Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Our Famous Rabbis and the Gifts They Brought to Us

Nadene Goldfoot                                                            
The 10 commandments were just the beginning.  Moses brought us 613 commandments.

Our religion of Judaism goes back almost 4,000 years with Moses leading the Hebri or Israelite slaves out of Egypt.  Moses was being told things to teach to them as they struggled through the wilderness for 40 years which our history tells us that he wrote down and is thus brought to us today as the 5 Books of Moses or Torah.  Our history is continually recorded and kept in our Tanakh, which is called the Old Testament by Gentiles.  When it was said that mankind's prophet age stopped, so did the Tanakh, but other books were continued to be written, such as the Talmud, the Mishnah and  Gamara, all commentaries on aspects of the Tanakh.

Moses brought us the law which is found throughout the 5 Books of Moses.  Another word for the law is HALAKHAH, and a person who studies the law is a HALAKHIST.

When the 2nd Temple fell by the Romans burning it and Jerusalem down, our people were forced in slavery and taken to Rome or were lucky enough to scatter and find refuge on other roads leading them to outer places.  This means that the Cohens (priests) of the Sanhedrin also had to flee.  They were the 71 rabbis of ordained scholars whose job it had been was to act as a Supreme Court in making decisions and as the legislature.  The head rabbi was called the Nasi, selected for being a descendant of Rabbi Hillel.  Before the fall of the Temple, the Sanhedrin met in the Temple chamber, the Hall of Hewn Stone.  (Today we know that Cohens come to us with the DNA haplotype of J1 and J2.) A Cohen today is a part of the synagogue service and has special functions such as reading first from the Torah on Shabbat "Saturday morning." 

What is a codifier?  This is what most famous rabbis have become.  The Talmud has been accepted as the code book for the regulation of Jewish life.  The Talmud, and we have 2,  is a collection of records of academic discussion and judicial administration of Jewish Law by generations of scholars and jurists in many academies and in more than one country during several centuries after 200 CE, when the Mishnah was completed.  The Talmud is made up of 2 parts, the Mishnah and the Gemara.  Both are a commentary on and a supplement to the Mishnah, containing non-legal digressions.  The authorities mentioned by name in the Palestinian Talmud all lived before 400 CE.  Those mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud lived before 500 CE.  They have long discussions and many different opinions.  A codifier tries to make it easier to understand or to locate different subjects.
Yitzchak Kaduri, a renowned Mizrahi Haredi rabbi and
 born in Bagdad, who devoted his life
to Torah study and prayer on behalf of the Jewish people
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson
of Chabad
We have rabbis today just like any religion has a leader of a congregation.  We've been blessed with very intelligent rabbis who have made outstanding statements that students today study.  They don't always agree with each other, so students learn both sides of an argument, and yes, it all comes from information in the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh.  But as you know, there are many paths out of Christianity, many ways of interpretation of their New Testament, from people who handle snakes using religion as their base to people who shake a lot to people who sit in a church and hear the damnation of Jews to some who hear about being kind to others.  So we Jews have depended on rabbis who know and understand far more than we do to keep us on the right paths.  We're all individuals, not sheep, and see many aspects of a doctrine.  We need someone who knows a lot more that can see all aspects of it and come to a decision when needed.

"Note: Modern-day Haredi Judaism is divided between Ashkenazi Hasidic Judaism (guided by the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov) and Haredi non-Hasidim, such as Misnagdim (guided by the teachings of the Vilna Gaon) and much of Sephardic Judaism (guided by the rulings of Yosef Karo) ..supporters of Shas in Israel. "

Hillel: born in the 1st century BCE., was among the Jews taken away from 597 and 586 BCE by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar, had been able to return to Judah and worked at manual labor while a student of teachers Shemaiah and Avtalyon.  He was brilliant and had  ancestors from the patriarchs which was important.  He became president of the Sanhedrin.  He and his friend and opponent in discourse, became the last of the pairs (Zugot) of scholars.  This is where debate and intelligence manifested itself.  Hillel was noted for his humility and tendency to leniency.  Legal practice went in almost all cases according to the decision of the House of Hillel over Shammai's decisions.  Hillel laid down the 7 rules of Bible interpretation.  He is the accepted author of THE GOLDEN RULE. (Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you.)  which comes from understanding the laws Moses brought to us which amount to 613 of them, the number of bones in our body.  Reaching this level of understanding is like reaching the level of a PhD.  The Sanhedrin ended before the end of the 4th century, like in 380.
Rashi: born in 1040-d: 1105, from Troyes, France, studied in the Rhineland (Germany), Ashkenazi rabbi, made a living from his vineyard. He was a descendant of King David.   Rashi, which stands for Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki,  received many halactic questions that he had to answer and established his own school of thought.  His chief contribution was his lucid commentary on the Bible and the Babylonian Talmud.  His thoughts on the Pentateuch, particularly became universally popular, while his notes on the Talmud were responsible for making that work an open book.  He had extensive knowledge of sources and earlier commentaries but again usually didn't cite them.  He also was well versed in current grammatical works.  He relied to an extent on Targum Onkelos (Targum means the Aramaic translation of the bible- a custom going back to Ezra, the oral Targum was both a translation and an interpretation adding legal and midrashic details to the text and studiously avoiding anthropomorphism)  for his interpretation of the Pentateuch.  His style was simple and concise and his goal was to present the direct rational meaning of the text.  (Remember, many of us are all are reading a translation from Hebrew into English.  Jews, if they want the direct translation that is accepted by most rabbis, read from the Tanakh from the ArtScroll Series, The Stone Edition edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman.   Our prayer books today are full of comments from Rashi.                                                    

    Ezra was born in 5th century BCE and was the refounder of Eretz Yisrael's Jewry and reformer of Jewish life.  He was helping the Babylonian descendant  returnees regain what they had known.  He was a descendant himself of the priestly family of Zadok.
Maimonides: also known as the Rambam (Moses ben Maimon)  born in 1135 d: 1204.  From Cordova, Spain, Sephardic rabbi, halakhist and medical writer.  At age 13 escaped with his family from the Almolade persecutions against Jews. He reached Judah in 1165 through wanderings in N. Africa.  Had already written a paper on the Jewish calendar in 1158 and works on the technical terms of logic.  He established a list of the 613 laws/precepts.  Judah and the land land Israel were still suffering from the Christian Crusaders with Jews under constant attack, so family went to Egypt, and Maimonides became the spiritual head of the Cairo community.  He made a living from trading in jewels with his brother, David and in 1170 became the physician to the viceroy of Egypt.  By 1168 he finished his commentary on the Mishnah that he had written during his travels.  In it he expalined the exact meaning of the text and indicated which opinions were accepted as halakhah.  He wrote the preface to Avot (Shemonah Perakim) and to the 10th chapter of Sanhedrin (Helek), paperss usually printed and studied separately.  This last paper leads up to the famous 13 articles of faith which is our dogma.  All these earlier books were written in Arabic and translated later into Hebrew.  From 1170 to 1180 he worked on his Hehrew compendium of the entire halakhah, Mishneh Torah.  He did this to save himself in his advanced age the trouble of consulting the Talmud on every occasion, he said in a letter to a friend.  This code covers all halakhic subjects, however small, that was mentioned in the Talmud.  It introduces each subjecft by a clear exlanation, and where more than one opinion is given and are adduced in the gemara, gives only the one he accepted.  Maimonides became a decisor (Posek) this way.  His system is unsurpassed.  The problem is that he never mentioned the talmudic source of his statements, something we learn today in writing papers is expected.
Joseph Caro b: 1488-1575 from Toledo, Spain, Sephardic rabbi, a codifier,  had to leave Spain with his parents in the 1492 expulsion by the ruling Catholics in the Spanish Inquisition.  They settled in Constantinople, Turkey in 1498.  By 1525 Joseph was able to make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael and founded a yeshivah in Safed.  He wrote his code, Bet Yoseph (House of Joseph from 1550 to 1559, a commentary and the Shulhan Arukh (The Prepared Table) from 1564 to 1565 by collecting the views of the previous codifiers and giving his own decisions on disputed points.  His codes received a lot of opposition, especially by Ashkenazi scholars who claimed that they were based on the codifications of Spanish rabbis and ignored the French and German traditions.  Moes Isserles was the biggest critic.  However, his Shulhan Arukh became the authoritative code and it is still recognized by Orthodox Jews all over the world.  He was also interested in Kabbalah and claimed that religious secrets were divulged to him by a supernatural messenger (maggid.).

Israel Baal Shem Tov, b: 1699-1761 in Volhynia Gubernia, Ukraine and Podolia-part of Ukraine and Moldova.  He was the founder of Hasidism.  The Jewish populace was an unlearned mass of peasants in this part of the world and was in a depressed state in the 18th century following the Chmielnicki massacres of Jews and the Christian church persecutions.  Jewish life had become a catastrophic condition because of the oligarchic rule of the communities and the disillusionment from the Sabbetaian fiasco (a false messiah).   The Baal Shem Tov preached uplifting ideas and doctrines.  He taught them that all are equal before the Almighty and that the ignorant are no less honored than the learned.  He taught that purity of heart was superior to study, and that devotion to prayer and the commandments was to be encouraged but ascetic practices not to be practiced.  The German Christians  had been doing a lot of that type of religion by marching in packs and beating themselves with chains, then attacking Jews. This new movement spread all over eastern Europe.  The Hasidim were thought to be heretical  and too similar to the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzevi.
Vilna Gaon b: 1720-1797 in Seltz, Byelorussia/Lithuania, full name of Eliyahu (Elijah)  ben Shlomo Zalmen (Solomon Vimpel) , Ashkenazi rabbi who was a Talmudist.  He was famed for his scholarship.  From 1740 to 1745 he traveled among the Jews of Poland and Germany and settled in Vilna, Poland where he taught and later founded his own academy.  He had the reputation of a saint and scholar that was widespread, so he must have been a fantastic educator.  He led an opposition group against the Hasidim who were becoming very popular in Lithuania.  He tried to make aliyah when age 60 but couldn't make it.  His reputation of expertise was in the field of halakkhah.  He tried to establish critical texts of the authoritative rabbinic writings, resorting also to emendations.  This is how he avoided pilpul and based his views and ruings on the plain meaning of the text.  He loved the early kabbalistic works, and was critical of philosophy.  He was interested in secular studies if they threw light on the Torah, but opposed the Haskalah.  Much of his writings were commentaries on the Bible and annotations on the Talmud, Midrash and Zohar, works on mathematics, geography of Eretz Yisrael, Hebrew grammar, etc.  His writings greatly influenced his own and coming generations of rabbis.  The Mitnaggedim (opposers of the Hasidim), regarded him as their spiritual leader.  Now we have these 2 camps interpreting laws in Judaism and customs.
Shneour Zalman ben Baruch of Lyady b:1747  d: 1813, was the rabbi who became the leader of the Hasidim and founded the Chabad movement, a philosophical and rationalizing movement within Hasidim which attracted scholars of White Russia (Belarus) and Lithuania.  Such topics as how to slaughter a cow following Kashrut were argued between the 2 groups of Hasidim and Mitnaggedim.  Great bitterness developed in Lithuania over such disagreements of interpretation.  Hasidim was able to branch out in other places, but Vilna, Lithuania had been the center for rabbinical study whereas other places were not so much.  He had succeeded Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk as the leader.  He was arrested by the Russian authorities and put in prison in St. Petersburg and released when the charges were disproved but was rearrested the next year following more allegations by Rabbi Avigdor of Pinsk in their disagreements.  It had gone that far!  He died running from Napoleon's army.  How he differed in his teaching was that he taught the importance of intensive study and contemplation.  His works included a liturgy, a code of laws known as Shulhan Arukh, a mystic commentary on the Pentateuch, and the Tanya, his interpretation of the Kabbalah which has become the standard work of the Chabad movement.  

Jewish people have learned throughout the ages that reading and understanding Torah is something that can stand a higher education in understanding everything, and that's where our learned rabbis come in.  To understand this concept, one should attend a Yeshiva class to see how students study.  I find that in just teaching reading in Oregon, there are some students who can answer all of the questions about an assignment read silently, and then others who can't answer one of them correctly.  We are not all created with the same outlooks or understandings, and it depends a lot on our past experiences as to understanding a paragraph that is read.  Rabbis' education is to give them that vast experience to understand.  For example, there are some things to be read after one has reached age 40, expecting that they have studied up to that period and are ready for the higher level learning experience.  Kabbalah is one of these to be understood on a higher level.
My Tanakh
7" X10" X2 1/4 "  with
Hebrew and English
It takes 16 scrolls to make up our Tanakh-The 16 Scrolls of the complete Tanakh, Old Testament Scrolls on display in Glen Rose, Texas
       Of course we all are expected to read for ourselves from our own Tanakh.  That's why we have certain chapters to read before attending services, or at least do in our own homes over Shabbat.  Our Tanakh has discussions in it along with the chapters to be read.  We can take our own understanding of paragraphs.  However, it's always nice to hear the lectures from a well-versed rabbi.  I always leave feeling that I have learned a great deal.  They can exemplify something, broaden its base so we get a clearer picture.  It's like listening to an Einstein explain relativity in a simple way.  We have a vast history and rabbis call upon all their vast learned sources to help us to understand points.  Chabad lists the parts to be read for us on their website.

What I loved was living in a high rise apartment building in Safed, Israel where men got together for a minion (10 men-if possible) before Shabbat dinner on Friday night  to read from that week's reading together and discuss it a little before going to services.  They were at the point of reading from the original Hebrew in their books and talking about the meaning of the words.

Resource: The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia

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