Tag Archives: Bible

Jew of the Week: Rashi

Illustration of Rashi from 1539

Illustration of Rashi from 1539

Shlomo Itzchaki (1040-1105) was born in Troyes, France, the only child of a rabbi. He began his Torah studies at age 5 under the tutelage of his father. At 17, he married and moved to Worms, Germany to study at the yeshiva of Rabbi Yakar. He later studied under several other rabbis, including his uncle, and the chief rabbi of Mainz. At 25, now himself a rabbi, Itzchaki returned to Troyes and was invited to serve on the town’s rabbinical court. Soon after, he took over as the head of the court, and the central authority on Jewish religious and legal matters. By 30, Rabbi Itzchaki had opened a yeshiva, which went on to become a centre of Torah study for countless Jews. Undoubtedly, the Rabbi is most famous for his profound commentaries on the Bible and Talmud. These are included in just about every publication of the Bible and Talmud since the 1500’s. In these texts, he is referred to simply as “Rashi”, an acronym of his initials. Rashi’s commentary on the Five Books of Moses alone inspired over 300 future commentaries. Even the Christian world studied his texts (here, Rashi was sometimes referred to by his Latinized name, Isaacides). In fact, many Christian commentaries on the Bible are based on Rashi’s texts. One of the more famous ones, that of the monk Nicolas de Lyre, was so heavily drawn from Rashi that de Lyre was nicknamed “Rashi’s ape”. Nonetheless, it was de Lyre’s commentary that inspired Martin Luther, the father of Protestant Christianity, and Luther used this text to produce his famous translation of the Bible. In addition to his commentaries, roughly 300 of Rashi’s other legal texts exist today. These texts are studied by linguistic scholars, too, who are looking to better understand both Hebrew and medieval French. According to tradition, Rashi also worked as a winemaker to support himself financially. He had three daughters who were scholars in their own right, with some suggesting that they completed a number of his unfinished commentaries, and possibly even donned tefillin. Rashi’s grandsons were some of the biggest rabbis of the following generation, including Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam. Recently, an ancient map was discovered showing the location of Rashi’s grave. It happens to be under a public square in Troyes. A monument now stands over the site.

Words of the Week

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.
– Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg

Jews of the Week: Jeremiah and Gedaliah

'Jeremiah' by Michelangelo (from the Sistine Chapel)

‘Jeremiah’ by Michelangelo (from the Sistine Chapel)

Yirmiyahu ben Hilkiah (c. 6th century BCE), better known as Jeremiah, was born to a family of Kohanim in Anathoth, Israel towards the end of the First Temple period. As the Kingdom of Judah descended into more and more sin, the righteous Jeremiah began receiving divine revelations prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of the Jewish people by the Babylonians. Although Jeremiah was very young, and did not want to take up the calling of a prophet, he nonetheless followed God’s direction to warn the people of their impending doom, and to inspire them to repent. Unfortunately, the people chastised Jeremiah and he was imprisoned for his teachings. Jerusalem was indeed destroyed, and the people exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah captured these events in his Book of Lamentations (Eichah), and recorded his prophecies in the Book of Jeremiah (written by his scribe Baruch). He is also credited with composing the Book of Kings, making him the author of three of the 24 books of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. After prophesying to five kings of Judah, and surviving the destruction of the Temple, Jeremiah lived out the rest of his life in Egypt. Jewish texts compare Jeremiah to Moses, and he is also honoured as a prophet and holy man by Christians, Muslims, and the Bahai.

Archaeologists have discovered official clay seals bearing the names of Yehuchal and Gedaliah ben Pashur, two of the king's ministers that opposed Jeremiah and imprisoned him, as recounted in the Bible. Gedaliah ben Pashur should not be confused with the righteous Gedaliah ben Ahikam (Photo Credit: Gaby Laron, The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University.)

Archaeologists have discovered official clay seals bearing the names of Yehuchal and Gedaliah ben Pashur, two of the king’s ministers that opposed Jeremiah and imprisoned him, as recounted in the Bible. Gedaliah ben Pashur should not be confused with the righteous Gedaliah ben Ahikam (Credit: Gaby Laron, The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University.)

One of the leaders that Jeremiah supported was Gedaliah ben Ahikam, who was appointed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar to govern the Judean province after Jerusalem’s destruction, and to facilitate the rebuilding of Israel with the small group of Jews that were not exiled. Gedaliah successfully inspired the people to reestablish their farms and vineyards, rebuild their homes, and to inspire many other Jews who fled before the war to return. Sadly, Gedaliah was assassinated on Rosh Hashanah. Fearing another uprising and the response from King Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews of Israel fled to Egypt, despite Jeremiah’s insistence that God would protect them. This essentially left the land nearly devoid of any Jews for the next several decades, until the end of the Babylonian empire at the hands of the Persians, and the ensuing end of the Jewish exile. To mark the tragedy of the righteous Gedaliah’s assassination, and the temporary end of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land, the day after Rosh Hashanah (today) is observed as a fast day, known as the Fast of Gedaliah.

Words of the Week

Of everything G‑d created in His world, not one thing was created without purpose.
– Talmud, Shabbat 77b

Jew of the Week: Semei Kakungulu

The Jewish Warrior-King of Africa

Semei Kakungulu

Semei Kakungulu, founder of the Jewish Abayudaya tribe of Uganda

Semei Kakungulu (1869-1928) was born into the African tribe of Baganda. As a young man he was converted to Christianity by a missionary. Meanwhile, he grew to become a skilled warrior, as well as an influential politician. The British supported him, essentially turning him into the unofficial king of the Busoga region, which he conquered for the Empire along with other territories. However, the British did not want to confer any titles on him, fearing he would become too powerful. This strained the relationship, and soon Kakungulu also abandoned Protestant Christianity, further driving a wedge between him and the British. Having begun to study the Bible on his own, Kakungulu recognized that Christians had misinterpreted and manipulated it, for example changing the day of the Sabbath to Sunday despite the fact that the text explicitly says it must be Saturday. According to lore, Kakungulu isolated himself in a room with the Bible, and emerged some time later with the book torn in half, concluding that only the first half (the Old Testament) must be true. In 1919, he circumcised himself and his son, urging his followers to do the same. He started a new community focused on following the laws of the Torah. Starting in 1925, the growing community encountered a number of Orthodox Jews from Europe who were working and traveling in the area. One of them, a man named Joseph, taught the community (now known as the Abayudaya) proper Jewish rituals and prayers, the Hebrew language, and even showed them how to slaughter and prepare kosher meat. Soon after, the community dropped any remaining aspects of their former Christian faith, and properly converted to Judaism. Kakangulu wrote a Jewish manual for Africans, and was able to inspire as many as 8000 followers in his time, building a network of some 36 synagogues in the region. His descendants continue to thrive in today’s Uganda. Click here to read more about them.

Words of the Week

In those days it shall come to pass, that ten people, of all the nations of the world, shall grab onto the clothing of a Jew, and say: “We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
Zechariah 8:23, as quoted by Kakungulu in response to a Christian missionary.