Tag Archives: Second Temple

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: Shimon bar Yochai

The Zohar

One of the greatest sages of all time, Shimon bar Yochai¬†(c. 2nd century CE) lived in the era following the destruction of the Second Temple nearly two thousand years ago. He was one of just a handful of new students of the great Rabbi Akiva, whose original 24,000 students all perished, likely at the hands of the Roman Empire. Judaism was literally on the verge of extinction when Rabbi Shimon and a few others began to teach the masses once again. However, a spy informed on bar Yochai, forcing him to hide in a cave with his son for 13 years, where they did nothing but study Torah, living off a nearby carob tree and a spring of water. They attained such a level of greatness that it is said the whole universe was sustained only in their merit. After a change in the Roman government, Shimon and his son emerged from the cave. They established an academy in Tekoa where the top minds of the day studied (including Yehuda haNasi, who would later begin the process of writing down the Oral Torah). Unfortunately, a new Roman government began persecuting Jews once more. Rabbi Shimon headed a delegation to Rome. It just so happened that the Emperor’s daughter was suffering from an incurable ailment that no physician could cure. With his mystical powers, Shimon cured the girl and for his reward, asked that the edict against the Jews be rescinded. He thus saved the community, and returned to Israel spending the rest of his life re-establishing the Jewish nation. On the last day of his life – the 18th of Iyar, the 33rd day of the Omer period – he gathered his students and revealed the deepest secrets of the Torah. It is said the words were so holy the entire house erupted in flames. Legend has it that the sun delayed its descent in order for Shimon to finish his discourse, and of all the secrets he revealed, just one out of 22 parts was preserved. This one volume was later published as the famous Zohar, the primary text of Kabbalah. Because of this great revelation of light, the final day of Shimon bar Yochai’s life is celebrated on Lag B’Omer (“Lag” meaning 33), with the lighting of large bonfires and many other mystical customs.

Words of the Week

There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.
– Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai