Tag Archives: Hasidism

Zionism Before Zionism

In honour of Yom Ha’Atzmaut this week—Israel’s Independence Day—let’s take a journey back into the ancient and little-known early history of Zionism. In the past, we have already explored how the Zionist movement did not begin with secular Jews in the late 19th century, as is commonly thought, but decades earlier with religious Jews. In fact, the history of Zionism dates back even further when we properly define Zionism simply as a movement to restore the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland. This did not begin in modern times, but all the way back in the 1st century. As soon as the Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and exiled a large majority of Jews, there has been a deep yearning to return to the Holy Land and rebuild.

The first such “proto-Zionist” movement was that of Shimon bar Kochva (d. 135 CE). Shimon is believed to have hailed from the small Judean town of Koziba, and was originally referred to as Shimon bar Koziba. The Emperor Hadrian made plans to flatten Jerusalem and rebuild it as Aelia Capitolina, with a shrine to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. Jews were understandably incensed. Bar Koziba managed to organize and train a group of Jewish rebels that miraculously succeeded in expelling the Roman forces from the Holy Land. They cleared the Temple Mount and even began construction of a new Holy Temple. Jews started returning to Israel, and it appeared that the ancient prophecies were beginning to be realized. Continue reading

The Surprising Story of Russia, Ukraine, and the Jews

At the turn of the 8th century, a new power arose in the lands between the Black and Caspian Seas. This power was the Turkic people known as the Khazars. Around 740 CE, King Bulan of the Khazars made a fateful decision to convert to Judaism. Many in his royal family converted with him. The Khazar kingdom continued to spread far and wide, and its coins (bearing the inscription “Moses is the [True] Prophet of God”) have been uncovered by archaeologists as far as England to the west and China to the east.

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

In their rapid expansion, one of the new towns that the Khazars established was on the Dnieper River, and they called the town “Sambat”. Historians are uncertain what this word means or where it comes from. Considering the Jewish background of the Khazar kings, it is quite likely that the name comes from the legendary Jewish river, the Sambatyon. It was long believed that the Lost Tribes of Israel—exiled back in the middle of the first millennium BCE—had been resettled in distant lands past the mysterious Sambatyon River. The name “Sambatyon” itself comes from “Shabbat”, as it was said the Sambatyon River would only be calm on the Sabbath, when it could not be traversed. It is possible that the Khazars who founded this town were Jews who believed the Dnieper was the Sambatyon. Or it could be that they were Jewish settlers who stopped there one Shabbat to rest, and realized it was a good place to stay, hence the name. Whatever the case, by the 10th century, Sambat was better-known by another name: Kiev.

The Byzantine king Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (r. 913-959) wrote in his De Administrando Imperio that three Khazar brothers named Kyi, Shchek, and Khoriv established “the stronghold of Kyiv, also called Sambatas.” For some time afterwards, Arabic sources refer to the city as Zanbat. In Russian history, though, the region is always referred to as Kievskaya Rus’, the very birthplace of “Mother Russia”.

Rise of the Third Rome

Kievan Rus’ in the 11th Century

In the middle of the 8th century CE, a group of Slavic settlers founded a new city, Novgorod (literally “new city”). However, they could not defend themselves against raids and attacks from surrounding tribes. In 862, they invited the Scandinavian king Rurik to take control. He did, and turned Novgorod into a powerful city, conquering neighbouring towns and tribes. His son, King Oleg, continued the expansion and, in 882, conquered Kiev. The growing kingdom was called Rus’, either in honour of the founder Rurik, or from rootsi, his Viking “rowers” that first came across the Sea to these lands. The name later gave rise to beleya-rus’, “White Russia”, ie. Belarus; to Ruthenia; and to Rossiya, Russia itself.

The Rurik Dynasty continued to wage war with the Khazars to the south for decades. The famed “Schechter Letter”, one of the greatest historical finds for understanding Khazaria, describes the battles fought against the Rus by Khazarian kings and generals with names like Benjamin, Aaron II, and even Pesach! By the end of the 10th century, Khazaria had all but disappeared. Some have posited that its many Jews fled north and west, giving rise to the Ashkenazi Jewish community (for why this is incorrect, read here). Others state that Khazaria continued to exist into the 1200s, until the Mongol invasion of the region that formally put an end to many other political entities. Continue reading

Practical Jewish Meditation

An illustrated section from Gustav Doré’s “Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law”

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, we read how Moses goes up Mount Sinai on three separate occasions. His first ascent concludes with receiving the Two Tablets, only to come down and see the horror of the Golden Calf. Following this, the Torah tells us that “Moses returned to God”, back up the mountain, to address the Calf fiasco and its aftermath (Exodus 32:31). Moses then came back down to pitch a “Tent of Meeting” (33:7) where he could more regularly communicate with God without having to ascend the Mountain, and for when the Israelites would leave Sinai to head to Israel. Moses asked to see God’s Presence directly, and God replied that no mortal can see God and live, though He would show Moses His “back”. To do this, God asked Moses to come up Sinai one last time (34:2), where a new set of tablets would be created to replace the shattered ones.

When Moses descended from Sinai for the last time to present the new Tablets, the Torah tells us that “He was there with God for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water…” (34:28) Moses had gone up Sinai three times, each for forty days, making 120 days total. Indeed, if one counts the days of the Jewish calendar between Shavuot and Yom Kippur, one would find 120 days, since Shavuot is the date of the initial Sinai Revelation while Yom Kippur is when God forgave the Israelites for the Golden Calf and Moses returned with the new Tablets. At the end of Moses’ three sessions of intense meditation with God, his face glowed and the people could no longer look at him directly (34:29-30). Moses would henceforth wear a mask.

The Torah motif of going up a mountain to spend time in prayer and divine meditation spread all over the world, and we find very similar descriptions in other faiths that emerged after Judaism. Buddha, for instance, spent 40 days (or 49 days) up on a mountain meditating under a bodhi tree to attain enlightenment, and also abstained from food and water during that time. Jesus is said to have spent forty days in the wilderness without food and water, and Mohammad purportedly received his first revelation while meditating and fasting for days on Mount Hira at the age of 40. Despite the fact that Moses was undoubtedly the first, meditation today is associated more with Eastern faiths, and strangely not with Judaism.

The truth is that meditation has always been central to Judaism since ancient times. In fact, it is highly likely that it was Jewish exiles who introduced meditative practices around the world after their expulsion from Israel in the 6th century BCE at the hands of the Babylonians. It is intriguing to point out that many world religions began in the century following Israel’s exile, including Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as the Pythagorean and Orphic religions in Greece. Even ancient Zoroastrianism and Hinduism were heavily influenced by spreading Torah ideas in the middle of the first millennium BCE.

Today, science has uncovered the vast benefits of regular meditation—everything from reducing stress and improving sleep, to boosting the immune system and accelerating healing, even positively impacting the expression of our genes! So, what does the Torah tradition have to teach us about meditation, and what are some specific Jewish meditative techniques we can put into practice daily to enhance our lives? Continue reading