Tag Archives: Germany

Jews and Christmas Trees

As we approach Christmas and New Year’s Eve and start seeing “Christmas trees” popping up all around us, it is worth exploring where this custom came from, and what the Torah might say about it. It is especially important to address because some Jews from the former Soviet Union continue to have a (seemingly) non-religious “New Year’s tree” yolka in their homes, as do assimilated and intermarried Jews across Europe and America. Is it okay to have such a tree in a Jewish home? As might be expected, the short answer is “no”. To properly understand why, we must take an eye-opening trip back in time.

An 1886 illustration of Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

The ancient Nordic and Germanic tribes celebrated a winter solstice festival usually referred to as Yule. Part of the ritual involved worshipping and decorating an evergreen tree, which symbolized life in the dead of winter. Many tribes associated the tree with Odin, the “father of all the gods” in Norse mythology. He was the most powerful figure in the Nine Worlds, represented by Yggdrasil, the sacred tree. Yggdrasil was a “tree of life” of sorts, while beneath its roots lay Hel, the underworld of the dead, and the origin of the English word “hell”. The word Yggdrasil itself means “Odin’s horse” or “Odin’s gallows” (Ygg, or Yggr, is another name for Odin). Others associated the tree with another powerful deity, Thor, “god of thunder”, Odin’s son and protector of Earth. (Fun fact: Wednesday and Thursday are named after Odin and Thor, ie. Odin’s-day and Thor’s-day!)

In 723 CE, the Christian missionary Boniface went forth to convert the pagan Germanic tribes. He came upon a village in the midst of worshipping an oak tree in honour of Thor and were apparently about to sacrifice a baby. Boniface took an axe and chopped the tree down—according to legend, miraculously in one swipe. He didn’t do away with the tree-worshipping ritual entirely, though, and offered the pagans a way to hold on to their old customs: Boniface pointed to a baby fir tree and said “let this tree be the symbol of the true God”. So goes the story, anyways.

While the Germanic and Nordic tribes were all eventually converted to Christianity (some by choice, most by force), they retained many of their old customs. Another example: In Norse myth, “Father Odin” (with his long white beard) would go around on his eight-legged horse to deliver gifts at Yule-time, with the help of the alfar, “elves”, which play an important role in the Norse worldview. “Father Odin” became “Father Christmas”, ie. Santa Claus. To make this less pagan and more palatable to Christians, the figure of Santa Claus was eventually associated with “St. Nicholas” instead, much like the pagan evergreens became symbolic of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the spherical red ornaments commonly hung on Christmas trees evolved from apples once hung on Christmas trees to represent the Forbidden Fruit.

There is a great deal of irony here, in that something symbolizing life is chopped down and killed! (And plastic tree alternatives are no better, for they will go on to contaminate the Earth with toxic chemicals for centuries.) It is fitting, then, that the Christmas tree is decorated with “apples” of the Forbidden Fruit, which did not grow on the Tree of Life, but rather on the Tree of Knowledge which brought death into the world. Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (c. 1240-1291), one of the great Sephardic mystics, in his Sefer Sitrei Torah, likened the wooden cross upon which Jesus presumably died to the Tree of Knowledge. (In Hebrew, the word for “wood” and the word for “tree” is the same, etz.) Jesus claimed to be the Tree of Life, the only path to eternal life in Heaven, and for this preposterous claim—supplanting the singular God and His Torah—he was punished measure for measure by being killed on a “tree of death”.

Abulafia held that believing in Jesus was undoubtedly a form of idolatry (and, for those who like numbers, he gave a further mathematical proof in that the gematria of “Jesus”, Yeshu [ישו] is 316, equal to “elohei nekhar”, אלהי נכר, the Torah term for a foreign or false god). We should remember to stick to the one true God and His Torah alone for, as King Solomon said, “it is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and whoever upholds it is fortunate.” (Proverbs 3:18) In case anyone was doubting what Solomon was referring to here, he began by stating Torati al tishkach, “do not forget My Torah, and may My mitzvot always be upon your heart.” (Proverbs 3:1) The Torah, and fulfilment of its mitzvot, alone holds the true spiritual path—that is the Tree of Life.

One of those 613 mitzvot of the Torah is not to worship trees, nor bring trees anywhere near the sacrificial altar in the Temple, not even to plant trees that might later be used for worship (Deuteronomy 16:21). Throughout the rest of Scripture, we find that Jews unfortunately sometimes went astray and succumbed to the idolatries of the nations around them, including worshipping Asherah trees and using them as ritual objects. The prophet Jeremiah warned us long ago: “Thus said God: Do not learn from the ways of the nations… for their customs are worthless; they chop down a tree from a forest, they adorn it with silver and gold…” (Jeremiah 10:2-4) As such, there is certainly no room for Christmas trees in a Jewish home. But what if the trees are devoid of any religious significance?

Yolka

After the October Revolution of 1917, the Communists in Russia went on to ban all religious activity, including Christmas trees. Nonetheless, as the famous saying goes, “old habits die hard”, and people weren’t willing to give up on their customs. Thus, just as Boniface had done centuries earlier, the leaders of the USSR decided to simply replace the symbolism. In 1935, they reintroduced the ritual as a novogodniya yolka, a “New Year’s tree”, along with Dyed Moroz, “Grandpa Frost”, and his snowy female helper Snigurachka, in place of the more religious Santa Claus and his mystical elves. Instead of Christmas Eve, Dyed Moroz would come on New Year’s Eve. (Interestingly, the mysterious word yolka probably comes from that pagan Yule festival.)

In the past, we’ve written about the permissibility of Jews celebrating the secular New Year’s Eve. While there is some leniency regarding New Year’s Eve, the tree in the home is an entirely different issue. When the Torah is so explicit about avoiding any tree rituals, and considering how strongly the Tanakh cautions us about Jews going astray and mimicking the tree-customs of the nations, and keeping in mind how the origins of the tree are deeply pagan first and foremost, as well as extensively Christian thereafter, it is important to stay away from anything remotely resembling a Christmas tree or yolka.

Thankfully, we have a much better tree-related celebration just a month or so after in Tu b’Shevat. This one requires no wanton destruction of trees, nor any pagan-like tree rituals, instead simply appreciating all the good that trees and plants do for us. And it comes with a mystical custom to hold a Tu b’Shevat seder, like on Pesach, symbolizing the forthcoming Final Redemption. When the actual Mashiach does come to usher in the Redemption, our Sages say he will “flourish like a palm tree; thrive like a cedar in the Lebanon.” (Psalm 92:13) May we merit to greet him soon.

The Zohar Prophecy That Changed History

This week’s parasha, Toldot, begins with a focus on Isaac, now forty years old and finally married. Commenting on this, the Zohar says some incredible things. Embedded here in the Zohar is a deeply mystical text known as Midrash HaNe’elam, “the Hidden Midrash”. It is both an integral part of the Zohar (with others sections of it peppered throughout the Zohar’s many volumes) and a distinct work with its own flavour. It, too, dates back to the 2nd century CE teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Midrash HaNe’elam explains that Isaac was “brought back to life”, so to speak, by his wife Rebecca. How so? Continue reading

The Origins of Ashkenazi Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debunking Khazaria

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

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

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

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

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

The Schechter Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delving into Ashkenazi Genes

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

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

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

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

Adapting Names

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

A “Table of Nations” from the ArtScroll Stone Chumash

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

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

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

The Tower of Babel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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