Tag Archives: Babylon

Who is Ahashverosh?

This Wednesday evening marks the start of Purim. The events of Purim, as described in the Book of Esther, take place in the Persian Empire during the time of King Ahashverosh. Who is this king? Is there a historical figure that matches up with what we know of the Biblical Ahashverosh? And when exactly did the Purim story happen?

Ahaseurus and Haman at Esther’s Feast, by Rembrandt

Not long after Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the Jews exiled to Babylon, the Babylonian Empire itself fell to the Persians. This was prophesied by Isaiah (45:1), who went so far as to describe the liberating Persian King Cyrus as “mashiach”! In one place (Megillah 12a), the Talmud states that he was obviously not the messiah—though perhaps a potential one—while in another (Rosh Hashanah 3b) it admits that he was “kosher”, and this is why his name (Koresh in Hebrew and Old Persian) is an anagram of kosher.

According to the accepted historical chronology, Cyrus took over the Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE. The Temple was destroyed some five decades earlier in 586 BCE. Our Sages, too, knew that the Babylonian Captivity lasted less than the seventy years prophesied by Jeremiah. They explained that although Cyrus freed the Jews before seventy years, they were unable to actually rebuild the Temple until seventy years had elapsed. In secular chronology, its rebuilding thus took place in 516 BCE. This was in the reign of the next great Persian king, Darius (r. 522-486 BCE). His son and successor was the famous Xerxes I (485-465 BCE), or in Old Persian Khshayarsha, ie. Ahashverosh.

Despite the name, many believe that the Ahashverosh of Purim is not Xerxes I. Scholars have suggested other possibilities, including one of several kings named Artaxerxes. The problem with Artaxerxes is that first of all the name does not match at all, being Artashacha in Old Persian, and second of all the name actually appears elsewhere in Scripture, in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, as Artachshashta (אַרְתַּחְשַׁשְׂתָּא). This is clearly not Ahashverosh (אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ). Having said that, Ezra 6:14 may imply that Artachshashta and Ahashverosh are one and the same. This verse lists Cyrus, then Darius, then Artachshashta, whereas we know from historical sources that following Cyrus was Cambyses, then the more famous Darius, followed by Xerxes I.

The Book of Daniel complicates things further. Daniel speaks of a Darius that conquers Babylon. Yet we know for a fact that it was Cyrus who conquered Babylon. Some scholars therefore say that Daniel is confusing Darius with Cyrus. Others say this “Darius the Mede” conquered Babylon alongside Cyrus, and this version has been accepted by many in the Jewish tradition. Later, Daniel 9:1 says that Darius was a son of Ahashverosh! Hence, some Jewish sources state that the Persian king Darius was the son of Esther. This suggests an entirely different Darius, and historical sources do speak of three Dariuses, the last one being defeated by Alexander the Great.

Perhaps the only way to find the real Ahashverosh is to ignore the other Biblical books and focus solely on Megillat Esther. In this case, the name Ahashverosh only fits Xerxes. There were two Xerxeses in ancient Persia. Xerxes II, though, ruled for just 45 days before being assassinated. That leaves us with Xerxes I. Does the Purim Ahashverosh match the historical Xerxes?

Xerxes the Great

Xerxes was born around 518 BCE to King Darius I and his wife Atossa, who was the daughter of Cyrus the Great. Xerxes was thus a grandson of the first Persian emperor. When Darius I died, his eldest son Artobazan claimed the throne. Xerxes argued that he should be king since he was the son of Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus. Ultimately, it was Xerxes that was crowned, thanks to his mother’s influence. This may be related to the Talmud’s suggestion that Ahashverosh claimed his authority through his wife Vashti, who was the daughter of a previous emperor, while Ahashverosh was just a usurper.

Xerxes immediately solidified his rule and crushed a number of rebellions. He melted down the massive idolatrous statue of Bel, or Marduk, the chief Babylonian god, triggering a number of rebellions by the Babylonians. Xerxes thus removed “king of Babylon” from his official title in an attempt to wipe out any mention of the former Babylon. He remained as “king of Persia and Media, great king, king of kings, and king of nations”.*

Xerxes is undoubtedly most famous for his massive invasion of Greece in 480 BCE, and particularly the difficulties he experienced at the Battle of Thermopylae (where he faced off against “300” Spartans). Returning home without victory, he focused on large construction projects. The ancient Greek historian (and contemporary of Xerxes) Herodotus (c. 485-425 BCE) notes that Xerxes built a palace in Susa. This is, of course, the Shushah HaBirah, “Susa the Capital” mentioned multiple times in the Megillah. Herodotus further states that Xerxes ruled from his capital in Susa over many provinces “from India to Ethiopia”, just as the Megillah says.

Bust of Herodotus

Herodotus also writes how Xerxes loved women and regularly threw parties where the wine never stopped flowing. Indeed, Megillat Esther speaks of the mishteh, literally “drinking party” that Ahashverosh threw. More specifically, Herodotus wrote how Xerxes returned to Persia from his failed Greek invasion in the “tenth month of his seventh year” and spent a lot of time sulking with his large harem of women. Incredibly, the Megillah also states that “Esther was taken unto king Ahashverosh into his palace in the tenth month, which is the month Tevet, in the seventh year of his reign” (Esther 2:16). This is unlikely to be a coincidence.

More amazing still, among the historical records from the time of Xerxes I that have been found we find the name of a court official named Marduka. Interestingly, this Marduka is given no other titles. It isn’t hard to see the connection to Mordechai, also an untitled official in the court of Ahashverosh.

Xerxes’ reign came to an end in 465 BCE when he was unceremoniously assassinated. His eldest son Darius, who should have succeeded him, was killed, too. This once again may relate to the Jewish tradition of Ahashverosh having a son with Esther called Darius.

However, Xerxes’ son Darius was the child of his queen Amestris, or Amastri, the daughter of a Persian nobleman. Historical sources speak of her in the most negative of terms. Herodotus writes that she buried people alive, and she apparently brutally tortured and mutilated a relative she wanted to punish. She was jealous of her husband’s extramarital affairs, and power-hungry in her own right. Although the name Amestris may sound more similar to the name Esther, Amestris’ character fits the profile of a cruel Queen Vashti quite well (see Megillah 12b).**

A Historical Nightmare

One of the greatest issues in Biblical chronology is the problem of the so-called “missing years”. As mentioned, secular scholarship has 586 BCE (or 587 BCE) as the year of the Temple’s destruction and 516 BCE as its rebuilding. Traditional Jewish dating has around 424 BCE (or 423 or even 421 BCE) for the destruction and 354 BCE (or 349 BCE) for the reconstruction. That’s a discrepancy of some 160 years!

Generally, it is concluded that the Jewish traditional dating is simply wrong, as the Sages did not have access to all the historical and archaeological sources that we have today. As we wrote in the past, the Talmud and other ancient Jewish sources do have occasional historical errors, and this has already been noted by rabbis like the Ibn Ezra and Azariah dei Rossi (c. 1511-1578). Still, the traditional Jewish dating need not be thrown out the door just yet.

In his The Challenge of Jewish History: The Bible, The Greeks, and The Missing 168 Years, Rabbi Alexander Hool makes a compelling case for rethinking the accepted chronology. He brings an impressive amount of evidence suggesting that Alexander the Great did not defeat Darius III, but rather Darius I! After Alexander, the Seleucids did not rule over all of Persia, but only the former Babylonian provinces, while the Persian Empire continued to co-exist alongside the Greek. Interestingly, there is another version of Megillat Esther (sometimes called the Apocryphal Book of Esther) which may support the theory. While the apocryphal version is certainly a later edition and not the authentic one, it still provides some additional information which may be useful. This Book of Esther actually says Haman was a Macedonian, like Alexander the Great, which fits neatly with Hool’s theory. Having said that, Hool’s theory is very difficult to accept, and would require rewriting a tremendous amount of history while ignoring large chunks of opposing evidence. Elsewhere, though, he may be right on point.

Hool suggests that Cyrus and the mysterious “Darius the Mede” are one and the same person, with evidence showing “Darius” is a title rather than a proper name. He argues that “Ahashverosh” may be a title, too, and concludes that the Ahashverosh of Purim is none other than Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BCE), the son of Cyrus. This suggestion fits well with the chronology presented in Jewish sources (especially Seder Olam) and with the Tanakh (where, for example, Darius I is the son of Ahashverosh in the Book of Daniel). It also fits with the description of Cambyses given by Herodotus, who says Cambyses was a madman with wild mood swings, much like the Ahashverosh in the Megillah. The timing is excellent, too, fitting inside the seventy year period before the Second Temple was rebuilt and while the Jews were still in exile mode.

Identifying Cambyses with Ahashverosh opens up a host of other problems though. The Megillah has Ahashverosh reigning for at least a dozen years, whereas Cambyses only reigned for about seven and a half. The other details that we know of Cambyses’ life and love interests do not match Ahashverosh either. Point for point, it seems that Xerxes I still fits the bill of Ahashverosh much better than anyone else, despite the chronological mess.

At the end of the day, history before the Common Era is so frustratingly blurry that it is difficult to conclude much with certainty. Without a doubt, there are historical errors and miscalculations in both secular scholarship and in ancient Jewish sources. It seems the identity of Ahashverosh and the exact chronology between the destruction of the First and Second Temples is one mystery that can’t be solved at the moment.

*Perhaps Xerxes’ father Darius is the one called “Darius the Mede” (being unrelated to Cyrus). This makes more sense chronologically if Daniel was one of the original Jewish exiles, as the Tanakh suggests. The Book of Daniel should have said that Ahashverosh was the son of Darius, and not vice versa. In fact, the Talmud (Megillah 12a) admits that Daniel erred in some chronological details. This may be why the Book of Daniel is not always considered an authoritative prophetic book, and is included in the Ketuvim, not the Nevi’im. In Jewish tradition, Daniel is typically excluded from the list of official prophets.

**The Talmud suggests that Vashti was the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar (Megillah 10b) or Belshazzar (Megillah 12b), while Ahashverosh was only the son of their stable-master. This makes little sense chronologically or historically. Scholars have pointed out that this extra-Biblical suggestion in the Talmud may have been adapted from the popular Persian story of the king Ardashir I (180-242 CE), which would have been well-known in Talmudic times.

Mashiach and the Mysterious 13th Zodiac Sign

This week’s parasha is Vayechi, where Jacob blesses his children before his passing. He begins by telling his sons that he wishes to reveal to them what will happen b’acharit hayamim, “in the End of Days”. Yet, the text we read does not appear to say anything about the End of Days! The Talmud (Pesachim 56a) states that the Shekhinah withdrew from Jacob at that moment so he was unable to reveal those secrets. If that’s the case, how was he able to properly bless his children?

The Talmud states that when the Shekhinah left him, Jacob worried one of his children was unworthy to hear those secrets. His sons then recited the Shema in unison and said, “just as there is only One in your heart, so is there in our heart only One.” Jacob was comforted to know they are all indeed righteous, and it seems the Shekhinah returned to him at this point, allowing him to bless his children in holiness. Nonetheless, Jacob reasoned that to reveal the secret of the End in explicit fashion would be unwise, so he encoded these mysteries within the blessings he recited. In fact, Jacob not only encrypted what will happen in the End, but summarized the breadth of Jewish history, as we wrote last year.

One place where Jacob appears to make an explicit reference to the End is in blessing Dan, when he says, “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem” (Genesis 49:18). Jacob says Dan will be the one to judge his people—alluding to the great Judgement Day—and wage the final battles like a “snake upon the road… who bites the horse’s heel so that its rider falls backwards”. Jacob is speaking of Mashiach. Although Mashiach is a descendent of David and from the tribe of Judah, the Midrash states that this is only through his father, while through his mother’s lineage Mashiach hails from the tribe of Dan.

Why does Jacob compare Mashiach to a snake?

Snakes of Divination

Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi

In cultures around the world, there is a peculiar connection between snakes and prophecy. In ancient Greece, for example, the Oracle went into a prophetic trance when supposedly breathing in the fumes (or spirit) of the dead python upon which the Temple in Delphi was built. According to myth, this great python (a word which has a Hebrew equivalent in the Tanakh, פתן) was slain by Apollo. The Temple was built upon its carcass. For this reason, the Greek prophetess was known as Pythia.

Similarly, the Romans had their sacred hill on the Vatican (later adopted as the centre of Christianity). The second-century Latin author Aulus Gellius explained that the root of the word Vatican is vates, Latin for “prophet”. Others elaborate that vatican refers more specifically to a “divining serpent”. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world the Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl and the Mayans had Kukulkan, the “feathered serpent” god of wisdom and learning. And such mystical dragons appear just about everywhere else, from Scandinavia to China.

Incredibly, the Torah makes the same connection, where Joseph is described as a diviner who uses a special goblet to nachesh inachesh (Genesis 44:5). This term for divination is identical to nachash, “snake”. In Modern Hebrew, too, the term for guessing or predicting is lenachesh.

Why is the snake associated with otherworldly wisdom and prophecy?

Primordial Serpent

Back in the Garden of Eden, it was the Nachash that encouraged Eve to consume of the Forbidden Fruit. This was the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The Serpent is the one who unlocked the minds of Adam and Eve to higher wisdom so that they could “be like God”. Jewish tradition maintains that Adam and Eve were eventually supposed to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (for otherwise why would God put it there to begin with?) but they simply rushed to do so when they were not yet ready. They transgressed God’s command, and knew not what to do with all of this tremendous information, resulting in the shameful descent of man into sin. The one who instigated it all was the Nachash.

It appears that ever since then, the snake has been a symbol of forbidden wisdom. Such divination and mysticism can be quite dangerous, and most are unable to either grasp or properly use this knowledge. The Talmud cautions as such in its famous story of the four sages who entered “Pardes” (Chagigah 14b). Pardes is an acronym for the depths of Jewish wisdom, from the simple (peshat) and sub-textual (remez) to the metaphorical (drash) and esoteric (sod). The result of entering the mystical dimensions was that Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma detached from this world, and Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva was able to “enter in peace and depart in peace.” It is important to remember that Rabbi Akiva was the teacher of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the originator of the Zohar. (Still, the Zohar, like most mystical texts, does not speak explicitly of esoteric matters, but cloaks them in layers of garments and complex language which only the most astute can ever unravel.)

Long before, Joseph was a master of this wisdom, surprising even the Pharaoh and his best mystics, who proclaimed: “Can there be such a man in whom the spirit of God rests?” (Genesis 41:38). Joseph, of course, is a prototype of Mashiach. The sages state that Mashiach is a great prophet and sage in his own right, but can he really surpass the unparalleled prophecy of Moses or the wisdom of Solomon? The Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) solved the issue thus:

After the resurrection all will rise… the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Moses and Aaron, all the righteous ones and the prophets, tens of thousands beyond number. Is it possible that Mashiach will teach them the same Torah that is revealed to us today? …Will all who knew the whole Torah be required to learn new laws from Mashiach? We must therefore say that Mashiach will instruct them in the “good of discernment and knowledge of the secrets of the esoteric teachings of Torah” that the “eyes will not have seen”—Moses and the Patriarchs not having been privileged to that knowledge, for only to Mashiach will it be revealed as it is written of him [Isaiah 52:13] “and he shall be very high.” (Likkutei Torah, Tzav)

Mashiach is the greatest of mystics, the holder of forbidden knowledge which will soon no longer be forbidden. The time will come when, as God originally intended, man will eat from the Tree of Knowledge and be “like God”. That first requires a return of mankind to the Garden of Eden, which is the very task of Mashiach. Beautifully, the gematria of Mashiach (משיח)—the one who brings us back into Eden—is 358, the same as Nachash (נחש)—the one who forced us out to begin with. And so, as Jacob envisions, the snake symbolizes Mashiach himself.

While Mashiach is likened to a serpent, he must also defeat the Primordial Serpent which embodies all evil. Indeed, the Sages speak of two serpents (based on Isaiah 27:1): the “straight” serpent (nachash bariach) and the “twisted” serpent (nachash ‘akalaton). Mashiach is the straight serpent that devours the twisted one. This was all alluded to in Moses’ staff-turned-serpent consuming the Pharaoh’s staff-turned-serpent. In fact, another serpent staff, the nachash nechoshet, is later used by Moses to heal the nation. This healing staff found its way into Greek myth as well, where it was wielded by the healer god Asclepius, and eventually into the modern internationally-recognized medical symbol.

And that brings us back to the End of Days.

The 13th Zodiac

In recent years, there have been whispers of a necessity to change the current 12-sign horoscope to include a 13th zodiac sign. This was featured in the media on a number of occasions, with flashy headlines suggesting that some people’s astrological sign may now have changed. This is based on the fact that there is a “precession of the equinoxes”: the earth’s axis changes very slowly over time, meaning that the constellations which are visible in the night sky change, too.

The astrological signs are based on the 12 major constellations (out of 88 constellations total) that align with the sun and “rule” for about a month’s time every year (each making up 30º of the total 360º). The argument is that due to the precession of the equinoxes, a 13th sign has crept in which we can no longer ignore. The majority of astrologers have rejected this argument, mainly because astrology isn’t really based on the stars but fixed to the vernal equinox. While some in the East (namely Hindus) use “sidereal astrology”, which is based on shifting star positions, the system used in the West (“tropical astrology”) has 12 signs roughly corresponding to the 12 months.*

Either way, whether the horoscope requires modification or not is irrelevant to Judaism, which denies any astrological effect on Israel (a topic we’ve explored in the past). Besides, unlike astrologers, astronomers both ancient and modern have always been aware of this thirteenth constellation. To the ancient Babylonians it was the snake-like Nirah, while to the ancient Greeks it was known as Ophiuchus, the “serpent-bearer”. This constellation is in the shape of a man firmly grasping a twisted snake (the interlinked constellation Serpens). This is, of course, the very symbol of Mashiach, that serpentine saviour who defeats the primordial snake and all of its evil. After being an astrological footnote for a very long time, Ophiuchus has entered the spotlight, as if the cosmos itself is reminding us of Mashiach’s impending arrival.

Ophiuchus (or Serpentarius) grasping Serpens, with Libra and Scorpio on the bottom right, and the bow-wielding Sagittarius on the bottom left.

* The same is true in traditional Jewish thought, where each sign corresponds to a month on the Hebrew calendar, as well as to one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Having said that, including a 13th month for the Jewish system is not a problem at all. In fact, it is actually a solution, since the Jewish calendar has a 13th month in a leap year! Similarly, although we always speak of twelve tribes of Israel, there are really thirteen since, as we read in this week’s parasha, Jacob made Joseph count as two separate tribes: Ephraim and Menashe.

Is the “Jewish Calendar” Really Jewish?

This week we read a double Torah portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which continues to describe the construction of the Tabernacle and its components. At the same time, we have the special additional reading known as Parashat haChodesh, recounting God’s command to the Israelites to establish the months of the year and observe rosh chodesh. Parashat haChodesh is always read before the start of the month of Nisan, since this is the first month of the calendar (although the new year doesn’t officially start until Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei). It was particularly with regards to the month of Nisan that God commanded the Israelites right before their exodus from Egypt.

Babylonian Calendar

Yet, the term “Nisan” does not actually appear in the Torah. Neither do any of the other eleven months’ names. These names actually come from the Babylonian calendar! Our Sages admit that the Hebrew calendar was adopted from the Babylonians during the Jewish exile in Babylon following the destruction of the First Temple. The Babylonian calendar had essentially the exact same 19-year cycle as the current Hebrew calendar, with a 13th leap month of Adar II added seven times throughout the cycle in order to keep it synced with the solar cycle.

Adopting the Babylonian calendar so directly actually presents a number of interesting issues. The Babylonians named their months based on their idolatrous beliefs. For example, Tammuz was the name of the Babylonian (and Sumerian) god of vegetation. In their mythology, Tammuz died and entered the underworld following the summer solstice, when the length of the days start to decline. Because of this, the Babylonians observed a mourning period in the month of Tammuz, with women in particular weeping in the temples.

In fact, this is mentioned in the Tanakh, where God shows the prophet Ezekiel (8:14-15) a vision of Jewish women mourning for Tammuz by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem!

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of Hashem’s House which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then said He unto me: “Have you seen this, son of man? Turn around again and you shall see greater abominations than these…”

‘Ezekiel Prophesying’ by Gustav Doré

This passage has God showing a number of abominable acts committed by the Jews, justifying their destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Technically, Jewish law forbids even mentioning the name of a foreign or idolatrous deity. Yet, Jews to this day refer to the fourth month of the year as Tammuz! And to this day, Jews observe a period of mourning in that month! Of course, this period of mourning is not for the deity Tammuz, but for the destruction of the Temple. The parallels are nonetheless striking.

The Ramban dealt with this apparent contradiction by teaching that it was done on purpose, so that the Jews would never forget their exile. On a more mystical level, mourning for the Temple in the month of Tammuz can be seen as a sort of tikkun, a spiritual rectification for the sin of the ancient Israelites idolatrously mourning the false god Tammuz.

Despite this, there was actually a time when Jews did not exactly agree on their calendar. It isn’t surprising that many weren’t too thrilled with adopting a pagan Babylonian system.

A Strictly Solar Calendar

The Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one yovel, “jubilee”, the 49-year period proscribed by the Torah. (Multiplying these values suggests that the Torah was given in the year 2450 according to the Book of Jubilees, which is very close to the rabbinic tradition of 2448.) While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty (of Chanukah fame), and influenced a number of midrashim, as well as the Zohar.

It isn’t hard to see why Jubilees was not canonized by the rabbis of the day. The book suggests that those who use a lunar calendar are mimicking idol worshipers, and since the calendar is not precise like the solar one, end up celebrating the Jewish holidays on the wrong days.

A section of the Book of Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls

At least fifteen copies of Jubilees were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls—more than any other text. The Qumran sect of Jews that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls were clearly at odds with mainstream rabbinic Judaism. They believed that God created the sun and planets with precise orbits, and following these natural cycles reveals His great wisdom. Meanwhile, the rabbis rely on witnesses to spot a new moon before having the Sanhedrin proclaim a new month. The witnesses might err, or it could be cloudy that night, and the calendar would be all wrong!

The Sages responded by citing the Torah (Leviticus 23:1-2):

And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, the appointed times of Hashem, which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, these are My appointed times.

God clearly commanded us to appoint the convocations, and whenever we would do so, He would declare them as His appointed times! The Talmud elaborates that God wanted us to reconstruct our own calendar, and the Heavens will reflect our actions here on Earth. There is a far more profound lesson here that our Sages wanted to teach us.

One of the central themes of Passover is that God transcends nature. The laws of Creation can be broken, and inexplicable miracles do happen. Since human beings are made in God’s image, we too are capable of transcending nature. This is our very purpose in life; to break free from the confines of the physical and ascend ever further spiritually.

The Sages established a lunar calendar that would allow people to participate in God’s creation—and teach them that they don’t have to be subject to the strict laws of nature—while at the same time wisely syncing the calendar with the solar cycle to ensure the years don’t lag behind. Ultimately, the calendar was fixed so that we no longer need any witnesses or a Sanhedrin to establish a month. Nonetheless, we celebrate the same holidays at different times every year to remind us of the great potential that lies within each of us; that we are not meant to be slaves of nature, but masters of it.

*For a more detailed analysis of the conflict surrounding the Hebrew calendar, see the third chapter of Barry Freundel’s Why We Pray What We Pray.

How Jacob Prophesied All of Jewish History

This week’s parasha, the last of the Book of Genesis, is Vayechi, which focuses on the last years and days of Jacob’s life. A large section of the parasha recounts Jacob’s final words to his sons. We read that “Jacob called for his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the End of Days.’” (Genesis 49:1) And yet, as we read on, we seemingly see little about the End of Days. Instead, we are presented with a challenging passage that mixes blessings and prophecies, and is full of code words and puzzling metaphors. Rashi comments that Jacob “attempted to reveal the End, but the Shekhinah withdrew from him. So he began to say other things.” More mystical commentaries suggest that he did indeed say what will happen at the End of Days, but in cryptic fashion.

jacob-blessing-his-twelve-sons-dalzielOver the centuries, much meaning has been drawn from Jacob’s enigmatic words, and they have been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. A careful reading will reveal a great deal of insight from each “blessing” that Jacob gave to each child. While each blessing seems to stand on its own and have no relation to the next, a closer look suggests that the blessings are actually all part of one logical and chronological sequence. In fact, in one relatively brief passage, the Torah secretly embeds all of Jewish history!

Reuben and the Exodus

The first blessing was given to Jacob’s firstborn, Reuben:

Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first-fruits of my might. Superior in rank and superior in power, [but] restless like water; [therefore] you shall not have superiority, for you ascended upon your father’s couch; then you profaned Him Who ascended upon my bed.

Jacob calls Reuben his reshit and bekhori. In his commentary on the first words of Genesis, Rashi proves that the word reshit always refers to the Jewish people. Similarly, God often calls Israel his “firstborn” nation. In fact, we first see this in the narrative of the Exodus (4:22), where God instructs Moses to relate to Pharaoh: “Thus says Hashem: Israel is My son, My firstborn [bekhori].” The first verse of Jacob’s blessing suggests that his words will describe the future of the Jewish people.

The next verse states that “you ascended upon your father’s couch” and profaned Hashem. While the simple meaning refers to Reuben’s sin in “mounting his father’s bed” (Genesis 35:22), the deeper reference is to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, who profaned Hashem by worshipping the Golden Calf. Following the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, God had given Israel complete superiority and the highest rank among the nations, all of which they lost (at least temporarily) when they sinned with the Calf – as Jacob quite clearly alludes.

Shimon, Levi, and the Era of Judges

Following Sinai, the Israelites travelled to the borders of the Holy Land. Instead of eagerly conquering and settling it, the nation sent a group of spies who returned with a negative report, convincing the nation to stay put. Because of this, God decreed forty years of wandering in the wilderness, after which the people were ready to enter the land of Israel.

The Borders of the Twelve Tribes and Locations of Some Major Judges

The Borders of the Twelve Tribes and Locations of Some Major Judges

When they did, they were unsuccessful in settling the land as God had directed, and failed to rid the Holy Land of idolatry and immorality. This brought about perhaps the most difficult period of Jewish history – the era of Shoftim, Judges – where Israel was constantly under the tyrannical rule of some warlord, and where the Israelites tribes often fought bitterly amongst themselves. As the Tanakh often repeats in describing this time period (see for example, Judges 17:6 and 21:25): “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

All of the above is prophesized by Jacob’s next blessing, to Shimon and Levi:

Shimon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence is their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their will they hamstrung oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

Jacob clearly references this period when the nation will divide up the Holy Land and settle across it. He reprimands them for the anger and brotherly hatred they will show one another, and rebukes them for their violence and civil war. Not surprisingly, Jacob wants nothing to do with this difficult period of Jewish history.

Judah’s Dynasty

The cruel period of Judges finally ended with the establishment of the monarchy. After a very brief period of rule by King Saul, David took over and established a new, everlasting dynasty. God promised to David – who is from the tribe of Judah – that his descendants will forever be the rightful kings of Israel, until the time of Mashiach, who himself will be a descendent of David. This is precisely what Jacob prophesies in his next blessing:

Judah: you, your brothers will acknowledge. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies; your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you… The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the scholar from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him will be a gathering of peoples…

Jacob makes clear that Judah is destined for royalty, and to him the other tribes will prostrate. This will be an eternal dynasty – from whom the scepter shall not depart. “Shiloh” is one of the titles of Mashiach. Rashi explains the term comes from shelo, “his”, since the renewed kingdom will belong to him, following the “gathering of peoples”, ie. kibbutz galuyot, the end of the exile and return of all Jews to Israel.

The Kingdom of Israel

Map of Israel in the 9th Century BCE, showing the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

Map of Israel in the 9th Century BCE, showing the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel

Unfortunately, David’s dynasty didn’t hold onto its rule as planned. After King Solomon, the nation divided once again, this time into two kingdoms. In the south was the Kingdom of Judah, ruled by the Davidic dynasty, while in the north was the Kingdom of Israel, ruled by leaders from the tribe of Ephraim. This is described by Jacob in the next blessing:

Zebulun will dwell on the coast of the seas; he [will be] at the harbor of the ships, and his boundary will be at Zidon.

Looking at a map of ancient Israel, one sees how the northern Kingdom of Israel was situated right along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, all around the coasts of the Sea of Galilee, and by the shores of the Jordan. Its territories stretched as far north as Zidon (or Sidon) in Phoenicia. This is precisely the description given by Jacob.

Assyria and Babylon

Ultimately, both kingdoms would collapse: the northern at the hands of the Assyrians, and the southern at the hands of the Babylonians shortly after. The nation was dispersed all across Assyrian and Babylonian lands. In the latter case, they were taken in chains, as indentured servants. Again, Jacob prophesies this in perfect detail in his next blessing:

Issachar is a large-boned donkey, lying between the boundaries. He saw a resting place, that it was good, and the land, that it was pleasant, and he bent his shoulder to bear [burdens], and he became an indentured labourer.

Jacob says how Issachar is “between the boundaries” – no longer in his own land, and exiled from place to place. He has become a mas oved, an “indentured labourer”. Unfortunately, most of the exiled Israelites eventually grew accustomed to their new lands, which they saw as “good” and “pleasant”. For this reason, when the door to return to the Holy Land was reopened, most chose to stay abroad, and only small numbers returned to rebuild Israel.

Returning to Israel & the Second Temple

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

It was the Persian King Cyrus that brought down the Babylonian Empire and allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. For his role in the salvation of the nation, the Tanakh (Isaiah 45:1) calls him “Mashiach”! This salvation is what Jacob hopes for in his next blessing:

Dan will avenge his people; like one, the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a serpent on the road, a viper on the path, which bites the horse’s heels, so its rider falls backwards. For Your salvation, I hope, O Lord!

Jacob states how Dan will be k’echad shivtei Israel. This literally means that the tribes of Israel will become one. This is precisely what happened in the Second Temple era, when tribal affiliation was lost and forgotten, and all Israel simply became “Jewish” (because of the dominant tribe – Judah). In this era, the Jews no longer enjoyed independence, and were subject to a sequence of powerful empires: the Persian, then the Greek, and finally the Roman. To avoid destruction at the hands of these empires, the underdog Israel had to become like a “serpent”, deceptively “biting the horse’s heel” to make its rider fall back.

Purim & Chanukah

Two monumental events happened during this time period, each of which we commemorate with its own holiday. Purim recalls how Haman prepared a genocide against the Jews, yet in miraculous fashion, lost all of his power and prestige. His forces fell into disarray, and the Jews were able to fight them off quickly. Jacob’s next blessing says the same:

Gad: a troop shall troop upon him; but he shall troop upon their heel.

A troop marches against Gad, but he is ultimately able to overpower them, making them retreat on their heels. Interestingly, the word gad means “luck” or “fortune”. This is related to Purim, which means “lotteries” and deals with the theme of luck, since Haman picked the date of the genocide by casting lots, and the Jews were seemingly “lucky” in their salvation. God is never explicitly mentioned in the Purim story; everything seems to happen by chance. Yet, each part of the story screams out God’s miraculous presence.

A few centuries later, it is the Syrian-Greeks who are trying to extinguish Judaism, but the Jews miraculously fight off their oppressors yet again. The Maccabees recapture the Holy Temple, and relight the Menorah with just one cruse of oil that ends up lasting eight days. The Maccabees go on to re-establish a semi-independent Jewish kingdom, controversially appointing themselves the new kings under the banner of the Hasmonean dynasty. This is described by Jacob precisely:

As for Asher, his bread shall be fat, and he shall yield royal delicacies.

Jacob says shmenah lachmo, which literally means “his bread will be oily”, but can also mean “his warriors will be oily”! (The word for bread – lechem – and the word for warrior – lochem – share a root and are nearly identical.) This is a clear reference to the Maccabee warriors and their miracle of oil. The second part of the blessing says that Asher will give ma’adanei melekh, “royal delicacies”, a reference to Hasmonean royalty.

Exile and Mashiach

The Hasmonean period came to a close with the arrival of the Romans. At first living in relative harmony, the Romans would eventually destroy the Second Temple, and exile the Jews from the Holy Land. This would usher in the last and longest exile of Israel.

sanhedrinHowever, it also led to the necessity of the Sages to record the Oral Tradition, thus producing the Mishnah. This Mishnah was then discussed, analyzed, and debated by the following generations, which brought the Talmud. Of course, it is the Talmud that makes up the major corpus of Judaism, and preserves the authentic interpretation of the Torah. It was also in this period that the texts of Jewish prayers and blessings were finalized, and in this period that the Tanakh was formally sealed. In lieu of a Temple, synagogues and study halls began popping up in all Jewish communities. It was therefore in this time period – following the Temple’s destruction by Rome – that Judaism as we know it was born. Jacob says:

Naphtali is a hind let loose, who gives beautiful words.

Naphtali is described as an ayalah sheluchah, which literally means a hind (or gazelle, or deer) that has been sent forth, like the Jews who were sent out of their land by the Romans. The second part says Naphtali speaks imrei shafer, “beautiful” or “improved sayings”. This may well be a reference to the beautiful sayings and teachings of the Mishnah and Gemara, which resulted directly from exile.

The bitter Roman exile is one in which we still find ourselves in. Over the past two thousand years, Jews have been despised, expelled, slaughtered, and suffered every kind of atrocity. Nonetheless, we have survived and prospered, and continued to make a huge impact on the world. This is what Jacob says to Joseph:

Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine by a fountain; its branches run over the wall. The archers have dealt bitterly with him, and shot at him, and hated him. But his bow remained firm, and the arms of his hands were made supple, by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob, from there, from the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel. The God of your father will help you, and the Almighty shall bless you, with blessings of Heaven above…

While ben porat Yosef, ben porat alei ayin is often translated as “Joseph is a charming son; a charming son to the eye,” it has also been translated in the above way, as Joseph being a fruitful vine (which makes more sense when the whole verse is taken together). We see Jacob describing the bitter exile, with all of the hate and suffering heaped upon Israel. But the nation survives with God’s help and blessing.

It is interesting to note how Jacob mentions a wall in the first verse. The Romans left but one relic of the Holy Temple – its western retaining wall. This is the Wall that Jews still flock to, and to which they direct their prayers.

The exile will finally end with the coming of Mashiach, who will defeat Israel’s enemies once and for all, put an end to evil, and restore the Jews to their original borders. This is Jacob’s final blessing:

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he will devour, and in the evening he will divide the spoils.

Ben-yamin is literally the “righteous son”, Mashiach, who will cause evil “to be devoured”, and will divide Israel back along its original tribal borders. Here, Rashi quotes Onkelos as saying “the spoils” refer to the Temple and its sacred vessels. The Temple will finally be rebuilt for the Jews, who all return to their Promised Land. With this closing chapter of history, Jacob concludes his blessings.

The Zohar comments on the first word of the parasha, Vayechi, that this final prophecy of Jacob was on the very highest level, equal to the unique prophetic ability of Moses. Indeed, Jacob saw thousands of years into the future, and beheld the entirety of Jewish history, which he then poetically summarized to his children in one short, incredible monologue.

Courtesy: Temple Institute

Courtesy: Temple Institute

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.”