Tag Archives: Zionism

Is Playing Sports a Mitzvah?

In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we read the famous words: v’nishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem, “Guard your souls very much…” (Deuteronomy 4:15). The plain meaning of the passage within which these words are found is to be careful not to descend into idolatry, nor to make any sculptures or images of any figures that might be idolatrous. However, since ancient times the phrase to “guard your souls very much” has also been used to mean that it is our obligation to stay healthy and in good physical shape. If the body is not healthy and dies, then the soul will depart it. Having a healthy soul therefore requires maintaining a healthy body, and a pure soul requires a pure bodily vessel.

Interestingly, it was the great Hillel who first pointed out the connection between the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of taking care of one’s body. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) recounts how Hillel once took leave of his students and they asked him where he was going, to which he replied: “To do a mitzvah!” They asked which mitzvah, and he replied that he was going to the bathhouse. The puzzled students questioned him: is taking a bath a mitzvah? Hillel replied affirmatively, and explained: if all the statues and icons erected in public places needed to be constantly washed, and they are nothing but man-made objects depicting flesh-and-blood kings and nonsensical idols, how much more so must we keep our bodies clean since we were made in the image of God? And this is the deeper meaning behind King Solomon’s words gomel nafsho ish chassed (Proverbs 11:17), that a kindly or pious man makes sure to take care of his soul.

Our Sages had much to say about maintaining good health. For instance, in Gittin 70a, we are taught that there are 8 things that are healthy in small quantities, but harmful in excess. These eight are: travel, sexual intercourse, wealth, labour, wine, sleep, baths, and bloodletting. When it comes to the latter, in those days bloodletting was a popular therapy and it was thought that draining out some “old” blood will stimulate the production of new, healthier blood. There may be something to this, with recent research showing that bloodletting may indeed have been beneficial, and was possibly even effective against bacterial infections. Today, bloodletting is no longer done, but there may be a way to reap the same benefits (and do a double-mitzvah) by going to donate blood. Continue reading

Zionism Before Zionism

In honour of Yom Ha’Atzmaut this week—Israel’s Independence Day—let’s take a journey back into the ancient and little-known early history of Zionism. In the past, we have already explored how the Zionist movement did not begin with secular Jews in the late 19th century, as is commonly thought, but decades earlier with religious Jews. In fact, the history of Zionism dates back even further when we properly define Zionism simply as a movement to restore the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland. This did not begin in modern times, but all the way back in the 1st century. As soon as the Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and exiled a large majority of Jews, there has been a deep yearning to return to the Holy Land and rebuild.

The first such “proto-Zionist” movement was that of Shimon bar Kochva (d. 135 CE). Shimon is believed to have hailed from the small Judean town of Koziba, and was originally referred to as Shimon bar Koziba. The Emperor Hadrian made plans to flatten Jerusalem and rebuild it as Aelia Capitolina, with a shrine to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. Jews were understandably incensed. Bar Koziba managed to organize and train a group of Jewish rebels that miraculously succeeded in expelling the Roman forces from the Holy Land. They cleared the Temple Mount and even began construction of a new Holy Temple. Jews started returning to Israel, and it appeared that the ancient prophecies were beginning to be realized. Continue reading

The Surprising Story of Russia, Ukraine, and the Jews

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