Category Archives: Archaeology & History

The Truth About the Lost Tribes of Israel

What is the spiritual significance of the Twelve Tribes of Israel? Where did the notion of Ten Lost Tribes come from? Do the Lost Tribes exist somewhere today? What really happened to the ancient Israelites? Find out in this class where we also explore the “Apocalypse of Ezra”, the ancient history of Jerusalem, the strange case of David Reubeni, and when exactly “Judaism” became a religion.

For a written summary with sources and lots more information, please see here.

For the stones, symbols, and flags of the Tribes of Israel, see here.

For the videos on Astrology & Astronomy in Judaism, see here.

For the essay ‘Purim: the First Jewish Holiday’, see Volume One of Garments of Light, available here.

Rabbi Akiva and the Maccabees

On Chanukah we commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Greek oppressors. The leader of the revolt was an elder kohen named Matityahu ben Yochanan. The second chapter of the Book of Maccabees describes how the revolt broke out: the Greek officers came to Modi’in requesting a sacrifice be made in honour of the wicked king. As Matityahu was the most illustrious elder in the city, he was approached specifically and told that he would be rewarded greatly if he brought the offering. Matityahu replied:

I and my sons and my kindred will keep to the covenant of our ancestors. Heaven forbid that we should forsake the law and the commandments! We will not obey the words of the king by departing from our religion in the slightest degree. (2:20-22)

Another Jew then came up to offer the sacrifices, and Matityahu “sprang forward and killed him upon the altar. At the same time, he also killed the messenger of the king who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.” (v. 24-25) The Book of Maccabees compares Matityahu to Pinchas, who had struck down the wicked Zimri back in the generation of Moses.

We are then told that Matityahu “and his sons fled to the mountains, leaving behind in the city all their possessions.” (v. 28) They launched a full-scale revolt against the Seleucids, and “Then they were joined by a group of Hasidim, mighty warriors of Israel, all of them devoted to the law.” (v. 42) Originally, the warriors were not called “Maccabees”—that was only the nickname of Yehuda—but rather Hasidim, the “pious ones”. History’s first Hasidim were mighty warriors!

Matityahu himself passed away soon after and, following an impassioned final speech, left Yehuda in charge of the military, while placing Shimon in charge of making decisions (v. 65-66). Shimon would go on to be the only son to survive, and became the leader of Israel when peace was achieved. Though he did not take the title of “king”, he established the Hasmonean dynasty. (We previously explored his true identity here.)

In the Second Book of Maccabees (8:22-23), we learn how Yehuda divided up his forces:

He appointed his brothers also, Shimon and Yosef [Yochanan] and Yonatan, each to command a division, putting fifteen hundred men under each. Besides, he appointed Elazar to read aloud from the Holy Book, and gave the watchword, “God’s help!” Then, leading the first division himself, [Yehuda] joined battle against Nicanor.

‘Death of Eleazar’ by Gustav Doré

It’s amazing to read that Yehuda made sure to leave his brother Elazar with a group of people to learn Torah and pray. Later, Elazar himself would join the fray, and tragically died by being trampled under a war elephant, in an attempt to strike down a Greek general. Strangely, in the passage above one of the brothers is called “Yosef”, when we know that he is actually called “Yochanan”. Is this a simple error? Did Yochanan have two names or is, perhaps, the text alluding to a mystical secret about the spiritual nature of the five sons of Matityahu? I believe the latter is a very real possibility, for we find the story of Matityahu and his five sons seemingly repeated in a different group of people, some three hundred years later.

Rabbi Akiva’s Rebellion

In the 2nd century CE, the Seleucids were long gone and the oppressor of the Jewish people was the Roman Empire. The Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed back in 70 CE, and now in 132 CE, a warrior called Shimon bar Kochva rallied the Jews again to fight off the Romans. He succeeded at first, managed to expel the Romans, minted new coins, and even cleared the Temple Mount to get ready for the Third Temple. Rabbi Akiva was convinced Shimon bar Kochva was the real deal, and declared him the presumptive messiah. He gave full backing for the rebellion. As we know, it didn’t end well. Rabbi Akiva was executed by the Romans, and lost 24,000 students in the conflict (as explained here).

Before his death, Rabbi Akiva managed to find five new students: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabbi Yose ben Halafta, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. (That said, we have evidence that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon had been his students for some years prior already.) Rabbi Akiva did not have a chance to actually ordain them, so it was Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava that later did, and paid the ultimate price:

He went and sat between two great mountains, between two large cities; between the Sabbath boundaries of the cities of Usha and Shefaram, and there ordained five sages: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua…

As soon as their enemies discovered them, Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava urged them: “My children, flee!” They said to him: “What will become of you, Rabbi?” He replied: “I will lie down before them like a stone which none can overturn.” It was said that the enemy did not stir from the spot until they had driven three hundred iron spears into his body, making it like a sieve… (Sanhedrin 14a)

Thanks to Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava’s martyrdom, the five new rabbis escaped with their lives. They went on to revive Judaism in the years following the Bar Kochva Revolt (Yevamot 62b). Of the five, one in particular stood out: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He was the one that revealed the mystical teachings of Judaism, and gave over what would become the Zohar. These revolutionary teachings saved Judaism and kept the flame burning through centuries of persecution and exile.

Reading the account of the Maccabees and the account of Rabbi Akiva’s students, one can’t but help see the striking parallels. Each revolt begins with a daring elder sage supporting an uprising against a powerful empire. Each describes Torah-observant, pious Jewish warriors hiding in caves and mountains and fighting guerrilla-style. In the case of the former, the Temple is purified and rededicated; in the case of the latter the Temple Mount is cleared and previous Roman plans to build an idolatrous shrine to Jupiter are halted. Five sons of Matityahu lead the war against the Greeks and save Judaism from extinction. Five students of Rabbi Akiva survive the war, lead the post-rebellion recovery, and save Judaism from extinction. The two sets of five have much in common, too:

Shimon the Maccabee goes on to set the foundations for a prosperous new Jewish kingdom, and for a proliferation of Torah learning. Shimon bar Yochai goes on to help produce the Mishnah, set the foundations for Kabbalah and the proliferation of the deepest dimensions of Torah. The initial leader of the Maccabees (and the greatest warrior overall) was Yehuda, while the initial leader of the students of Rabbi Akiva was Yehuda bar Ilai, who is actually the most-oft cited sage in the whole Mishnah! In both cases there is a Rabbi Elazar to “read aloud from the Holy Book” and call in God’s Name. Rabbi Akiva had a student named Yose, and it seems there is no such parallel among the Maccabees, until we remember that strange verse in II Maccabees cited above that calls Yochanan “Yosef”. I believe this is a cryptic allusion that Yochanan should be equated to Rabbi Akiva’s Yose (short for “Yosef”).

Coins depicting King Alexander I Balas

Finally, according to many opinions the illustrious Rabbi Meir actually had a different name, and meir was only a nickname because he was such a holy “illuminator”. The illustrious Yonatan was chosen from the brothers to serve as kohen gadol once the Temple was reclaimed, and held the post for some two decades as the conflict with the Greeks raged on. As kohen gadol, he henceforth stayed away from battle and focused on diplomacy. We know that Rabbi Meir, too, was not a big fan of Bar Kochva’s Revolt, and seems to have maintained good relations with the Romans. In fact, the Talmud tells us he once put on the garments of a Roman officer and went to free his sister-in-law from captivity (Avodah Zarah 18a). Meanwhile, we know that Yonatan was the first to ally with the Greeks, supporting up-and-comer Alexander Balas for the Seleucid throne, after which a grateful Balas invited Yonatan to his wedding and dressed him in royal Greek garments.

So, how do we make sense of the striking similarities between Matityahu and his five sons and Rabbi Akiva and his five students? Could it simply be history repeating itself? Or is it something more profound, perhaps a set of reincarnations for the purposes of tikkun? The major fault of the Maccabees was that, while they ensured the physical survival of the Jewish people, they did not do enough to preserve long-term spiritual success. Very quickly after them, their Hasmonean descendants became Hellenized, took on Greek names, and even persecuted rabbis. It is said that this is one reason why Hasmonean history—along with the Books of Maccabees—was suppressed by the Sages. (Chanukah is the only holiday without a Talmudic tractate devoted to it!)

With this in mind, one might suggest that God gave Matityahu and his five sons another chance, and the second time around they came to ensure the survival of the Jewish faith, the transmission of the Mishnah—most of which is relayed in the name of these six figures—as well as the transmission of major parts of Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah. In the second go, their military victory was not as successful, but the spiritual and moral victory was far greater, ensuring the long-term survival of the Jewish people.

Chag sameach!

Understanding Chabad and 770

770 Eastern Parkway, global headquarters of Chabad

At the start of this week’s parasha, Vayetze, Jacob sees a vision of a Heavenly Ladder and receives a blessing from God. He is told: “you shall break out [u’faratzta] westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the Earth and through your seed.” (Genesis 28:14) The term u’faratzta, translated as “break out” or “gain strength” or “spread out”, is something of a slogan and rallying cry among Chabad Hasidim, who’ve made it their mission to bring Judaism to every corner of the globe, “westward, eastward, northward, southward”. It has further significance for Chabad because the verb faratzta (פרצת) has a numerical value of 770, as if alluding to Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. It was the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), who transformed Chabad from a small Hasidic group into an international phenomenon. What was his vision? Why did he want to put a “Chabad House” within reach of every Jew around the globe? And what does it really have to do with bringing Mashiach and the Final Redemption?

The sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes.

In 1940, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950) arrived in New York City, having fled Warsaw following the Nazi invasion. As the Rebbe was in a wheelchair, he needed an accessible home. A former medical office at 770 Eastern Parkway was the perfect choice, and was purchased for him to live in and to serve as the Chabad main office. His son-in-law (who would become the next Rebbe in 1951) arrived the following year, was put in charge of Chabad’s educational arm, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, and got some office space on the first floor, too. He would take over the movement in those critical years following the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. While his predecessors were officially “anti-Zionist”, the new Lubavitcher Rebbe took a different approach, engaging closely with the State and advising its leaders regularly. While he never visited Israel, he actually never left New York at all from the time he became Rebbe. The groundbreaking events that took place in the years before he took on Chabad leadership had an indelible impact on his vision and philosophy. He was convinced that the time for Redemption had arrived, and he made it clear in his very first discourse, Basi l’Gani.

The Rebbe explained that the seventh generation of Chabad had begun, as he was the seventh rebbe since the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad. This was comparable to Moses, the seventh generation from Abraham. It was that seventh generation of Moses, the “First Redeemer”, that merited the divine revelation at Mount Sinai. So, too, the Rebbe said, this seventh generation of Chabad would live to see the final divine revelation with Mashiach, the “Final Redeemer”. In his first discourse, the Rebbe made clear that “The spiritual task of the seventh generation is to draw down the Shekhinah truly below…” The Divine Presence must be made manifest in this material world. How is this to be done? The Rebbe said we must remember that “the quality of the seventh of a series is merely that he is seventh to the first” so we must look to the initial mission of the first generation, and finish the job now in the seventh. We must be like the first generation, “like Abraham: arriving in places where nothing was known of Godliness, nothing was known of Judaism, nothing was even known of the alef beit, and while there setting oneself completely aside [to call in God’s Name, as Abraham did].” Torah, mitzvot, and knowledge of God has to be spread as far and wide as possible, u’faratzta!

The Rebbe saw the events of the previous years as being a fulfilment of ancient prophecies about the End of Days, and thus the time was ripe for Redemption. He concluded his discourse like this: “Since we have already experienced all these things, everything now depends only on us—the seventh generation.” Henceforth, his entire mission was centered around bringing that Redemption. A decade later, however, no Redemption had arrived. The Rebbe understood that we must not be doing enough, and need to double down our efforts. In a discourse on Lag b’Omer 1962, the Rebbe explained that we all must be like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (“Rashbi”, whose mystical teachings we celebrate on Lag b’Omer):

[Rabbi Shimon] did not wait until he saw a problem, and then set out to correct it. Instead, he sought out problems to correct, asking others: “Is there anything that I could rectify?” And when he was told that there was a place which priests avoided because of a question of ritual impurity, he set out to correct the difficulty. Although the question involved impurity contracted from a human corpse—the most serious form of ritual impurity—Rabbi Shimon was able to make the place suitable even for priests. (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. VIII, pg. 131)

The Rebbe explained that Rashbi was not afraid to go to places of great impurity in order to affect spiritual rectifications. Moreover, the Rebbe continued:

Our Sages also quote Rabbi Shimon as saying: “I can acquit every Jew from the attribute of judgement.” Although there are people who have committed undesirable acts, Rabbi Shimon was able to find grounds for their defense… Rabbi Shimon was willing and able to descend to such a low level because he was among “the superior men who are few in number.”

In other words, Rashbi was one of the first “kiruv rabbis” who went out of his way to reach out to wayward and unobservant Jews. He would see every Jew in a positive light, and find a redeeming quality within them. He would find sinners and help them get back on the right path. He could descend even to the lowest places on Earth without fear of being sullied by the impure surroundings. This has become a fundamental of Chabad philosophy, with Chabad emissaries showing unparalleled ahavat Israel and being widely beloved for their non-judgemental attitude and open arms, along with a willingness to connect with all kinds of Jews on every street corner. Finally, the Rebbe concluded:

… the stories about Rabbi Shimon’s conduct serve as a directive for every Jew in later generations. This has been particularly true ever since the teachings of Pnimiyus haTorah [inner mystical dimensions of Torah], the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon, were revealed. Following Rabbi Shimon’s example, it is necessary for us to “spread the wellsprings outward” to join the two ends of the spiritual spectrum… and spread the “water” to the most extreme peripheries. This will prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach, who will likewise join two extremes… the Redemption will come when the outlook of Rabbi Shimon—who stood above the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash—is spread throughout the world. Rabbi Shimon’s teachings must be spread everywhere, even in places which need correction, even in places which are ritually impure…

The Rebbe here was alluding to a well-known story about the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760, founder of Hasidism), who described in a letter how he ascended to Heaven and met Mashiach. When the Baal Shem Tov asked Mashiach when he would come, Mashiach replied that he would come when the Baal Shem Tov’s “wellsprings”, his mystical teachings, would spread worldwide. In this discourse, the Rebbe took things a step further in saying that the wellsprings must spread not only to established Jewish communities around the world or to other receptive audiences, but everywhere, “to the most extreme peripheries”, to the most impure of places.

While the Rebbe had sent emissaries (“shluchim”) to various communities from the very start of his tenure, now he was going to send them even to places of impurity, immorality, and secularism. In 1965, he sent Rabbi Shlomo Cunin to Los Angeles to work specifically with university students, plunging him into the heart of the liberal world at the height of the hippie movement. Four years later, Rabbi Cunin established the first official “Chabad House” at UCLA. In 1972, on his 70th birthday, the Rebbe famously requested a gift from his Hasidim: to open up another 71 Chabad Houses before his 71st birthday! That same year, Rabbi Cunin expanded to UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. The model was quickly replicated around the world, and the rest is history. Today, there are over 5000 Chabad Houses and Chabad institutions in over 100 countries.

While each Chabad institution is really stand-alone and is expected to raise its own funds and manage its own activities, the overall movement is still centrally-run and guided from 770 Eastern Parkway. The headquarters has become something of a shrine and temple of its own. Replicas of the building have been built in other parts of the world, including Jerusalem and Australia. Of course, many within Chabad believe the Rebbe to have been Mashiach (a question we addressed before here), and find proof within the fact that 770 is the value of “Mashiach’s House” (בית משיח), and more support in that the house is in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood. Some within Chabad believe that when Mashiach comes, 770 will be miraculously transported to Jerusalem. A minority fringe has even associated it with the Third Temple itself!

Replicas of 770 in Melbourne, Australia; and in Kfar Chabad and Jerusalem, Israel

Now, there is no doubt that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a complete tzadik and did more for kiruv in absolute terms than anyone else in history. Nor is there any doubt that no one has done more to bring the Redemption than he did. It is pretty safe to say that while he was alive, he was probably the “presumptive messiah” of the generation, and it is clear from his own teachings that he hoped himself to be as well. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The Rebbe delivered a difficult speech in April 1991 where he seemingly “gave up”, and left his Hasidim totally confounded. Elderly and frail, just months before suffering a debilitating stroke that left him unable to speak and partially paralyzed, the tearful Rebbe said:

How is it that the Redemption has not yet been attained? That despite all that has transpired and all that has been done, Mashiach has still not come? What more can I do? I have done all I can to bring the world to truly demand and clamour for the Redemption…The only thing that remains for me to do is to give over the matter to you. Do all that is in your power to achieve this thing—a most sublime and transcendent light that needs to be brought down into our world… I have done all I can. I give it over to you. Do all that you can to bring the righteous redeemer, immediately! I have done my part. From this point on, all is in your hands…

Sadly, the Rebbe passed away three years later. Nonetheless, within Chabad there are still those who believe the Rebbe is somehow Mashiach, despite the fact that he has been gone for nearly three decades. Some go even further and hold him to have some kind of divine status. No one is quite sure how prevalent these beliefs are within Chabad, and whether they are subsiding or actually growing stronger. Some say it is only a vocal tiny minority that continues to believe, while others argue there is definitely a silent majority. This puts Chabad in a precarious position:

On the one hand, Chabad is the most successful Jewish organization of all time, with massive resources and many adherents, with branches all over the world touching just about every Jewish community. (A 2005 survey found that over a million Jews attend a Chabad service at least once a year.) Chabad is an absolute success, and has the potential to become the dominant form of Judaism worldwide.

On the other hand, if the messianic fervour does not dissipate, or if it gets stronger, Chabad risks following in the footsteps of other Jewish messianic sects that ended up splitting into their own religions over time, forever waiting for the “second coming” of their messiah. Much depends on Chabad leadership, and what will happen as the older generation passes on and is replaced by younger idealists. It remains to be seen which of the two possibilities materialize in the coming decades: will Chabad save Judaism, or will it fracture it? As someone who had his bar mitzvah at a Chabad synagogue, was married by a Chabad rabbi (alongside a Bukharian one), prayed with a Chabad minyan for many years, and still occasionally participates in Chabad services, I very much hope that it will be the former.