Monday evening is the start of Lag b’Omer. This special day commemorates a number of important events in the history of the Jewish people. One of these is the revelation of Jewish mystical teachings (Kabbalah) by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Recall that Rabbi Akiva lost 24,000 students during the days of the Omer, then managed to instruct five new students before being executed by the Romans. Those five students—Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi)—transmitted the bulk of the teachings in the Mishnah. In other words, it is these five rabbis that kept the Oral Torah alive. Of the five, Rashbi is by far the most famous, and the only one that has a holiday in his honour. What was it that made him so special, and distinguished him from the others? Continue reading
This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, presents the first extensive set of Torah laws. The list concludes with a blessing:
And you shall serve Hashem your God, and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from your midst; none shall miscarry or be barren in your land, and the number of your days I will fill. (Exodus 23:24-25)
God promises that He will fill the lifespan of one who observes His laws properly and sincerely. What does this mean? How long is a “full” lifespan? The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) comments that the gematria of amal’e (אמלא), “I will fill”, is 72, suggesting that a full life span is 72 years. He then quotes Psalms 90:10 as support: “The days of our years are seventy years, or in strength, eighty years…” The Ba’al HaTurim reconciles the figure of 72 years in the parasha with 70 years in Psalms by stating that the year of one’s birth and the year of one’s death don’t count. A newborn is essentially unable to do anything, much like a frail and presumably ill elder in their last year of life. Therefore, one who has reached the age of 72 should be satisfied with having had a “fulfilled” lifespan.
The Haftarah of this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, ends with these words (Ovadiah 1:20-21):
And this exiled host of the children of Israel who are among the Canaanites as far as Tzarfat, and the exile of Jerusalem which is in Sepharad shall inherit the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.
This verse happens to be the origin of the term “Sephardic Jew”. By the 13th century, Jews on the European continent were divided into four groups: the Ashkenazis were those in the Germanic lands, the Sephardis in the Iberian Peninsula, the Tzarfatis in France, and the “Canaanites” in Bohemia and Moravia (roughly what is today the Czech Republic). Those last two groups have been forgotten in our days. Yet, Jewish texts from that era make it clear that Tzarfati Jews were once a distinct category, as were the Canaani Jews (which in some texts appear to refer to those Jews living in all Slavic lands). These divisions were based on the verse above from this week’s Haftarah, which describes the Jewish people exiled as far as Tzarfat and Sepharad, and dwelling among distant Canaanites. (It is important to remember that in the Tanakh the word “Canaan” does not always refer to the ethnic Canaanites, but can also mean “merchant” more generally.)
Today, the Jewish world is often divided more simply among Ashkenazi and Sephardi lines. Having discussed the origins of Ashkenazi Jews in the past, we now turn to the Sephardis. However, I don’t want to focus here on the history of Sephardic Jewry. (In short: Jews arrived in Iberia at least as far back as Roman times, and began to migrate on mass after the Muslim conquest in 711.) The big question is: what makes a person “Sephardi” today, considering that Spain expelled all of its Jews in 1492—and didn’t officially rescind that decree until 1968!