Tag Archives: Josephus

The Mystery and Mysticism of the Essenes

This Sunday night we celebrate Shavuot, staying up all night learning Torah and showing our devotion to God’s Word. Previously, we traced the origins of this custom to the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century, based on the teachings of the Zohar that date back to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century CE. However, there is actually one more historical mention for a tikkun leil Shavuot, of sorts, that predates Tzfat, the Zohar, and even Rashbi. The first-century Jewish sage and philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE), describes a ritual where certain Jews would stay up all night on Shavuot:

And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night; and this nocturnal festival is celebrated in the following manner: they all stand up together, and in the middle of the entertainment two choruses are formed at first, the one of men and the other of women, and for each chorus there is a leader and chief selected, who is the most honourable and most excellent of the band. Then they sing hymns which have been composed in honour of God in many metres and tunes, at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony and, uttering in an inspired manner, songs of thanksgiving…

The ideas were beautiful, the expressions beautiful, and the chorus-singers were beautiful; and the end of ideas, and expressions, and chorus-singers was piety; therefore, being intoxicated all night till the morning with this beautiful intoxication, without feeling their heads heavy or closing their eyes for sleep, but being even more awake than when they came to the feast, as to their eyes and their whole bodies, and standing there till morning, when they saw the sun rising they raised their hands to heaven, imploring tranquillity and truth, and acuteness of understanding. (On the Contemplative Life, XI, 83-89)

Philo calls this sect of Jews the Essenes, or the Therapeutae, the “Healers”. They have become more well-known in recent decades because of their association with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Who were the Essenes? What did they believe? Why did they stay up all night on Shavuot? And how did they come to influence Kabbalah and other mystical movements? Continue reading

The Perplexing History of the “Ten Lost Tribes”

This week’s parasha, Vayigash, begins with Judah’s confrontation with Joseph, and the latter’s subsequent revelation of his identity. The Torah tells us that Joseph “kissed all of his brothers and wept over them…” (Genesis 45:15) The Zohar (I, 209b) comments on this verse that Joseph wept because he foresaw the future destruction of the Holy Temples, and the exile of “his brothers, the Ten Tribes.”

The Zohar is referring to the ancient notion that ten of the Twelve Tribes of Israel were lost to history. The Zohar notes how the Torah first says that Joseph wept over Benjamin’s shoulder, and then separately states that he wept over the remaining ten brothers. This is alluding to the tragedy of the Ten Lost Tribes, among which Benjamin is not numbered. The land of Benjamin bordered Judah’s, and Jerusalem was built partly on Judah’s territory and partly on Benjamin’s. When the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed, Benjamin was mostly spared, and is therefore not counted among the Lost Tribes. We see further proof of this in Megillat Esther, where Mordechai is described as being both a Judahite and a Benjaminite.

So, since Judah and Benjamin were spared, we are left with Ten Lost Tribes—supposedly. We know that the Tribe of Levi did not disappear from history either, and to this day the Levites know who they are. Are there, then, nine Lost Tribes? Or should Joseph be split in two, counting Menashe and Ephraim separately, bringing the total back to ten? On that note, Joseph weeping over his ten brothers because he foresaw their destruction is problematic, since Joseph himself is among the Lost Tribes! (Maybe he should not have wept over Judah, who survived and flourished.) The entire concept of Ten Lost Tribes is perplexing. Moreover, it has been used throughout history to support all kinds of audacious, sometimes bizarre, claims. Where did it come from? Continue reading

An Eye-Opening History of the Sanhedrin

This week’s parasha begins with the command to appoint shoftim v’shotrim, “judges and officers” who will enforce the law. The Torah warns that judges must not pervert justice, show favouritism, or accept bribes (Deuteronomy 16:19). If there is some kind of civil dispute, the Torah instructs the nation to turn to the “kohanim, Levites, and judges who will be in those days, and you shall inquire, and they will tell you the words of judgement.” (Deuteronomy 17:9) From this the Sages derive that the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jewish people, must contain a mix of all three types of Jews: kohanim, levi’im, and Israel. What exactly is the Sanhedrin? When did it emerge, and why is it referred to by a Greek word? Continue reading