Category Archives: Archaeology & History

What is Tekhelet?

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Tetzave, the Torah describes the special garments worn by the Kohanim. Making these garments requires the use of three unique dyed fabrics: tekhelet, argaman, v’tola’at shani, “blue, purple, and crimson wool”. Last year, we discussed tola’at shani and the practice of wearing a red string on the wrist. This year we will explore the other two ingredients: tekhelet and argaman. What are they and where do they come from?

In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules discovered Tyrian purple when his dog chewed on sea snails, as depicted here in Peter Paul Rubens’ “Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye”

Argaman is more commonly known as “Tyrian purple” or “royal purple”, a famous and prized dye in ancient times. Historical records and archaeological findings show that as early as 3500 years ago, trade in Tyrian purple was widespread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was the Phoenicians who were experts in its production, and carried it around the region. (In fact, the root of the term Phoenician means “purple” in Greek. Similarly, some scholars have found evidence that Canaan means “dye merchant”.) Tyrian purple was worth at least as much as silver, and in some points in history, more than gold.

By the Roman Era, it was so expensive and prized that it was essentially only worn by royalty, hence “royal purple”. An average Roman, or even a Roman senator, would wear a toga pura, plain white, while magistrates and priests wore a toga praetexta, with a purple stripe or hem. Only the emperor would wear a toga picta, one that was entirely dyed purple, with gold embroidery. (Such a toga might also be worn by high ranking generals during their victory processions, as well as by the consuls.)

Shells of the Murex snails that produce purple and blue dye. (Credit: U.Name.Me)

How did the Phoenicians produce argaman? It was extracted from the glands of shellfish on the Phoenician shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. These Murex snails make the dye as a defense mechanism, spraying it on potential predators (just as squids and octopuses, their mollusc relatives, famously do). Research shows that the snails also use the dye for their own predatory behaviour when catching prey, and also as an antimicrobial to protect their eggs. To extract the dye, the snails are either “milked”, which takes a very long time, or more commonly, pierced through their shells to have the glands removed. It would take over 10,000 snails to produce just a few grams of dye!

Tekhelet was made the same way. Though not nearly as popular in ancient times, it was known as “royal blue”. The Phoenicians made it the same way, extracted from a snail. Some say it was derived from a different species of snail, while others point out that the same Tyrian purple, when exposed to large amounts of UV radiation (sunlight), becomes blue.

The Talmud (Menachot 44a) states that the dye was made from chilazon, a snail “whose body resembles the sea, and its form resembles a fish, and it comes up once in seventy years, and with its blood one dyes tekhelet, and therefore its blood is expensive.” It’s not quite the blood of the snail that makes the dye, of course, nor do the snails emerge only once in seventy years. This bit probably entered the Talmud because by that point in history, tekhelet production among Jews had long ended, and knowledge of its exact extraction forgotten. It was probably difficult, if not entirely impossible, for Jews to get their hands on it.

Tzitzit with tekhelet (Credit: Tekhelet.com)

Dr. Baruch Sterman, in a paper for B’Or HaTorah (vol. 11, pg. 185), points out that by the 4th century CE it was actually a crime for a commoner to wear tekhelet across the Roman world. It is highly likely that it was then, for this reason, that most Jews stopped using tekhelet in their tzitzit. Dr. Sterman brings proof from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 12a), where we read how two rabbis were arrested by the Romans for possessing tekhelet. Wealthy Jews living in the Persian Empire continued to pay exorbitant rates to import and use it, until sometime in the middle of the 7th century. It was then, likely due to the rise of Islam and the rapid Arab conquest of the region, that use of tekhelet among all Jews essentially ceased. This is why until today the majority of Jews do not use tekhelet in their tzitzit (as the Torah commands). However, in recent decades, the Murex snails have been rediscovered, and tekhelet is once again available.

Having said all that, Karaite Jews—a small group that rejects the Talmud—believe that tekhelet (and argaman) could not have been derived from snails. And they actually have a couple of seemingly valid points.

The Problem of Karaite Tekhelet

The Karaites believe that tekhelet cannot come from a snail because the Torah would not command something so important to come from a non-kosher animal. They also argue that royal blue tekhelet from snails would have been far too expensive for the average Israelite. Finally, they point out that God commanded this to the Israelites in the Wilderness—so where would they find sea snails in the middle of the desert? Instead, Karaite scholars proposed that tekhelet came from an indigo plant, such as the Indian Indigofera tinctoria (incidentally, this is the indigo once used to dye jeans blue).

Another, more likely, possibility is the woad plant, Isatis tinctoria, which contains the same indigo dye. This plant actually grows in Israel, and was once known as “Asp of Jerusalem”. Interestingly, the Mishnah (Megillah 4:7) states how Kohanim are forbidden from blessing the congregation if their hands are stained with “istis”, ie. the Isatis tinctoria dye. The Bartenura (Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, c. 1445-1515) confirms that istis is a dye “whose colour resembles tekhelet”. This makes it clear that Kohanim in the ancient Holy Temple did use woad as a blue dye, though for what purpose is unclear.

Karaite Jews today continue to make tekhelet from indigo or woad to dye their tzitzit. Since Karaites hold strictly to the Written Torah, they maintain that tzitzit must be blue (and cannot be entirely white like most current “Rabbinic” tzitzit). They hold that any blue dye is fine, since the Torah does not explicitly say that other blue dyes are forbidden. The Talmud, meanwhile, states that a person who uses plant-derived blue dyes instead of authentic tekhelet is sinning, and God declares that He will “exact retribution” from such a person (Bava Metzia 61b, see also Tosefta on Menachot 9:6). And here the Karaites should take heed, for when it comes to tekhelet they are absolutely mistaken.

The big problem for the Karaites is basically everyone else. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote in his History of Animals about the production of blue and purple dyes from snails, as did the Roman philosopher and historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History. These were the choicest and best dyes for clothes and fabrics. While tekhelet and argaman were expensive for the distant Greeks and Romans to procure, they would not have been expensive for the ancient Israelites. After all, these dyes were only expensive to purchase; there is no indication that they were expensive to produce. And the Israelites, like the Phoenicians and Canaanites, were the producers. They made the dyes cheaply, and exported them far and wide, for a healthy profit.

It was only in later centuries, when Israel was no longer an independent entity and was subject to a series of foreign empires, that Jews lost control of the means of tekhelet production. Tekhelet became rarer, and more expensive, and eventually forbidden. This development only occurred in the late Second Temple era, and possibly later. Still, when chemists in the 1990s analyzed blue fabrics uncovered at the Masada archaeological site, they discovered that the fabrics were indeed dyed with Murex snail tekhelet. Even in the late Second Temple era, tekhelet was available and used widely. Besides, the average Israelite in those days would have needed only a minute amount to dye a handful of strings to fulfil the mitzvah of tzitzit.

Another bit of evidence for the fact that snail dye was the real tekhelet comes from the Tanakh itself. While we’ve already seen how historical and archaeological records make it clear that the ancient Phoenicians were experts in snail dyes (not any plant-based blue dyes), we mustn’t forget that these same Phoenicians were heavily involved in the production of Israelite holy items, too! We read in the haftarah for last week’s parasha (I Kings 5:26-6:13) how King Solomon made an agreement with the Phoenician King Hiram, and the latter’s workers played an instrumental role in the construction of the Holy Temple. Granted, this was not the Mishkan of the Wilderness, but the later Temple was based on the earlier Mishkan, and the items were fashioned to the same specifications.

Where was Hiram’s capital city? The Tanakh always refers to him as melekh tzor, “King of Tyre”. This is the selfsame Tyre as the Tyre of Tyrian purple and Tyrian royal blue. We read how “Hiram, king of Tyre, sent his servants to Solomon…” (I Kings 5:15) It is hard to believe that it’s only a coincidence that the Tyrians renowned around the ancient world for their snail dyes are the same ones that the Tanakh tells us worked in Jerusalem! The evidence is therefore quite strong that tekhelet and argaman are the same as the snail-derived Tyrian dyes.

Tekhelet in the Wilderness

The nail on the coffin comes from an even more ancient historical text. Long before Pliny, Aristotle, and even Hiram, the ancient Egyptian Papyrus Anastasi I—dated back to the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1292-1189 BCE)—mentions how a royal blue dye is made from sea creatures and smells like putrid fish. This is particularly important because the Nineteenth Dynasty was the time of Pharaoh Ramses II, who is the one most associated with the Exodus. Ramses II built a new capital city which, of course, he named after himself, and which archaeologists have uncovered and refer to as Pi-Ramesses. This is the same city that the Torah mentions the Israelite slaves built (Exodus 1:11). Putting the pieces together, we now have an answer to the question posed by the Karaites: how did the Israelites find tekhelet and argaman in the Wilderness?

The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, God commanded them to ask the Egyptians to give them precious materials: “And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses, and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment.” (Exodus 12:35) The Israelites got tekhelet and argaman from the same place they got their gold and silver (also used in constructing the Mishkan): from the Egyptians. The Papyrus of Anastasi proves that the ancient Egyptians, too, produced blue and purple dyes from Mediterranean snails. They made “raiment”, garments and fabrics dyed with these colours. The Torah informs us that the Israelites took these fabrics with them. And this is how they had them available for the Mishkan in the Wilderness!

Despite all that’s been said, the Orthodox world today has been very slow in readapting the use of tekhelet. Some rabbis maintain that these Murex snails are not the right ones. The Radziner Rebbe (Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, 1839–1891) didn’t know about the snails at all and instead consulted chemists to produce a blue dye from the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis. The problem is that the cuttlefish only produces black ink, and turning it blue was a long chemical process that required adding iron filings. When later analyzed by experts, it was found that the Radziner Rebbe’s dye was basically synthetic, and the blue was simply a result of the added iron. (For more, see Dr. Sterman’s article in B’Or haTorah, cited above.) Meanwhile, Rabbi Isaac Herzog (1888-1959, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi) was an early proponent of snail-derived dyes.

In recent decades, more and more researchers have explored the subject, and today everything points to tekhelet being the blue dye of the Murex trunculus snail. The scientists at Masada confirmed it chemically, and although some state that there is no chemical difference between woad, indigo, and Murex blue, there are small differences in their molecular structure. One with a chemistry background will agree that the addition of even a single atom can dramatically change the nature of a substance. Still, many rabbis are reluctant to adopt tekhelet, and have decided it is best to wait until Mashiach comes just to be sure.

Comparing the chemistry of blue dyes: though looking similar to the untrained eye, the chemical structure of plant-based Indigotin (top left) is different from synthetic indigo (bottom left) and the indigo of Murex snails (bottom right).

And as for the Karaite argument that the Torah wouldn’t command something derived from a non-kosher animal, this argument falls apart when considering the third ingredient that always goes along with tekhelet and argaman: tola’at shani. The word is literally translated as a “crimson worm” or, more accurately, “red insect”. Tola’at definitely refers to a bug of some sort, as we read in Exodus 16:20 how leftover manna was infested with tola’im.

Tola’at shani is undoubtedly referring to the common carmine dye used around the world, and known commercially in food as E120. This dye is derived from a variety of scale insects, most commonly the cochineal family of bugs. Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University spent many years researching tola’at shani and concluded that it is unquestionably a red insect, which nests in the common Israeli oak tree. In fact, the Temple Institute has already begun harvesting these insects to produce an authentic avnet, the priestly belt that requires the red dye, in preparation for Mashiach’s coming and the return of priestly service in the forthcoming Third Temple.

Clockwise from top left: Professor Amar leads the Temple Institute’s Tola’at Shani harvest; the “crimson worm” on a branch of an Israeli oak tree; Professor Amar holds a cup of crimson water produced by crushing a single worm. 

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.  

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 Rabbi 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…”

The Origins of Ashkenazi Jews

In this week’s parasha, Noach, we read about how the seventy primary descendants of Noah settled the Earth after the Great Flood. Noah had three sons, and it is often said that they divided the three continents of the Old World amongst them: Yefet (Japheth) got Europe, Shem got Asia, and Ham got Africa. This is not exactly accurate.

For one, Canaan is a son of Ham, but did not inhabit Africa, while Nimrod is said to be a son of Cush—also of Ham—yet we know Nimrod ruled Mesopotamia (Genesis 10:10). Another son of Ham is Mitzrayim, which is Egypt, yet Mitzrayim’s own children include Pathrusim and Caphtorim, names generally associated with Greek lands. (There is historical evidence to suggest that the early pre-Greek peoples did come from Egypt.) Yavan, the classic term for Greece, is a son of Yefet. As discussed in the past, Yavan is the same as Ionia, which is the western coast of Turkey, then inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples. (The famous city of Troy was in Ionia, in modern-day Turkey.)

In fact, essentially all of the seventy places inhabited by Noah’s descendants are places in modern Turkey or the Middle East. This makes sense, since the Torah was originally speaking to an audience that was unaware of most of Europe, the Far East, sub-Saharan Africa, and needless to say, the New World. The Torah mentions the origins of those territories that were familiar to the ancient Israelites, and that would have been their immediate neighbours. It also makes sense practically, since Noah got off the Ark in Ararat—somewhere in modern Turkey—and his children and grand-children would have settled lands that weren’t too far away from there.

Mt. Ararat, as seen from Yerevan, Armenia. It isn’t certain whether this Ararat is the Biblical Ararat.

One of Noah’s descendants is named Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3). He is a grandson of Yefet, whose children all seem to have inhabited territories in Asia Minor and Armenia. Ashkenaz, too, is in that vicinity. Even in the time of the prophet Jeremiah centuries later, Ashkenaz was a kingdom in Turkey: “Raise a banner in the land, blow the shofar among the nations, prepare the nations against her, call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz…” (Jeremiah 51:27) The prophet goes on to call on these and other powers in the area to come upon Babylon. Ashkenaz is one of the Turkish kingdoms bordering Babylon to the north, along with Ararat.

Modern-day villages in Northeastern Turkey. (Credit: theconversation.com)

Amazingly, to this day ethnic Armenians in the region name Ashkenaz as one of their ancestors! This claim is not recent; the fifth-century Armenian scholar Koryun described the Armenians as an Askanazian people. Not surprisingly then, multiple places in Northeastern Turkey today still bear similar-sounding names, including the villages of Iskenaz, Eskenez, and Ashanas.

If Ashkenaz is a place in Turkey, how did it become associated with European Jews? Did Ashkenazi Jews come from Turkey?

Debunking Khazaria

One popular explanation for the Turkey-Ashkenaz connection points to the Kingdom of Khazaria. This was a wealthy and powerful kingdom that ruled the Caucasus, southern Russia, and parts of Turkey and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Historians credit the Khazars with checking the rapid Arab conquest, and preventing a Muslim takeover of Europe from the East. It is said that around 740 CE, King Bulan grew tired of his people’s backwards pagan beliefs and converted to Judaism. According to legend, he had invited representatives of the major faiths to argue their case, and concluded that Judaism was the true faith. (This is the basis of Rabbi Yehuda haLevi’s [c. 1075-1141] famous text, the Kuzari.)

Although Bulan did not impose his new religion on anyone, it is thought that much of his kingdom had become Jewish anyway within about a century. Remarkably, a large reserve of antique Khazar coins was found in Sweden in 1999, bearing the inscription “Moses is the Prophet of God”. (Modeled on, and sometimes just refashioned from, Arab coins saying that “Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”!) Archaeologists have found similar Khazar coins all over the Old World, from England to China, showing the tremendous extent of Khazaria’s wealth and influence.

Khazar coin from c. 837 CE, with the inscription “Moses is the prophet of God”.

Like all kingdoms, Khazaria had an expiration date. It was eventually overrun by the Rus, Mongols, and others. Some say that many Jewish Khazar refugees migrated westward to Europe, and settled in the sparsely populated and resource-rich lands of Germany. Since they had come from a place traditionally known as Ashkenaz, they were labelled “Ashkenazi Jews”. This is a great story, but one that has far too many holes.

From a historical perspective, most scholars reject the Khazar hypothesis simply because there is little evidence that Khazaria experienced a mass conversion to Judaism. It is generally agreed that only a small portion of the Khazar nobility had converted, at best. Khazaria simply attracted many Jews to settle there since it was a rich kingdom with freedom of religion. In that case, any Jewish refugees that might later flee Khazaria to Europe would not be ethnic Khazars anyway.

The Schechter Letter

Then came a huge discovery from the Cairo Geniza. Now known as the Schechter Letter (as it was discovered by Solomon Schechter, 1847-1915), the text is a correspondence between a Khazari Jew and a Sephardi Jew, most likely Hasdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915-970 CE). The letter includes a brief history of Khazaria, and states that Khazaria’s Jews originally came from Persia and Armenia, from which they had fled persecution. One of their descendants, named Sabriel, eventually rose to Khazarian nobility, and finally became king. His wife, Serach, convinced him to go public with their Jewish heritage, and they did, inspiring others in the kingdom to convert to their new king’s religion.

The Schechter Letter confirms that the majority of the Jews in Khazaria were not actually Turkic converts but migrants from Persia and Armenia. Shortly after the letter was written, the Khazari Kingdom fell apart in 969 CE. (We know the letter must have been written after 941 CE, since it refers to a battle in that year for which we have other historical records.) The supposed Jewish exodus from Khazaria would have happened in the ensuing decades.

Yet, we read in the commentaries of French-born Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1135) how he learned certain things from his visits to Jewish communities in neighbouring Ashkenaz (see, for example, Ketubot 77a), and that Ashkenaz is undoubtedly German (with Rashi occasionally using German/“Ashkenazi” words, as in Sukkah 17a, for instance). This implies that by Rashi’s time—less than a century after the fall of Khazaria—a geographical region in Western Europe referred to as “Ashkenaz” was already well-known, with Jews there freely conversing in German. It is unlikely that this would happen so soon after the fall of Khazaria; Ashkenaz must have existed long before.

Besides, we know that Jews already lived in Europe at the time of Charlemagne (742-814 CE), who had a good relationship with his Jewish subjects. Charlemagne was born right around the time King Bulan is supposed to have converted to Judaism, and before the rise of Sabriel (whom some identify with Bulan). This alone proves that Jews were already living in Europe long before any Khazari Jews appeared on the scene.

Among the Ashkenazi Jews of the Middle Ages themselves, the tradition was that they had been there since the destruction of the Second Temple. For example, the Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1327) wrote in one of his response (20, 20) that when he moved to Toledo, Spain:

I would not eat according to [Sefardi] practice, adhering as I do to our own custom and to the tradition of our blessed forefathers, the sages of Ashkenaz, who received the Torah as an inheritance from their ancestors from the days of the destruction of the Temple. Likewise the tradition of our predecessors and teachers in France is superior…

A portrait identified with Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, the “Rosh”

The Rosh speaks of three distinct European Jewish communities: Sefarad, Ashkenaz, and Tzarfat (France). This makes one wonder whether Rashi would have considered himself Ashkenazi (as people typically see him today) or Tzarfati? Rashi was born and died in Troyes, France, though he spent time in Worms and Mainz in Germany, hence the reference above to his having learned things while visiting “Ashkenaz”. This implies that Rashi may not have considered himself Ashkenazi at all. (His father was called Rabbi Itzchak haTzarfati, and though he lived for a time in Worms, probably hailed from Lunel in Southern France.) Whatever the case, we see that the Sefardi, Ashkenazi, and Tzarfati Jewish communities were already firmly entrenched at the time of Khazaria’s fall.

Delving into Ashkenazi Genes

Science can shed further light on Ashkenazi origins. One study of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, which is passed strictly from mother to child) found that some 40% of Ashkenazi Jews come from a group of mothers in Europe, possibly converts, approximately 2000 years ago (another related study here). This would have been around the destruction of the Second Temple. We know that many Jews fled Judea (or were expelled) at the time, and settled across the Roman Empire and beyond. Similarly, a study of Y chromosomes (passed strictly from father to son) shows that most Ashkenazi Levites have a common ancestor who lived at least 1500 years ago, most likely in the Middle East or already having migrated to Europe. These scientists conclude that the Khazar hypothesis is “highly unlikely”.

Other genetic studies do appear to show high degrees of relatedness between Turkic and Iranian peoples with Ashkenazi Jews, especially males. Of course, Jews have lived and migrated just about everywhere, and undoubtedly mixed with local populations, while drawing numerous converts. One interesting study found that about 5% of Ashkenazi males are part of the Q3 haplogroup, part of the wider Q group which represents Native Americans and Asians. The researchers concluded that Q3 entered the Jewish gene pool sometime in the 1st millennium. Some say this is due to the Ashina Turks (among the Khazar elite) who converted to Judaism and took Jewish wives. Either way, it is only a tiny minority of Ashkenazis that carry such genes.*

What we see from genetic studies is that most Ashkenazi Jews today descend from ancestors that were already in Europe long before the rise of the Khazars. Historical evidence confirms the existence of widespread Jewish communities in Europe before the time of Khazaria, too. In reality, the Khazar hypothesis keeps being resurrected because it is a convenient tool for anti-Semites to attack modern Jews as “imposters” (meanwhile completely forgetting the other half of the world’s Jews which are not Ashkenazi at all!) or for anti-Zionists to deny a Jewish connection to the land of Israel.

Having said all that, we must still answer the key question: where did the “Ashkenazi” label come from?

Adapting Names

When we look at the seventy “original” nations—descendants of Noah—we find that they represent a very small geographical area. Of the seventy, fourteen come from Yefet and represent Asia Minor, Armenia, and the Aegean islands (Genesis 10:5), nine are Cushites (presumably dark-skinned people), eight of Mitzrayim, twelve are Canaanites, and twenty-six are Middle Eastern, or possibly even just Mesopotamian. As already mentioned, the Torah’s narratives are confined to a narrow geographical space that was relevant to the ancient Israelites.

A “Table of Nations” from the ArtScroll Stone Chumash

When Jews started migrating out of Israel and beyond the Middle East, they needed to come up with names for these new territories they inhabited. So, they adapted the Biblical place-names of locations that no longer existed or whose identity was no longer known. For example, Sefarad became Spain and Tzarfat became France. When scripture speaks of Sefarad or Tzarfat (as in Ovadiah 1:20), it is certainly not speaking of Spain or France! For instance, the prophet Elijah went to Tzarfat, which is described as being next to Sidon (I Kings 17:9). Sidon is, of course, a well-known ancient city, in what is now Lebanon.

For the first Jews who settled in Spain and France, they had migrated the farthest West they could possibly go at the time. For them, these new lands were the most distant from Jerusalem, so they fittingly adapted terms for places described as being exceedingly far from the Holy Land (as in Ovadiah 1:20). They couldn’t use the names of places that were still extant, but only those ancient names that were no longer relevant. In the same fashion they described Germany as “Ashkenaz”, while Bohemia was surprisingly called “Canaan”. Therefore, to say that Ashkenazi Jews are Turkish because Ashkenaz was originally a place in Turkey is like saying French Tzarfati Jews are Lebanese because Tzarfat was originally a place in Lebanon!

It is worth pointing out here that scholars have also recently pinpointed the Biblical Sefarad. There is now strong historical evidence to identify Sefarad with the ancient town of Sardis, also in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), of course. Sardis was known to the Lydians who inhabited it as Sfard, and to the Persians as Saparda. It goes without saying that Sephardic Jewish origins have nothing to do with Turks, as don’t the origins of Lydians (probably the “Ludim” of Genesis 10:13, or the Lud of Genesis 10:22), nor the Yavanim, the Greek Ionians, all of whom inhabited that same area of Asia Minor.

The Tower of Babel

‘Turris Babel’ by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)

After telling us the divisions of the nations in Genesis 10, the Torah goes on to relate the narrative of Migdal Bavel. We are told that the people were all still unified at this point, speaking one tongue. They gathered in Babylon to build a tower to the Heavens, with nefarious intentions. Their plans were thwarted by God, who then scattered the people all over the world and confounded their tongues.

From a mystical perspective, at this point those seventy root nations—which originally inhabited Asia Minor and the Middle East—were spread all around the globe into a multitude of various peoples with new cultures and languages. Thus, all of the world’s thousands of nations and ethnicities, wherever they may be, are spiritually rooted in one of Noah’s seventy descendants.

Consequently, there were those who believed that Ashkenaz was dispersed to Central Europe. What’s amazing is that this was not only a Jewish belief, but a Christian one, too. The evangelical Christian pastor Ray Stedman (1917-1992) wrote:

The oldest son of Gomer was Ashkenaz. He and his descendants first settled around the Black Sea and then moved north into a land which is called Ascenia, and which later became known as the Islands of Scandia, which we now know as Scandinavia. You can trace a direct link between Ashkenaz and Scandinavia.

Basing himself on earlier sources, he lists Ashkenaz as referring to all Saxons, Scandinavians, and Germanic tribes. This argument was made at least as far back as the 4th century (long before the Khazars appeared on the scene), in Eusebius’ Historia Eccliesiastica, where Ashkenaz is Scanzia, another name for Scandinavia and/or Saxony.

Around that same time, the Talmud (Yoma 10a) identifies Gomer (the father of Ashkenaz) with Germamia. While this Germamia is possibly referring to Cimmeria, or Germanikia in Syria—which would have been more familiar to the Babylonian Sages living in the Persian Empire—it is very likely that Jews who settled in Germany would see Germamia as referring to their new land. Combined with the alliteration between “Ashkenaz” and “Saxony”/“Scanzia”, we can understand why the Jews that settled in Germany adapted the name Ashkenaz.

As an intriguing aside, the Talmud cited above holds that Yefet is a forefather of the Persians, too. The Talmud reads: “How do we know that the Persians are derived from Yefet? Because it is written: ‘The sons of Yefet: Gomer, and Magog…’” The Sages seem to connect Magog with the Persians. That might make alarm bells go off in the heads of modern readers who see Iran as playing a central role in an End of Days Gog u’Magog scenario.

To conclude, the hypothesis that Ashkenazi Jews originate among Turkish converts is completely false. While some Turkish converts certainly joined the Jewish nation in the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Judaism predates this phenomenon by centuries. Both historical evidence and genetic analyses confirm a European Jewish presence as far back as 2000 years ago.


*Shortly after publishing this article, Kevin Brook pointed out the following to me, from his book The Jews of Khazaria (pg. 204):

Some researchers thought it was possible that these could have been inherited from the Khazars, but this idea is no longer viable. Ashkenazim belong to the Q haplogroups that were later precisely identified as Q-Y2200 (Q1b1a1a1a) and Q-YP1035 (Q1b1a1a1a2a2). On the Y chromosome tree, Q-Y2200’s parent haplogroup Q-Y2225 (Q1b1a1a1) was found in an Italian sample from Sicily, and geneticists determined that QY2225’s distant ancestors had apparently lived in the Middle East. The Ashkenazic branches of Q are very different from Q1a1b-M25 and Q1a2-M346, which are common among Turkic-speaking peoples, and the common ancestor between them all lived many thousands of years ago, far in advance of Khazaria’s existence.