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eBook Jewish Post-Biblical History through Great Personalities: From Jochanan ben Zakkai Through Moses Mendelssohn
Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Union of American Hebrew Congregations
Published:  2001
Language:  English
Pages:   313

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ISBN: 1-59045-635-1

About the Book -- Jewish Post-Biblical History through Great Personalities: From Jochanan ben Zakkai Through Moses Mendelssohn


This little book, as any one with even the slightest knowledge of Jewish history and literature will readily see, is in no sense original. It is little more than a compilation of the better- known works on Jewish life and letters in post-Biblical times. If, then, one asks why such a book should be written at all, the answer is that the writer, in many years of experience as a teacher, has found no work on this subject suitable for practical use in the classroom. The books that glow with all the pageantry of history and with the color of a delightful style are lacking, from the point of view of the classroom, in analysis of material and system in presenting facts. The books that display scholarly erudition pile up details to the bewilderment of the average pupil.

Accordingly in this book the effort has been to select from the pages of post-Biblical Jewish history the outstanding personalities; to present the life and work of each in such a way as to illustrate the spirit of Judaism in his time; in doing this, to analyze and systematize the complex and abstract subject matter so that it may offer the fewest difficulties to the pupil’s mind; and yet not to sacrifice the warm human interest that should transfigure even the barest outline of “the grandest poem of all time—the history of the Jews.” And throughout the history, from beginning to end, it has been the aim to bring out clearly the guiding principles of the Jewish spirit: the Law by which it lives, the hope of the Future towards which it works, and the conception of the universality of religion, in which it follows in the footsteps of its most sublime prophets.

About the Book



List of Illustrations



I. Jochanan Ben Zakkai

II. Akiba

III. Rabbi Meir

IV. Judah Ha-Nasi

V. The Makers of the Talmud

VI. Anan Ben David

VII. Saadia

VIII. Chasdai Ibn Shaprut

IX. Solomon Ibn Gabirol

X. Bachya Ibn Pakuda

XI. Judah Halevi

XII. Abraham Ibn Ezra

XIII. Moses Maimonides

XIV. Nachmanides

XV. Rashi

XVI. Meir of Rothenburg

XVII. Joseph Albo

XVIII. Isaac Abravanel

XIX. Joseph Caro

XX. Isaac Luria

XXI. Sabbatai Zevi and Other False Messiahs

XXII. Manasseh Ben Israel

XXIII. Uriel Da Costa and Baruch Spinoza

XXIV. Moses Mendelssohn

An Excerpt from the Book -- Jewish Post-Biblical History through Great Personalities: From Jochanan ben Zakkai Through Moses Mendelssohn

While Hebrew statesmen, scientists, poets, and philosophers were making Spain famous in Jewish history, the Jews of France and Germany were working in humbler fashion, taking up the task that the Babylonian schools had laid down, following the early Gaonim, rather than Saadia, applying themselves to the study of the Law even more assiduously than did the Spanish scholars.

In France and Germany Jews had settled early. Before the fifth century there were Jewish communities in the south of France; and although they were disturbed from time to time by the hostility of distrustful church councils and overzealous bishops, on the whole they led a peaceful, happy life. They supported themselves in the same manner as did the other inhabitants of the country; they were merchants and sailors; they cultivated fields and vineyards; they raised cattle; they practised every handicraft. In general, unlike the Jews of Spain, they were not permitted to take part in the government; but they were content to enjoy the fruits of their industry and the unmolested practice of their religion. Throughout France they lived in close and friendly intercourse with their neighbors, speaking the language of the land, following its customs, highly esteemed by both the people and their rulers.

The French Christians, among whom they were living, were a simple people with none of the breadth of knowledge that distinguished the Mohammedans of Spain. Accordingly we do not find among the Jews of France the many-sided culture, the philosophy and poetry that flourished under the more congenial conditions in Spain. But it would be a serious mistake to think that the Jews of France were one whit inferior to their Spanish brethren in moral earnestness or in religious fervor. Their undivided attention they gave to the Bible and the Talmud; and for the very reason that the subjects to which they devoted themselves were less varied, they gained in them all the greater accuracy and depth of knowledge. As students of Bible and Talmud they were unsurpassed.

For a long time they sent their young scholars to Sura and Pumbeditha to be instructed. All their religious difficulties they submitted to the learned men of the Eastern academies. Jewish traders who traveled to the Orient brought back not only rich embroideries and costly jewels, but also a more precious store of wisdom, the treasured answers of the Gaonim.

At the end of the tenth century, however, at Mayence, in France, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah established a school where French and German Jews might study with him the Bible and the Talmud; and so clear and decisive were his comments that it was no longer necessary to send students and messengers on the long and laborious journey to Babylon. Instead, the scholars of France and Germany gathered around Gershom, whom they honored so highly that they called him Rabbenu, our Master, and also Light of the Exile, a name that still clings to him. Of him Rashi, the great man who continued his work, said: “Rabbenu Gershom has enlightened the eyes of Captivity; we all live by his instruction.”

But all Rabbi Gershom’s time was not spent in classroom instruction; his chief work was a Talmud commen- tary which made puzzling passages clear. He exerted also an important influence upon the social life of the Jews of Christian Europe through his Decrees, which were even more far-reaching in their effect than his commentary. He found that some of the laws to which the Jews had been accustomed in the East were more suitable to an oriental civilization than to the life of the West. These precepts Rabbi Gershom changed so as to fit them to the habits of the people of France and Germany. For example, he forbade polygamy. Another of his decrees made the conversion of non-Jews to Judaism easier than it had been before. In these ways Rabbi Gershom became the leader of the Jews in Christian Europe.

The disciples of Rabbi Gershom continued the work of their master, and in the greatest of his followers they found a guide to direct their further studies. This new leader was Solomon bar Isaac, or Rashi, as he is better known, according to a favorite Jewish method of naming great men by a combination of their initials, Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac becoming Rashi. About the life of Rashi little is definitely known; but because he was esteemed by his contemporaries as a man of great learning and noble character, and because the generations since his death have cherished his memory, people have always wanted to know all about the details of his life; and accordingly, where actual history fell short, popular imagination made the picture complete.

Rashi was born at Troyes, in France, in 1040, the year in which the academy at Pumbeditha was closed. The work left unfinished by the Babylonian schools was to be taken up and carried on by the French scholar, for, as the Talmud says, “When one star sets in Israel, another star rises on the horizon.” Rashi’s parents were poor, but they were noted for their piety and learning. From his father the young Solomon probably received his early education. Then, in spite of his poverty, his longing for knowledge led him to the celebrated schools in Mayence and Worms. Like Hillel and Akiba, he often went without bread, he often suffered from the cold for lack of warm clothing; but no hardship could daunt him in his devotion to study.

Legend has it that in his search for knowledge he made a tour of almost the whole world, known to his time. It tells us that while he was journeying in the East he met a monk, with whom he fell into friendly conversation. Soon, however, his companion began to attack Judaism; and as Rashi warmly defended his religion, the travelers parted in anger. But that night, at the inn where both were staying, the monk was suddenly stricken with a dangerous illness; and Rashi, forgetting all unpleasantness, hurried to his bedside, and cared for him with the devotion of a brother until he was restored to health. Then the monk was eager to pour out his gratitude to Rashi; but the rabbi interrupted him, saying: “You owe me nothing. Divided though we are by our religions, we are united by the bonds of humanity and by love of our fellowmen, which Moses has commanded us as a duty. Farewell, and if you come upon a Jew in misfortune, help him as I have helped you.”

Later, when returning homeward, Rashi is said to have passed through Prague, in Bohemia. There the Jews rejoiced at the arrival of so distinguished a visitor, but unfortunately their happiness irritated a powerful noble who hated the Jews, and who seized this opportunity to grieve them by having the famous rabbi arrested as a spy. In vain the distressed congregation tried to secure Rashi’s release. Bitterly it mourned the sad fate of its honored guest. Rashi Eimself, strong in his faith in God. remained calm and strove to comfort the sorrowing people. The day of the trial came, and the duke was about to pronounce the sentence of death, when his counsellor, a great bishop, raised his eyes, saw the prisoner, and at once stepped forward and cried: “In the name of God I protect and defend this Jew. Not a hair of his head shall be hurt, for he is not only a great scholar, but a noble, generous, and God-fearing man.” The bishop was none other than the monk whom Rashi had befriended in the Orient. His intercession secured Rashi’s safety and freedom. Indeed the duke went so far as to confer upon Rashi many distinctions and privileges, which he generously devoted to the betterment of the condition of the Jews in Prague. Tradition ends the story happily by adding that Rebecca, the daughter of Rashi’s host, fell in love with him, and as his wife returned with him to Troyes.

Legend also tells us that at Worms the young Rashi spent the greater number of his years of study. There even to-day visitors are still shown, adjoining the synagogue, a small building called the Rashi Chapel, and a seat in a niche in the wall called the Rashi Chair. Recently the authorities of Worms named a street in their city after the great Jewish scholar.

And now he had completed his apprenticeship; master of all rabbinical learning, he returned to his native Troyes. Here, in recognition of his profound scholarship, the people honored him as their rabbi. Here he lectured on the Bible and the Talmud, and from all parts of France and Germany scholars flocked now to Troyes, rather than to Mayence or Worms. To Rashi the Jews of Christian Europe now turned for counsel and instruction in all problems more or less closely connected with religion. His answers to their questions show his character, —his piety, his gentleness, and his modesty, as well as his great learning. In them he never adopted a superior manner, never used a sarcastic expression. Nor did he hesitate to admit his own mistakes, even when it was one of his pupils who pointed them out to him. In his Responsa, for example, he wrote: “The same question has already been put to me, and I gave a faulty answer. But now I am convinced of my mistake, and I am prepared to give a decision better based on reason. I am grateful to you for having drawn my attention to the question; thanks to you, I now see the truth.” In all, Rashi was the ideal rabbi of the period. Like most of the rabbis of his time, he accepted no pay for his services. Work in the vineyards about Troyes yielded him enough for his simple, frugal life. Teaching he made a labor of love. And in his school, master and pupil were equally devoted to their work. Entire days they spent in study, and often entire nights as well. Only when they had completed the study of a Talmudic treatise did they take time from their tasks for a little recreation. Their greatest pleasure they found in the delight of learning. These pictures that remain to us of Rashi as rabbi, as leader of the Jewish community, and as teacher, make us feel that if he had left us nothing but the remembrance of his life and character, even then his service to Judaism would have been great indeed.

An Excerpt from the Book

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