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What is Tekhelet?

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Tetzave, the Torah describes the special garments worn by the Kohanim. Making these garments requires the use of three unique dyed fabrics: tekhelet, argaman, v’tola’at shani, “blue, purple, and crimson wool”. Last year, we discussed tola’at shani and the practice of wearing a red string on the wrist. This year we will explore the other two ingredients: tekhelet and argaman. What are they and where do they come from?

In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules discovered Tyrian purple when his dog chewed on sea snails, as depicted here in Peter Paul Rubens’ “Hercules’ Dog Discovers Purple Dye”

Argaman is more commonly known as “Tyrian purple” or “royal purple”, a famous and prized dye in ancient times. Historical records and archaeological findings show that as early as 3500 years ago, trade in Tyrian purple was widespread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was the Phoenicians who were experts in its production, and carried it around the region. (In fact, the root of the term Phoenician means “purple” in Greek. Similarly, some scholars have found evidence that Canaan means “dye merchant”.) Tyrian purple was worth at least as much as silver, and in some points in history, more than gold.

By the Roman Era, it was so expensive and prized that it was essentially only worn by royalty, hence “royal purple”. An average Roman, or even a Roman senator, would wear a toga pura, plain white, while magistrates and priests wore a toga praetexta, with a purple stripe or hem. Only the emperor would wear a toga picta, one that was entirely dyed purple, with gold embroidery. (Such a toga might also be worn by high ranking generals during their victory processions, as well as by the consuls.)

Shells of the Murex snails that produce purple and blue dye. (Credit: U.Name.Me)

How did the Phoenicians produce argaman? It was extracted from the glands of shellfish on the Phoenician shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. These Murex snails make the dye as a defense mechanism, spraying it on potential predators (just as squids and octopuses, their mollusc relatives, famously do). Research shows that the snails also use the dye for their own predatory behaviour when catching prey, and also as an antimicrobial to protect their eggs. To extract the dye, the snails are either “milked”, which takes a very long time, or more commonly, pierced through their shells to have the glands removed. It would take over 10,000 snails to produce just a few grams of dye!

Tekhelet was made the same way. Though not nearly as popular in ancient times, it was known as “royal blue”. The Phoenicians made it the same way, extracted from a snail. Some say it was derived from a different species of snail, while others point out that the same Tyrian purple, when exposed to large amounts of UV radiation (sunlight), becomes blue.

The Talmud (Menachot 44a) states that the dye was made from chilazon, a snail “whose body resembles the sea, and its form resembles a fish, and it comes up once in seventy years, and with its blood one dyes tekhelet, and therefore its blood is expensive.” It’s not quite the blood of the snail that makes the dye, of course, nor do the snails emerge only once in seventy years. This bit probably entered the Talmud because by that point in history, tekhelet production among Jews had long ended, and knowledge of its exact extraction forgotten. It was probably difficult, if not entirely impossible, for Jews to get their hands on it.

Tzitzit with tekhelet (Credit: Tekhelet.com)

Dr. Baruch Sterman, in a paper for B’Or HaTorah (vol. 11, pg. 185), points out that by the 4th century CE it was actually a crime for a commoner to wear tekhelet across the Roman world. It is highly likely that it was then, for this reason, that most Jews stopped using tekhelet in their tzitzit. Dr. Sterman brings proof from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 12a), where we read how two rabbis were arrested by the Romans for possessing tekhelet. Wealthy Jews living in the Persian Empire continued to pay exorbitant rates to import and use it, until sometime in the middle of the 7th century. It was then, likely due to the rise of Islam and the rapid Arab conquest of the region, that use of tekhelet among all Jews essentially ceased. This is why until today the majority of Jews do not use tekhelet in their tzitzit (as the Torah commands). However, in recent decades, the Murex snails have been rediscovered, and tekhelet is once again available.

Having said all that, Karaite Jews—a small group that rejects the Talmud—believe that tekhelet (and argaman) could not have been derived from snails. And they actually have a couple of seemingly valid points.

The Problem of Karaite Tekhelet

The Karaites believe that tekhelet cannot come from a snail because the Torah would not command something so important to come from a non-kosher animal. They also argue that royal blue tekhelet from snails would have been far too expensive for the average Israelite. Finally, they point out that God commanded this to the Israelites in the Wilderness—so where would they find sea snails in the middle of the desert? Instead, Karaite scholars proposed that tekhelet came from an indigo plant, such as the Indian Indigofera tinctoria (incidentally, this is the indigo once used to dye jeans blue).

Another, more likely, possibility is the woad plant, Isatis tinctoria, which contains the same indigo dye. This plant actually grows in Israel, and was once known as “Asp of Jerusalem”. Interestingly, the Mishnah (Megillah 4:7) states how Kohanim are forbidden from blessing the congregation if their hands are stained with “istis”, ie. the Isatis tinctoria dye. The Bartenura (Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura, c. 1445-1515) confirms that istis is a dye “whose colour resembles tekhelet”. This makes it clear that Kohanim in the ancient Holy Temple did use woad as a blue dye, though for what purpose is unclear.

Karaite Jews today continue to make tekhelet from indigo or woad to dye their tzitzit. Since Karaites hold strictly to the Written Torah, they maintain that tzitzit must be blue (and cannot be entirely white like most current “Rabbinic” tzitzit). They hold that any blue dye is fine, since the Torah does not explicitly say that other blue dyes are forbidden. The Talmud, meanwhile, states that a person who uses plant-derived blue dyes instead of authentic tekhelet is sinning, and God declares that He will “exact retribution” from such a person (Bava Metzia 61b, see also Tosefta on Menachot 9:6). And here the Karaites should take heed, for when it comes to tekhelet they are absolutely mistaken.

The big problem for the Karaites is basically everyone else. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote in his History of Animals about the production of blue and purple dyes from snails, as did the Roman philosopher and historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History. These were the choicest and best dyes for clothes and fabrics. While tekhelet and argaman were expensive for the distant Greeks and Romans to procure, they would not have been expensive for the ancient Israelites. After all, these dyes were only expensive to purchase; there is no indication that they were expensive to produce. And the Israelites, like the Phoenicians and Canaanites, were the producers. They made the dyes cheaply, and exported them far and wide, for a healthy profit.

It was only in later centuries, when Israel was no longer an independent entity and was subject to a series of foreign empires, that Jews lost control of the means of tekhelet production. Tekhelet became rarer, and more expensive, and eventually forbidden. This development only occurred in the late Second Temple era, and possibly later. Still, when chemists in the 1990s analyzed blue fabrics uncovered at the Masada archaeological site, they discovered that the fabrics were indeed dyed with Murex snail tekhelet. Even in the late Second Temple era, tekhelet was available and used widely. Besides, the average Israelite in those days would have needed only a minute amount to dye a handful of strings to fulfil the mitzvah of tzitzit.

Another bit of evidence for the fact that snail dye was the real tekhelet comes from the Tanakh itself. While we’ve already seen how historical and archaeological records make it clear that the ancient Phoenicians were experts in snail dyes (not any plant-based blue dyes), we mustn’t forget that these same Phoenicians were heavily involved in the production of Israelite holy items, too! We read in the haftarah for last week’s parasha (I Kings 5:26-6:13) how King Solomon made an agreement with the Phoenician King Hiram, and the latter’s workers played an instrumental role in the construction of the Holy Temple. Granted, this was not the Mishkan of the Wilderness, but the later Temple was based on the earlier Mishkan, and the items were fashioned to the same specifications.

Where was Hiram’s capital city? The Tanakh always refers to him as melekh tzor, “King of Tyre”. This is the selfsame Tyre as the Tyre of Tyrian purple and Tyrian royal blue. We read how “Hiram, king of Tyre, sent his servants to Solomon…” (I Kings 5:15) It is hard to believe that it’s only a coincidence that the Tyrians renowned around the ancient world for their snail dyes are the same ones that the Tanakh tells us worked in Jerusalem! The evidence is therefore quite strong that tekhelet and argaman are the same as the snail-derived Tyrian dyes.

Tekhelet in the Wilderness

The nail on the coffin comes from an even more ancient historical text. Long before Pliny, Aristotle, and even Hiram, the ancient Egyptian Papyrus Anastasi I—dated back to the Nineteenth Dynasty (c. 1292-1189 BCE)—mentions how a royal blue dye is made from sea creatures and smells like putrid fish. This is particularly important because the Nineteenth Dynasty was the time of Pharaoh Ramses II, who is the one most associated with the Exodus. Ramses II built a new capital city which, of course, he named after himself, and which archaeologists have uncovered and refer to as Pi-Ramesses. This is the same city that the Torah mentions the Israelite slaves built (Exodus 1:11). Putting the pieces together, we now have an answer to the question posed by the Karaites: how did the Israelites find tekhelet and argaman in the Wilderness?

The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, God commanded them to ask the Egyptians to give them precious materials: “And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses, and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment.” (Exodus 12:35) The Israelites got tekhelet and argaman from the same place they got their gold and silver (also used in constructing the Mishkan): from the Egyptians. The Papyrus of Anastasi proves that the ancient Egyptians, too, produced blue and purple dyes from Mediterranean snails. They made “raiment”, garments and fabrics dyed with these colours. The Torah informs us that the Israelites took these fabrics with them. And this is how they had them available for the Mishkan in the Wilderness!

Despite all that’s been said, the Orthodox world today has been very slow in readapting the use of tekhelet. Some rabbis maintain that these Murex snails are not the right ones. The Radziner Rebbe (Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, 1839–1891) didn’t know about the snails at all and instead consulted chemists to produce a blue dye from the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis. The problem is that the cuttlefish only produces black ink, and turning it blue was a long chemical process that required adding iron filings. When later analyzed by experts, it was found that the Radziner Rebbe’s dye was basically synthetic, and the blue was simply a result of the added iron. (For more, see Dr. Sterman’s article in B’Or haTorah, cited above.) Meanwhile, Rabbi Isaac Herzog (1888-1959, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi) was an early proponent of snail-derived dyes.

In recent decades, more and more researchers have explored the subject, and today everything points to tekhelet being the blue dye of the Murex trunculus snail. The scientists at Masada confirmed it chemically, and although some state that there is no chemical difference between woad, indigo, and Murex blue, there are small differences in their molecular structure. One with a chemistry background will agree that the addition of even a single atom can dramatically change the nature of a substance. Still, many rabbis are reluctant to adopt tekhelet, and have decided it is best to wait until Mashiach comes just to be sure.

Comparing the chemistry of blue dyes: though looking similar to the untrained eye, the chemical structure of plant-based Indigotin (top left) is different from synthetic indigo (bottom left) and the indigo of Murex snails (bottom right).

And as for the Karaite argument that the Torah wouldn’t command something derived from a non-kosher animal, this argument falls apart when considering the third ingredient that always goes along with tekhelet and argaman: tola’at shani. The word is literally translated as a “crimson worm” or, more accurately, “red insect”. Tola’at definitely refers to a bug of some sort, as we read in Exodus 16:20 how leftover manna was infested with tola’im.

Tola’at shani is undoubtedly referring to the common carmine dye used around the world, and known commercially in food as E120. This dye is derived from a variety of scale insects, most commonly the cochineal family of bugs. Professor Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University spent many years researching tola’at shani and concluded that it is unquestionably a red insect, which nests in the common Israeli oak tree. In fact, the Temple Institute has already begun harvesting these insects to produce an authentic avnet, the priestly belt that requires the red dye, in preparation for Mashiach’s coming and the return of priestly service in the forthcoming Third Temple.

Clockwise from top left: Professor Amar leads the Temple Institute’s Tola’at Shani harvest; the “crimson worm” on a branch of an Israeli oak tree; Professor Amar holds a cup of crimson water produced by crushing a single worm. 

How Many Messiahs Will There Be?

In this week’s parasha, Vayechi, Jacob relays his deathbed blessings and prophecies to his children. When blessing his son Dan, he says “I hope for Your salvation, Hashem!” (Genesis 49:18) The Midrash explains that Jacob foresaw the future Samson, of Dan’s tribe, who was a potential messiah in his generation, and got excited that the Redemption would finally come (Beresheet Rabbah 98:14). He then saw Samson die, and exclaimed, “Alas, this one, too, has died—I hope for Your salvation, Hashem!” Jacob looked far into the future and saw all the many potential messiahs that would attempt to redeem Israel, but ultimately fail. Samson was perhaps the closest to accomplishing the task, but then Jacob saw that “this one, too, has died.”

“Death of Samson”, by Gustav Doré

Over the past three millennia, Israel has seen a fair share of potential messiahs arise, some legitimate (but failing) and some entirely false. Jewish tradition holds that there is a potential messiah in each generation, and if the generation merits it, he would immediately come. The identity of some of these potential messiahs we know of, for our Sages have told us clearly who they are. These are the ones that actually revealed themselves in some capacity, but were unable to complete the task. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) might refer to these potential messiahs as being b’chezkat Mashiach, the “presumptive messiah”, but if they are unable to fulfil all the tasks that Mashiach must, whether because they died too early or otherwise, then we can be certain that they are not the messiah. It is worth reading the Rambam’s words directly (Mishneh Torah, Melachim u’Milchamot, ch. 11):

If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as did David, his ancestor, and will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach [בחזקת שהוא משיח].

If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Mashiach [הרי זה משיח בודאי]. He will then improve the entire world, motivating all the nations to serve God together, as Zephaniah 3:9 states: “I will transform the peoples to a purer language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.”

If he did not succeed to this degree, or was killed, he surely is not the redeemer promised by the Torah. Rather, he should be considered as all the other proper and complete kings of the Davidic dynasty who died. God caused him to arise only to test the many, as Daniel 11:35 states: “And some of the wise men will stumble, to try them, to refine, and to clarify until the appointed time, because the set time is in the future.”

Jesus of Nazareth, who aspired to be the Mashiach, and was executed by the court, was also alluded to in Daniel’s prophecies, as 11:14 states: “The vulgar among your people shall exalt themselves in an attempt to fulfill the vision, but they shall stumble.”

Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity? All the prophets spoke of Mashiach as the redeemer of Israel and their saviour who would gather their dispersed and strengthen their observance of the mitzvot. In contrast, Christianity caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord.

Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him [ie. Mohammed] will only serve to prepare the way for Mashiach’s coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together…

How will this come about? The entire world has already become filled with the mention of Mashiach, Torah, and mitzvot. These matters have been spread to the furthermost islands to many stubborn-hearted nations. They discuss these matters and the mitzvot of the Torah, saying: “These mitzvot were true, but were already negated in the present age and are not applicable for all time.” Others say: “Implied in the mitzvot are hidden concepts that cannot be understood simply. The Mashiach has already come and revealed those hidden truths.”

When the true Messianic king will arise and prove successful, his position becoming exalted and uplifted, they will all return and realize that their ancestors endowed them with a false heritage and their prophets and ancestors caused them to err.

The Rambam gives us much to ponder in these words. He explains the distinction between a true, righteous, potential messiah, who might do a great deal of good but unfortunately fail, versus a false messiah who causes Israel to go astray. The latter is a test sent by the God, as the Torah itself states that occasionally a false prophet will arise to make Israel go astray, and God warns us that “you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord, your God, is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 13:4)

The Four Saviours

When we take a look back through Jewish history we find a number of people who claimed, or were proclaimed, to be the messiah, some false and some failed. While there have been dozens (if not hundreds) of such figures, we see that only 15 actually had some kind of significant following, or left an indelible mark on Judaism. I believe these 15 were alluded to by the prophet Micah, who said: “… Then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight princes of men.” (Micah 5:4) The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 14:1) comments on this perplexing verse:

There is a great debate with regards to how many messiahs there will be. Some say there will be seven, as it is said “then shall we raise against him seven shepherds…” And some say there will be eight, as it is said, “and eight princes of men.” And it is neither of these, but actually four, as it is said, “And the Lord showed me four craftsmen…” (Zechariah 2:3)

And David came to explain who these four craftsmen are [in Psalms 60:9 and 108:9, where God declares: “Gilead is mine, Menashe is mine; Ephraim also is the defence of my head; Judah is my sceptre”]: “Gilead is mine” refers to Elijah, who is from the land of Gilead; “Menashe is mine” refers to the messiah who comes from the tribe of Menashe… “Ephraim is the defence of my head” refers to the Warrior Messiah who comes from Ephraim… “Judah is my sceptre” refers to the Great Redeemer, who is a descendant of David.

The Midrash rejects the notion that there are seven or eight saviours, based on the prophet Micah, and sides with the prophet Zechariah who says there will be four messianic figures. The Talmud agrees, and says that four figures will come at the End of Days: “Mashiach ben David, Mashiach ben Yosef, Eliyahu, and the Righteous Priest” (Sukkah 52b). These clearly parallel the four of the Midrash above (“Mashiach ben Yosef” being “Ephraim”), except that the Sages of the Talmud have “Righteous Priest” instead of the messiah from Menashe. They are nonetheless referring to the same person. When the time comes, we will see four messianic figures:

First comes Elijah. His role is to announce the End of Days and to inspire people to repent, as the prophet Malachi says (3:23-24). It is Elijah, as a prophet, who will confirm the identity of Mashiach and actually anoint him, since the Torah requires that a valid prophet anoint a king of Israel. (Mashiach literally means “the anointed one”.)  Then there’s Mashiach ben Yosef, the “Warrior Messiah”, to fight the great wars of the End of Days. After him comes Mashiach ben David, the rightful heir to the throne. It appears the Righteous Priest is the one who will serve as the first Kohen Gadol in the Third Temple, and will have an important role to play in the process of Redemption. These are the four “saviours” of End Times, and this is the meaning of the prophet Ovadia’s statement: “And saviours will arise upon Mount Zion…” (Ovadiah 1:21) The prophet says saviours in the plural, not saviour in the singular, because there isn’t just one messianic figure, but four saviours working together.

‘Micah Extorting the Israelites to Repentance’, by Gustave Doré

If this is the case, what was Micah referring to in his prophecy of seven or eight saviours? We cannot say that Micah is wrong, for he is a holy prophet in his own right. Rather, when we read that verse in its context, we find that God is not speaking about the Final Redemption at all. On the contrary, two verses later we see that “the remnant of Jacob will be in the midst of many people… and there will be none to save them” (Micah 5:7). It seems that the leaders that Micah is speaking of are the false and failed messiahs, who promise the redemption but are unable to deliver, and Jacob remains “in the midst of many people” with none to save them! Fittingly, in Jewish history we see 15 such potential messiahs. Seven of these—possibly corresponding to Micah’s seven “shepherds”—we know of for sure because our Sages already told us about them. The remaining eight—corresponding to the “princes of men” we learn of from the pages of history. Who were these people?

“Shepherds”

The first legitimate, potential messiah was Samson, as we learn from this week’s parasha. He was a righteous judge and teacher, defeated the enemies of Israel, and brought peace to the land, but did not build a Temple or establish a lasting monarchy. The next one after him was King David. David similarly defeated Israel’s enemies and brought peace, and went one step further in establishing a monarchy and setting the foundations for the Temple. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a) tells us explicitly that David was a potential messiah, and in the same passage reveals the identity of another candidate:

The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to appoint Hezekiah as the Messiah, and Sennacherib as Gog and Magog; whereupon the Attribute of Justice said before the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the Universe! If You did not make David the Messiah, who uttered so many hymns and psalms before You, will You appoint Hezekiah as such, who did not sing for You in spite of all these miracles which You have done for him? Therefore it was closed…

God was ready to reveal Hezekiah as Mashiach, but the angels protested. After all, David was greater and was not revealed as Mashiach, so how could Hezekiah be? We see from this that both David and Hezekiah were potential messiahs of their generations.

Between them arose another potential messiah: King Solomon. He was literally a ben David, presided over an era of complete peace, and was the one who built the First Temple. Were it not for his many wives that led him astray, he would have undoubtedly fulfilled the role of Mashiach.

When Solomon’s Temple was destroyed four centuries later the Jews were exiled to Babylon, and there lived the prophet Daniel. He was the leader of the exiled Jews, and was well-respected in the Babylonian Court. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) tells us that he, too, was a potential messiah. In fact, the Sages here are debating whether Mashiach must be a currently-living person, or if it could be a historical figure who returns from the grave. If the latter is possible, the Talmud concludes that it would be Daniel, “the most desirable man”. It seems he had the potential to return the Jews to their Holy Land and to rebuild the Temple. Instead, it would be another man who set out to accomplish that goal.

“The Rebuilding of the Temple” by Gustave Doré

This other man is the little-known Zerubbabel, the Persian-appointed governor of Judah following the fall of Babylon. Zerubbabel, a descendent of King David, led the first group of 42,360 Jews back to Israel from Babylon, and started the rebuilding of the Temple. In the Books of Haggai and Zechariah, we are told how God had chosen Zerubbabel to be the messiah, together with Joshua the Priest (who would fill the role of “Righteous Priest”). Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, Zerubbabel failed to fulfil the ultimate goal, though he did begin the process of the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple (see Ezra 3:8).

There is one more potential messiah that the Sages tell us about: Shimon bar Kochva. In 132 CE, Bar Kochva started a rebellion against the Romans, and was initially hugely successful. He was able to push the Romans out of Jerusalem, reclaim the Temple Mount, and even start rebuilding the Temple! He had everyone convinced that the End was near, and the great Rabbi Akiva declared him to be the presumptive messiah. Sadly, Bar Kochva’s power got to his head and he became a cruel dictator. The Talmud (Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 24b) says that the last straw was when he killed his own uncle, Rabbi Elazar haMuda’i. At that point, a Heavenly Voice declared the end of Bar Kochva, “son of a star”, henceforth to be called Bar Koziva, “son of a lie”.

“Princes”

The above seven were righteous leaders who, although unable to realize the role of Mashiach, nonetheless had a tremendous positive impact on Judaism. Samson brought peace to the Holy Land and set the stage for the Jewish monarchy. David made Jerusalem the eternal capital of Israel and composed the invaluable Psalms, which still make up the bulk of our prayers. Solomon built the First Temple and composed another three books of the Tanakh. Hezekiah ensured the survival of the tribe of Judah while the rest of Israel was destroyed and exiled—ultimately giving rise to “Jews”, ie. Judahites. Daniel kept Judaism alive in exile and wrote an important book of prophecies. Zerubbabel restored the Jews to Israel and began the construction of the Second Temple. Bar Kochva nearly succeeded in defeating Rome, and out of his failure came out the necessity to compose the Mishnah, which led to the Talmud, and all of Judaism as we know it.

David didn’t make it because he had too much blood on his hands (I Chronicles 22:8), Solomon because of his many wives (I Kings 11:4-6), and Hezekiah because he lacked gratitude (Sanhedrin 94a). It seems Samson failed because of his hubris (Judges 15:16-18), or because he married Philistine women, while Bar Kochva became a murderous dictator (TY, Ta’anit 24b). Of the others we are not certain.

There are another seven notable Jewish “messianic” figures. Although each of them started a mass movement of some sort, unlike the figures above their actions did not lead to any positive development for Israel or Judaism, and in some cases led to Israel’s great detriment. Some of these were righteous, some were not; some had good intentions, and some didn’t; yet all failed at the end.

The first is undoubtedly the most famous, and was already described for us by the Rambam cited above: Jesus. There isn’t much we can say about him for certain, and whether he ever even intended to start a new religion (as certain passages in the New Testament, such as Matthew ch. 5 and ch. 15 imply), but the result of his activity was devastating for Israel. Just forty years after his death, the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jews exiled yet again. Although a Christian would argue otherwise, one might easily make the connection that the rise of the “Christian” Jewish sect was the final straw for God, and sealed the decree for the Temple’s destruction. (The Talmud affirms that God did not decree the destruction until the Jews of Jerusalem had split into a whopping 24 bickering factions! See Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 10:5.) The Christian world would go on to oppress the Jews for two millennia—all in the name of Jesus, ironically a Jew himself!

Six centuries later lived a man named Nehemiah ben Hushiel. Little is known of his origins. What historical records do affirm is that in the year 614 CE, he allied himself with the Persian Sassanian forces and went to war against the Byzantines, capturing Jerusalem and being appointed its governor. He opened up a synagogue on the Temple Mount and began planning the rebuilding of the Temple. His rule didn’t last long, for the Christians revolted several months later. It isn’t clear whether Nehemiah was killed then, or several years after when the Persians switched their allegiance to the Christian side. Whatever the case, within a decade Mohammed would conquer Arabia, and his successors would destroy the Persian Empire, take over Jerusalem, and build the Dome of the Rock.

Despite this, Nehemiah’s name still survives with messianic overtones in a number of Medieval Jewish texts. Sefer Zerubbabel, which was probably written around the time of Nehemiah’s conquest, links him with the Biblical Zerubbabel, and labels him Mashiach ben Yosef. A couple of other texts from that time period, some falsely attributed to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to give them legitimacy (and likely used as propaganda), also mention Nehemiah as messiah.

Persian Warriors, and the Pope’s Messiahs

About one hundred and fifty years later lived another Persian Jew with messianic aspirations. This was Is’hak al-Isfahani, also known as Ovadiah, and better known as Abu Isa. He led a revolt against the Arab Caliph Al Mansur, and actually managed a victory before being crushed. He claimed to be a prophet, supposedly sent to usher in the Messianic Age. Though he did not state he was the messiah, he styled himself as an Eliyahu figure, or perhaps the warrior Mashiach ben Yosef. His disciple, Yudghan (Yehuda), aka. Al-Ra’i (“the Shepherd”), did declare himself Mashiach ben David. In familiar fashion, when he was killed his followers ended up forming a new sect called the Yudghanites, who awaited his imminent return.

While Abu Isa and Yudghan were religious Jews, they nonetheless instituted some changes. In some ways they were stricter, for example, occasionally following the Mishnaic rulings of Shammai (as opposed to the more lenient Hillel). They avoided meat and alcohol, and added several extra prayer services throughout the day. At the same time, they seem to have accepted Jesus and Mohammad as valid prophets to the non-Jews. They softened the rules of Shabbat and annulled a number of mitzvot. Intriguingly, some scholars believe Abu Isa and the Yudghanites influenced the development of Shi’ite Islam, which was emerging around the same time period. Others believe they may have similarly influenced the development of Karaite Judaism, or that the Yudghanites eventually fused with the Karaite movement.

A few hundred years later another Persian Jewish false messiah appears, named Menachem ben Sulayman. He was a very popular leader in the city of Amadiya, calling himself David Alroy, “the Shepherd” (or possibly al-Ruhi, “the inspired one”). When the Muslim rulers imposed heavy taxes on the Jews, Alroy started an armed rebellion. The Jews of neighbouring cities joined him, and he found some success, taking advantage of an already-weakened Muslim caliphate. At this point, he thought he could declare himself the messiah, and begin leading the Jews to their Promised Land. It wasn’t too long before Alroy was assassinated and his rebellion suppressed. The Jews were punished severely for this escapade. Once again, his devoted followers continued to believe in his return from the dead, and formed a sect referred to as the Menachemites.

Switching over to Europe, in the 16th century there was the German Jew Asher Lämmlein. He appeared near Venice in 1502 and promised the Redemption within a year if the people repented. So eloquent and charismatic was he that he drew a large Christian following, too. His disciples spread out across Europe to spread the message and, amazingly, 1502 was declared in Europe as the “Year of Penance”. Many Jews started to sell everything they had to prepare for their journey to Jerusalem. And then, just as suddenly, Lämmlein mysteriously disappeared. Sadly, a multitude of Jews were so dejected that they converted to Christianity. Among those were Victor von Carben and Johannes Pfefferkorn, Jews who had become Catholic priests bent on destroying Judaism once and for all. They went on to cause the Jewish communities of their day tremendous harm.

The next messianic pair was David Reubeni and Shlomo Molcho. Like others, they operated as a Mashiach ben Yosef/Mashiach ben David combo. Reubeni claimed to come from the hidden Jewish Kingdom of Khaybar, where the Lost Tribes of Israel prospered. He managed to convince several European monarchs, as well as the Pope, that Khaybar had a vast army ready to conquer Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Portuguese king promised him eight ships and 4000 cannons to help in the war. However, the king soon feared that the Sephardic crypto-Jews of Portugal would join Reubeni in a rebellion, and had Reubeni expelled.

Reubeni continued to preach, and inspired a convert named Shlomo Molcho, born Diego Pires. The two convinced many naïve souls including, it seems, Pope Clement VIII (1478-1534). Unfortunately for them, the Pope was in a feud with the Spanish King Charles V (1500-1558), who had the two arrested. Reubeni died in prison, while Molcho was burned at the stake in 1531. He predicted that the Redemption would come in 1540. He was wrong. (To read more about their fascinating story, and the impact they had on the study of Kabbalah, see Rabbi Gavin Michal’s piece here.)

Then came the most infamous Jewish failed messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676). Little needs to be said of this man, and we have written of his actions before. More than anyone else, he had nearly the entire Jewish world convinced that he was the messiah. He would end up converting to Islam under pressure from the Ottoman sultan. His followers continued to believe in him, after his conversion and long after his death, developing a new religion completely distinct from Judaism referred to as Sabbateanism. A small number of their descendants still live in Turkey today, where they are known as the Donmeh. Sabbateanism had a massively negative effect on Judaism, as history has proven. (For more on the Shabbatai Tzvi affair and its side-effects, see the works of Gershom Scholem.)

Abulafia’s 1285 treatise “Light of the Intellect”

It is important to mention again that there have been other false messiahs in history, but they have been excluded from the present discussion because they found very little success. For example, there was the case of Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, the kabbalist who declared himself the messiah in Sicily. He was immediately condemned by other rabbis, and failed to generate any kind of movement. There were also a number of messianic claimants in Yemen. Most notable were Shukr Kuhayl, followed by Yehuda ben Shalom, who considered himself a reincarnation of Shukr Kuhayl. While popular in their communities—even among some Muslim Arabs—they were essentially unknown outside of Yemen.

There have also been other potential messiahs. As mentioned previously, Jewish tradition affirms that each generation has someone who is truly worthy of being Mashiach. One example comes from Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620), who writes that his master, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), revealed to him that the two of them were the Mashiach ben David and Mashiach ben Yosef, respectively, of the time. They did not publicly reveal this, or act on it in any way. It appears they recognized their generation was not quite ready. This brings us to the most recent worthy candidate, in our own generation.

The Rebbe

The Lubavitcher Rebbe

No discussion of messianic figures would be complete without the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It is very important to affirm, lehavdil, that the Rebbe was not a false messiah like the previously mentioned individuals. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), was undoubtedly a righteous man with the purest of intentions, and a most-impressive list of achievements. He certainly revolutionized Judaism—for the better—and had a tremendous impact all over the world, playing a central role in the baal teshuva movement, and the spread of the Torah to the farthest corners of the globe. He inspired both Jews and non-Jews alike, and to him we owe much. It therefore isn’t surprising that there are still a great many people within Chabad-Lubavitch (though not all) that believe him to be the messiah, despite his passing over two decades ago. This is a troubling development, and will hopefully fade away, although there are frightening signs that suggest the opposite. (See ‘Is the Lubavitcher Rebbe Mashiach?’)

It is much too early to tell what will happen with the messianic faction inside Chabad. Will they simply disappear as time goes on, like the Yudghanites and the Menachemites? Will they separate completely and evolve into their own cult, like the Shabbateans? Or perhaps, considering their global reach and passionate activity, they will become like the Christians, with billions of followers endlessly awaiting the return of their messiah? Time will tell.

In the meantime, we continue to await the Final Redemption, and the appearance of those four true messianic figures, as agreed upon by the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the Midrash, and as our Sages taught long ago: Eliyahu, the Prophet; the Righteous Priest; the Warrior, Mashiach ben Yosef; and the King, Mashiach ben David. May we merit to greet them soon.


A Summary of the 15 Most Impactful “Potential Messiahs” in Jewish History

How Esau Became Rome

In this week’s parasha, Toldot, we are introduced to the twin sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau. The Torah tells us that the boys grew up and Esau became a “man of the field” while Jacob was “an innocent man sitting in tents” (Genesis 25:27). In rabbinic literature, Esau takes on a very negative aura. Although the Torah doesn’t really portray him as such a bad guy, extra-Biblical texts depict him as the worst kind of person.

A 1728 Illustration of Esau selling his birthright.

Take, for instance, the first interaction between Jacob and Esau that the Torah relates. Esau comes back from the field extremely tired. At that moment, Jacob is cooking a stew. Esau asks his brother for some food, and Jacob demands in exchange that Esau give up his birthright (ie. his status as firstborn, and the privileges that come with that). Esau agrees because “behold, I am going to die” (Genesis 25:32). The plain text of the Torah makes it seem like Jacob took advantage of Esau’s near-fatal weariness and tricked him into selling his birthright. This is later confirmed when Esau says that Jacob had deceived him (Genesis 27:36), implying that Esau never really wished to rid of it.

Yet, the Torah commentaries appear to flip the story upside down. When Esau comes back from the field exhausted, it isn’t because he just returned from a difficult hunt, but rather because, as Rashi comments, he had just come back from committing murder! When Esau says “I am going to die”, it isn’t because he was on the verge of death at that moment, but because he didn’t care about the birthright at all, choosing to live by the old adage of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. This is a very different perspective on the same narrative.

Another example is when, many years later, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and Esau comes to meet him. Jacob assumes Esau wants to kill him, and prepares for battle. Instead, Esau genuinely seems to have missed his brother, and runs towards him, “embracing him, falling upon his neck, and kissing him” (Genesis 33:4). Again, some of the commentaries turn these words upside down, saying that Esau didn’t really lovingly kiss his brother, but actually bit him! Rashi’s commentary on this verse cites both versions. He concludes by citing Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in stating that although Esau, as a rule, hates Jacob, at that moment he really did love his brother.

So, how bad was Esau really?

Seeing the Good in Esau

Occasionally, we read about Esau’s good qualities. The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 1:15) famously states that no one honoured their parents better than Esau did. This is clear from a simple reading of the Torah, too, where Esau is always standing by to fulfil his parents’ wishes. For instance, as soon as he learns that his parents are unhappy with his choice of wives, he immediately goes off to marry someone they might approve of (Genesis 28:8-9).

We should be asking why his parents didn’t simply tell him from the start that his original wives were no good? Why did they allow him to marry them in the first place? If Esau really was the person who most honours his parents, he would have surely listened to them! We may learn from this that Esau’s parents didn’t put too much effort into him. It’s almost like Rebecca gave up on her son from the moment she heard the prophecy about the twins in her belly. The Torah says as much when it states, right after the birth of the twins, that “Isaac loved Esau because his game-meat was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28) Rebecca showed affection to Jacob alone, while Isaac’s love for Esau was apparently conditional. Of course, children always feel their parents’ inner sentiments, and there is no doubt Esau felt his parents’ lack of concern for him. Is it any wonder he tried so hard to please them?

From this perspective, one starts to feel a great deal of pity for Esau. How can anyone read Esau’s heartfelt words after being tricked out of his blessing and not be filled with empathy?:

When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, “Bless me, too, O my father! …Do you not have a blessing left for me?” (Genesis 27:34-36)

Esau was handed a bad deal right from the start. He was born different, not just in appearance, but with a serious life challenge. He was gifted (or cursed) with a particularly strong yetzer hara, from birth. His fate was already foretold, and his parents believed it. They invested little into him. And it seems all he ever wanted was to make them proud.

Incidentally, this is one of the major problems with fortune-telling, and why the Torah is so adamant about not consulting any kind of psychic. The psychic’s words, even if entirely wrong, will shape the person’s views. It is very much like the Talmud’s statement (Berakhot 55b) that a dream is fulfilled according to how it is interpreted. A person believes the interpreter, and inadvertently brings about that interpretation upon themselves. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Who knows what might have happened if Rebecca never bothered to consult a prophet about her pregnancy? After all, Jewish tradition is clear on the fact that negative prophecies do not have to come true. God relays such a prophecy in order to inspire people to change, and thus avert the negative decree. Such was precisely the case with Jonah and his prophecy regarding Nineveh. The people heard the warning, repented, and the prophecy was averted.

Perhaps this is what Isaac and Rebecca should have done. Instead of giving up on Esau, they should have worked extra hard to guide him in the right direction. (Isaac indirectly did the opposite, motivating his son’s hunting since he loved the “game-meat in his mouth”.) The Sages affirm that Esau was not a lost case, and state that had Jacob allowed his daughter Dinah to marry Esau, she would have reformed him (see, for example, Beresheet Rabbah 76:9).

At the end, Jacob returns to the Holy Land and, instead of the war with Esau that he was expecting, his brother welcomes him back with open arms. He weeps, and genuinely misses him. Esau has forgiven his brother, yet again, and buries the past. He hopes to live with his brother in peace henceforth, and invites him to live together in Seir. Esau offers to safely escort Jacob and his family. Jacob rejects the offer, and tells Esau to go along and he will join him later (Genesis 33:14). This never happens. Jacob has no intention to live with Esau, and as soon as his brother leaves, Jacob a completely different course. Esau is tricked one last time.

We only hear about Esau once more in the Torah. When Isaac dies, Esau is there to give his father a proper burial (Genesis 35:29). In fact, the Book of Jubilees, which doesn’t portray Esau too kindly either, nonetheless suggests that Esau had repented at the end of his life. There we read that it was his sons that turned evil, and even coerced him into wrongdoing (37:1-5). In Jubilees, Esau tells his parents that he has no interest in killing Jacob, and loves his brother wholeheartedly, more than anyone else (35:22). He admits that Jacob is the one that deserves the birthright, and a double portion as the assumed firstborn (36:12).

The Torah never tells us what ends up happening to Esau. The Midrash states that he was still there when Jacob’s sons came to bury their father in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Esau tried to stop them, at which point Jacob’s deaf grandson Hushim decapitated him. (A slightly different version is found in the Talmud as well, Sotah 13a.) Esau’s head rolled down into the Cave of the Patriarchs, while the rest of his body was buried elsewhere. Perhaps what this is meant to teach us is that while Esau’s body was indeed mired in sin, his head was completely sound, and he certainly had the potential to be a righteous man—maybe even one of the forefathers, hence his partial burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

At the end of the day, Esau is not so much a villain as he is a tragically failed hero.

Why Did Esau Become so Evil?

Esau meets Jacob, by Charles Foster (1897)

As we’ve seen, the Torah itself doesn’t portray Esau as such a bad person. Conversely, one of the 613 mitzvot is “not to despise an Edomite, for he is your brother.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) The Torah reminds us that the children of Israel and the children of Esau (known as Edomites) are siblings, and should treat each other as such.

Nearly a millennium later, the prophet Malachi—generally considered the last prophet and, according to one tradition, identified with Ezra the Scribe—says (Malachi 1:2-3):

“I have loved you,” says Hashem, “Yet you say: ‘How have You loved us?’ Was not Esau a brother to Jacob?” says Hashem, “yet I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated…”

The text goes on to differentiate between Israel and Edom, stating that while Israel will be restored, Edom will be permanently extinguished. We have seen this prophecy fulfilled in history; Israel is still here, of course, while Edom has long disappeared from the historical record. Jacob’s descendants continue to thrive, while Esau’s are long gone.

By the times of the Talmud, there were no real Edomites left, so the Sages began to associate Edom with a new entity: the Roman Empire. The Sages certainly didn’t believe that the Romans were the direct genetic descendants of Esau, but rather that they were their spiritual heirs. Why did the Sages make this connection?

I believe the answers lies with King Herod the Great.

Recall that approximately two thousand years ago Herod ruled as the Roman-approved puppet king of Judea. He was a tremendous tyrant, and is vilified in both Jewish and Christian tradition. The Talmud (Bava Batra 3b-4a) relates how Herod slaughtered all the rabbis in his day, leaving only Bava ben Buta, whom he had blinded. Later, Herod had an exchange with Bava and realized how wise the rabbis were:

Herod then said: “I am Herod. Had I known that the Rabbis were so circumspect, I should not have killed them. Now tell me what amends I can make.”

Bava ben Buta replied: “As you have extinguished the light of the world, [for so the Torah Sages are called] as it is written, ‘For the commandment is a light and the Torah a lamp’ (Proverbs 6:23), go now and attend to the light of the world [which is the Temple] as it is written, ‘And all the nations become enlightened by it.’” (Isaiah 2:2)

A model of Herod’s version of the Second Temple in Jerusalem

Herod did just that, and renovated the Temple to be the most beautiful building of all time, according to the Talmud. It wouldn’t last long, as that same Temple would be destroyed by his Roman overlords within about a century.

What many forget is that Herod was not a native Jew, but an Idumean. And “Idumea” was simply the Roman name for Edom. Herod was a real, red-blooded Edomite. (Though it should be noted that the Idumeans had loosely, or perhaps forcibly, converted to Judaism in the time of the Hasmoneans.) Herod took over the Jewish monarchy, and began the horrible persecutions that the Roman Empire—of which he was a part—was all too happy to continue. It seems quite likely, therefore, that the association between Edom and Rome began at that point. The people resented that Roman-Edomite tyrant Herod that persecuted them so harshly.

Henceforth, it was easy for the Sages to spill their wrath upon Edom, and their progenitor Esau. Esau became a symbol of the Roman oppressor. “Esau” and “Edom” were code words, used for speaking disparagingly about Rome to avoid alarming the authorities. Indeed, when the Sages speak about the evils of Esau, they are often really referring to the evils of the Roman Empire. It is therefore not surprising that Esau becomes possibly the most reviled figure in the Torah—as the Romans were unquestionably the most reviled entity in Talmudic times.

Before Rome had collapsed, it had adopted Christianity as a state religion. The seat of Christianity would remain in Rome forever after. The Bishop of Rome, ie. the pope, would soon become Europe’s most powerful figure. Thus, when the Roman Empire itself collapsed, the Jews of the time saw the entire European-Christian world that arose in its place as Esau. 

There is a great deal of irony here: The mighty Roman Empire that so violently suppressed the Jews and their Torah soon adopted a quasi-Jewish cult as the state religion, and worshipped a Jewish man from Judea (Jesus) as their god! Christians would go on to push a “replacement theology”: that they are the new “Israel”, that God had abandoned the Jews in favour of Christians, and that the New Testament supersedes the “Old Testament”. In some ways, this is little more than Esau trying to take his old birthright back!

It is interesting to see that just as Esau teetered back and forth between loving Jacob wholeheartedly and wanting to exterminate him, Christian history displays much the same love-hate relationship with the Jews. There were times when the two happily coexisted side-by-side, and times that were the exact opposite. We see the same today, when there are Christian groups that are some of Israel’s biggest supporters and the staunchest opponents of anti-Semitism, and at the same time, other Christian groups that are some of Israel’s staunchest opponents and the biggest supporters of anti-Semitism. As a whole, Christians really do look like the spiritual descendants of Esau.

And “Is not Esau a brother to Jacob?” God asks (Malachi 1:2). From a religious perspective, Jacob and Esau are undeniably brothers, for Christianity emerged out of Judaism, and believes in the same ancient origins, texts, and traditions. So why does God “hate Esau” (Malachi 1:3)? Maybe He hates that Esau who is obsessed with converting Jews, or falsely accusing them of all sorts of horrible things, or constantly persecuting them; that Esau who simply won’t leave Jacob alone to “sit in his tents”.

Martin Buber once summarized the difference between Jews and Christians as such:

…to the Christian, the Jew is the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened; and to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished. This is a gulf which no human power can bridge.

Hopefully the true Mashiach will soon come to bridge that gulf, and Esau and Jacob will finally reunite as old brothers.

The Origins and Kabbalah of Kaddish

This week’s parasha begins with the passing of Sarah, the first Matriarch. We read how Abraham “eulogized Sarah and bewailed her” (Genesis 23:2). Today, the ritual most associated with Jewish death and mourning is undoubtedly the recitation of Kaddish. This has become one of those quintessentially Jewish things that all Jews—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—tend to be very careful about. It is quite common to see people who otherwise never come to the synagogue to show up regularly when a parent or spouse dies, only to never be seen again as soon as the mourning period is over. Kaddish has become so prevalent that it has gone mainstream, featured in film and on TV (as in Rocky III and in the popular Rugrats cartoon), on stage (in Angels in America and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3), and in literature (with bestselling novels like Kaddish in Dublin, and Kaddish For an Unborn Child).

 

Sylvester Stallone, as Rocky Balboa, recites Kaddish for his beloved coach and mentor. 

And yet, the origins of Kaddish are entirely clouded in mystery. It isn’t mentioned in the Tanakh, nor is there any discussion of reciting Kaddish for the dead in the Mishnah or Talmud. Even in the Rambam’s monumental Jewish legal code, the Mishneh Torah—just over 800 years old—there is no discussion of a Mourner’s Kaddish. Where did it come from?

Praying for Redemption

The Talmud refers to Kaddish in a number of places (such as Berakhot 3a, for example), though not in association with mourning the dead. Around the same time, we see a prayer very similar to Kaddish in the New Testament (Matthew 6:9-13), which has since become known as the “Lord’s Prayer” among Christians. This suggests that Kaddish existed before the schism between Judaism and Christianity, and this is one reason scholars date the composition of Kaddish to the late Second Temple era.

Many believe that it was composed in response to Roman persecution. The text of the Kaddish makes it clear from the very beginning that it is a request for God to speedily bring about His great salvation. It certainly makes sense that such a prayer would be composed in those difficult Roman times. In fact, the first words of Kaddish are based on Ezekiel 38:23, in the midst of the Prophet’s description of the End of Days (the famous “Gog u’Magog”), where God says v’itgadalti v’itkadashti. The Sages hoped the travails they were struggling through were the last “birth pangs” of the End Times.

In Why We Pray What We Pray, Barry Freundel argues that Kaddish was originally recited at the end of a lecture or a Torah learning session—as continues to be done today. It likely came at a time when public Torah learning or preaching was forbidden, as we know was the case in the time of Rabbi Akiva. So, the Sages ended their secret learning sessions with a prayer hoping that the Redemption would soon come, and they would once more be able to safely preach in public.

If that’s the case, how did Kaddish become associated with mourning the dead?

The Mourner’s Kaddish

Freundel points out that the earliest connection between Kaddish and the souls of the dead is from the Heikhalot texts. These are the most ancient works of Jewish mystical literature, going as far back as the early post-Second Temple era. (Scholars date the earliest texts to the 3rd century CE). One of these texts reads:

In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will reveal the depths of Torah to Israel… and David will recite a song before God, and the righteous will respond after him: “Amen, yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya itbarach” from the midst of the Garden of Eden. And the sinners of Israel will answer “Amen” from Gehinnom.

Immediately, God says to the angels: “Who are these that answer ‘Amen’ from Gehinnom?” [The angels] say before Him: “Master of the Universe, these are the sinners of Israel who, even though they are in great distress, they strengthen themselves and say ‘Amen’ before You.” Immediately, God says to the angels: “Open for them the gates of the Garden of Eden, so that they can come and sing before Me…”

The Heikhalot connect Kaddish (specifically its central verse, “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”) to a Heavenly prayer that will be recited at the End of Days, when the souls in Gehinnom will finally have reprieve. We can already start to see how this might relate to mourning, or spiritually assisting, the recently deceased.

This is related to another well-known story that is by far the most-oft used as the origin of Kaddish. In this narrative, a certain great sage—usually Rabbi Akiva, but sometimes Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai—sees a person covered in ash and struggling with piles of lumber. The poor person explains that he is actually dead, and his eternal punishment (reminiscent of popular Greek mythology) is to forever gather wood, only to be burned in the flames of that wood, and to repeat it all over again. The Sage asks if there is anything he could do to help, to which the dead man replies that if only his son would say a particular prayer, he would be relieved of his eternal torment.

The nature of that prayer varies from one story to the next. In some, it is the Shema, in others it is Barchu, and in others it is a reading of the Haftarah (see, for example, Kallah Rabbati 2, Machzor Vitry 144, Zohar Hadash on Acharei Mot, and Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu Zuta 17). It is only in later versions of the story that the prayer the son must say is Kaddish. Whatever the case, between the Heikhalot texts, and these Midrashic accounts, we now have a firm connection linking Kaddish with the deceased.

I believe there is one more significant (yet overlooked) source to point out:

The most important part of the Kaddish is undoubtedly the verse yehe sheme rabba mevorach l’olam u’l’olmei olmaya. As we saw in the Heikhalot above, this is the part that especially arouses God’s mercy. The Talmud (Berakhot 3a) agrees when it says essentially the same thing about the entire congregation reciting aloud “yehe sheme hagadol mevorach”. These special words are based on several Scriptural verses, such as Psalm 113:2 and Daniel 2:20. It also appears in Job 1:21.

Here, Job suffers the death of all of his children. Upon hearing the tragic news, he famously says: “…naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In Hebrew it reads: Adonai natan, v’Adonai lakach, yehi shem Adonai mevorach. The parallel is striking. The first person in history to recite the great “yehe sheme rabba” upon the death of a family member is none other than Job. In some way, Job may be the originator of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Birth of a Custom

Officially, the earliest known mention of reciting Kaddish for the dead is Sefer HaRokeach, by Rabbi Elazar of Worms (c. 1176-1238). Shortly after, his student Rabbi Itzchak of Vienna (1200-1270) writes in his Ohr Zarua that Ashkenazim have a custom to recite Kaddish upon the dead. He explicitly states that Tzarfati Jews (and as an extension, Sephardic Jews) do not have such a custom.

That much is already clear from the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), the greatest of Sephardic sages in his day, who makes no mention of a Mourner’s Kaddish anywhere in his comprehensive Mishneh Torah. (The Rambam does speak about the regular Kaddish, unrelated to the dead, which is recited throughout the daily prayers.) We see that in his time, Kaddish was still a strictly Ashkenazi practice. Why is it that Ashkenazi Jews in particular began to say Kaddish for the dead?

Most scholars believe the answer lies within the Crusades. The First Crusade (1095-1099) was a massive disaster for Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews. While the Crusades were meant to free the Holy Land from Muslim domination, many local Christians argued that there was no need to fight the heathen all the way in the Holy Land when there were so many local Jewish “heathens” among them. The result is what is referred to as “the Rhineland massacres”, described by some as “the First Holocaust”. Countless Jews were slaughtered.

‘Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099’ by Émile Signol

Like in the times of Roman persecution a millennium earlier, the Ashkenazi Sages sought comfort in the words of Kaddish, beseeching the coming of God’s Final Redemption, and at the same time seeking to honour the poor souls of the murdered. It therefore isn’t surprising that Rabbi Elazar of Worms is the first to speak of Kaddish for the dead, as his hometown of Worms (along with the town of Speyer) was among the first to be attacked, in May of 1096.

It is important to remember that Rabbi Elazar was a member of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, the “German Pietist” movement known for its mysticism and asceticism (not to be confused with the much later Hasidic movement). The Hasidei Ashkenaz would have been particularly well-versed in Heikhalot and Midrashim. Everything points to this group as being the true originators of reciting Kaddish for the dead.

The practice spread from there. Indeed, there was a great deal of Jewish migration in those turbulent times. For example, one of the greatest Ashkenazi sages, Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), was born in Cologne, Germany, but fled persecution and settled in Toledo, Spain. His renowned sons, Rabbi Yakov ben Asher (Ba’al HaTurim, c. 1269-1343), and Rabbi Yehudah ben Asher (c. 1270-1349) continued to lead the Sephardic Jewish community of Toledo. And it was there in Toledo that was born one of the greatest of Sephardi sages, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Arukh, still the primary code of Jewish law.

In the Shulchan Arukh we read how reciting Kaddish at a funeral is a must (Yoreh De’ah 376:4). We are then told that there is a custom based on the Midrash to continue reciting Kaddish for twelve months, though only for a parent, and possibly only for a father. The reasoning for the latter is entirely different: since it is a father’s obligation to teach his son Torah, by reciting Kaddish the son demonstrates that the father had fulfilled the mitzvah, and left behind a proper Jewish legacy.

It is quite amazing to see that as late as 500 years ago, Mourner’s Kaddish was still defined in very narrow terms, and described as more of a custom based on Midrash than an absolute halachic necessity. How did it transform into a supreme Jewish prayer?

Enter the Arizal

As with many other Jewish practices we find so common today, it looks like it was the influence of the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), history’s foremost Kabbalist, that made the Mourner’s Kaddish so universal, and so essential. Fittingly, he was the perfect candidate for the job, being the product of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother, and ending his life as the leader of the Sephardi sages of Tzfat.

The Arizal discussed the mysteries of Kaddish at great length. Like most of his teachings, they were put to paper by his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). The latter devotes a dozen dense pages to Kaddish in Sha’ar HaKavanot. He first explains the various forms of Kaddish recited during the regular prayer services. In brief, we find that Kaddish is recited between the major prayer sections because each part of the prayer is associated with a different mystical universe, and a different Heavenly Palace, and Kaddish facilitates the migration from one world to the next.

Recall that Kabbalah describes Creation in four universes or dimensions: Asiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The four sections of prayer correspond to the four ascending universes: the morning blessings and the first prayers up until Hodu correspond to Asiyah; the Pesukei d’Zimrah corresponds to Yetzirah; the Shema and its blessings parallel Beriah; and the climax of the prayer, the Amidah, is Atzilut, the level of pure Divine Emanation. For this reason, the Amidah is recited in complete silence and stillness, for at the level of Atzilut, one is entirely unified with God.

The Arizal delves in depth into the individual letters and gematrias of Kaddish, its words and phrases, and how they correspond to various names of God and Heavenly Palaces. He relays the proper meditations to have in mind when reciting the different types of Kaddish, at different stages of prayer. To simplify, the Arizal teaches that Kaddish helps us move ever higher from one world to the next, and more cosmically, serves to elevate the entire universe into higher dimensions. We can already see how this would be related to assisting the dead, spiritually escorting the soul of the deceased higher and higher through the Heavenly realms.

More intriguingly, Rabbi Vital writes that Kaddish is meant to prepare the soul for the Resurrection of the Dead. He goes on to cite his master in saying that Kaddish should be recited every single day, including Shabbat and holidays, for an entire year following the passing of a parent. He says that Kaddish not only helps to free a soul from Gehinnom, but more importantly to help it attain Gan Eden. It elevates all souls, even righteous ones. This is why one should say Kaddish for a righteous person just as much as for a wicked person, and this is why it should be said even on Shabbat (when souls in Gehinnom are given rest). Rabbi Vital then says how the Arizal would also say Kaddish every year on the anniversary of his father’s death, which is now the norm as well.

Ironically, while Kaddish began as an Ashkenazi custom, Rabbi Vital writes that the Arizal made sure to recite Kaddish according to the Sephardi text!

Repairing the World

Another interesting point that Rabbi Vital explains is why Kaddish is in Aramaic, and not Hebrew like the rest of the prayers. He reminds us the words of the Zohar that both Hebrew and Aramaic are written with the exact same letters because these are the Divine Letters of Creation, but Hebrew comes from the side of purity and holiness, while Aramaic is from the “other side” of impurity and darkness. Hebrew is the language of the angels, while Aramaic is the language of the impure spirits. The angels speak Hebrew, but do not understand Aramaic, while their antagonists speak Aramaic, and do not understand Hebrew. When we learn Torah and Mishnah, in Hebrew, we please the angels who take our words up to Heaven. When we learn Talmud and Zohar, in Aramaic, we destroy those dark spirits who cannot stand the fact that a person is using their tongue for words of light and holiness.

The same applies to our prayers. The bulk of our prayers are in holy Hebrew, the language of angels. Kaddish is in Aramaic because it is meant to elevate us, and the universe around us, into higher dimensions. In this vital task, we cannot risk elevating the impure spirits along with us, contaminating the upper worlds. Thus, by saying it in Aramaic, we push away the impure spirits who are unable to withstand us using their language in purity. Those evil forces are driven away, and we can ascend and rectify in complete purity.

This, in brief, is the tremendous power of Kaddish. This is why we recite it so many times over the course of the day. And this is why every Jew is so mysteriously drawn to this prayer and ritual, possibly above all others. Deep inside the soul of every Jew—regardless of background, denomination, or religious level—is a yearning to repair the world, to destroy the impure, to uplift the universe, and to recite loudly: “May His great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity…”

The Ten Martyrs & The Message of Yom Kippur

Tomorrow evening we usher in the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Torah does not make clear why this day in particular (the 10th of Tishrei) should be a day of atonement. The traditional explanation is that on this day God forgave the Israelites for the Sin of the Golden Calf, and presented Moses with a new set of Tablets. Based on the wording of the Torah, the Sages deduce that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai a total of three times, each for forty days: The first time was from Shavuot until the 17th of Tammuz; the second from the 19th of Tammuz until the 29th of Av; the third form Rosh Chodesh Elul until the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur (see Rashi on Exodus 33:11). On that final day, God forgave the people, and established henceforth that each year should be a day of forgiveness.

‘Joseph Sold by His Brethren’ by Gustave Doré

There happens to be another, more ancient, explanation for the origins of Yom Kippur. This one comes from the Book of Jubilees, that mysterious apocryphal work dating back to the Second Temple era. Though not canonized by our Sages (it was by the Sages of Ethiopian Jewry), it still tremendously influenced many traditional Midrashic teachings. According to Jubilees, the sons of Jacob sold their brother Joseph* at the start of a new year, and returned to their father on the 10th of Tishrei. On that day, they presented their father with Joseph’s bloodied tunic. So sad was this tragic “revelation” that, according to Jubilees, Dinah and Bilhah died from grief! Jacob henceforth commemorated the 10th of Tishrei as Joseph’s yahrzeit. His sons, meanwhile, feeling forever guilty for their sin, begged God for forgiveness each year on that day. Therefore, Jubilees (34:18) concludes, the 10th of Tishrei became the ultimate Day of Atonement for all of Israel.

This explanation may have indirectly found its way into the Rabbinic tradition. Today, it is customary to read an account of the Ten Martyrs on Yom Kippur. These were ten great sages that were murdered by the Romans. The story appears in a number of Midrashim, which don’t all agree on the details. In brief, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) and/or his Judean governor Tineius Rufus (c. 90-133 CE) summon the ten great rabbis of the time. The rabbis are questioned about the sale of Joseph: doesn’t the Torah prescribe the death penalty for an act of kidnapping? If so, why weren’t the brothers of Joseph put to death for their sin?

The rabbis admit that this is indeed the case. The Romans decide that these ten rabbis should be put to death in place of the ten brothers of Joseph. The rabbis request time to deliberate, and ultimately determine that it has been decreed in Heaven. They submit to the edict. Each one is subsequently tortured to death by the Romans. Some say they were slaughtered on Yom Kippur, or at least one of them was—the most famous among them, Rabbi Akiva.

The Arizal further suggests that these ten rabbis were the reincarnations of the Ten Spies (Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 36). This was another grave ancient sin the Ten Martyrs had to rectify. The Arizal cites an older Midrash that when Joseph was tempted by the wife of Potiphar, it was so hard for him to resist that ten drops of semen emerged “from his fingertips”, and the Ten Spies were the souls of those ten drops, as were the Ten Martyrs, who finally fulfilled all the necessary spiritual rectifications.

Revisiting the Ten Martyrs

There are several major issues with the account of the Ten Martyrs. First of all, the identity of the ten rabbis is different depending on the source. In Midrash Eleh Ezkerah, the ten are listed as: Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, Rabbi Ishmael (the Priest), Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, Rabbi Yehuda ben Dama, Rabbi Hutzpit (“the Interpreter”), Rabbi Chananiah ben Chakhinai, Rabbi Yeshevav, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua. In Midrash Tehillim (9:14), however, we are given the following list; Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha (the Priest), Rabbi Yeshevav (the Scribe), Rabbi Hutzpit (“the Interpreter”), Rabbi Yose [ben Halafta], Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, Rabbi Yehuda haNachtom, Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, and Rabbi Akiva.

The problem with the latter list (other than having three, or even four, different rabbis) is that Shimon ben Azzai is known from the Talmud to have died by mystically ascending to Pardes (Chagigah 14b). More intriguingly, just about everyone is familiar with the Talmudic account of Rabbi Akiva’s tragic death—where he faithfully recites Shema while being raked with iron combs (Berakhot 61b)—yet Midrash Mishlei (ch. 9) has a different idea: Rabbi Akiva was indeed imprisoned by the Romans, but died peacefully in his cell on a yom tov. His student, Rabbi Yehoshua, with the help of the prophet-angel Eliyahu, got Rabbi Akiva’s body out while all the guards and prisoners miraculously fell into a deep sleep. He is later buried with a proper funeral in Caesarea, and the presiding rabbis say to him, “Blessed are you, Rabbi Akiva, who has found a good resting place at the hour of your death.”

This Midrash fits with a Talmudic passage that describes how Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai learned from Rabbi Akiva during the latter’s imprisonment (Pesachim 112a). In that passage, Rabbi Shimon incredibly blackmails his master by saying that if he won’t agree to teach, Rabbi Shimon will pull some strings to have Rabbi Akiva executed! Rabbi Akiva goes on to relay five teachings. This suggests that Rabbi Akiva was not scheduled for execution at all, and his punishment for participating in the Bar Kochva Revolt was only imprisonment. It also fits with the accepted tradition that Rabbi Akiva lived to 120 years. It is highly unlikely that the Romans conveniently executed him on his 120th birthday, and far more likely that he died peacefully after living to 120.

Another well-known issue with the account of the Ten Martyrs is that these ten figures lived in different time periods. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel and Rabbi Ishmael were alive at the end of the Second Temple era. If they were killed by the Romans, it would have been during the Great Revolt, which ended with the Temple’s destruction. The other rabbis lived decades later. They were active in the time of the Bar Kochva Revolt, and would have died around that time (c. 135 CE), some 65 years after the Temple’s destruction. Interestingly, the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 CE), who was an eyewitness to the Temple’s destruction, wrote that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel was killed not by the Romans, but by the Jewish Zealots, one of the extremist factions that terrorized Jerusalem.

Some say that there were two Rabbi Ishmael haKohens. The first was Rabbi Ishmael ben Eliyahu, and he was the one who served as a priest at the end of the Second Temple era. The other was his grandson, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. It isn’t clear which of these Rabbi Ishmaels was martyred. According to Midrash Tehillim, it was Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, which makes sense since it would have been in the times of the Hadrianic persecution, during the Bar Kochva Revolt. (To further complicate things, the Talmud [Gittin 58a] says that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah once ransomed a young Ishmael ben Elisha out of a prison in Rome!)

The Talmud states that during the Water-Drawing Ceremony of Sukkot, the greatest celebration of the year in Temple times, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel I would juggle with fire! His descendant, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel II, taught “Great is peace, for Aaron the Priest became famous only because he sought peace.”
(Illustration by Ilene Winn-Lederer)

Similarly, there are two Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliels. While the second one was alive during the Bar Kochva Revolt, we know he survived that conflict, and went on to head the new Sanhedrin in Usha. It is possible that he was eventually killed by the Romans. He himself stated how terribly unbearable the persecutions were in his day (Shabbat 13b, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 3:3). In that case, perhaps the list in Midrash Eleh Ezkerah is accurate. If it was Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel II (not I, who was killed by Zealots), and Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha (not ben Eliyahu), then all Ten Martyrs lived around the same time. Still, they wouldn’t have been executed in one event, but that isn’t necessarily a requirement. We know that Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, for example, survived for some time after Rabbi Akiva, and ordained five of the latter’s students (Sanhedrin 14a). The list in Midrash Tehillim must be mistaken, as is the alternate account of Rabbi Akiva’s death in Midrash Mishlei. (There is little doubt that Rabbi Akiva was a victim of the Romans, considering he was a key supporter of the Bar Kochva Revolt.)

The Message

Going back to our original question, the Ten Martyrs died as a spiritual rectification for the sale of Joseph. The two are linked by the Yom Kippur holiday, which is said to be the day of Joseph’s false “yahrzeit”, and the day that the Ten Martyrs were murdered (or their fate decreed). The key lesson in all of this is that from the very beginning, the number one problem plaguing Israel is sinat hinam, baseless self-hatred and infighting. This was the issue with the very first, literal, Bnei Israel, the sons of Jacob, who conspired against one of their own, and continues to be the primary issue to this very day.

If we want true atonement and repentance, along with the Final Redemption, we must completely put an end to the incessant conflicts within our singular nation. This applies to both personal conflicts among family and friends, as well as larger political or cultural ones. We have to start seeing beyond the divides—Ashkenazi/Sephardi, secular/religious, Litvish/Hassidic, Orthodox/non-Orthodox, Israeli/Diaspora, liberal/conservative—and fully embrace one another. Long ago, the Arizal instituted an important practice of reciting each morning: “I accept upon myself the mitzvah of ‘and you shall love your fellow as yourself’, and I love each and every one within Bnei Israel as my own soul.” (הֲרֵינִי מְקַבֵּל עָלַי מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁל: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוךָ, וַהֲרֵינִי אוהֵב כָּל אֶחָד מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּנַפְשִׁי וּמְאודִי) Centuries earlier, it was Rabbi Akiva himself—first among martyrs—who declared this mitzvah to be the greatest in the Torah.

Gmar chatima tova!


*We’ve written in the past how a careful reading of the Torah shows that the brothers of Joseph didn’t actually sell him! (See ‘Was Joseph Really Sold By His Brothers?’ in Garments of Light.)