Tag Archives: Egypt

Jew of the Week: Helena of Adiabene

The Jewish Queen of Armenia 

The Sarcophagus of Helena in the Israel Museum

The Sarcophagus of Helena in the Israel Museum

Helena of Adiabene (d. 56 CE) was the Queen of the Persian-Armenian kingdom of Adiabene, a vassal of the Parthian Empire. Essentially nothing is known of her early life. Around 30 CE, after the death of her husband, King Monobaz, she took an interest in Judaism, a little-known religion in her kingdom. After learning with a Jewish merchant named Chananiah, Helena decided to convert. Meanwhile, her son, King Izates, encountered Rabbi Eleazar of Galilee in his royal court and similarly began exploring the wonders of the Torah. Soon, both Helena and Izates, as well as her other son Monobaz II, officially converted to Judaism. In 46-47 CE, Helena traveled to Israel. Witnessing the ongoing famine, she was able to import grain from Egypt and figs from Cyprus to quell the hunger and save countless lives. Helena also commissioned several gifts for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, including a special candlestick that would indicate the appropriate time to recite Shema Israel, a golden plate engraved with Torah passages, and golden handles for all Temple vessels. The palatial sukkah she had built in her homeland was reported to be over 40 feet high! Towards the end of her life, Queen Helena moved to Jerusalem and had a mausoleum built for herself where she was eventually interred. In the 19th century, her grave was discovered by French archaeologists. Meanwhile, her Jerusalem palace was discovered by Israeli archaeologists in 2007. Among the incredible finds in the palace was a proper mikveh. Ancient historians like Josephus wrote of Helena, and her story is even described in detail in the Talmud. The latter records that Helena was a devout Jewess, spending at least 7 years of her life as a nazirite, a special status of holiness in Judaism that may be loosely compared to a monk or nun. After Helena’s death, her children continued to support the Jewish people, even sending troops to assist Jewish rebels in fighting the Romans during the Great Revolt (66-70 CE), which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple. Ultimately, the Romans invaded Adiabene, too, in 115 CE. Within a few short centuries, the kingdom was all but forgotten.

Words of the Week

Disasters go out through the mouth and disease comes in through it. You must be constantly circumspect about what goes in and out of your mouth.
Kaibara Ekiken (author of Samurai manual ‘Yojokun‘)

Jew of the Week: Saadia Gaon

Depiction of the Sura Academy

Depiction of the Sura Academy

Sa’adiah ben Yosef (c. 882-942) was born in Fayum, Egypt. His family moved to Israel while he was still very young, and he began his Torah studies at the famous academy of Tiberias. By the time he was 20, he completed his first work, Agron, possibly the first official Hebrew dictionary. Sa’adiah went on to write over two dozen significant texts in both Hebrew and Arabic, including Emunot v’Deot, thought to be the first Jewish work that blended Jewish teachings with science and Greek philosophy. He also translated the entire Torah into Arabic, and wrote a deep commentary on top of it, together with many other books of the Bible. At the time, the vast majority of Jews in the world lived in Arabic lands, so this translation served a monumental role in helping spread Jewish learning. Sa’adiah also authored a number of legal treatises, and translated the mystical Sefer Yetzirah into Arabic, adding his own commentaries that weaved together both esoteric and scientific explanations. Sa’adiah is credited with being a key force in Judeo-Arabic culture, and inspiring a “renaissance” in Jewish-Arabic literature. Meanwhile, he played an instrumental role in defending traditional Judaism in the face of the rising Karaite sect, a cause he fought for until his last days (at times risking his life). For his great wisdom and tireless work on behalf of the Jewish community, Sa’adiah was appointed “Gaon” in 928. The title Gaon (literally “genius”) was given to the head of the Sura Academy, then the leading body of Jewish scholarship in the world. Sa’adiah Gaon died in Baghdad at the age of 60, having inspired a new generation of Torah scholars. Two hundred years later, the great Maimonides wrote: “Were it not for Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, the Torah would have almost disappeared from the Jewish people, for it was he who shed light on that which was obscure, strengthened that which had been weakened, and spread the Torah far and wide, by word of mouth and in writing.”

Words of the Week

The birds and many of the land animals forbidden [to eat] by the Torah are predators, while the permitted animals are not. We are commanded not to eat those animals possessive of a cruel nature, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves.
– Nachmanides (the Ramban)

Jew of the Week: Yehoshua bin Nun

Holy Warrior

God miraculously causes the sun to stand still, allowing the Israelites under Yehoshua's command to win the battle (painting by John Martin)

God miraculously causes the sun to stand still, allowing the Israelites under Yehoshua’s command to win the battle (painting by John Martin)

Hoshea bin Nun¬†(c. 1355-1245 BCE) was born in Egypt during the time of the Israelite slavery. Upon the return of Moses, Hoshea became his trusted servant and right-hand man. He was the only one allowed to approach Mt. Sinai other than Moses himself, and is one of the few people in the Torah described as being filled with a Godly spirit. In the wilderness, he became the chief military commander of the Israelite army, leading them to multiple victories. When the Israelites originally reached the Holy Land, Hoshea was dispatched as one of the twelve spies. It was then that Moses renamed him Yehoshua (more commonly known as Joshua), to give him strength for his mission. He was the only one, along with Caleb, to bring back a positive report, and for this was rewarded with permission to enter the land of Israel, while the rest of the generation was condemned to perish in the wilderness over a forty year period. At the end of those forty years, when Moses passed away, Yehoshua took over and led the Jews into Israel, overseeing their successful reclamation and re-settlement of the land with a series of miraculous victories. His work complete, Yehoshua passed away in the Holy Land at the age of 110, having gained a reputation for wisdom, humility, and most of all, being a beloved caretaker of his people. He is believed to be the author of the Biblical book of Joshua. As his origins are obscure, and he alone has the moniker “bin” in his name (as opposed to the standard “ben”, which means son), several legends have come forth regarding his birth. In one of the most enigmatic, it is said that the baby Yehoshua was among those newborns thrown into the Nile River by Pharaoh’s soldiers. However, he was swallowed up by a great fish which was later caught by fishermen; Yehoshua was thereby accidentally rescued from the fish’s belly, hence the name “bin Nun” (nun means “fish” in Aramaic). Yehoshua’s yahrzeit is commemorated on the 26th of Nisan, which this year falls on Saturday.

Words of the Week

The Persian Empire was always against the Muslim Arab Empire, especially against the Sunnis. The threat is from Persia, not from Israel.
– Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal