of every Jew—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—is a yearning to repair the world, to destroy the impure, to uplift the universe, and to recite loudly: “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”