History Table of Contents


History – Biblical

Question:  In my proven genealogical ancestry, I am a proven direct descendant of Ishmael and Abraham. What I would like to know is there a genealogical chart on this, or can one be found?

Answer:  There are no genealogical records dating back to the time of Abraham.  Although Jews trace ourselves back to Abraham and Sarah and Arabs trace themselves back to Abraham and Hagar, there is no one in the world – including you – who have definitive proof that they are indeed a descendant of Abraham.

Question:  Is there any non-religious historical documentation pertaining to the event of Moshe taking his people out of Egypt and crossing the Reed Sea.  Was the Pharaoh drowned in this event and if so is it documented?

Answer:  Unfortunately, there is no extra-Biblical written or archeological evidence that either proves or disproves the Bible’s account of the Exodus.

The account is ambiguous on the point of whether Pharaoh died.  Because of this, one Midrash identifies him as the King of Nineve who ordered the people to fast, pray, and repent when Jonah announced God’s intention to destroy the city.  The message of the Midrash is that even the most evil people have the potential of doing teshuvah, repentance.

Question: What other info can be provided besides the Bible that the Israelites were enslaved in the land of Egypt under the rule of Ramses 2nd?

Answer:  According to John Bright, A History of Israel, third edition, 1981, “there is no direct witness in Egyptian records to Israel’s presence in Egypt.”  Despite this, he makes the assertion that “the Biblical tradition a priori demands belief:  it is not the sort of tradition any people would invent.”

However, he does note that “numerous texts from the fifteenth century onward give evidence of the presence of ‘Apiru in Egypt.”  The Semitic word ‘Apiru is probably related to the Hebrew word ‘Ivri, and it is very likely the early Hebrews were among those called ‘Apiru.  In addition, several names of people in Exodus, including Moses, Phinhas, Merari, and Hophni are of Egyptian origin.

There is no convincing evidence to date the Exodus with enough accuracy to place it in the time of Ramessas II.

Question:  How were the Jewish law and Hammurabi’s code (Mesopotamian law) similar to each other?

Answer:  There are many, many similarities between the code of Hammurabi and Jewish law, because many of Hammurabi’s laws are also found in Exodus 21ff.  Both law codes deal with various aspects of civil and criminal law, covering theft, murder, assault, rape, and crimes against property, among other topics.

I can’t really go into any more detail than this, because an analysis of the similarities (and the differences, which are more interesting) between the two law codes is beyond the scope of AskaRabbi.  However, I would like to recommend that you look at the code of Hammurabi for yourself, and compare it to Exodus 21ff.  The code of Hammurabi in a reasonably clear translation can be found in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, by Prichard.  Any good academic library should have it.

Question: if Jews do not believe that Jesus is the messiah and you do not follow the New Testament, why is it that animal sacrifices are not done anymore? I am a Christian and no one has been able to answer this question I know no Jewish people around here and am not trying to be rude it is of interest to me that is all.

Answer:  Beginning in late First Temple/early Second Temple times (5th century B.C.E.), sacrificial offerings were restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem.  It is clear from the book of Deuteronomy (which some Biblical scholars think was edited around that time) that it was not permitted to make sacrifices or other offerings at other locations in or outside of Israel.

The Synagogue as a place of worship first appeared in the Babylonian exile in the mid 5th century B.C.E.  Since the Jewish community was living in exile from Jerusalem and the Temple, they were not permitted by Scriptural tradition to make offerings.  Based on numerous Scriptural references in the prophets (“Return O Israel, to Adonai Your God, for you have fallen because of your sin.  Take words with you and return to Adonai.  Say to God[Him]:  Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; Instead of bulls we will pay [the offerings of] our lips,” Hosea 14:2-3), prayer replaced sacrifice as the primary expression of one’s relationship with God.

When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., the Jewish community lost the ability to approach God through animal or other offerings.  Again, the Synagogue and prayer became the substitute for the Temple sacrificial system, and this has continued to the present day.

Question:  What kind of clothes were Israelites forbidden to wear?

Answer:  The Torah forbids clothing made from a mixture of linen and wool.  It also forbids men from wearing women’s clothing, and women from wearing men’s clothing.

Question:  The beginnings of Greek Democracy were the Athenian reforms in 594 BC under Solon and continued in 508 BC under Cleistenes (“the father of democracy”).  According to the following Criteria, can ancient Israel (1200 BC under the Judges or 1000 BC under David and 961 BC under Solomon) be deemed the “first democracy”?  Criteria for democracy: Power lies with the people (not an elite or ruler), elected legislative body (ELECTED senators with finite terms), independent and free judiciary branch, law enforcement agencies (police, institutions), popular sovereignty, nobody being above the law, general adherence to: freedom of speech, equal rights (women?), equal opportunity, human rights, fair and regular elections, accountability of the elected executive, legislative and judicial bodies to the people.

WHEN did ancient Israel really become democratic?  If ancient Israel can indeed be deemed the first democracy, WHY does the world recognize democracy as being a Greek invention?

Answer:  Since the criteria you present for democracy require an elected legislative body, I don’t see how you can claim Biblical Israel as a democracy.

Question:  In the Yom Kippur Service for the Kohen Gadol, one sentence reads that the Kohen Gadol went into the Women’s Court to read for ALL the people.  What is the meaning of ALL the people?  Is this a correct translation of the Hebrew?  It did not seem to be when I read it.  Thank you.

Answer:  You are correct in noting that the Hebrew does not contain the words, “ALL the people.”  In fact, the Hebrew does not even explicitly state that the Kohen Gadol went into the “women’s court” to read the Torah.  The Hebrew simply states, “The Kohen Gadol went in to read.”

This section of the Avodah service is not found in the most traditional Mahzorim; but was part of the Avodah service in Temple times.  The traditional Mahzor uses a complicated acrostic poem, in which each sentence contains three phrases beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  The pattern is Aleph, Aleph, Aleph.  Bet, Bet, Bet, Gimel, Gimel, Gimel, etc.  The text of the poem is based on the Mishnah of Yom Kippur, which describes the ritual of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.  Interspersed, breaking the alphabetical pattern, are the three rituals in which the Kohen Gadol would atone for himself and his family; all of the kohanim; and all of Israel.  The author of the poem (Rabbi Meshullam ben Kalonymos) concludes by weaving his own name at the beginning of each of the last 15 or so phrases.

The Machzor we use does not include this poem.  Instead, it directly quotes much of the Mishnah of Yom Kippur.  The paragraph you are questioning comes from Yoma 7:1.  According to the commentaries I checked, the Kohen Gadol did indeed go into the ezrat nashim, the women’s court, to read Torah.  So that part of the English translation, while not an accurate translation of the Hebrew, is nonetheless correct.

Next, let me stress that although this area of the Temple mount was called the “women’s court,” it is not the exact equivalent to the women’s area in a modern-day Orthodox synagogue.  Elsewhere in the Mishnah (Keilim 1:8) there is a description of who is permitted to enter certain areas of the Temple mount.  According to that Mishnah, anyone who has completed all of the rituals and immersions to become cleansed from tum’ah (ritual impurity) may enter the ezrat nashim.  The plain sense of the Mishnah is that both men and women may be present in the “women’s court.”

While you will not see men and women praying or listening to Torah reading together behind the mechitza of an Orthodox synagogue, this is precisely what the Mishnah describes in the ezrat nashim of the Temple:  Men and women listening to Torah reading and prayers together.  Therefore, although the Hebrew does not contain the words, “ALL of the people,” it is nonetheless an accurate interpretation of the meaning of the Hebrew phrase.

Were I to translate this section of the Mishnah, I would write: “The Kohen Gadol went in [to the women’s court] to read [for all the people] . . . “

Generally, when things are bracketed [ ] in translations, it means that the words are not part of the Hebrew, but are necessary phrases to understand the translation.

Question:  When Joshua conquered the peoples of Canaan, what happened to the Canaanites and other conquered people? Were they all destroyed, or forced to leave? Does the Tanakh give us any other guidance on how to treat conquered people? I’m thinking of the Palestinian Arabs today, of course. Thank you very much for considering this question.

Answer:  The indigenous people of Canaan who were living there during Joshua’s conquest of the land were allowed to remain, with only a few exceptions (The people of Amalek were supposed to be wiped out totally by King Saul, for example).

The Torah’s instructions are ambivalent.  On one hand, we are instructed not to make agreements with the Canaanites, lest we get too close to them and begin imitating their pagan ways; on the other hand, we are commanded to “love the stranger.”  On one hand, the land was given to us by God; on the other hand, in the Biblical/Rabbinic conception, it was taken away from us for our sins, and it is not clear that the modern State of Israel has the same divine mandate as the Biblical land.  In other words, it is not clear to me that we are not permitted to give away portions of the land in search of peace, since the values of life and peace supersede the value of the land.  Conquered people are supposed to be treated well; but what about conquered people who are still trying to kill us? Simply put, if the Torah’s message were crystal clear, then we wouldn’t have so much disagreement among different people, all of whom sincerely love Israel.

Question:  What status does King Solomon hold in the faith?

Answer:  King Solomon is believed by Jewish tradition (though not necessarily by modern Jewish Biblical scholarship) to be the author of Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.

Question:  In reference to my question about King Solomon, other than being a king, did he signify any unique role in Jewish history such as that of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  In the real essence of his doings, what religious patronage does the Jewish faith contribute to him?  Did he have a divine purpose, and did he fulfill it?

Answer:  I suppose Solomon’s divine purpose, other than his contributions to the Biblical canon, was to rule the Israelites and build the Temple.  He certainly does not have the status of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses.

History – Rabbinic

Question:  Can you tell me about King Herod?

Answer:  Herod was king of Judea from 37 – 4 B.C.E, having been appointed by the Roman Senate.  He was the descendent of the Idumeans, forced converts to Judaism by the Hasmonean king Jon Hyrcanus in 125 B.C.E.

Herod was a brutal a murderous king, who also happened to be a talented builder.  He expanded the Second Temple, rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and build palaces at Masada and a hill near Jerusalem known as Herodion.

For more information, see the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Question:  What were the qualifications to be a member of the Sanhedrin in the first century?

Answer:  To be a member of the Sanhedrin, one had to be an ordained scholar/rabbi and an expert in religious, criminal, and civil law.  The history and function of the Sanhedrin (or Sanhedrins, according to some scholars) is not entirely certain.  For more information, I refer you to the articles in the Encyclopedia Judaica, pages 836-840 and the Bibliographies provided.

Question:  Please define:  Hillel.

Answer:  Hillel was a sage of the first century B.C.E.

Question:  Who was Bar Kochba?

Answer:  Shimon Bar Kokhba was the leader of a second century (133 – 135 C.E.) revolt against Rome.   In the revolt’s early years, he inflicted heavy casualties against the Roman army, and even took control of Jerusalem.  Rabbi Akiva even proclaimed him Messiah.  As a result of the conflict, Southern Judea was laid waste.  The new spiritual center of Judaism shifted to the Northern Galilee, because Jews there did not join the rebellion and thus were spared the Romans’ wrath.

Question:  I understand the Talmudic era was from the 5th to 7th centuries BCE. My question is, what prompted the rabbis of the time to undertake the task of creating the Talmud, and what prompted the end of the Talmudic era, (how did they determine the job was finished)?

Answer:  The Talmudic era actually began in the first century C.E., and concluded in the sixth century C.E.  The Mishnah had already been produced in its edited form in approximately the year 200, by Rabbi Judah the Prince.  The events that prompted the oral traditions of Talmud to be organized and edited into a formal written collection were mainly political.  Anti-Jewish laws and persecutions in the last part of the fifth century made it more urgent that the traditions of the past 300-600 years be set down in writing.  This was done, according to the Talmud, by the rabbis, Ashi and Ravina.

In the subsequent 40-60 years, the material continued to be redacted and edited.  But even after that time, the work of those following in the rabbinic tradition was not finished.  The Ga’onim following continued to study and interpret the Talmudic material, in a form of literature known as she’elot u’teshuvot, questions and answers, or the Responsa.  Up to this day, rabbis are still engaged in examining the current issues of the day against the backdrop of Torah, Talmud, and the rest of Jewish tradition, and writing new Teshuvot on such subjects as Family Violence, Organ Transplantation, In-Vitro Fertilization, Homosexuality, new issues in Kashrut, and mourning customs for Stillbirth and neo-natal loss.

History – Medieval

Question:  Where did most of  the Jews live during the Middle Ages?

Answer:  Most Jews in the Middle Ages lived in Babylonia (Modern day Iraq), Persia (Iran), North Africa and around the Mediterranean basin (Spain, Portugal, Egypt, Italy, Greece, Turkey), France, and Germany.  The largest communities were in Spain and Babylonia.

Question:  Where can I find out more information about Rashi?

Answer:  My first stop would be to look in the Encyclopedia Judaica.  Check the index volume first under Rashi — it might tell you to look under Rabbi Sh’lomo Yitzhaki, his “real” name.  In any case, this Encyclopedia will have very good information, and will also give you a bibliography in case you want to do more reading.

Question:  I was told by a friend that during the middle ages that in Europe the Jews’ Christian neighbors accused them of abducting children and killing them for their blood in order to drink it during one of their Holy feasts.  As a result of these accusation, at a certain point in their ritual (I think passover, I’m not sure – I’m not Jewish) the door is opened up.  He said it was instituted because the pious Jews wanted their Christian neighbors to see that nothing evil was going on.  Is this story true?

Answer:  The story you describe is true, and is known as a “blood libel.”  It generally took place just before Passover, when Jews were accused of killing a Christian child to use his/her blood in the baking of matzah.  However, the reason that the door is opened near the end of the Passover Seder is to welcome Elijah the prophet, and had nothing to do with the blood libel.

Question:  Stories about the Baal Shem Tov fascinate me.  I was introduced to him and much about Judaism through the works of Chaim Potok and and Isaac Bashevis Singer; beautiful books!  Could you tell me a little more about who he was, his impact on Judaism (and human spirituality) and also suggest some books about him that you feel would be beneficial for me to read?

Answer: To begin, I would read the articles on the Ba’al Shem Tov and Hasidism from the Enclyclopedia Judaica (you should be able to find it in any synagogue library, or perhaps even a University or a good public library), and a book by Martin Buber entitled Tales of the Hasidim.  I would also suggest a good history book, such as: The Course of Modern Jewish History, by Howard Sachar; Understanding Jewish History, by Steven Bayme; or Jewish People, Jewish Thought, by Robert Seltzer.

This reading should lead to to bibliographies of other resources.

History – Holocaust

Question:  Where can I find statistics on the Holocaust?

Answer:  You may go to the public library or your local synagogue library and find some books on the Holocaust.  The Encyclopedia Judaica would be a good resource.  You might also try the following Web sites:

Yad Vashem Home Page — http://www.yad-vashem.org.il/

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — http://www.ushmm.org

Holocaust:  Cybrary of the Holocaust — http://remember.org/

Holocaust Memorial Center: Illuminating the Pas — thttp://holocaustcenter.org/

Question:  Can experiences of elderly Jews a half century ago in Europe (Holocaust survivors)  help fight racism and prejudices of today’s American society. Is setting up a Holocaust museum enough?  Do the right people go and see the exhibits?

Answer:  From everything I’ve read and heard, the Holocaust museums around the country (Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Detroit, among others) are being visited by a wide variety of people.  In other words, it is not just the Jews who visit such museums or exhibits, but people of all races, religions, and National origins.  Such museums (as well as educational programs such as the ADL’s “World of Difference”) are educating American society about the dangers of racism and bigotry.  But are the “right people” visiting such institutions?  If the “right people” are the teachers, leaders, and shapers of our society, the answer is a definite yes.  If by “the right people,” you mean the racists and bigots, the people who most need to learn the lessons of history, my guess is probably not.

Setting up a Holocaust museum is not in and of itself a solution to all of the world’s problems of racism.  Neither is listening to the experiences of those who have first hand seen the horror that the Nazi’s perpetrated.  But listening to and recording the experiences of survivors of the Holocaust does have an impact in some measure, on how we as a society view hatred and genicide.  Sadly, the experience of the war in Bosnia tells us that the world is still far to slow to step in and protect an ethnic minority that is being systematically slaughtered.

In my opinion, the most important element of protecting Judaism (or any other minority religion) is to be educated, firm, proud, and public practitioners of our religion.  We need to stand up and show our community and the world that we do have something beautiful to offer, that we are sincere, religious people trying to divine God’s will in our lives.  Passing Judaism onto our children out of fear is not effective; we need to celebrate and teach Judaism out of love.

Question:  Can I have a general comment on the decision by the Pope to extend an apology.

Answer:  I appreciate the nature of the apology.  It is far beyond what anybody in the Catholic church has ever done.  My only reservation is that I think it is lacking in taking direct responsibility for the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.

History – Modern

Question:  I need information on modern western European Jews.

Answer:  I can point you to two references to begin your study – The Course of Modern Jewish History, by Howard Morley Sachar; and The Jew in the Modern World, edited by Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz.

Question:  Are Jewish people in America Askenazi or Sephardic? Both?

Answer:  Most American Jews are Ashkenazi descent, although there are Sephardi synagogues in most large Jewish communities as well.

Question: I’m doing research on the Jewish Quarter in Prague. Can someone point me in the direction of resources or web sites that could give me some really good background on the golem and a really detailed description of the situation of the Jews throughout the years in the Czech lands?

Answer:  My suggestion is to attack the question by doing the research at the nearest University library, preferably one with a good Jewish studies program.  I would search on the history the Jews in Czechoslovakia, and see what you find.  You can access a great deal of the library catalog of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America online by starting at http://www.jtsa.edu; any books you find should be available through inter-library loan at your local college or public library.

Question:  What happened in France between 1820-1860 to make the Jews leave & settle in Poland?  My Jewish great-grandfather (born about 1820-35) was said to be from Alsace-Lorraine and he had a French surname (DeBow). His son, my grandfather, was born in Dobrzyn, Poland, not too far from Warsaw, in 1863.  I doubt they would have left France unless forced or because something bad was going on.  If you have time, I would also like to know if something was going on in Poland about 1885, which is when my grandfather came to America.

Answer:  There was anti-Semitism in France; there was anti-Semitism in Poland.  The Polish anti-Semitism was definitely bad enough to leave for America, but as to why someone might have left France for Poland – it seems less likely that the anti-Semitism in Poland would be better than that in France, but it is possible that this could be a reason to leave.  You might check out your local synagogue or public library for books on French, Polish, or European Jewish history during those periods to do more research.

Question:  My mother’s side of my family is Jewish.  My grandmother emigrated from Lithuania and her maiden name was Rogan.  I’ve always been curious about this name, it just seems strange.  My sister was recently told that a group of Jewish people from Spain migrated to Ireland and years later to Eastern Europe.  I’ve only been able to find one book that references the Spanish Jews and it briefly stated they migrated to Africa.  Is it true about a group going to Ireland and then to Eastern Europe?  My grandmother had black hair, green eyes, & my mom has reddish hair and also green eyes.  Also, would you please tell me the name(s) of Jewish history books you would recommend?

Answer:  After the expulsion from Spain in 1992 (and Portugal in 1497), some Jews did find their way to Ireland.  However, Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, so it wasn’t until Jews were re-admitted into England in 1656 that Ireland’s Jewish population formally organized and built a synagogue.

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica (from which my information comes), the best source for further research into Irish Jewry is A Short History of the Jews in Ireland, by B. Shillman.

Question:  I heard some where that Malcolm X and other black Muslims referred to Whites as “Devils” and Jews as ”Blood suckers.”  What do they mean by “Blood suckers”?  What do they think Jews did to earn them such a bad stereo-type?

Answer:  People like Louis Farrakhan (and Malcolm X, in the past) believe that Jews take unfair advantage of others, especially members of the black community, and thus make our living at the expense of others – thus the term “bloodsuckers.”  It is a centuries old anti-Semitic claim, with no basis in reality.

History – General

Question:  I am looking for a one volume history of the Jewish religion.  I am not interested in the political history of Israel or the Jews, but rather how the Jewish religion evolved from Abraham to today.  I am looking to understand key words and the progression of Jewish thought as well as religious practices and religious tradition.

Answer:  I can suggest four books that might meet your criteria:

Jewish People, Jewish Thought, Robert Seltzer

History of the Jewish People, Max Margolis and Alexander Marx

A History of the Jewish People, edited by H. H. Ben-Sasson

Jews, God, and History, Max Dimont

Question:  I am working on a project about censorship and the banning of books.  I need to include the Jewish prospective of such issues.

Answer:  I am unaware of any specific Jewish position on censorship and the banning of books.  There is no question that Jews have been hurt by censorship — Jewish books, especially the Talmud, were banned by Christians in the middle ages.  However, it is also the case that the works of Baruch Spinoza were banned by the Jewish community as heretical (in most parts of the Jewish community, this ban is no longer in effect).

I suggest beginning the research by looking in the index volume of the Encyclopedia Judaica under ‘censorship,’ ‘book banning,’ or related terms.

Question:  I am 11, and I have a few questions for you.  I take a Yiddish class at my Hebrew School and her assighment was to come up with a list of Jewish people, but I can’t find a lot of people I have only found a few famous Jews.  Can you help me to find some?

Answer: My first suggestion would be to go to the library of your synagogue or school, and look for some books of biographies of Jewish people.  You could also look for a book on the history of the state of Israel – it should describe some of the important people in the history of Israel like David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. You might also try looking in a magazine like “Moment,” (or any other Jewish magazines) which occasionally have stories about famous Jews today.

Question:  I recently discovered that both of my great-grandparent were Jewish.  My great- grandmother was from Germany and my great-grandfather was from Poland.  They moved to America in the late 1800’s.  To escape discrimination they did not disclose their heritage except to their oldest children ( my grandmother ).  They raised their entire family as Lutherans.  It wasn’t until shortly before her death, 1993, that she revealed this fact.  What do I do next? How do I research this?  Where do I start finding the documentation of my Jewish heritage?

Answer:  It is unfortunately very difficult to trace pre- holocaust genealogy, because many of the records and most of the cemeteries and monuments were destroyed.  I am not an expert on Jewish genealogical research, but I received a notice of an online Jewish Genealogical Research Center called JewishGen, Inc., on the internet – there are probably more, which you could find with a web search.

They can be found at http://www.jewishgen.org or you can contact the president, Susan E. King, at susan.king@jewishgen.org.

You should know that the fact that your great grandparents were Jewish does not necessarily make you Jewish.  If you are interested in exploring Judaism as a religion, with the possibility of conversion, I can give you the name of a local rabbi/synagogue with whom you may speak.