This week’s parasha is Bechukotai, infamous for its long list of curses. Tragically, we find that all of those curses have been realized in Jewish history. And yet, we also find that out of each catastrophe comes tremendous blessing. God declares that although He will punish the nation, He “will not despise them nor reject them” for the covenant is everlasting. The punishment serves only as retribution, middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure”, but it also has a deeper purpose to bring forth renewed life. Let’s take three examples from the past two millennia to demonstrate this phenomenon. Continue reading
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.
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
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
In addition to the weekly parasha and Rosh Chodesh reading, this week we also read an extra portion called Parashat Shekalim. In the weeks leading up to Purim and Pesach, there are a number of additional readings to commemorate the key events surrounding those holidays. One of these readings is Shekalim, literally “shekels”, where we recount how the Israelites had each donated a half-shekel in order to conduct a census. The Torah forbids counting souls for several reasons, including the simple fact that people shouldn’t be treated like numbers. So, each adult Israelite male gave a half-shekel (a “substitute for the soul” as the Torah says), the result being the collection of some 300,000 shekels of silver.
In the Purim story, we read how Haman promised to pay the king 10,000 kikar of silver to finance the extermination of the Jewish people. One kikar is equivalent to 3000 shekels, meaning Haman amassed 30 million shekels for his final solution. This is an astronomical amount of money, especially back in those days. Where did Haman get it? Rav Ovadia Yosef explained: The Persian and Babylonian businessmen at the time were losing income because the Jewish exiles had come and set up their own superior businesses. The Persians and Babylonians couldn’t compete with the Jews. So, Haman told the businessmen that he can get rid of the Jews for them, and all he needed was a little financial support. They all gladly pitched in for his campaign. This is why the Megillah has Haman saying “I will pay ten thousand kikar of silver al yadei osei hamelakhah [by the hand of those who do business].” (Esther 3:9)
Without those funds, there would be no Purim story! This is one small example of how the shekel—money—drives historical events. We find that, beneath the surface, most of history is a result of economics and business. While so much of Judaism is built upon commemorating the distant past, we seldom think about the financial aspects of those ancient events. Of course, the root reasons for those events are entirely spiritual, yet the way they are brought to actualization is financial. This is hinted to by the Torah’s language itself, where the numerical value of shekel (שקל) is 430, equal to nefesh (נפש), “soul”. It is further alluded to by the Talmud where money is referred to as zuz, literally “move”. Money is the prime “mover” of history. What follows, therefore, is a look at some of the key events of Jewish history—from an economical perspective. Continue reading