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 →
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 →
This first of this week’s two Torah portions, Nitzavim, is always read right before Rosh Hashanah, and appropriately begins: “You are all standing today before Hashem, your God…” The verse has traditionally been seen as an allusion to Rosh Hashanah, when each person stands before God and is judged. The Torah says today, implying one day, yet everyone celebrates Rosh Hashanah over two days. This is true even in Israel, where yom tovs are typically observed for only one day.
The reason for this is because in ancient times there was no set calendar, so a new month was declared based on the testimony of two witnesses. Once the new month was declared in Jerusalem, messengers were sent out to inform the rest of the communities in the Holy Land, and beyond. Communities that were far from Israel would not receive the message until two or three weeks later, so they would often have to observe the holidays based on their own (doubtful) opinion of when the holiday should be. They therefore kept each yom tov for two days.
Rosh Hashanah, however, is the only holiday that takes place on the very first day of the month, so as soon as the new month of Tishrei was declared, it was immediately Rosh Hashanah, and messengers could not be sent out! Thus, even communities across Israel would observe the holiday for two days, based on their own observations.
Although today we have a set calendar, and there is no longer a declaration of a new month based on witnesses, two days are still observed since established traditions become permanent laws. Of course, this is only the simplest of explanations, for there are certainly deeper reasons in observing two days, especially when it comes to Rosh Hashanah.
Judgement in Eden
Rosh Hashanah commemorates the day that God fashioned Adam and Eve. On that same day, the first couple consumed the Forbidden Fruit, were judged, and banished from the Garden of Eden. Originally, they had been made immortal. Now, they had brought death into the world, and God decreed that their earthly life would have an end. Adam and Eve were, not surprisingly, the first people to be inscribed in the Book of Death. Each year since, on the anniversary of man’s creation and judgement, every single human being (Jewish or not) is judged in the Heavenly Court, and inscribed in the Book of Life, or the Book of Death.
This is the idea behind the symbolic consumption of apples in honey. In Jewish tradition, the Garden of Eden is likened to an apple orchard, with the scent of the air in Eden being like that of apples. (Having said that, it is not a Jewish tradition that the Forbidden Fruit itself was an apple!) The apple reminds us of the Garden—of Adam and Eve and their judgement—and we dip it in honey so that our judgement should be sweet.
But what happens when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat? It is well-known that there is no judgement on Shabbat. The Heavenly Court rests, and even the souls in Gehinnom are said to have a day off. This is illustrated by a famous exchange in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman governor of Judea at the time, Turnus Rufus:
Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: “How does [Shabbat] differ from any other day?”
He replied: “How does one official differ from another?”
“Because my lord [the Roman Emperor], wishes it so.”
Rabbi Akiva said: “the Sabbath, too, is distinguished because the Lord wishes it so.”
He asked: “How do you know that this day is the Sabbath?”
[Rabbi Akiva] answered: “The River Sambation proves it; the ba’al ov proves it; your father’s grave proves it, as no smoke ascends from it on Shabbat.”
An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568
Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva how the Jews are certain that the Sabbath that they keep is actually the correct seventh day since Creation. Rabbi Akiva brings three proofs:
The first is a legendary river called the Sambation (or Sabbation), which was known in those days, and which raged the entire week, but flowed calmly only on Shabbat. The second proof is that people who summon the dead from the afterlife (practicing a form of witchcraft called ov) are unable to channel the dead on Shabbat. (I know of a person who was once involved in such dark arts and became a religious Jew after realizing that he was never able to summon spirits on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays!) Lastly, Rabbi Akiva notes how Turnus Rufus’ own father’s grave would emit smoke every day of the week, except on Shabbat. This is because the soul of Rufus’ wicked father was in Gehinnom, but all souls in that purgatory get a reprieve on Shabbat. (Historical sources suggest that Rufus’ father was Terentius Rufus, one of the generals involved in the destruction of the Second Temple.)
Based on this, we can understand why Rosh Hashanah must be observed over two days. When the holiday falls on Shabbat, no judgement can take place, so the judgement is pushed off to the next day. This is also related to the fact that when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown. This is not at all because blowing a shofar is forbidden on Shabbat, which is, in fact, permitted.
The simple explanation given for this is that we’re worried the person blowing the shofar might carry it to the synagogue (in a place without an eruv), and carrying is forbidden on Shabbat. The deeper reason is this: Blowing the shofar is supposed to “confound Satan”. Satan is not the trident-carrying, horned demon of the underworld (as popularly believed in Christianity). Rather, Satan literally means the “one who opposes” or the “prosecutor”. It is Satan’s job to serve as the prosecution in the Heavenly Court. The shofar’s blow confuses Satan, and prevents him from working too much against us. On Shabbat, the Heavenly Court rests, and Satan is having a day off, so there is no need to confound him!
The First Shabbat
One might argue that Rosh Hashanah should only be two days long when it falls on Shabbat; in other years, one day would suffice. Other than the fact that this would be confusing—as the holiday would span different lengths in different years—there are other explanations for the two days, including that each day involves different types of judgement (for example, one day for sins beinadam l’Makom, between man and God; and one day for bein adam l’havero, between man and his fellow). Nonetheless, our Sages still describe Rosh Hashanah as really being one day—one unique, extra-long, 48-hour day which our Sages called yoma arichta, literally the “long day”. Perhaps this is another reason for the custom of not sleeping on the “first night” of Rosh Hashanah. (The other reason: how could anyone possibly sleep through their own trial?)
Finally, the story of Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus gives us one more reason to commemorate Rosh Hashanah over two days. Rufus questioned Rabbi Akiva on how he can be so sure that the Sabbath which he keeps is indeed the correct seventh day going back to Creation. If Rosh Hashanah is the day Adam and Eve were created, then it corresponds to the sixth day of Creation. That means the very next day was the seventh day of Creation, and that the second day of Rosh Hashanah always commemorates the very first Sabbath. When we celebrate on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we mark Adam and Eve’s first Shabbat, and recognize that each seventh day has been observed ever since, and will continue to be observed for another, 5778th upcoming year.