Tag Archives: Torah

Jew of the Week: Moses Mendelssohn

Father of Jewish Enlightenment 

Moshe ben Mendel (1729-1786) was born in the Germanic municipality of Dessau to an impoverished, religious Jewish family. His father was a sofer (a Torah scribe), and trained young Moshe in the scribal arts, as well. Moshe also learned Torah and Talmud with Rabbi David Frankel. When Frankel took up a rabbinic post in Berlin, Moshe moved with him to the capital. To keep him safer and open more opportunities, his father had asked him to make his name more German-sounding, resulting in the name Moses Mendelssohn (“son of Mendel”). Mendelssohn continued in his rabbinic studies with the intention of becoming a rabbi, but also took up the study of mathematics, Latin, and philosophy. He soon began learning French and English as well, with an influential Jewish physician and tutor. That tutor introduced Mendelssohn to renowned German philosopher and writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The two became good friends, and Mendelssohn inspired Lessing’s popular play Nathan the Wise. Mendelssohn’s genius soon spread throughout the secular world, and he even won the top Berlin Academy prize for mathematical proofs of metaphysics (second place went to Immanuel Kant!) In 1763, the King of Prussia granted Mendelssohn the special status of schutzjude, “Protected Jew”. At a time when secularism and atheism were sweeping Europe, Mendelssohn remained a believer and resolved to convince the masses On the Immortality of Souls, published in 1767. The treatise became so popular that people began calling him the “German Plato” and the “German Socrates”. In 1775, an order of expulsion was being drawn up against Swiss and German Jews, so Mendelssohn intervened to get the expulsion rescinded. Mendelssohn was constantly mired in theological debates with his German acquaintances, and often pressured to convert to Christianity. He resisted and defended his faith. Nonetheless, the stress was so great on him that he eventually fell deeply ill and was bedridden. At this point he resolved “to dedicate the remains of my strength for the benefit of my children or a goodly portion of my nation”. To make it more accessible to a wider audience, he started a new German translation and commentary of the Torah. The resulting Biur was hugely popular, and received approbations from many rabbis. Meanwhile, he worked to get various restrictions on Jews repealed, and played an instrumental role in getting Jews in Europe basic human and civil rights. In his Jerusalem, he argued passionately for freedom of religion, and for the Christian authorities to leave the Jews alone. Mendelssohn corresponded with one of the leading sages of the day, Rabbi Yakov Emden, and wrote how he “thirsted” for the rabbi’s teachings. Intriguingly, while Rabbi Emden had criticized the Zohar (the famous “textbook” of Jewish mysticism), Mendelssohn actually defended its authenticity. He also defended the authenticity of nikkud, the traditional Hebrew vowel system. Although he was widely admired and respected in his own day, Mendelssohn’s work opened up the door to more Jews learning secular subjects and entering mainstream society, which led to wider assimilation. Four of his own six children ended up converting to Christianity, and just one grandson remained Jewish. (Another grandson was renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn.) Mendelssohn was later credited with being the “father of Haskalah”, the so-called “Jewish Enlightenment”. Because of this, in the decades after his death he became something of a villain in the Orthodox world, and any positive mention of his name was expunged. Today, he is still viewed negatively in religious Jewish circles, although he had truly done a great deal on behalf of the Jewish people.

Should Jews Celebrate Halloween?

Video: The Myth of Moses Mendelssohn

Words of the Week

If you believe you can damage, believe you can repair.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

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: Rav Chaim Kanievsky

Prince of Torah

Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky (1928-2022) was born in Pinsk (then Poland, now Belarus) and made aliyah with his family to Israel when he was six years old. He never left the Holy Land thereafter. His father was the great “Steipler Gaon”, Rabbi Yaakov Kanievsky, and his maternal uncle was the famed Chazon Ish. Following in their footsteps, Kanievsky became a rabbi, too, and was recognized as a sharp scholar at a young age. As a yeshiva student during Israel’s Independence War, he briefly served in the newly-formed IDF and defended Jaffa (though he did it spiritually, spending most of the time at his post learning Torah!) He then married the daughter of another great rabbi, Rav Elyashiv. Rabbi Kanievsky typically studied Torah for about 17 hours a day. He would wake up at midnight to pray Tikkun Chatzot (mourning for the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people) and then learned for the rest of the day, starting with eight (double-sided) pages of the Talmud Bavli, followed by eight pages of the Talmud Yerushalmi, and then selections from a number of Jewish legal codes, the Tanakh, as well as Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts. What normally takes a typical rabbi a lifetime to study, Rav Kanievsky would complete every year! He was famous for his total mastery of all Torah texts, with photographic memory and an ability to mentally “scan” these texts for any word or phrase. He was often called the “Prince of Torah”. In addition to his studies, Rav Kanievsky wrote over a dozen popular books and commentaries. Hundreds of people would line up daily to ask questions and request blessings. His blessings were known to be fulfilled, often miraculously, and his legal rulings were followed closely by religious Jews, especially those in non-Hasidic Ashkenazi communities. He regularly responded to thousands of letters, too. Rav Kanievsky lived simply in a small apartment in Bnei Brak his whole life. After the passing of Rav Shteinman in 2017, he was widely-recognized as the supreme authority on Jewish law, and the top gadol hador. Sadly, the Prince of Torah passed away shortly after the conclusion of Purim last week. He had completed his yearly study cycle the previous day. Some 750,000 people came to his funeral, making it among the largest in Israel’s history.

Words of the Week

In a lottery, it is not the ticket that wins but the person.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky