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December 9, 2016 / 9 Kislev, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Middle Ages’

Egypt Coptic Christian Leadership Condemns Western Media Coverage

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

In the face of an unprecedented wave of violence directed against Coptic Christians amid the turmoil in Egypt that has left hundred’s dead, the church’s leadership issued a statement condemning the Western media’s biased coverage of the events in Egypt.

“We strongly denounce the fallacies broadcasted by the Western media and invite them to review the facts objectively regarding these bloody radical organizations and their affiliates instead of legitimizing them with global support and political protection while they attempt to spread devastation and destruction in our dear land,” reads the statement, according to a Google translation.

“We request that the international and western media adhere to providing a comprehensive account of all events with truth, accuracy, and honesty,” the statement added.

The Coptic Church also reaffirmed its support for the military-backed government, calling on the army and security forces to continue their fight against the “armed violent groups and black terrorism.”

One of the oldest communities in Christianity, Coptic Christians have survived numerous persecutions in the past. But the recent violence is unprecedented. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an independent human rights organization, has documented 39 attacks against Coptic Christian churches, schools, monasteries and businesses since late last week, NPR reported.

Coptic Christians constituted a majority of Egypt’s population until the Middle Ages, when Islam, introduced by the Arab invasions in the 7th century, eclipsed their religion. Today, Coptic Christianity comprises nearly 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million people, making it the largest single Christian community remaining in the Middle East.

JNS News Service

Part of Enormous 1,000-Year-Old Jerusalem Hospital Shown to Public

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Part of an enormous Old City of Jerusalem hospital building dating to the Crusader period from the years 1099-1291 has been revealed to the public following excavations and research by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Records show that the Christians provided Jewish patients with kosher food. The building, owned by the Muslim Waqf religious authority, is situated in the heart of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, in a region known as “Muristan,” a corruption of the Persian word for hospital. It is located near David Street, the main road in the Old City.

Until a decade or so ago the building served as a bustling and crowded fruit and vegetable market. Since then it stood there desolate until the Grand Bazaar Company said it wanted to renovate the market as a restaurant, when the Israel Antiquities Authority began to conduct archaeological soundings there.

The structure, only a small part of which was exposed in the excavation, seems to extend across an enormous area of nearly four acres.

Its construction is characterized by massive pillars and ribbed vaults and it stands more than 19 feet high, suggesting an image of a great hall composed of pillars, rooms and smaller halls.

Excavation directors Renee Forestany and Amit Re’em said, “We’ve learned about the hospital from contemporary historical documents, most of which are written in Latin. These mention a sophisticated hospital that is as large and as organized as a modern hospital. The hospital was established and constructed by a Christian military order named the ‘Order of St. John of the Hospital in Jerusalem’ and known by its Latin name the Hospitallers (from the word hospital). These righteous warriors took an oath to care for and watch over pilgrims, and when necessary they joined the ranks of the fighters as an elite unit.”

The hospital was comprised of different wings and departments according to the nature of the illness and the condition of the patient – similar to a modern hospital. In an emergency situation the hospital could accept as many as 2,000 patients.

The Hospitallers treated sick men and women of different religions. There is information about Crusaders who ensured their Jewish patients received kosher food. All that notwithstanding, they were completely ignorant in all aspects of medicine and sanitation: an eyewitness of the period reports that a Crusader doctor amputated the leg of a warrior just because he had a small infected wound. Needless to say, the patient died.

The Muslim Arab population was instrumental in assisting the Crusaders in establishing the hospital and teaching them medicine.

The size of the hospital can be learned from contemporary documents, one of which recounts an incident about a staff member who was irresponsible in the performance of his work in the hospital. That person was marched alongside the building awhile, and the rest of the staff, with whips in hand, formed a line behind him and beat him. This spectacle was witnessed by all of the patients.

The Ayyubid ruler Saladin lived near the hospital following the defeat of the Crusaders, and he also renovated and maintained the structure. He permitted ten Crusader monks to continue to reside there and serve the population of Jerusalem.

The building collapsed in an earthquake that struck in 1457 CE and was buried beneath its ruins, which is how it remained until the Ottoman period. In the Middle Ages parts of the structure were used as a stable and the bones of horses and camels were found in excavations, alongside an enormous amount of metal that was used in shoeing the animals.

According to Monser Shwieki, the project manager, “The magnificent building will be integrated in a restaurant slated to be constructed there, and its patrons will be impressed by the enchanting atmosphere of the Middle Ages that prevails there.”

“The place will be open to the public later this year,” he added.

Jewish Press Staff

Our Mother’s Lessons

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

All societies survive through the retention of customs and traditions. If ritual law, halacha and Torah observance are the keystones of Jewish existence, the customs and traditions of Israel are the chain that has kept Israel bound to the Torah and its laws and values. The rabbis called the customs and traditions of Israel “the lessons of your mother” – in contrast and at the same time complementing “the teachings and disciplines of your father.”

Discipline and teachings are sometimes cold, harsh, demanding. Your mother’s lessons are warm, loving, comfortable and reassuring. Thus the relationship of the Jewish people to customs and traditions is a millennia-long romance. Infused with holy memories and meaningful vignettes and life’s wisdoms, customs and traditions have long been a dominant factor in Jewish life.

Customs evolve and many times are influenced by unknown and even non-Jewish sources. A people does not live in Spain for eight hundred years without becoming at least slightly Spanish in its customs and mores. The same is certainly true for central and eastern Europe (Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Hungary, Bohemia, Romania, Austria, etc.) Many customs that the Jews adopted in their long exile were not necessarily of Jewish origin. Yet over the ages, all customs that entered Jewish life, no matter what their original source may have been, were invested with authority and holiness – many times over the objections of the rabbis and sages of the time.

Customs had such a strong hold on Jewish behavior and lifestyle that Rabbi Yaakov Emden (eighteenth century) ruefully remarked that it was regrettable that the commandment not to steal was written in the Torah and was not a custom, for had it been a custom it would have wider acceptance and practice among the Jewish people. Thus the struggle between custom and halacha, between the sages of Israel and its masses, was and is a never-ending contest, and Jewish history attests that custom usually wins out.

The rabbis were willing to grant that custom takes precedence in monetary and commercial affairs, stating in essence that agreed-upon business custom is essentially halacha itself in that realm of human activity. However the main disputes concerned custom in ritual matters and prayer, Holiday and Shabbat laws, and the extent of rabbinic authority over the community and the masses.

An accepted principle that was adopted even in Talmudic times was that when there is considerable doubt and much dispute as to what the halacha actually is, the customs of the people in this matter will prevail. However, there were sages who stated that the customs that one should follow are only those that are stricter than the apparent halacha, but customs that introduce leniencies that the halacha did not countenance should be discarded.

However, both from the Talmud itself and from later works of the sages of Israel, it seems that customs that were essentially more lenient than the original halacha also had validity. Apparently this was in line with a Talmudic concept that there are times when the halacha itself is set as such and such, but nevertheless we do not teach it or follow it publicly. This flexibility relative to halacha and some of its decisions created the loophole through which custom marched and took hold in the Jewish world.

The upshot of all of this was that a certain consensus was reached regarding the relationship of custom and halacha. It may generally be stated that the consensus included the following rules: (1) When there was doubt as to what the actual original halacha is, then the custom will decide the matter; (2) when the matter does not really touch upon behavior that is forbidden or permitted, such as matters of blessings and prayer texts, then the custom even if not sanctioned by the prevailing rabbinic authorities is allowed to continue; (3) custom cannot prevail over established halacha in matters of Torah or Talmudic ritual law as to what is forbidden or permitted; and (4) when a major dispute exists among the halachic authorities as to what the halacha should be, the custom of the community or even the individual is valid.

In the later Middle Ages and early modern period, when the study of Zohar and Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world, many new kabbalistic customs entered Jewish life. Even those sages who opposed the widespread study of Kabbalah among the masses, nevertheless adopted kabbalistic customs in their communities. Naturally this was not without dissension and division within those communities. Even so, kabbalistic customs were widespread throughout Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.

Both Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulchan Aruch and Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his “tablecloth” (Mapa) glosses to the Shulchan Aruch included many customs, kabbalistic and non-kabbalistic, in their monumental and authoritative works. Thus custom itself was enshrined in the major halachic works that have ruled Jewish life ever since the sixteenth century. Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi, the seventeenth-century author of Nahalat Shiva, a well-known halachic work, attacked the concept of custom overruling halacha but apparently to little avail.

The rise of the eighteenth century chassidic movement, with its heavy emphasis on kabbalistic thought and mass practice, created many customs that were enshrined as obligatory behavior within the chassidic groups adopting these differing customs. Some customs such as the wearing of a ritual belt (gartel) during prayer services and other occasions became universal chassidic custom as did the change from strictly Ashkenazic ritual text of prayer to one that resembled Sephardic text.

Among Lithuanian Jews, many private customs of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, the Gaon of Vilna, took public hold and were observed in synagogues and yeshivot. Some of those customs have become the accepted norm in today’s Jerusalem as well.

Even as late as the nineteenth century there were great rabbinic authorities who opposed the custom of kaparot – the slaughter of chickens before Yom Kippur – as being an expiation of one’s sins. Among Lithuanian Jews the superstitious custom was modified to giving coins to charity instead of slaughtering chickens. Nevertheless, the custom has persisted and even gained strength and followers especially in chassidic society, and the custom of kaparot with chickens is alive and well (though not for the chickens) in present-day Jerusalem even within “Lithuanian” society.

* * * * *
The line between custom and superstition is a very thin one and has often been crossed in Jewish history. In our day, the custom of wearing red strings to ward off the evil eye is quite prevalent. The origin of that custom is clearly not Jewish, it being part of Italian and Sicilian lore. Nevertheless it is certainly present in today’s Jewish society.

Perhaps the strongest and longest-lasting custom that has become a part of Ashkenazic Jewish life is that of the non-use of kitniyot on Pesach. This custom, which originated in the early Middle Ages, was apparently based upon the use of legumes to make a type of Pesach bread. The banning of the use of legumes stemmed from the confusion that might arise from people thinking that if bread made from rice, beans, peas, etc. was permissible, then bread made from oats, barley, rye, wheat and spelt was also somehow acceptable – these latter grains being pure chametz if not carefully and expeditiously turned into quick-baked matzah.

This custom is a very strong one and the rabbis over the ages have been very loath to relax its severity even in seemingly extraordinary circumstances. In fact the custom has expanded in our time to even include liquids derived from legumes and other such legume derivatives. The Sephardic world generally does not observe this custom of kitniyot, though there are some Sephardic communities that do not use rice on Pesach.

In our time, American corn, which was unknown to Europe and the Middle East until the eighteenth century, is also treated as being kitniyot. However, tea, coffee, sugar, garlic, cocoa, tobacco and other like ingredients are not considered to be kitniyot, though all of them were at one time or another discussed in rabbinic literature as perhaps being such. Among the masses, the custom to include garlic as being kitniyot was widespread even when rabbinic decision was almost unanimous that it not be considered so.


is one area where custom completely rules. The fact that the entire matter of kitniyot is absent from Sephardic Jewish communities only emphasizes the role of differing customs in different Jewish communities. Rabbinic wisdom decreed that instead of arguing over the efficacy of one custom over another differing one, each community should observe its customs and traditions. In cases of “mixed” marriages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, in the absence of agreement among the spouses as to which customs will prevail in the house, the usual practice is that the custom of the husband takes precedence.

Another contentious custom that exists in the Ashkenazic world regarding Pesach is that of the non-use of matzah-meal flour in conjunction with cooking and baking. This matter called “gebrokts” (literally, ground or broken matzah) was not widespread until the rise of chassidism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century eastern Europe. The non-chassidic Lithuanian Jewish world never adopted this custom and even the chassidic world allows gebrokts on the eighth day of Pesach in the Diaspora. This custom apparently arose from the chance the matzah would not be baked thoroughly enough and thus a kernel of grain would remain embedded in it. When the matzah was made wet in cooking, baking or dipping, that kernel would begin to ferment and could become chametz.

Since the prohibition against chametz on Pesach applies even to the minutest amount of grain, this custom took hold in the chassidic world and is observed by most Jews of eastern European background even today. Jews of Lithuanian descent do not observe the custom of gebrokts and this often leads to a certain disconnect within families where generations of eastern European Jews with these different customs have married each other and the question arises as to who eats or does not eat matzah balls and the like at the same meal.

There is nothing quite like being Jewish when matters of custom are involved. To the outsider the issues may appear to be slightly amusing. However, in my rabbinic experience I have witnessed that unfortunately these matters are deadly serious to those involved and can tear family bonds asunder. Therefore, even observance of custom requires good sense, tolerance and prioritizing values.

* * * * *
There is one area of Jewish law and life which is almost completely governed by custom and that is the subject of avelut – the procedures of grieving, mourning and consoling the bereaved. Since we are dealing with the dreaded unknown, death itself, it is understandable that custom should have a strong hold on the matter. Kabbalistic customs rule in these areas. For instance the covering of mirrors in the house of the mourner is a custom that has acquired almost universal acceptance, even in homes that sadly do not otherwise observe basic Jewish law and practice.

Death is spooky and when it comes to spooks even the most hardened rational intellect wavers. Visiting graves, placing stones on the monuments, reciting Kaddish in memory or in honor of the dead, the Yizkor service held four times in the year in the midst of Yom Tov prayer services, lighting yahrzeit lamps or candles to mark the anniversary of the death of a family member and other such death-related customs connected to grief and consolation are all fairly late arrivals in Jewish life, mostly unmentioned in records of biblical and Talmudic times.

Much has been written about the Jewish way of grieving and consolation, mostly based on the customs that now prevail. Most of these customs have become Jewish law and halacha itself and occupy great space and discussion in rabbinic writings and scholarly works. Jewish law discourages undue mourning over death. It is the way of God’s world. The customs of Israel in these matters are meant to ease the mourner back into normal life and routine and somehow begin to assuage the pain of the loss and death of a loved one.

In a broader sense one may see that tradition and customs have eased the terrible exile for Israel and helped us preserve our faith and family structure against overwhelmingly difficult odds.

This is also apparent in the ironclad “custom of our fathers that remains in our hands” to observe a second day of Yom Tov on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in the Diaspora. This observance was originally a matter of halacha, since there was real doubt as to which day was exactly the correct date of the holiday. However, with the establishment and acceptance of the calculations of the permanent Jewish calendar after the demise of the Sanhedrin in the fifth century, the doubts regarding the exact date of the holiday were seemingly removed. But the second day of the Diaspora holidays then morphed from absolute halacha into custom.

And the custom became as binding as the halacha itself had been. It was the “extra” day of the holidays that helped the Jewish people survive the long exile. Those movements that did away with the custom of the “second” day of the holiday soon found that their adherents had lost observance of the “first” day of the holidays as well.

* * * * *
The reformers and progressives among us have constantly underestimated the power of custom in the life of a society and a people, certainly in Jewish society and the people of Israel. The warmth and love of our mothers as represented by the customs and traditions of Israel are the mainstays of Jewish life even now in our land of Israel and its Jewish state and in a more favorable Diaspora atmosphere.
Jewish free thinkers and agnostics have mocked Jewish customs in every age and country of Jewish residence. Yet they have been unable to find any worthwhile substitute for the tradition and customs so much maligned by them, any other mechanism that would help ensure Jewish continuity and survival. Is it not perhaps that all of us have only one mother? And the one mother of Israel in this matter remains our sense of tradition and the customs developed over the ages to protect the Torah and enrich Jewish life.

Rabbi Berel Wein is an internationally acclaimed scholar, lecturer and writer whose audiotapes on Torah and other Jewish subjects have garnered a wide following, as have his books, which include a four-volume series on Jewish history. A pulpit rabbi for decades, he founded Yeshiva Shaarei Torah of Rockland in 1977 and moved to Israel in 1997His latest book is “Patterns of Jewish History” (Koren Publishers), from which this essay is adapted.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Sin Of The Grasshoppers

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

With Israel surrounded, as ever, by implacable enemies and forced to endure withering assaults of negative international opinion, we can take needed comfort and learn an important lesson from the Torah context of some key phrases in the Yom Kippur liturgy we recited just days ago.

Two such phrases are “selach na la’avon ha’am hazeh” (“forgive the sins of this people”) and that powerful culminating statement in the Kol Nidrei service, “Vayomer Hashem salachti k’dvarecha” – God’s solemn declaration that we stand forgiven.

The remarkable scenario is found in the well-known story of the spies in the wilderness. The Jews had left Egypt and were in the Wilderness of Paran, at which point they requested that spies be sent to investigate the Promised Land they were about to enter.

Moshe Rabbeinu picks “individuals of stature, leaders of the Children of Israel, every one of them a prince.” They spent forty days checking out the Land. On their return to the camp they reported that “the Land is flowing with milk and honey indeed,” and they presented as evidence a colossal cluster of grapes carried by two people on a pole between them.

But they continued telling a frightening tale of formidably fortified cities whose walls were impregnable and whose people were giants. They concluded: “We can’t go against these people for they are stronger than we are.”

To bring their point forcefully home, they declared: “Va’nehi b’eineinu k’chagavim” – “we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers” – and”v’chein hayinu b’eineihem” – “and so we saw ourselves in their eyes.”

The people, hearing this dreadful report, lifted up their voices and cried, “Would that we had died in Egypt . Wherefore does God bring us unto this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become free prey! It would be better for us to return to Egypt!”

Since their departure from Egypt, the Jews had crossed the sea, experienced their great encounter with the Divine at Mount Sinai and were fed manna and provided water in the parched wilderness. All these wondrous events seemed suddenly forgotten by the people, as was their bitter enslavement in Egypt.

This was hardly the first time since the beginning of the process of liberation that the people showed little or no faith in God. When the Egyptian chariots were approaching, and the deep sea stretched before them, the nation cried out: “Is it because of lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness?”

Shortly after crossing the sea, when they had not yet found water in the wilderness surrounding them, the people cried out, “What shall we drink?” Soon thereafter they complained about the lack of proper food: “Would that we had died in the Land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots and ate bread to satiation.”

And when they ran out of water a second time, they showered bitter reproach on God and Moshe: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

But it was only when the people built a Golden Calf do we read that the Almighty considered severely punishing the people.

Nothing,however, compares to God’s burning wrath in the case of the spies. “I will smite them with the pestilence . I will wipe them out totally,” he declares.

Why then? Weren’t the previous complaints and revolts equally shameful and provocative? Why is it just then that God seemed ready to obliterate the nation?

Indeed, this time wasdifferent. A closer reading shows us it was the first time Jews were engaged in debasing, disdaining, deriding and scorning themselves. Previously the people had complained against God or Moses. Now however, the people’s revolt and the their desire to return to Egypt was based on utter self-contempt.

“We were as grasshoppers in our own eyes.” We were as worms, as snails, as bugs, as dust in our own self-esteem. It was not so much the revolt as the reasonfor the revolt – its motivation – that brought God close to sealing the people’s fate.

With such total lack of self-appreciation – by being so debased and scorned in their own eyes – a people can have no future, no vision, no hope. This group is not a people. It is an anarchic mob.

Only Moshe’s plea saves the people. Only the supplication reiterated in our Yom Kippur prayers brings about a change in God’s plan.

“Forgive the sin of this people . Hashem, Hashem, please be gracious and merciful” – only this converts the death sentence into a life sentence and brings about a Divine judgment that, while dooming the self-deprecating generation to die out in the wilderness in the course of forty years of wandering, offers salvation to future generations of the Jewish people.

Evidently, the sin deserving the penalty of annihilation was self-debasement and self-contempt. Belittling oneself, considering oneself not worthy – the act and state of self-derision – was declared an a nearly unpardonable sin. Perhaps it was this biblical story that prompted Hillel to declare: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

A fine story about the Chofetz Chaim comes to mind.

Famous for his learning, wisdom and humility, the Chofetz Chaim liked to travel incognito in order to avoid adulation. One day, as the Chofetz Chaim was on his way home to the Lithuanian town of Radin, the coach driver began praising a certain rabbi who happened to lived in Radin.

Each time the driver uttered praise for this rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim would demur. When the driver proclaimed how learned the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim responded, “Nu, he is not so learned.” When the driver related how compassionate and charitable the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim protested, “Nu, he is not so compassionate and charitable.” When the driver described how humble a man the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim begged to differ: “Nu, he is not so humble.”

At that point the driver had heard enough from his contrary passenger. He stopped the coach and unceremoniously threw the man to the side of the road.

The next day the driver decided to pay a visit to the famed rabbi whose virtues he had extolled so forcefully. At once he recognized the rabbi as the very passenger he had left stranded the day before at the side of the road. Mortified, he began crying out, “Oy, Rebbe, please forgive me.”

The Chofetz Chaim interrupted him and said: “Mein tayerer Yid, I have nothing to forgive you for. I have to thank you for teaching me a very important lesson in life. We have no right to deride ourselves. We must fully respect ourselves and never be self-deprecating.”

* * * * *


The fact is, it goes against our tradition to belittle ourselves. We should not hold our noses high up in the air, but we are not allowed to permit people to step on us, to take advantage of us, to belittle and bypass us.

The Torah resonates with the message: Jews, have respect for yourselves! If we won’t have respect for ourselves, if we won’t have respect for our people, who will? If I am not for myself who will be? If I am not for my people who will be? If I say I am no good, why should others try to convince me otherwise about myself?

And yet, despite that unmistakable message, perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the Jewish people, not only in the wilderness but repeatedly throughout the ages, has been the tendency to debase ourselves.

In the Middle Ages there were Jews who converted to Christianity to save their skin. But then, in their desire to prove their Christian sincerity, they became faithful handmaidens of the bloody Inquisition. They were the first in line to testify that the Talmud and Jewish lore blaspheme Jesus and Christianity, thus helping to light up the dark Middle Ages with pyres of Jewish martyrs and precious sacred texts.

Modern times proved no better. Once the ghetto walls were breached in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the process of emancipation, followed by assimilation to neighboring cultures, proceeded at an ever-increasing pace.

We were proud of becoming elegant Frenchmen, and in fact turned into better Frenchmen than Jews. We were proud of becoming cultured Germans, and in fact turned into better Germans than Jews. We began hiding our Jewishness and became increasingly ashamed of it.

We were driven by utter self-derision. We became filled with a self-contempt that times reached the level of self-hatred. We became like grasshoppers in our own eyes. No wonder those around us took to seeing us in the same light: “V’chein hayinu b’eineihem” – “that is the way we appeared in their eyes.”

Today it is no better. In the Middle Ages, some orders of Christian monks used self-flagellation to beat the devil out of themselves. So too do some Jews flagellate themselves, mercilessly driving any sense of Jewishness and Zionist feeling (as if these were the very devil) out of themselves and their environment.

Were these Jews to act as the monks did, in the seclusion of their monastic cells, it would be sad and painful to know about but it would not constitute a threat to the entire nation. But these Jews display to the entire world their total lack of self-respect, their contempt for the most sacred aspects of Judaism. They trumpet their disgust through all conceivable media, readily placed at their disposal by our enemies. They thus send waves of dejection and desperate impotence through our people while strengthening the hands of our adversaries whose only wish is to destroy us.

Herzl hoped that once we were in our own land the problem of anti-Semitism would be solved We have come to learn, however, that the world won’t change. As long as the Jewish people is vital and creative, in its own land or out of it, the world will hate us with a passion, will harass us, and will find all the pretexts – no matter how far-fetched and unreasonable – to support our enemies

Even if Israel had the best and the Jewish people were blessed with the most charismatic spokesmen, it would not be in our power to persuade the stranger who loves to hate us with a passion to learn to love us with a similar ardor.

But what we must do is shout and argue – even plead and beg – with our brother and sister Jews:

Let us be. Don’t help in digging our graves. Don’t offer our enemies live ammunition to kill us, to finish us off. Let them not be triumphant because of the collaboration of Jews who not only accept all the lies invented about us but bolster those lies by their own fancifully false interpretations. Please, don’t condemn our generation to extinction the way a handful of leaders did in the wilderness who saw themselves as worthless grasshoppers.

When Jewish intellectuals distort history in order to “prove” Jewish guilt and Israeli aggression, malevolently overlooking whatever would unquestionably prove Israel to be in the right, they are guilty before God and man of a malicious crime that, as we have seen, in our ancient past threatened our whole people with extinction.

As the story of the spies exemplifies, nothing brings down God’s wrath as when His people loses its self-appreciation, becoming debased and deligitimized in its own eyes.

We – all of us, big and small, laborer and academician, intellectual and man in the street – must beled to a deeper understanding of our personal value, to the colossal impact of our personal acts, and to a true understanding of the justness of our cause as a people.

The time has come for all of us to grow in our conviction that, despite our human flaws and occasional mistakes, we have every right and justification to continue to thrive and progress as a people in our own land – and that as a united people we will face up to all challenges from near and from far.

In the coming year, in the face of the derision and guilt heaped upon us in such liberal doses by our enemies, we must stand up to all temptations that may lead to a weakening of faith and trust.

We must never forget we are an ancient people with unbroken descent, having made vast contributions to mankind and with an undisputed right to the Land of Israel that no person of a sane mind and a just heart could challenge.

The Ship of the Jewish People has sailed over the stormiest of seas in the course of the ages, reaching the 21st century battered but creative, full of vitality, confidently looking forward to a glorious future.

Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is the author of several books including “Politics of Compromise” and “In the Shadow of the Struggle.” He is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel; taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.

Dr. Ervin Birnbaum

The Jews Of Portugal: Contemporary Sites And Events (Part Two)

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

        In the first article on the Jews of Portugal, we reviewed the glorious periods of the history and depths of persecution to which Jews were subjected during the Inquisition. We continued through to the revival of the Jewish community in Lisbon. This piece highlights the contemporary Jewish sites, with the extended hand of the small Jewish community to their brethren worldwide.


         The largest Jewish community in Portugal is in Lisbon, where there are two synagogues – a Sephardic, Shaare Tikva (which was featured in The Jewish Press article on the Jews of Portugal) and an Ashkenazic, Ohel Yaacov. The Sephardic synagogue houses documents and religious objects dating back to the 1300’s.


         In Lisbon, there is also a Jewish cultural center, a kosher butcher, a special slaughtering house and a home for the aged. Additionally, there are remains of the medieval Jewish quarter and Rossio Square, the site of the Palace of the Inquisition where 1,300 Jews were burned at the stake. There is a collection of Jewish tombstones, with inscriptions written in Hebrew in the Archaeological Museum. In the National Museum of Ancient Art, there is a painting of Grao Vasco, a 16th century Jew.




         A unique ancient synagogue can be visited in the Jewish quarter of Obidos. The synagogue dates to the end of the 12th century. Obidos is a seaside village located about 80 kilometers north of Lisbon, in the Costa de Prata region. A Jewish community lived in Obidos between the fifth and seventh centuries, when the Visigoth occupied the city. Another Jewish community lived there between the eighth and 12th centuries, while it was under Arab rule.




         The city of Tomar is located in the Costa de Prata region. The first Jews settled in the town in the 14th century. The Jewish quarter occupied only one street, the present-day Rua Dr. Joaquim Jacinto. Despite its small size, the Jewish community was prosperous, and its influence was to increase greatly during the 15th century. This was the period of the Discoveries, when Tomar’s governor was Prince Henry the Navigator.


         In Tomar, an ancient 15th century Jewish synagogue and mikveh (ritual bath), one of the two surviving monuments of medieval Jewish heritage, have been preserved. The synagogue has become a national museum and features historic remains of medieval Portugese communities. In 1993, a Yom Kippur service was held at the synagogue due to the large number of Jewish tourists.


Tomar Synagogue


         Located at 73 Rua Dr. Joaquim Jaquinto, the synagogue of Tomar features a white painted, plain facade. The interior consists of a rectangular main prayer room of about eight meters on each side. Four pillars support the ceiling, with 12 pointed arches in the Moorish style, which was much appreciated in the Iberian countries during the Middle Ages.


         According to the Sephardic tradition, especially among Jews of Portuguese origin, the four pillars symbolized the four mothers of Israel: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, while the 12 arches are thought to represent the 12 tribes of Israel.


         The four upper corners of the room contain clay jars incorporated into the walls and positioned upside down, an ingenious traditional method employed in the Middle Ages to improve the acoustics. Modern additions include wooden chairs facing the central bimah, surrounding it on three sides. The Torah scrolls are kept in a wooden cupboard. Old stone carvings of the original structure decorate the walls of the prayer sanctuary.


         A second, smaller room is situated next to the main prayer sanctuary and is partially below the current street level. Discovered in 1985, it was originally used as a mikveh. It houses a collection of artifacts, especially ceramic bowls that are displayed around the mikveh’s pool. A well, half covered by a more recent wall, has been discovered on the patio behind the mikveh, its edges bearing deep cuts from ropes.


         Today, the building of the synagogue houses the Museu Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacuto, the Abraham Zacuto Portuguese Jewish Museum. It is named after Abraham Zacuto (c.1450-c.1522), a mathematician and author of the celebrated Almanach Perpetuum, a book published in Leiria in 1496 that contains mathematical tables largely used by Portuguese navigators during the early 16th century and later.


         The exhibits include various archeological findings attesting to the Jewish presence in Portugal during the Middle Ages. The exhibits include an inscription, dated 1307, from the former main synagogue of Lisbon. A second notable 13th century inscription is from Belmonte, on which the Divine Name is represented by three dots in a manner reminiscent of the ancient Hebrew manuscripts from the Dead Sea.




         Another small Jewish community can be found in the Costa Verde region in the city of Porto, which served as a major center for Jewish traders during the Middle Ages. One of the sites is the earliest known Jewish Quarter found in Portugal, now Rua de Santa Ana. Visitors can also visit the beautiful Kadoorie Synagogue, built in 1927.


         Last year, a group of citizens from the city of Porto, who view themselves as descendants of Crypto-Jews, issued a request to the government of Portugal to turn a building where the remains of an ancient synagogue were found into a museum dedicated to the history of the city’s Jews.


         It is believed that the building served as the synagogue of Rabbi Isaac Aboab. Rabbi Aboab, known as the “last gaon [sage] of Castile,” was the head of the Guadalajara yeshiva. In March 1492, on the eve of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Aboab and a group of Jewish dignitaries managed to obtain political asylum in Portugal. The rabbi settled in the Judiaria (Jewish) quarter of Porto, along with a few hundred Jewish families.


         Five years later, the Portuguese authorities forced all the Jews in the country to either convert to Christianity or be expelled. Many of those forced to convert continued to secretly observe the Jewish commandments. Over the years, the Jews abandoned the Judiaria, and many of its buildings were handed over to the Church or various charity organizations. The synagogue building was handed over to a state charity.


         Two years ago, the organization gave the building to a priest named Agostinho Jardim Moreira, to be converted into an old age home. During renovations on the building, a recess was found behind a secret wall where a synagogue ark that held the Torah scrolls once stood. The location of the building precisely matches a description provided by 16th century writer Immanuel Aboab (a great-grandson of Rabbi Aboab), who wrote that the synagogue was located “in the third house along the street, counting down, from the church.”


         The Israeli ambassador to Portugal, Aaron Ram, has appealed to the city of Porto and the local bishop regarding the matter. In addition, the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University has asked UNESCO for assistance in preserving the site.




         The last Marrano community can be found in Belmonte in the mountainous region of Serra da Estrel. In the 20th century, long after the Inquisition had ended, they realized that their traditions − to light the candles every Friday night and to pray on Saturday – were signs of their Jewish ancestry. With the help of rabbis from Israel, approximately 80 of Belmonte’s Jews converted to Orthodox Judaism in 1991.


Belmonte Synagogue



         Currently more than 120 openly practicing Jews live in Belmonte, making up 10 percent of the town’s population. In 1997, Portugal’s first new synagogue in 70 years was dedicated in Belmonte. Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Portugal’s President Jorge Sampaio attended the dedication ceremony. The town also boasts a mikveh.




        Excavations of possible 15th century synagogues are being undertaken in Evora, in the mountain village of Castelo de Vide and in Valencia de Alcantara, which is on the Spanish side of the border. In the Evora Museum, there is a stone with Hebrew inscriptions on it (dated 1378), along with a moneybox and a bench from the Inquisition. The Public Library across the street from the Evora Museum contains a rare, first edition copy of the Almanac Perpetuum, written by Abraham Zacuto. Visitors in Evora can visit the Kadoorie Synagogue, as well.




         Mediaeval Faro, the capital of Algarve, had a Jewish quarter that was noted for being the site of’ the first printing press in Portugal, where the Pentateuch in Hebrew by Samuel Gacon in 1487 was published. After the 1496 order was given for the expulsion of the Jews, the Jewish quarter declined as a result of the dispersal of its inhabitants. This was reversed in the 19th century, when a prosperous community of Jews from Gibraltar and Morocco settled in Rua de Santo Antonio.


         Around 1830, the renewed Jewish community built two synagogues and a cemetery. The remote cemetery, which dates back to the burial of Rabbi Josef Toledano in 1838, later fell into ruin when the community almost completely disappeared. In 1993 this cemetery, situated between Rua Leao Beneto and Estrada da Penah, was restored with the combined efforts of several Jewish Portuguese and foreign organizations. Portuguese President Mario Soares attended the restoration ceremony.


         Closer to the historical center was the Synagogue of Rua Castillo. Some signs of the Jewish community’s prosperity in the 19th century are still visible, such as Abrado Amram’s residence at the palace in Rua Filipe Alisto. It is now known as the Comigo Algarve Praca.


         The Algarve Jewish community was established in 1991 with a Chanukah tea party at the home of Ralf and Judy Pinto. Since then, all the main chagim are celebrated with tea parties or dinners. When sufficient numbers are present, an erev Shabbat service is arranged. The highlight of any year is the communal Pesach Seder, which attracts some 60 people from all parts of the Diaspora.


         In 1998 the Algarve community celebrated its first bar mitzvah in 75 years, for which a Sefer Torah was brought from Lisbon. Last year, the Pintos’ son Jose and his bride Michelle were the first Jewish couple to be married in Algarve in 500 years.


         Ralf Pinto, the Algarve Jewish community spokesman – whose parents went to South Africa as refugees from Nazi Germany – has traced his family tree back to Samuel Levi Pinto, who lived in Amsterdam in 1650. As he explains, the name Pinto is of Portuguese origin, and means “painted.” Pinto and his wife moved permanently to Algarve from South Africa in 1991.


         This tiny yet vibrant Jewish community is unique in its determination to revive Jewish life and restore the Jewish heritage of Portuguese Jewry in the historic city. In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Press, Pinto appeals to the worldwide Jewish communities to join his community in restoring the Isaac Bitton Museum at the Faro Jewish Cemetery.


         As he emphasizes, “Whereas traditionally the synagogue is the cornerstone of Jewish community life, in Algarve it is the restored cemetery which takes on this role.” Charged with the task of maintaining and developing the cemetery as a historic heritage site, Ralf Pinto is now developing a museum celebrating Jewish life, at the cemetery’s entrance. He elaborates: “A 25 square-meter wooden house will be installed, adjacent to the existing Tahara house. The addition will contain the original furniture from the synagogue that stood in Rua Castilho N? 4 in the old Jewish area of Faro till 1970, when it was sold and demolished.


         “A model chuppah will be set up with dressed mannequins and recorded music. We are now looking for donations of a wedding dress, a tallit with black stripes for the rabbi, a large tallit for the actual chuppah and if at all possible, a yad for Torah reading. So, if you have these items, please donate them to us.”


         Pinto notes that the museum is a very important tourist site for the many Jewish visitors to the area and to the non-Jews who have an opportunity to learn about Jewish life. The community plans to plant 18 trees at the entrance to the museum in honor of one of the “Righteous Among The Nations”, Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, whose heroic actions paved the way for over one million Jews to escape the Holocaust.


         The community publicizes its get-togethers by means of the local press and by mailing circulars to its members, and is listed in the International Jewish Travel Guide. When visiting Algarve, Pinto urges all visitors to contact the Jewish community at Rua J?dice Biker 11 5

Shoshana Matzner Beckerman

A Perfect Preserve

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

         Jam– a type of fruit preserve made by boiling fruit with sugar to make an unfiltered jelly
         Jelly– Combination of fruit juice and sugar that has been cooked, usually with pectin, to make a clear, thick preserve
        Preserves – made of small, whole fruits or uniform-size pieces of fruits in a clear, thick, slightly jellied syrup
        Marmalade– a preserve made of the pulp and rind of citrus fruits
         I spent some time on the Internet trying to find the history of jams, jellies and preserves. It seems that in the first century there was a recipe book, possibly compiled by the Roman gastronome Marcus Gavius Apicius, that contained a recipe for preserves. Jams and jellies were popular in the Middle East and may have been introduced to Europe by returning Crusaders in the Middle Ages. According to the website jelly.org, marmalade can be traced back to the 16th century and Mary Queen of Scotts. It seems the Queen suffered from seasickness, and a mixture of orange and crushed sugar would be prepared for her. Some have suggested that the name marmalade is derived from “Marie est malade” (Mary is sick), but it is more likely that it comes from the Portuguese word “marmelo,” which means quince (a very ancient Middle Eastern fruit.)
         Jams and jellies can be used in a variety of ways – smear some on a slice of bread, either alone or with peanut butter or cream cheese; use them in your favorite dessert recipes; add them to muffins for a great breakfast treat; or use them on fish, meat or poultry for a wonderful meal.
         Recently we received a shipment from a Napa-based company called A Perfect Pear (KSA, parve). Their product line is built around a wonderful fruit – the pear. We had the opportunity to try a number of their jellies, preserves and sauces. In our home we tried two different flavors – Roasted Pepper Pear Vinaigrette and Tomato Cinnamon Clove Preserve. I don’t think there are enough words to describe how wonderful they are. The Tomato Cinnamon Clove sounded like an odd combination, but we are fearless when it comes to trying new things. I mixed half the jar with some water and used it as a marinade for London Broil. The smell of cloves and cinnamon permeated the house as it cooked, making everyone’s mouth water. And the taste – wow! Everyone came back for seconds and thirds. The Roasted Pepper Pear Vinaigrette I used on chicken for a Shabbos meal. Again, they all came back for more – which in our house says a lot: after the challah, dips, fish and soup most of us don’t have room for the main course.

         So, if you are looking to prepare the “perfect” meal, you don’t need to look any further than “A Perfect Pear”. Their full line is available on the web at aperfectpear.net or at select specialty stores around the country.

Chumi Friedman

Rephidim: A Painting By John Dubrow

Friday, July 11th, 2003

John Dubrow: Paintings; Rephidim
Salander-O’Reilly Galleries.

20 East 79th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021

(212) 879-6606.

Monday – Friday 9:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Closed May 31, 2003.


From 1997 to 1998, John Dubrow got to know the World Trade Center fairly well. He made many paintings from a high vantage point on the 91st floor in a temporary studio granted him by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. His heavily worked cityscapes built solid compositions out of urban structure, color and space and define an important body of his work at that time. After September 11, 2001, he was, like most New Yorkers, devastated by the attacks and the destruction of the World Trade Center. He wondered how he could
return to city-scapes after his city had been so violated and his artistic milieu shattered. In the wake of the smoke, ash and collapse, he groped for an artist’s response to this mass murder.

A few weeks later, a close friend mentioned that he was studying the attack of the Amalekites against the Israelites in Exodus in conjunction with the events of 9/11 and the impending war in
Afghanistan. Dubrow was intrigued by the subject and its implications but immediately thought, “I don’t do that kind of painting. I don’t make Biblical art.” And yet he started drawing on a blank canvas as the initial image came to him. First the three figures were very large, and then he changed the scale drastically. He worked two years on the painting, Rephidim, that was shown at the Salander- O’Reilly Galleries. In his recent exhibition, it is easily the most complex, ambitious and successful painting of this current work.

From the late antique through the Middle Ages, the vast majority of artists who dealt with Biblical subjects were christian and the story of Moses raising his hands to insure an Israelite victory over the Amalekites (Exodus 17: 8-16) is found sporadically throughout art history. The frontal image of Moses with his arms stretched out in prayer flanked by Aaron and Hur is first found in a fifth century nave mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. After that it is seen in scattered illuminated Christian manuscripts that understand the subject as “an important antetype of salvation through the cross [because of the cross-like posture]” and demonstrate “the efficacy of prayer in war…” Other medieval works such as the Moralizing Bible (1245) use the image as a liturgical symbol, paralleling Moses to a priest offering the Mass at an altar. In a church in Reims, France, a floor tile represents Moses with one arm raised high with the help of Aaron and Hur in an attempt to control the outcome of the battle. In the later Middle Ages, the image shifts from the frontal view (more typical of symbolic and sacred interpretations) to a profile view that gradually expresses a more naturalistic and secular

Not surprisingly, there is a Hebrew manuscript, the “London Miscellany” created in France in 1278 that depicts Moses’ hands together in prayer (perhaps in opposition to the earlier Christian pose), supported by Aaron and Hur.

From the late 15th to the 17th century the subject of Moses fades into the background of depictions of the battle with the Amalekites. The Lubeck Bible (1494) shows the trio far off to the side behind the main battle, while Poussin’s early painting of the Battle of Joshua against the Amalekites (1625) features the Moses group barely visible in the distant background.

Suddenly in the 20th century the theme reappears prominently on a Torah Ark of the Bezalel School in Jerusalem (1916-1925). On the bronze doors it is one of six episodes in the life of Moses testifying to faith and strength in battle. The theme is similarly patriotic in what is easily the most public display of the subject, Benno Elkan’s monumental bronze menorah given to the Israeli Knesset in 1956 by the British Parliament. On the upper register of the central branch the gestures are clear and unequivocal. Aaron and Hur are forcefully helping Moses keep his arms up during the battle, which must have seemed extremely relevant during the first years of struggle after Israeli independence.  Finally the naive artist, Shalom of Safed shows Moses At War With Amalek (1964) furiously leading the battle, staff in hand, with little need for the help of Aaron and Hur. The subject clearly lends itself to multiple interpretations throughout the ages.

John Dubrow was unaware of any of this previous history as he faced numerous problems attempting to narrate this text. Quite alone he confronted the story at face value and struggled with its meaning for the contemporary world. His creative composition and forceful use of
impasto, especially in the sky and landscape, have effectively surmounted the dangers of naturalism and archaic costuming which would have rendered the image an illustration.

By creating an abstract surface, the planes of light and dark on the figures and their clothing hold the painterly surface even as the carefully modulated blue sky summons the vastness of the Sinai wilderness. The figures are off center and somewhat overwhelmed, making us aware that the vast sky and landscape operates as a narrative character, perhaps as the Divine Presence, which Moses must summon to Israel’s aid. And yet there still seems to be a struggle among the trio.

The artist conceives of each figure differently. Since each face is partially obscured by shadow, the bodily poses and relationships must narrate the text. Aaron submissively kneels slightly behind Moses, his arms interlocked, even confused, with Moses’. Hur, in the center of the painting, is the largest figure, bare-chested, and the most forceful in lending support. The passivity of the seated Moses creates the most tension and concern. But of course that simply returns us to the puzzling text. Why does Moses not lead the Israelites himself; why does he need to sit; why does he need help in supplicating G-d? Remember Moses will soon spend 40 days and nights while fasting learning Torah with G-d Himself. Dubrow’s painting confronts us with these questions even as the artist casts the subject into our contemporary crisis.

Palms open to the vastness of the blue sky (a clear blue sky just like on 9/11) expresses Moses’ passive attitude. G-d’s will be done. His aides struggle with him; it may not be so simple they say. Amalek, the unequivocal enemy of Israel, has viciously attacked without cause. We must do battle with them, but we doubt the absolute justness of our cause. We are uncertain, divided and deeply wounded. Our fate is uncertain because we carry the sin of doubt from the Waters of Contention at Rephidim. We doubted G-d and Moses doubted the
Children of Israel. This doubt and confusion permeates the painting just as we in the West have re-examined our relationship with Islam and the multitudes of the Third World.

There is no doubt about the evil of Amalek and the terrorists. What is unclear is what we can expect as G-d’s response and how do we request His salvation. Pray, or fight or both? Have we squandered the bounty that G-d has given to us? Are we worthy to triumph over this enemy who would annihilate us? The impressive scale and size of the painting (unlike almost all previous miniature versions) places the furious battle in the unseen foreground of the canvas. The battle is in the space between the painting and us. The outcome even after the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq is still uncertain.

John Dubrow’s Rephidim is the artist’s response to the mass murder of 9/11. The Biblical context confronts us with difficult questions that defy easy answers. Our vulnerability under that awesome blue sky may be the most salient feature we can salvage from the conundrum of our times.

(Meyer Schapiro’s Words and Pictures, 1973 is the source of the pre-20th century background information on this subject)

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to email him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Richard McBee

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/rephidim-a-painting-by-john-dubrow/2003/07/11/

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