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The Mysterious Custom of Upsherin

In this week’s double Torah portion (Acharei-Kedoshim) we read that “when you will have planted all manner of trees for food, its fruit shall be forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23) This refers to the mitzvah of orlah, where a newly-planted tree must be left unharvested for its first three years. Seemingly based on this, a custom has developed to leave the hair of newborn boys uncut until age three. On or around the boy’s third birthday, a special celebration is held (called upsherin or halakeh), often with family and friends taking turns to cut a bit of the boy’s hair. Henceforth, the boy is encouraged to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and his formal Jewish education will begin. It is said that just as a tree needs the first three years to establish itself firmly in the ground before it can flourish and its fruit be used in divine service, so too does a child.

Lag B’Omer 1970 in Meron. Photo from Israel’s National Photo Collection

Indeed, the Torah makes a comparison between trees and humans in other places. Most famously, Deuteronomy 20:19 states that fruit trees should not be harmed during battle, “for is the tree of the field a man?” The tree is not an enemy combatant, so it should be left alone. Although the plain meaning of the verse is that the tree is not a man, an alternate way of reading it is that “man is a tree of the field”. Elsewhere, God compares the righteous man to a tree firmly rooted in the ground (Jeremiah 17:8), and in another place compares the entire Jewish nation to a tree (Isaiah 65:22).

Having said that, the custom of upsherin is essentially unknown in ancient Jewish sources. It is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud, nor in any early halachic codes, including the authoritative Shulchan Arukh of the 16th century. Where did this very recent practice originate?

Lag b’Omer and the Arizal

The first Jews to take up this custom were those living in Israel and surrounding lands under Arab Muslim dominion in the Middle Ages. We see that Sephardic Jews in Spain and Morocco did not have such a custom, nor did the Yemenite Jews. In fact, Rav David Bar-Hayim points out that Yemenite Jews did not even have a custom to abstain from haircuts during Sefirat HaOmer at all. This is particularly relevant because the upsherin ceremony is often connected with the Sefirat HaOmer period, with many waiting until Lag b’Omer for their child’s first haircut, and taking the boy to the grave of Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) in Meron for the special ceremony.

It appears that the earliest textual reference to upsherin is from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the primary disciple of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572). Because of this, many believe that upsherin is a proper Kabbalistic custom that was instituted by, or at least sanctioned by, the great Arizal. In reality, the text in question says no such thing. The passage (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Inyan HaPesach, Derush 12) states the following:

ענין מנהג שנהגו ישראל ללכת ביום ל”ג לעומר על קברי רשב”י ור”א בנו אשר קבורים בעיר מירון כנודע ואוכלים ושותי’ ושמחים שם אני ראיתי למוז”ל שהלך לשם פ”א ביום ל”ג לעומר הוא וכל אנשי ביתו וישב שם שלשה ימים ראשו’ של השבוע ההו’ וזה היה פעם הא’ שבא ממצרים אבל אין אני יודע אם אז היה בקי ויודע בחכמה הזו הנפלאה שהשיג אח”כ. והה”ר יונתן שאגי”ש העיד לי שבשנה הא’ קודם שהלכתי אני אצלו ללמוד עם מוז”ל שהוליך את בנו הקטן שם עם כל אנשי ביתו ושם גילחו את ראשו כמנהג הידוע ועשה שם יום משתה ושמחה

On the custom of Israel going on Lag b’Omer to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar his son (who are buried in the town of Meron as is known) and to eat and drink and rejoice there—I saw that my teacher, of blessed memory [the Arizal], that he went there once on Lag b’Omer with his whole family and remained there for three days, until the start of the sixth week [of the Omer]. And this was that one time, when he came from Egypt, but I do not know if he was then knowledgeable in this wisdom that he would later attain. And Rav Yonatan Sagis related to me that in the first year before I went to him to learn with my teacher of blessed memory, he took his small son with his whole family and there they cut his hair according to the known custom, and he held a feast and celebration there.

First, what we see in this passage is that the Arizal apparently only visited Meron on Lag b’Omer once, when he just made aliyah from Egypt, and before he had become the pre-eminent Kabbalist in Tzfat. (Some say this was actually before he made aliyah, and was simply on a trip to Israel.) Lag b’Omer is the 5th day of the 5th week of the Omer, and the Arizal stayed there for the remainder of the fifth week. Rav Chaim Vital wonders whether the Arizal was already an expert mystic at the time or not. Once he became the leader of the Tzfat Kabbalists, the Arizal apparently never made it a point to pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b’Omer. Rabbi Vital notes just that one time in the past, and it almost seems like once the Arizal was a master mystic, he understood there was nothing particularly mystical about it. In any case, nothing is said here of cutting hair.

The next part of the passage is more problematic. To start, it is unclear whether Rabbi Vital means that he and the Arizal went to study with Rav Yonatan Sagis, or that he and Rav Sagis went to study with the Arizal. We know that Rabbis Sagis and Vital were later both students of the Ari. However, when the Ari first came to Tzfat he was essentially unknown, and was briefly a disciple of other Kabbalists, namely the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570). In fact, the Arizal only spent a couple of years in Tzfat before suddenly passing away at a very young age. Whatever the case, it is unclear from the passage whether it was the Arizal or Rav Sagis who was the one to take his son for a haircut on Lag b’Omer. Based on the context, it would appear that it was Rav Sagis who did so, not the Arizal, since we already learned that the Arizal did not make it a point to pilgrimage to Meron.

The nail on the coffin may come from an earlier passage in the same section of Sha’ar HaKavanot, where we read:

ענין הגילוח במ”ט ימים אלו לא היה מוז”ל מגלח ראשו אלא בערב פסח ובערב חג השבועות ולא היה מגלח לא ביום ר”ח אייר ולא ביום ל”ג לעומר בשום אופן

On the matter of shaving during these forty-nine days [of the Omer], my teacher of blessed memory did not shave his head [hair], except for the evening of Passover and the evening of Shavuot, and would not shave his hair at all [in between], not on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, and not on Lag b’Omer.

According to the Arizal, one should not shave at all during the entire Omer period, including Lag b’Omer! If that’s the case, then the Ari certainly wouldn’t take his child to Meron for a haircutting on Lag b’Omer. It must be that the previous passage is referring to Rav Sagis. Nowhere else in the vast teachings of the Arizal is the custom of waiting until a boy’s third birthday (whether on Lag b’Omer or not) mentioned. Thus, the Arizal was not the custom’s originator, did not expound upon it, and most likely did not even observe it.

So where did it come from?

A Far-Eastern Custom

While no ancient Jewish mystical or halachic text before the 17th century appears to mention upsherin, a similar custom is discussed in much older non-Jewish sources. The Kalpa Sutras of the ancient Hindu Vedic schools speak of a ceremony called Chudakarana or Mundana, literally “haircutting”. It is supposed to be done before a child turns three, usually at a Hindu temple. It is explained that the hair a child is born with it connected to their past life, and all the negative things which that may entail. Removing this hair is symbolic of leaving the past life behind and starting anew. Interestingly, a small lock of hair is usually left behind, called a sikha, “flame” or “ray of light”, as a sign of devotion to the divine. This is surprisingly similar to the Chassidic custom of leaving behind the long peyos at the upsherin.

Hindu Sikha and Chassidic Peyos

From India, the custom seemingly moved across Asia to Arabia. One Muslim tradition called Aqiqah requires shaving the head of a newborn. Of this practice, Muhammad had apparently stated that “sacrifice is made for him on the seventh day, his head is shaved, and a name is given him.” An alternate practice had Muslims take their boys to the graves of various holy people for their first haircut. The Arabic for “haircut” is halaqah, which is precisely what the Sephardic Jews of Israel called upsherin. Thus, it appears that Jews in Muslim lands adopted the custom from their neighbours. However, many of them waited not until the child is three, but five, which is when the Mishnah (Avot 5:22) says a child must start learning Torah. (In this case, the practice has nothing to do with the mitzvah of orlah or any connection to a sapling.)

In the early 19th century, Rabbi Yehudah Leibush Horenstein made aliyah to Israel and first encountered this practice of “the Sephardim in Jerusalem… something unknown to the Jews in Europe.” He was a Chassid, and in that time period many more Chassidim were migrating to Israel—a trend instigated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (c. 1730-1788), the foremost student of the Maggid of Mezeritch (Rabbi Dov Ber, d. 1772), who in turn was the foremost student of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) the founder of Chassidism. These Chassidim in Israel adopted the practice from the local Sephardim, and spread it to the rest of the Chassidic world over the past century and a half.

While it has become more popular in recent decades, and has been adopted by other streams within Orthodoxy, and even many secular Israelis and Jews, upsherin is far from universally accepted. The Steipler (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, 1899-1985) was particularly upset about this practice (see Orchos Rabbeinu, Vol. I, pg. 233). When a child was brought before Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959) for an upsherin, he frustratingly replied: “I am not a barber.” Other than the fact that it is not an established or widespread Jewish custom, there is a serious issue of it being in the category of darkei Emori, referring to various non-Jewish (and potentially idolatrous) practices.

Not So Fast

While there is no mention of the upsherin that we know today in ancient Jewish mystical or halachic texts, there is mention of something very much related. In one of his responsa, the great Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, c. 1479-1573) speaks of a practice where some people take upon themselves a “vow to shave their son in the resting place of Samuel the Prophet” (see She’elot v’Teshuvot haRadbaz, siman 608).

Recall that Samuel was born after the heartfelt prayer of his mother Hannah who was barren for many years. She came to the Holy Tabernacle in Shiloh and vowed that if God gave her a son, she would dedicate him to divine service from his very birth, and he would be a nazir his entire life (I Samuel 1:11). This means that he would never be allowed to shave or trim the hair of his head, just as the Torah instructs for anyone taking on a nazirite vow. There is something particularly holy about this, and we see earlier in Scripture how an angel comes to declare the birth of the judge Samson and instructs the parents to ensure he would be a nazirite for life, and that no blade ever come upon his head (Judges 13:5).

The Tanakh goes on to state that once Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the Tabernacle and left him in the care of the holy priests so that he could serve God his entire life. How old was he when he was weaned? While it doesn’t say so here, there is an earlier case where the Torah speaks of a child being weaned. This is in Genesis 21:8, where we read how Abraham through a great feast upon the weaning of his son Isaac. Rashi comments here (drawing from the Midrash and Talmud) that Isaac was two years old at the time. For this reason, many Chassidic groups actually perform the upsherin at age two, not three.

Back to the Radbaz, he was born in Spain but was exiled with his family in the Expulsion of 1492. The family settled in Tzfat, where the Radbaz was tutored by Rabbi Yosef Saragossi, the holy “White Saint” credited with transforming Tzfat from a small town of 300 unlearned Jews to a holy Jewish metropolis and the capital of Kabbalistic learning. In adulthood, the Radbaz settled in Fes, Egypt and his fame as a tremendous scholar and posek spread quickly. In 1517, he moved to Cairo and was appointed Hakham Bashi, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt. There, he founded a world-class yeshiva that attracted many scholars. Coming full circle, it was here in the yeshiva of the Radbaz that the Arizal began his scholarly career. In the last years of his life, the Radbaz wished to return to the Holy Land, and made his way back to Tzfat. It is possible that the Arizal left Egypt for Tzfat in the footsteps of his former rosh yeshiva. Ironically, the Radbaz (who lived to age 94, or even 110 according to some sources) would outlive the Arizal (who died at just 38 years of age).

While neither the Arizal nor his old teacher the Radbaz discuss cutting a three-year-old’s hair in particular (or doing it at the tomb of Rashbi), the Radbaz does speak of a personal vow that one may take to cut their child’s hair at the tomb of Samuel the Prophet. This practice comes from emulating Hannah, who took a vow with regards to her son Samuel. Samuel went on to be compared in Scripture to Moses and Aaron (and the Sages say Moses and Aaron combined!) Of course, Hannah never cut her child’s hair at all, but perhaps there is something spiritual in treating the child like a nazirite until the child is “weaned”.

In any case, the question that the Radbaz was addressing is what one must do if they took up such a haircutting vow but are unable to fulfil it because the authorities prohibit Jews from going to the grave sites of their ancestors. From here, some scholars conclude that the Ottoman authorities at the time really must have prohibited Jews from going to the grave of Samuel, near Jerusalem. Thus, it is possible that those Jerusalem Jews who had a custom of going to Samuel’s grave decided to journey to another famous grave instead. Perhaps it was in these years of the early 16th century that the custom to go to Rashbi in Meron (instead of Shmuel near Jerusalem) evolved.

So, there may be something to the upsherin custom after all. Of course, we still don’t know when the practice of going to Samuel’s grave emerged. That appears to have been a local custom (or possibly not a custom at all, but a personal vow) of Jerusalem’s medieval Jewish community. It, too, may have been influenced by neighbouring Muslims who went to the graves of their saints to cut their children’s hair.

Whatever the case, we see that foundations of upsherin are not so clear-cut. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither a universally accepted Jewish custom, nor a mandatory halachic requirement. It did not originate with the Arizal either, although we do see some basis for it in the writings of the Radbaz. For those who wish to uphold this custom, they have upon whom to rely, and should meditate foremost upon the holy figures of Hannah and Samuel, who appear to be the spiritual originators of this mysterious practice.

The Secret Origins of Reform Judaism

Where did Reform Judaism come from? For many centuries, Judaism was a single entity without major divisions or denominations like those in the Christian world (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.) or in the Muslim world (Shiite, Sunni, and others). In the middle of the 19th century, a new “branch” of Judaism suddenly emerged among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe. This was Reform Judaism, which quickly separated itself from “Orthodoxy”, meaning the traditional Jewish way.

An 1806 depiction of Napoleon “emancipating” the Jews

The classic answer to explain this development is that once Jews in Europe were “emancipated” at the turn of the 19th century, they assimilated into European society and wished for a more “modern” version of Judaism that would be acceptable to their “enlightened” Christian neighbours. At the same time, the state of Jewry was at a very low point for a number of reasons (including poverty, persecution, and pogroms), and these early reformers wanted to help the poor “ghetto Jew”; to make him more educated and more prosperous.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Of course, this latter reason is admirable, and it is true that many European Jews at this time needed a big boost both morally and financially. This is why the great Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) started a Torah im Derech Eretz movement which strove to educate and empower Jews, but without abandoning Torah and mitzvot, as did his contemporary Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899).

Abraham Geiger

Meanwhile, the Reform movement sought to abandon traditional Torah, and relegate mitzvot to being optional at best. One of the fathers of Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) emphatically stated that the “Talmud must go”. He removed prayers that mourned the Temple or spoke of a return to Jerusalem, for this would be unpatriotic for a German to recite. To this day, Reform Jews call their synagogue a “temple”, the idea being that there is no need to yearn for rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the local “temple” being a valid substitute. Geiger admitted that his “new” Judaism is modelled on Protestant Christianity, and that the Torah and Talmud should be studied “from the point of view of the historian”. For Geiger and his successors, Judaism was nothing more than ancient history, with a set of voluntary cultural traditions.

Why take such an extreme position? Why work so hard to assimilate Jews and to abandon the Torah entirely? Why not follow the balanced model of Rav Hirsch or Rabbi Hildesheimer? Where did this strong antinomianism (rejection of law) come from?

The Erev Rav

In this week’s parasha, Bo, we are told that an erev rav, a “mixed multitude”, emerged with Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38). These were not Israelite descendants of Jacob, but various Egyptians and other nations among them that were awed and convinced by God’s plagues and miracles, and wanted to join the Israelites. They, too, stood at Sinai, and thus became Jews.

Yet, it was these same erev rav “Jews” that just 40 days later instigated the incident of the Golden Calf. The Sages state there were 3000 of them, and their goal was to incite the Jews to immorality and idolatry, drawing them away from God. After Moses came down from the mountain, we read how these instigators were punished, and Exodus 32:28 states explicitly that 3000 of them were slayed. While this evil erev rav was removed from the Exodus generation, it is said that the same 3000 souls reincarnate in future generations to cause havoc among the Jews (see, for example, the Arizal in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). While they may be halachically “Jewish”, spiritually they are anything but. They are not necessarily conscious of this, and appear to be well-meaning people, but their inner calling is the very elimination of traditional Judaism.

The erev rav accomplishes this through various means, central among them the use of cunning “reason”. The Arizal taught (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa and Balak) that they twist the power of da’at, “knowledge”, and lead Jews from true da’at Hashem, knowledge of God, to a foreign da’at of idolatry and immorality. [For those who like gematria, the Arizal illustrates this beautifully by pointing out that the numerical value of erev rav (ערב רב) is 474, equal to da’at (דעת).]

The Zohar (I, 25) prophesies that this erev rav will be particularly powerful in the End of Days, and will lead countless Jews astray. Thankfully, they will ultimately be destroyed, and this is the deeper meaning of Zechariah 13:2, which states how the “prophets of the impure spirit” will be removed from the earth. Prior to this, though, they will succeed in causing Jews to abandon true Judaism; to assimilate and to forget the God of Israel and His Torah.

Before we get into the depth of the matter, one can already see how “Reform Judaism” has accomplished the above goal quite well: recent statistics show that only 29% of Reform Jews say they have a strong belief in God, and only 4% regularly attend their “temple”. A whopping 80% of Reform Jews intermarry, with the express approval of the “rabbis” who officiate these weddings. The same rabbis are often quite proud to publicly trample Torah law—in fact, the first graduation ceremony of the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College in 1883 featured frog legs and shrimp, and was called the “treif banquet”.

The leaders of Reform Judaism have accomplished the role of the erev rav quite well. Where exactly did they come from?

A New Cult

The story of Reform Judaism actually begins two centuries earlier. In the middle of the 17th century, there was a great messianic fervour, particularly in Europe. Many Christians believed that the year 1666 would be the last (having the symbolic 666), while some Jews also clung to several opinions—including a possible reference from the Zohar—that the End of Days would come in the mid-1600s. Meanwhile, Eastern European Jews were experiencing perhaps their worst catastrophe yet, the Chmelnitsky massacres.

Shabbatai Tzvi

In the midst of this, a mentally-unstable Jew named Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676) started to have illusions of grandeur. Although he was a noted Torah scholar, his family and rabbis rejected his fits of megalomania. Tzvi left his hometown of Smyrna and eventually ended up in the Holy Land, where Nathan of Gaza soon proclaimed him the messiah. Although rejected by the majority of rabbis, and at one point excommunicated, Tzvi’s fame continued to spread.

Eventually, he stirred enough of a storm that the Ottomans arrested him and gave him the option of converting to Islam and ending his messianic pretensions, or death. Tzvi converted, and became an honoured Ottoman effendi. His closest followers converted with him. The messianic dream came to an end. Yet, many people still believed him to be the messiah, even after his death. While those of his followers that converted to Islam lived in Turkey and were known as the Dönmeh, there were also Jews who continued to practice Judaism but were secretly “Shabbateans”, particularly in Eastern Europe.

The biggest problem with Tzvi is that he claimed to fulfil the messianic role of bringing a “new Torah”, the Torah of Atzilut, and this Torah does not require strict adherence to mitzvot. He publicly ate chelev, prohibited non-kosher fats, and even recited a blessing over it. The Shabbateans feasted on fast days, and there were also rumours that they suspended the laws of prohibited relationships.

Among the Dönmeh, the latter abolition took particular significance, and their future leader Baruchiah Russo (d. 1720) abolished any restrictions on sexuality, developing a series of bizarre sexual practices. In the middle of the 18th century, this community was paid a visit by one Polish-born Jacob Frank (1726-1791), the son of a secret Shabbatean. In 1755, Frank returned to Poland and started preaching the way of the Dönmeh. He founded his own Shabbatean sect, claiming to be the final incarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi.

Jacob Frank

Following the model of the Dönmeh in Turkey, who outwardly converted to Islam, Frank and his followers outwardly converted to Christianity. Because of this, they were assisted by the Catholic Church. (Frank himself was baptised by King Augustus III of Poland!) The Frankists took antinomianism to an extreme, and sought to destroy Torah law entirely, and all of traditional Judaism with it. While Frank and about 500 of his followers converted, it is estimated that several thousand more (3000?) remained as outwardly practicing Jews, often very religious-looking and supposedly very pious to mask their secret Frankism. Frank believed that in such a way, the Dönmeh will destroy Islam, his Frankists would destroy Christianity, and those secret Frankists among the Jews would destroy Judaism.

Thankfully, their plot was averted. The Dönmeh had no influence on Islam (a tiny isolated community still lives in Turkey today) nor was Christianity affected very much, mainly because there was a much greater wave of atheism and “Enlightenment” already passing over Europe. The Frankists were excommunicated by the rabbis, who also made it incumbent upon every Jew to expose any Frankist they may suspect.

At the same time, the Chassidic movement took off, and it is quite likely that the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698-1760) decided to go public with his previously-secret group of Chassidim to counter the Frankist threat and provide Jews with a valid mystical approach. Sadly, the Baal Shem Tov died in 1760, just months after the Frankists publicly converted to Christianity and reignited a blood libel against Jews at the end of 1759. It is said that the Baal Shem Tov succumbed to a young and untimely death because of his grief over the Frankists. He toiled effortlessly to stop them; his efforts were not in vain.

By the early 19th century, Frank himself was dead, and the movement couldn’t live on without his power, wealth, and charisma. His daughter Eva lead for a while, but soon ended up destitute and without followers. The movement was quashed, but thousands of Frankists remained across Europe, ostracized from the Jewish community, and without any leadership, organization, or support. Where would they go?

Reform and the Franks

Gershom Scholem

World-renowned philosopher and scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) thoroughly researched the origins and history of Shabbateanism and Frankism, and published a great deal of literature on these movements. Besides this, Scholem was an expert on Jewish mysticism, and was once called “without challenge the greatest living authority on Kabbalah.” He was professor of Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University for over three decades, and his breadth of Kabbalistic knowledge was astounding.

In The Messianic Idea in Judaism (pg. 141), Scholem wrote:

The leaders of the “School of Mendelssohn”, who were neither Shabbateans themselves, of course, nor under the influence of mysticism at all, to say nothing of mystical heresy, found ready recruits for their cause in Shabbatean circles, where the world of Rabbinic Judaism had already been completely destroyed from within, quite independently of the efforts of secularist criticism. Those who had survived the ruin were now open to any alternative or wind of change; and so, their “mad visions” behind them, they turned their energies and hidden desires for a more positive life to assimilation and the Haskala [“Enlightenment”], two forces that accomplished without paradoxes, indeed without religion at all, what they, the members of the “accursed sect”, had earnestly striven for in a stormy contention with truth, carried on in the half-light of a faith pregnant with paradoxes.

Moses Mendelssohn

Scholem points out that the members of the Shabbatean and Frankist “accursed sect” found a comfortable new home in Reform Judaism, the “School of Mendelssohn”, which accomplished so well what the sect was trying to do through subversion and infiltration. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was the backbone of the Reform founders. While himself initially well-intentioned, and wishing to help the “ghetto Jew”, he would end up raising the platform for Reform. In fact, the philosopher Immanuel Kant admitted that Mendelssohn’s work was “the proclamation of a great reform”, while Heinrich Heine proudly credited him: “Mendelssohn overthrew the Talmud.” (Yes, and five of Mendelssohn’s own six children converted to Christianity. So much for his reformed Judaism.)

Scholem further wrote of the link between the old cult and the new reform religion:

Around 1850, a consciousness of this link between Shabbateanism and reform was still alive in some quarters. In circles close to the moderate reform movement, a very remarkable and undoubtedly authentic tradition had it that Aaron Chorin, the first pioneer of reformed Jewry in Hungary, was in his youth a member of the Shabbatean group in Prague. Prossnitz and Hamburg, both in the eighteenth century centers of Shabbatean propaganda and the scene of bitter struggles between the orthodox and the heretics or their sympathizers, were among the chief strongholds of the Reform movement in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The sons of those Frankists in Prague who in 1800 still pilgrimed to Offenbach, near Frankfort, the seat of Frank’s successors, and who educated their children in the spirit of this mystical sect, were among the leaders, in 1832, of the first “Reform” organization in Prague. The writings of Jonas Wehle himself, the spiritual leader of these Prague mystics around 1800, already display an astonishing mixture of mysticism and rationalism… from which it is clear that his particular pantheon had room for Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant side by side with Shabbatai Tzvi and Isaac Luria. And as late as 1864, his nephew, writing in New York, lengthily praises in his testament his Shabbatean and Frankist ancestors…

Scholem’s conclusions are clear: Reform Judaism became a springboard for a new Shabbateanism. This may explain why it took such a strong antinomian turn, steadily shedding all mandatory observance of mitzvot. And just as it took hold across Europe, it immigrated to the United States, where the New York descendants continued in the footsteps of their fathers, as we see above. Today, the United States is the home of the largest Reform community. The statistics we pointed out earlier confirm that the Frankist vision of a destroyed, assimilated, lawless Judaism—indeed the vision of the first erev rav millennia ago—has been realized in Reform.

It is important to clarify that this does not meant that millions of Reform Jews are all part of some kind of conspiracy or evil faith, God forbid. Rather, Reform Jewish adherents are good-hearted people that have been duped into a flawed system of beliefs. Many are likely unaware of the hidden origins of their religion, and all that it truly represents.

Sure, Reform is not entirely without merit, and has its positive aspects, just as its founders had some valid arguments. Nor is present-day “Orthodox” Judaism perfect (far from it, and even further from it among certain “Ultra-Orthodox” groups). But one side, as a whole, is still cleaving to Hashem, His Holy Land, and His Holy Torah; the other isn’t.

Every Reform Jew, and every Jew in general, should undertake a serious evaluation of their beliefs and the system of which they are a part. Do your diligent research, and find where the real truth lies.

The Incredible History and Absurd Politics of Rachel’s Tomb

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read about Jacob’s return to the Holy Land after twenty years in Charan. After some time, Jacob and the family make a stop in Beit El, where Jacob first encountered God decades earlier. God appears to Jacob once more, and promises that “the land which I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 35:12). God makes it clear that the Holy Land is designated solely for the descendants of Jacob—not the descendants of Esau, and not the descendants of Ishmael, or any other of Abraham’s concubine sons. It is the land of Israel, the new name that Jacob receives in this week’s parasha.

In fact, in this parasha we see mention of many Israelite sites, both ancient and modern, such as Hebron and Bethlehem. In our day, all of these are unfortunately within the political entity typically referred to as the “West Bank”. This title comes from the fact that the area is geographically on the west side of the Jordan River. Initially, the British Mandate for Palestine included both sides of the Jordan River, before the British gave the east to the Arabs to create the state of Jordan. This was the original “partition plan” for Palestine, with the eastern half meant to serve as the Arab state and the western half to become a Jewish one. Many have forgotten this important detail.

British Mandate for Palestine – Before and After (Credit: Eli E. Hertz)

The current flags of the state of Jordan and the Palestinian movement. It is estimated that about half of Jordan’s current population of 9.5 million is Palestinian Arab.

Nonetheless, the unsuitable title of “West Bank” has stuck ever since. Some rightly avoid using the term in favour of the more appropriate “Judea and Samaria”. Truthfully, even this title is not entirely accurate, for the region is nothing less than the very heartland of Israel, the location of the vast majority of Biblical events, and the home of a plethora of Jewish holy sites. Among them is the tomb of Rachel, as we read in this week’s parasha (Genesis 35:16-20):

And they journeyed from Beit El, and there was still some distance to come to Ephrath, and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult… So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.

Throughout history, Rachel’s tomb was one of the most venerated sites in Judaism, and is often described as the Jewish people’s third-most holiest site (after the Temple Mount/Western Wall and Cave of the Patriarchs). As early as the 4th century CE the historian Eusebius already wrote of Rachel’s tomb being a holy site for Jews and Christians. Keep in mind that this is two centuries before anyone even whispered Islam. Not that it really matters, since Islam does not consider this a particularly special place. The Arab-Muslim historian and geographer of the 10th century, Al-Muqaddasi, doesn’t even mention Rachel’s tomb in his descriptions of Muslim-controlled Israel and its holy sites.

1585 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Meanwhile, the Jewish traveler and historian Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) describes Rachel’s tomb in detail as being a domed structure resting upon four pillars, with Jewish pilgrims regularly visiting and inscribing their names on the surrounding eleven stones (representing the Tribes of Israel, less the tribe of Benjamin, as Rachel died giving birth to him). The earliest Muslim connection to the tomb is in 1421, when Zosimos mentions a small mosque at the site. (“Zosimos the Bearded” was a Russian Orthodox deacon famous for proposing the Moscow-Third Rome principle—which may be of great significance for calculating the time of Mashiach’s coming, as we’ve written in the past.)

The Ottomans originally transferred ownership of the site to the Jewish community (in 1615) but later reneged on the promise and even built walls to prevent Jews from going there, according to the British priest and anthropologist Richard Pococke (1704-1765). Pococke writes that the Ottomans used the area as a cemetery. Nonetheless, Jews could not be kept away from their millennia-old holy site, and continue to make pilgrimages. Christian writers G. Fleming and W.F. Geddes note in their 1824 report that “the inner wall of the building and the sides of the tomb are covered with Hebrew names, inscribed by Jews.”

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Six years later, the Ottomans officially recognized Rachel’s tomb as a Jewish holy site again, and ten years later the site was purchased by famous Sephardic Jewish financier and philanthropist Moses Montefiore. Montefiore rebuilt the crumbling tomb, and even constructed a small adjacent mosque to appease the local Muslims. Around this time, British writer Elizabeth Anne Finn, who lived in Jerusalem while her husband was the consul there, wrote that Jerusalem’s Sephardic Jews never left the Old City unless to pray at Rachel’s tomb. Similarly, the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle wrote in 1868 that Rachel’s tomb

has always been held in respect by the Jews and Christians, and even now the former go there every Thursday, to pray and read the old, old history of this mother of their race. When leaving Bethlehem for the fourth and last time, after we had passed the tomb of Rachel, on our way to Jerusalem, Father Luigi and I met a hundred or more Jews on their weekly visit to the venerated spot.

Later, Jewish businessman Nathan Straus (of Macy’s fame) purchased even more land around the site that Montefiore had purchased. (Interestingly, Montefiore’s own tomb in England is a replica of Rachel’s tomb.)

Under the British Mandate, Jewish groups applied on multiple occasions for permission to repair the site, but were denied because of Muslim opposition. The Muslims themselves didn’t bother repairing it, of course. Conversely, many of them were (and still are) happy to attack the site whenever an opportunity presents itself:

Throughout the 1800s, the local e-Ta’amreh Arab clan had blackmailed the Jews to pay up 30 pounds a year or else they would destroy the tomb. In 1995, Arabs—led by a Palestinian Authority governor—attacked Rachel’s tomb and tried to burn it down. In 2000, they laid a 41-day siege on the site during the Second Intifada. In light of this, it made total sense when UNESCO declared in 2015 that Rachel’s tomb is a Muslim holy site that is “an integral part of Palestine”. The laughable resolution only confirms the senselessness and irrelevance of the United Nations.

Had they bothered to look at the historical record, they would have seen that Rachel’s tomb is, was, and always will be a Jewish holy site of immeasurable significance. Countless Jewish pilgrims have experienced miracles there, particularly for health and fertility. According to tradition, Rachel is the only matriarch to be buried outside of the Cave of the Patriarchs so that her spirit can weep and pray for her children in exile. Her prayers are successful, for we are in the midst of the exile’s final end, as prophesied by Jeremiah (31:14-16):

Thus said Hashem: “A voice is heard in Ramah, in lamentation and bitter weeping.” It is Rachel, weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not. Thus said Hashem: “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded,” said Hashem. “And they shall return from enemy lands. And there is hope for your future,” said Hashem. “And the children shall return to their borders…”

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.”