Category Archives: Religious Leaders

Spiritual and Religious Greats of the Jewish People

Jew of the Week: Abraham

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by Gustav Doré

Avraham ben Terach (c. 1813 BCE-1638 BCE) was born in the Sumerian city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq). His father Terach was a wealthy idol merchant, and a minister to the king. According to legend, Abraham’s birth was predicted by the king’s soothsayers, who warned that it would be a bad sign for the monarch. Terach was thus ordered to eliminate the newborn, but couldn’t bring himself to do it, instead abandoning the child in a cave where he was protected and nurtured by an angel until Terach could safely bring him back home. By the age of 3, the young Abraham began to question the idolatrous and immoral society he was born into. Soon enough he had come to the conclusion that there must be one God, and man must strive to be righteous and draw closer to his Maker. By 52, Abraham had gained quite a following, and was a thorn in the side of both the king, and his own idolatrous father. He was put on trial and sentenced to death by fire. It was only at this point that God first revealed himself to Abraham, and miraculously saved him from the flames. Abraham went on to live in Haran (modern-day Syria), where he and his wife Sarah continued to spread the new faith, before permanently settling in the Holy Land. Abraham would become a wealthy and famous shepherd, as well as a popular astrologer, philosopher, and holy man. Rulers and sages from around the world would seek his council. He was undoubtedly most famous for his hospitality, constructing an entryway on each side of his house to make it easy for guests to find him, and providing free meals and lodging for all who were willing to listen to his message. Although naturally a pacifist, Abraham participated in his fair share of battles, including a regional war that engulfed nine different kingdoms, which he ultimately put an end to. It was with him that God first established an everlasting covenant, and promised that his descendants would be innumerable. This is the meaning of his name (“father of multitudes”) and indeed, today some two-thirds of the world’s population claim some form of descent from Abraham, whether biologically or spiritually. The place where he “elevated” his son Isaac would later become the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest point in Judaism. Abraham is considered the first Jew, and is often attributed with being history’s first monotheist. While there were other monotheists before him, Abraham was certainly the first to spread monotheism widely and combat idolatry head-on. It is said that he wrote a 400-chapter book debunking various idolatrous beliefs and proving that God is One. To him is also attributed the mystical Sefer Yetzirah, “Book of Formation”. He is Judaism’s first forefather, and the start of the chain that climaxed six generations later with Moses and the Israelites being saved from Egypt and receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai. According to one tradition, Abraham was born and passed away on Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah Begins Tonight! Wishing Everyone a Shana Tova u’Metuka!

Words of the Week

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
– Anonymous

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

The Baal Shem Tov’s gravestone in the Jewish cemetery of Medzhybizh, Ukraine.

Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) was born to very poor parents in what is today Western Ukraine. He was orphaned at just 5 years of age, and adopted by the Jewish community. Even as a child, Israel would go out into the forests by himself after school and spend hours meditating. It is said that he started receiving visions from Biblical prophets while still a teenager. He married young, too, and when his wife tragically passed away, Israel left his village and embarked on a long journey. During his travels, he met a mystical sage named Rabbi Adam Baal Shem (the title baal shem, “Master of the Name”, was given to spiritual healers and great mystics). Israel soon started his own kabbalistic circle, and the group became active in assisting Jewish communities across Eastern Europe. Rabbi Israel remarried and had two children, sustaining the family by working as a clay and lime digger. He also worked as a school teacher and a gabbai (synagogue warden), and later became a shochet and managed his brother-in-law’s tavern. During this time, he became very proficient in healing herbs and his reputation as a baal shem grew rapidly. By 1740, Israel was known as the “Baal Shem Tov”, and countless people journeyed to Medzhybizh to learn from him. There, the Baal Shem Tov started a new philosophical movement that would be known as Hasidism, which strove to integrate mystical teachings into the daily lives of Jews, while focusing on serving God with utmost joy and happiness. The movement spread very rapidly, invigorating poor Eastern European Jews with a fresh breath of life. (Ironically, Hasidic Judaism took off among poor Jewish peasants who knew little Torah and ritual observance, while today Hasidic Judaism is associated with rigorous Torah study and strict ritual observance!) Meanwhile, the Baal Shem Tov battled passionately against various false messianic movements sweeping European Jewry, particularly the Frankists. He inspired a whole generation of great rabbis and is considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Many legends surround the Baal Shem Tov, including a purported ability to read people’s minds, exorcise demons, and even fly! Rabbi Israel passed away on the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot Starts Tonight!

Words of the Week

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
– Richard Feynman

Incredibly, the Chabad Library in New York has the Baal Shem Tov’s personal siddur, with his handwritten notes in the margins.