Tag Archives: Christianity

Jew of the Week: Philo of Alexandria

The First Jewish Philosopher and Torah Commentator

A 16th-century illustration of Philo Judaeus

Yedidya “Philo Judaeus” HaKohen (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE) was born to a wealthy Jewish family of kohanim in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then part of the Roman Empire and had one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. His father had earned Roman citizenship from Julius Caesar, and his nephew was a Roman prefect and military commander. Philo received an extensive education in Judaism, as well as the wisdom of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. He became a well-known philosopher and scholar, and a leader of Alexandria’s Jewish community. Around 37 CE, he led a diplomatic mission to the emperor Caligula to seek the end of the oppression of Jews in Alexandria and to reaffirm Jewish civil rights. He also convinced Caligula not to put a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, for that would surely instigate a war, and explained why the Jews could not accept him as a deity or worship him in any way. Philo is most famous for his written works, producing what may very well be the first commentary on the Torah. He also wrote several texts to explain Judaism to the non-Jewish world, and a number of detailed works about the Roman Empire—now a gold mine for historians. He was also the first to synthesize Greek wisdom with Jewish wisdom (and in this regard, predated the great Maimonides by more than a millennium), and demonstrated how many fundamentals of Greek philosophy had already been laid out in the Torah long before. Philo advocated for a democratic government with the Torah serving as the constitution. Because of his numerous easy-to-understand Greek explanations for the Torah, Philo’s works ironically became more popular among Christians, and mostly forgotten in Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, he was a noted defender of Judaism at a difficult time of persecution, an important scholar and advocate on behalf of the Jewish people, and an inspiring philosopher and political figure. Interestingly, he is the first to mention the custom of staying up all night on Shavuot to learn Torah and recite holy hymns, in his description of a group of Jews associated with the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Shavuot Begins Saturday Night! Chag Sameach!

Video: Six Days of Miracles

The Mystery and Mysticism of the Essenes

Video: Why NBA Legend Amar’e Stoudemire Learns Torah

Words of the Week

The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the Five Books of Moses and the Bible as a whole.
– Arno Penzias, Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the Big Bang

Jew of the Week: Grace Aguilar

Defender of Judaism

Grace Aguilar (1816-1847) was born in London to descendants of Sephardic Jewish refugees who fled the Portuguese Inquisition. Her parents were active leaders of London’s Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. Grace was a sickly child, and seldom left her home for the first eight years of her life. During this time, she learned dance, piano and harp, and was tutored in Jewish studies and classical literature. She started writing at this time, too. As a teenager, her father taught her Hebrew and more advanced Jewish studies while she took care of him during a long bout with tuberculosis. She then took care of her ill mother, before being plagued with a serious case of measles starting at age 19. With her brothers away at boarding school, she bore the burden of caring for her parents and taking care of the family home. To raise more money, Aguilar strove to become a professional writer. Her first book, a collection of riddle-poems called The Magic Wreath of Hidden Flowers, was a huge success and launched her writing career. She then published a translation and explanation of an earlier Spanish work called Israel Defended, written to prevent Jews from converting to Christianity. Aguilar became good friends with future British prime minister (and former Jew of the WeekBenjamin Disraeli who helped her spread her writings. She soon convinced Isaac Leeser, editor of the popular Jewish magazine, The Occident, to publish her new book, The Spirit of Judaism, in 1842. The book was very popular both in America and England. Aguilar continued to write poetry, fiction, and treatises on Judaism. While she had become a bestseller, she still did not earn enough to care for her family, and had to work as a director of a Hebrew school. In 1845, Aguilar published Women of Israel, describing the lives of great Jewish women in history, and serving as an inspiration for countless Jewish women at the time. Some consider this to be her masterpiece. She followed that up with The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope, explaining the value and beauty of Judaism. Two years later, Aguilar was struck with spinal paralysis. She had already planned to set out on a trip to Europe, and refused to cancel it. She died in Frankfurt, and was buried in its Jewish cemetery. Her tombstone fittingly has verses from Eshet Chayil (“Woman of Valour”, from King Solomon’ Proverbs, chapter 31). Many more of Aguilar’s incredible works were published after her death, including collections of Jewish stories, novels for women, proto-Zionist writings, and works on Sephardic Jewish and English Jewish history. Her novel Home Influence, which had its first print just as Aguilar was dying, went on to sell out thirty editions. Her works were used as textbooks in some of the first American Hebrew schools. Although she was only 31 years old when she died, Aguilar is credited with being one of the most important Jewish educators and writers of her time, and playing a tremendous role in preventing Jews from assimilating and converting. Today, there is a public library named after her in New York City. Aguilar Point in British Columbia is named after her brother, who was an officer in the British Royal Navy. At her death, she was called “the moral governess of the Hebrew family”.

Words of the Week

There are rabbis who are so great that they can revive the dead. But reviving the dead is God’s business. A rabbi needs to be able to revive the living.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzkthe Kotzker Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Don Fernando de Aguilar

Shana Tova v’Metuka!

Don Fernando de Aguilar on the cover of a children’s book

Don Fernando de Aguilar (c. 1500) When Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, some chose to stay behind and convert superficially to Christianity, practicing their Judaism in secret. One of these Conversos (or Marranos) was Don Fernando de Aguilar, who also happened to be the conductor of the Royal Orchestra in Barcelona. Despite the fact that Judaism was outlawed in Spain (until 1967, in fact) de Aguilar organized secret prayer services in the basement of Don Manuel’s leather shop. But there was one mitzvah they could never keep: hearing the shofar. After many years of longing for the sounds of the shofar, Don Fernando came up with a clever idea. He wrote a concert featuring the “melodies of the world”, set to play in Barcelona over the High Holiday season. Fernando expertly weaved the shofar into his opus, with packed crowds of hidden Jews listening in, along with the fooled Inquisitors. Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov writes: “It was said that no one had ever been more successful in confusing Satan on Rosh HaShanah than was Don Aguilar.”

Words of the Week

Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: The righteous are inscribed in the book of life; the wicked are inscribed in the book of death, and the judgment of the intermediates hangs in balance until Yom Kippur…
– Talmud, Rosh HaShana 16b