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How Jewish History Confirms God’s Promise to Abraham

Abraham's Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

Lech Lecha begins with God’s famous command to Abraham to leave the comforts of his home and journey forth to a new beginning in the Holy Land. God promises Abraham (at that point still known as “Abram”) that he will become a great nation, and that God will “bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). God’s covenant with Abraham passed down to his son Isaac, and then to Isaac’s son Jacob, who fathered twelve sons that became the twelve tribes of Israel. God confirmed his promise to the twelve tribes through the prophet Bilaam, who saw “Israel dwelling tribe by tribe, and the spirit of God came upon him” and he famously remarked, “how goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwellings, oh Israel!” before prophesying that “blessed be those who bless you, and cursed be those who curse you.” (Numbers 24:2-9)

Over three millennia have passed since that time, and as we look back though history, we can see how accurately this prediction has been realized. It began with the twelve sons of Jacob, whom the Ancient Egyptians welcomed to their land and initially treated exceedingly well (thanks to Joseph, who saved Egypt from seven years of extreme famine, and then made the kingdom very rich). As time went on, the Israelites multiplied and prospered in Egypt. In a pattern that would repeat itself countless times throughout history, the natives started to become a little weary (and jealous) of the foreigners. Israel was soon subjugated and enslaved. This brought God’s plagues upon Egypt, and the empire was destroyed. Ancient Egypt’s decline steadily continued from that point, and it would never restore its former glory.

Historians recognize three great ages within Ancient Egypt’s past; the last “golden age” was in the New Kingdom period (1549-1069 BCE), approximately when the Israelites would have been dwelling there. Once Israel left, Egypt’s greatness would soon evaporate, and it would be nothing more than a vassal for the rest of its history – to Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

The next major oppressors of Israel were the Assyrians, who destroyed the northern Israelite Kingdom and exiled its tribes. It wasn’t long before the Babylonians overtook the Assyrians. Once the Babylonians themselves destroyed the southern Kingdom of Judah (and the Holy Temple), their own fate was sealed, and it was just 70 years before the Persians took over. The Persian emperor Cyrus treated the Jews very well, allowing them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. He was so good that he is described in the Tanakh as God’s anointed – mashiach! (Isaiah 45:1)

When Persian attitudes towards Israel started to turn sour, the Greeks under Alexander the Great quickly became the new rulers. Jews and Hellenists enjoyed very good relations for some two centuries. In the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) attempted to totally assimilate the Jews into their culture. They failed miserably – as celebrated during Chanukah – and soon disappeared from history, being overtaken by the Romans from the West and the Parthians from the East.

Ancient Empires, clockwise from top left: Assyrian Empire (with deportations of Israelites), Babylonian Empire at its height, the Persian Empire under Cyrus and his Achaemenid dynasty, empire of Alexander the Macedonian (Alexander the Great)

Ancient Empires, clockwise from top left: Assyrian Empire (with deportations of Israelites); Babylonian Empire at its height; the Persian Empire under Cyrus and his Achaemenid dynasty; empire of Alexander the Macedonian (Alexander the Great)

Relations with Rome were good, too, at first. During this time, Rome experienced its own golden age, beginning with the emperor Augustus. Unfortunately, Rome was soon busy quelling the province of Judea and destroying the Second Temple in Jerusalem. At the very same time, Rome was thrust into a difficult period of civil war. In the same year that the Temple was destroyed, Rome had its “Year of Four Emperors”.

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

In 132-135 CE, Rome and Israel were at war again, with the latter lead by Shimon Bar Kochva. After mounting an impressive resistance, Bar Kochva’s rebellion was put down. Just 45 years later, Rome enjoyed the last of its “Five Good Emperors” (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who some identify with the Talmud’s “Antoninus”, the close friend of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi). Marcus Aurelius’ successor, Commodus, was a madman who ushered in Rome’s slow decline (as depicted pseudo-historically in the film Gladiator). The ancient historian Dio Cassius marked the year 180 CE – when Commodus took power – as the point at which the Roman Empire began to change “from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron.”

Silver coins minted by Bahram V

Silver coins minted by Bahram V

Many of the Jews who fled the Roman Empire moved to the Sasanian (or Sassanid) Persian Empire. The Sasanians treated Jews remarkably well, and were in turn blessed with prosperity and riches. It was during this time, in the “Babylon” of the Sasanians, that the Talmud was compiled. Jews were granted semi-autonomy within the empire and had their own representative to the government, known as the Reish Galuta, or exilarch. Sasanian kings even married Jewish women, and one of the most famous of Sasanian kings, the legendary Bahram V (r. 421-438 CE), was the son of the Jewish princess Shushandukht. Unfortunately, his successor, Yazdegerd II (r. 438-457), started persecuting religious minorities within the empire and force-fed the state religion of Zoroastrianism. (Some say he was motivated to persecute Jews because of a prophecy that Mashiach would come on the 400th anniversary of the Temple’s destruction.)

Sasanian and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before the rise of Islam

Sasanian and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before the rise of Islam

At the beginning of the sixth century, a Zoroastrian priest named Mazdak gained a large following and created a new religious sect that even attracted the king, Kavadh I. This thrust the empire into all sorts of religious turmoil, within which the Reish Galuta, Mar Zutra II, led his own rebellion and managed to establish an independent Jewish city-state in Mahoza. This did not last long, as the king captured Mar Zutra and had him crucified. The office of the Reish Galuta was disbanded at this point. Not surprisingly, the Sasanian Empire wouldn’t last very long after this. The office of the Reish Galuta would soon be re-established by the invading Muslim Arabs, who completely overran the Sasanian Empire.

The same pattern then occurred with the Muslims themselves, who initially treated the Jews of their domain quite well. Jews welcomed the Arab conquerors and saw them as “liberators”. Over time, persecution of Jews became more common. In 1040, the last Reish Galuta (and last of the Gaonim, “geniuses”) Hezekiah, was tortured and killed, and the position of the exilarch was abolished permanently. Hezekiah’s sons fled to Spain, where the Muslim rulers were more tolerant.

As is well known, Jews in Spain experienced a “golden age” of their own during this time. But here, too, they would be victimized by the Muslim rulers. The Muslims were soon driven out of the peninsula by the Christian kingdoms. The expulsion of the Jews by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella followed shortly after.

Sultan Bayezid II

Sultan Bayezid II

A large majority of the Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire, where the Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them. In fact, with regards to this the Sultan said, “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool. For he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Assisted by the influx of Jews, the Ottoman Empire flourished. Meanwhile in Spain, Isabella died and Ferdinand was unable to hold onto the kingdom. It was soon taken over by the Austrian Habsburgs.

In 1656, Jews were permitted to return to England, and it wasn’t long before the British Empire became the greatest the world has ever known. A similar fate awaited the United States, where many Jews found refuge. (And were instrumental in its founding and success. In fact, one of the main financiers of the American Revolution was a Jew named Haym Solomon.) It isn’t difficult to understand why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War against the U.S. so quickly and so dramatically, as Russia and the USSR never had much tolerance for its Jews, while the United States was just about always a safe place for them.

fuguOf course, history is far more complex than the simple narrative presented above, and there are many factors in the rise and fall of empires. However, there is indeed a clear pattern: Where Jews are treated well, the state flourishes and prospers; when Jews are persecuted and expelled, the very same state rapidly declines. This pattern is so obvious that in the 1930s, the Japanese came up with their “Fugu Plan” to strengthen their empire by settling Jews within its lands!

In analyzing the pattern, some scholars see it in simply practical terms, as Jews would bring their wisdom and wealth, skills, expertise, and business acumen wherever they would go, and thus contribute immensely to the success of the places where they lived. Others see far more powerful spiritual reasons, propelled by Biblical prophecy. Whatever the case, history undeniably confirms God’s promise to Abraham and Israel: “I will bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you I will curse.”

Purim: The First Jewish Holiday

The festive holiday of Purim is the last in the Jewish calendar year. Most have heard the basic story: the Jewish people are dispersed across the vast Persian Empire, where an evil minister (Haman) has devised a plot to exterminate them all on one fateful day. Mordechai and the secretly-Jewish Queen Esther save the day. The whole narrative is recorded in Megillat Esther, a short text at the end of the Tanakh. While every Jew (and most gentiles) have heard of Passover, the High Holidays, and Chanukah, Purim remains among the lesser-known Jewish holidays. And yet, in several places across our holy texts, Purim is recognized as being essentially the greatest of holidays, and the only one to remain following the coming of Mashiach. For example, the Midrash of Yalkut Shimoni (in Passage 944) states:

…כל המועדים עתידין ליבטל וימי הפורים אינן בטלים לעולם

“All the holidays are destined to be nullified, but the days of Purim will never be nullified for eternity…”

An 18th-Century Megillah

An 18th-Century Megillah

Purim is not only the last holiday on the Jewish calendar year, but the last to remain in the future. What are we to make of such statements? What makes Purim so special that it stands alone among holidays that will be commemorated by Jews for eternity?

To properly answer this question requires first answering a more fundamental question: When did Judaism begin?

The First Jew

What is the starting point of Judaism? When can we say for sure that the Jewish people had their beginning? Who was the first Jew?

Some erroneously believe that Adam and Eve were the first Jews. This is, of course, grossly incorrect, as the Torah views Adam and Eve simply as the first civilized humans. More commonly, people point to Abraham as the first Jew. Though he is certainly the first of the forefathers, and the point at which the tradition – in some shape or form – begins, it is very hard to describe him as “Jewish”. After all, the Torah in its full form wouldn’t be revealed until centuries later. So, it must be Moses and the Israelites, who received the Torah at Sinai following the Exodus. Surely, they were the first Jews! Indeed, most people would pick that moment as the official start of the Jewish people.

Yet, the truth is that those Israelites were practicing a very different religion. There were no synagogues in those days, no amidah prayer and no tehillim, no volumes of Talmud to study, and the events of Nevi’im and Ketuvim, Chanukah, Purim, and Tisha b’Av (among others) wouldn’t happen until far in the future. This was a religion whose rituals mostly centred on sacrificial offerings.

Today, we have no korbanot, no pilgrimage festivals, no Temple or Mishkan, no death penalties, no polygamy, no prophecy, no slavery, no tithes, no priests, no Canaanites, Amorites, Moabites, or Amalekites. Although we read parashat Zachor to remember the evil Amalekites and remind ourselves to destroy them, we have no idea who the “Amalekites” actually are in our times!

The Judaism of today – focused on Torah study, prayer, and halakhah – is completely different than the ancient Israelites’ religion of sacrifices, agricultural laws, and priestly laws. And, of course, those Israelites certainly weren’t known as “Jews”.

Having said that, we are undoubtedly bound by a chain of tradition, and there is a clear evolution from ancient Israelite to modern Jew. At which point did everything change?

The Birth of the Jewish People

Some 2500 years ago, the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, together with its Holy Temple. While the previous destruction of the Kingdom of Israel resulted in most of its populace being scattered across the Assyrian Empire, the Kingdom of Judah did not suffer the same fate. Instead, the people of Judah (among them many Benjaminites and Levites, as well as refugees from the other Israelite tribes which fled to Judah when the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed) were taken captive to Babylon.

The Temple, with all of its sacrifices and offerings, was gone, and so were the priestly rituals. The people were no longer farmers on their own lands; the many agricultural laws of the Torah no longer applied. Pilgrimages festivals in Jerusalem were no longer possible either. To survive, the religion had to undergo a major transformation.

In Babylon, offering sacrifices was not possible, so the people began to offer prayers instead. Making pilgrimages was not possible, so people gave the festivals new meanings, and celebrated them with feasts at home. In Babylon, observing the Torah’s laws directly was not possible, but studying the laws was, so this is what the people did, preserving the law in their hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, those who best knew the law were most respected. The priest gave way to the rabbi. And perhaps most importantly, across the Babylonian domain, as the various Israelite tribes blended together and assimilated, ancestral history became blurry, and everyone simply became known as a “Yehudi”, from the name of the most populous of the tribes, and the last surviving kingdom, Judah.

Thus, it is really at this point, in Babylon, between the First and Second Temples, where Judaism as we know it is born. And this is precisely the time of Purim.

The First Rabbi

Purim takes place during the time of the Babylonian Captivity, after the destruction of the First Temple, and shortly before the construction of the Second Temple. It is in Megillat Esther that we are first introduced to the “Jews”:

There was a Yehudi man in Susa the capital city, and his name was Mordechai, the son of Yair, the son of Shim’i, the son of Kish, a Benjaminite. (Esther 2:5)

'The Triumph of Mordechai' by Pieter Lastman (1624)

‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)

Mordechai is from the tribe of Benjamin, yet he is described as a Yehudi. As we continue reading, we see no more mention of any specific tribes of Israel. Rather, the text always refers to the people, wherever they were across the 127 territories of the empire, as Yehudim. They had now officially become, not Israelites or Hebrews, but Jews.

Their leader is Mordechai: not a priest, not a Levite, not a king, and not a prophet (at least, not according to the plain text, though later traditions suggest that he really was a prophet). Back in the land of Israel, the leadership used to be held firmly by the Kohanim in the Temple, and by the royal family in the palace. In Babylon, none of that mattered. Mordechai was simply a wise man, a respected communal leader and advisor. One may even argue that Mordechai is history’s first “rabbi” in the proper sense of the term.

Purim as Independence Day

By the time the Jews were permitted to return to Israel, and finally rebuild the Temple, they had become accustomed to their new religious ways. Soon, the Great Assembly compiled the Tanakh, and laid down the first texts of prayer and blessing. The Second Temple was not nearly what the First Temple had been; it was devoid of the Ark of the Covenant and the Urim and Tumim. The age of prophecy had ended, too, as did the monarchy. Though there was a return to Torah law, the law was superseded by imperial law, now that Israel was a vassal of the Persian Empire, and then the Greek, and finally the Roman.

A split among the Jewish people was slowly developing: There were those who wanted to return to the ways of ancient Israel, centred on the Temple, together with its priestly and agricultural laws. And then there were those who wanted to maintain the ways that had developed in Babylon. Ultimately, they would form two groups: the Tzdukim, or Sadducees, and the Perushim, or Pharisees. Their names reveal much:

Though it is thought that “Tzduki” comes from the name of their founder, Tzadok, it nonetheless shares a root with tzedek, as this group thought they were the correct ones, following the proper ancient way. Meanwhile, “Perushi” literally means “separatist”, as these were the “reformers” trying to change the ancient system. Not surprisingly, the Tzdukim were primarily composed of the priestly classes, who wanted to restore their central role among the people, while the Perushim were composed primarily of the scholarly class. Perhaps to distance themselves from the Perushim, the Tzdukim rejected any concept of an “Oral Tradition”, and stuck firmly to what is written in the Torah. The Perushim, meanwhile, maintained that there is an ancient tradition dating back to Moses. (Click here to read about the validity – and necessity – of the Oral Tradition.) 

As the priests, the Tzdukim controlled the Temple, and relegated the Perushim to the sidelines. Ironically, this sealed their doom, for when the Second Temple was destroyed, the Tzdukim and their faulty ideology collapsed with it. Not dependent on a Temple, the Perushim survived. Rabbinic Judaism and the Oral Torah thrived along with them. And here we are today.

This entire chain of events was set in motion with the story of Purim, which describes the rise of the Jewish people, and their salvation from the brink of destruction. Had it gone another way, Haman would have finished off what Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar started; the Israelites would have perished, and Judaism as we know it would have never emerged. And so, Purim is a sort of “Independence Day” for the Jewish people. The Midrash describes Purim as the last of Jewish holidays because, ironically, it is really the first of Jewish holidays!

We can now better understand, beyond the chronological reasons, why the short Megillat Esther was included in the last sections of the Tanakh. What began at the birth of humanity with Adam and Eve, then progressed through Abraham and the start of monotheistic faith, and was propelled onwards by Moses and the prophets that followed, culminated with the final formation of the Jewish nation. The Tanakh thus presents us with a clear, sequential evolution from start to finish. Abraham was called Ivri, a Hebrew, and Jacob became Israel, with his twelve sons founding twelve tribes that ultimately came out Egypt. Those tribes settled in the Holy Land, but were later scattered across the successive Assyrian-Babylonian-Persian Empires. And it was in the Persian Empire that we truly became Jews. The Tanakh essentially ends on that note, its central narrative having been completed.

The End is Wedged in the Beginning

Sefer Yetzirah famously states the principle that “the end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning is wedged in the end.” Based on this, we can see a far more profound reason for why Purim alone will be celebrated in Messianic times. As the story of the Jewish people’s official beginning, Megillat Esther also encodes within it the secret of the end.

The Megillah describes a world where Jews are scattered from East to West, fractured apart, assimilating. God is nowhere to be seen. In fact, Megillat Esther is unique in that it makes no explicit mention of God anywhere in the text, as if everything is simply up to chance, hence the name Purim, literally “lotteries”.

Indeed, the world we see today is a mirror of that described in Esther: Jews are once again scattered all over the world, fractured and assimilated, living in a seemingly Godless universe. Once again, we are confronted with intense hatred, and many seek our extermination. The rest of the world is blind to this, appeasing those very people who openly state their aims of annihilating the Jews. It goes without saying that, once again, Persia is at the centre of this threat. With everything that’s going on in the world, there seems to be little hope.

But Purim comes along and reminds us that God is with us, as hard as it might be to see. Salvation will surely come, and from the unlikeliest of places. In the final moments, everything will flip upside down. Just as Haman was hanged on the very gallows he prepared for Mordechai, those who seek to eliminate the Jews will succumb to their own evil devices. And the Jewish people will once again have, to quote the Megillah (8:16), “light, joy, happiness, and honour.”