Tag Archives: Tanakh

Jews of the Week: Isaac Leeser and Warder Cresson

Isaac Leeser

Isaac Leeser

Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) was born in the Germanic kingdom of Westphalia. Growing up, he received both a religious Jewish education, as well as a secular German one, and was fluent in Latin, German, and Hebrew. He immigrated to the United States at the young age of 17 and lived with his wealthy uncle. While working in his uncle’s business, Leeser started to teach Judaism in his local synagogue, and vocally defended his religion when it was under attack in the public sphere. By age 22, he was quite well known, and was invited to take over Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel, one of America’s oldest Sephardic synagogues. Leeser introduced American Jewry to the German custom of delivering a sermon between prayers (something now common in all synagogues). He wrote a book about Judaism in 1829 but found no publisher willing to print it. So, he started his own press, establishing the Jewish Publication Society. In 1845, he published his English translation of the Torah – the first by a Jew. Eight years later, he published a complete English Tanakh. This translation was the authoritative Jewish version for decades, and is still widely used today. Leeser helped found some of America’s first Jewish schools, seminaries, and magazines. He was also a civil rights activist and worked hard on behalf of all minorities. He is regarded as one of America’s most important Jewish pioneers.

Michael Boaz Israel, aka. Warder Cresson

Michael Boaz Israel, aka. Warder Cresson

In 1840, Leeser met a wealthy farmer named Warder Cresson (1798-1860). Cresson was a very religious Quaker, a preacher and writer. After some discussions with Leeser, Cresson took a deep interest in Judaism. In 1844, he was appointed America’s first consul in Jerusalem. This brought him face-to-face with Judaism and he grew close to Jerusalem’s ancient Sephardic community. He started writing for Leeser’s magazine, The Occident, and even began doing counter-missionary work to stop Christian proselytizing of Jews. In 1848, Cresson converted to Judaism, was circumcised, and took on the Hebrew name Michael Boaz Israel ben Avraham. Upon his return to Philadelphia, his wife divorced him, sued him, and sought to have him declared insane. The case made headlines across the US. Cresson ultimately won the suit, proving his absolute sanity and wisdom. He returned to Jerusalem, married a Sephardic woman and had three kids. In 1852, he established a Jewish agricultural colony – predating the Zionist movement by several decades, and in fact, helping to inspire it. He continued writing on Jewish topics, and died as a respected and prominent leader in Israel’s Sephardic community. His original tomb and burial place on the Mount of Olives was recently rediscovered.

Words of the Week

Just as the olive yields oil for light only when it is pounded, so are man’s greatest potentials realized only under the pressure of adversity.
– The Talmud

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