Online Class: Learn About Jewish History and Texts!

Image: A group of people studying together. (

Have you ever wished you could take a class to sort out what words like Torah, Tanakh, Gemara, Mishnah, and Talmud really mean? Wondered how “Jewish law” is related to the Torah text? Ever wished you could learn more about the history of Israel and the Jews?  Ever hoped to go to a Torah or other text study class with confidence? Here’s your chance.

Starting on Sunday, October 18, 2020 and running through Dec 13, I will teach a class on the history and texts of Judaism. No Hebrew is required; this class is geared for beginners to Jewish study. Classes will meet from 3:30 – 5pm Pacific Time via Zoom.

Class Sessions:

Oct 18 — Welcome and Shabbat Texts

Oct 25 — What is the history of Ancient Israel?

Nov 1 — What are Torah, Tanakh & Midrash?

Nov 8 — What are Biblical Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism and how are they different?

Nov 15 — What are Mishnah, Gemara, and the Talmud?

Nov 22 — What are Codes, Responsa, and Jewish Law?

Dec 6 — What is Antisemitism?

Dec 13 — History of Zionism & Modern Israel

Besides lecture on the history and concepts, we will also engage in Jewish text study, encountering these texts first-hand.

This class is part of a series, Intro to the Jewish Experience, but students are welcome to take the class as a standalone class.

For more information and to register, check out the class page in the HaMaqom online catalog. Tuition is on a sliding scale, and financial aid is available.

HaMaqom creates inclusive communities through Jewish learning and practice. We have deep roots in the Bay Area. We have been the leading provider of transformative adult Jewish learning experiences since 1974. We offer courses and programs from leading Bay Area Jewish educators and take seriously our responsibility to serve the most diverse Jewish community in the world. We welcome all who wish to learn with us and do not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, sexual identity, or national or ethnic origin. HaMaqom was previously known as Lehrhaus Judaica.

Who or What is Chazal?

Image: A page from a medieval Jerusalem Talmud manuscript. Found in the Cairo genizah. Public Domain.

“Chazal say…” a more advanced rabbinical student said to me, in answer to a question. I heard, “Chagall says…” and was very confused. I’d asked a question about halakhah (Jewish law) – why is he quoting a Jewish artist?

Chazal (Kha-ZAHL) is a collective noun meaning “the sages,” the ancient rabbis, from the “Men of the Great Assembly,” up through the closing and final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, roughly from 500 BCE until about 650 CE. Think of it as a fancier way of saying “the ancient rabbis.”

Rabbis talk about those rabbis in terms of eras of rabbis:

First there was the age of the Men of the Great Assembly, which ran from the time of Ezra the Scribe up until about the time of the Maccabees. One of the last of that era was Shimon the Righteous:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Then there was the age of the Zugot, or Pairs of teachers, the last and most famous of whom were Hillel and Shammai. They all lived in Palestine, the land of Israel. They saw Rome come to power in the land, and were alive during the time of a fellow called Jesus.

Next came the Tannaim, which means “repeaters.” They were the rabbis who formulated the Mishnah. They taught during the difficult period just before and after the destruction of the Temple, from about 20 BCE – 200 CE.

The rabbis after the redaction of the Mishnah are called the Amoraim, which means “those who speak.” They are the rabbis of the Talmud. Some of them lived and taught in Babylonia, and some lived and taught in Palestine. They lived from 200 until 500 CE.

The last era of rabbis who are Chazal is a rather shadowy group called the Savoraim, the “reasoners.” They lived in Babylonia, and were responsible for putting the Talmud into its final form from 500-600 CE.

So now you know that Chazal is not Chagall! Had there been no Chazal, likely Chagall would have painted differently; most of his subject matter was deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition shaped by Chazal.

Some Rabbis Have Nicknames

Image: The AriZaL Synagogue in Sefat, Israel (via Wikimedia, some rights reserved)

Some rabbis are particularly beloved or respected in Jewish history. Those rabbis often get a nickname by which they are known in the yeshiva (Torah school.)

You may have heard of Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, (1040-1105) who wrote commentaries on both the Bible and the Talmud. His nickname is an acronym of name, with a few vowels added:

Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac <is known as> RaSHI

Maimonides has lots of names. Maimonides is his Greek name. However he also has a Jewish name and a corresponding nickname:

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon <is known as> RaMBaM

You may have heard of the legends about Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel of Prague, who supposedly fashioned the Golem to protect the Jews of Prague. He, too, has a nickname, but there more in it than his name:

Moreinu Hagadol (Our great teacher) R. Loew <is known as> MaHaRaL

Rabbi’s nicknames are not always acronyms; sometimes rabbis are known by the titles of their most famous book, or by an honorific. For instance, you may have heard of the Ba’al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name.) His name was Israel ben Eliezer and he lived from 1698-1760. He was an early and profound teacher of Hasidism. He is also known as the Besht:

Ba’al Shem Tov < may be abbreviated > BeSHT

Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) was known as HaAri, meaning “The Lion.” He was a great teacher of Kabbalah, who is also known as:

HaAri Zichrono Livraha (of blessed memory) <became> HaArizaL

Some examples of rabbis known by the names of their books:

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905) is known as the Sfat Emet, (“The Language of Truth”) the title of his commentaries on the Talmud.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher is known as the Ba’al HaTurim after his towering code (law book) of halakhah (Jewish law.) Ba’al HaTurim means “Master of the Rows,” a reference to the fact that he arranged the topics of the law into four areas, corresponding to the four rows of stones on the breastplate of the High Priest.

So in your reading, if ever you think, “Gee, these people have a lot of names!” you are quite right! Sometimes, Google is quite useful.

Tisha B’Av is Over – Now What?

Image: A green twig sprouts on a dead-looking stump. (Pixabay)

We just observed Tisha B’Av, the day when we remember the destruction of the Temples, and the Expulsion from Spain, and many other disasters in Jewish history.

The great Jewish historian Salo Baron (1895-1989) was prone to point out that much of Jewish history is written as “lachrymose Jewish history.” He was reacting to the tendency of historians before him to frame Jewish history as a series of disasters. He argued for an end to self-pity and a new, more sophisticated analysis of the forces inside and outside the Jewish community that shaped its development.

I always think of Baron on Tisha B’Av, because more than any other day, we seem to have a tendency to sing choruses of “Oh Poor Us:”

  • The mean Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple. (586 BCE)
  • The mean Romans destroyed the Second Temple. (70 CE)
  • The mean Romans plowed Jerusalem under after the Bar Kokhba Revolt. (135 CE)

The ancient rabbis insisted on looking at our role in the destruction of the Temple, just as Baron would, centuries later, look for both the internal and external elements at work in later disasters.

For the rabbis, bad things happened because the Jewish people refused to listen to the prophets. We insisted on the fantasy that sacrifices and fasting were the only things important in Torah. Torah is not just about ritual. It is equally about the way we treat other people and ourselves. The rabbis believed that we would be secure only when we took responsibility for our behavior, both individually and as a people.

Anti-Semitism is real and it is horrible. But when our response to our history is to sit in a puddle of pity and wail that no other people has been so persecuted, we are not seeing clearly. The First Temple, they said, had been destroyed because of injustice and immorality. The Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, useless hatred.Last week I posted the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, one of the classical stories about the destruction of the Second Temple, in Why Was the Temple Destroyed? It is not the only such story highlighting the way Jews treated one another in that time.

History might have turned out differently had we behaved differently. The season of the High Holy Days will be with us soon: Elul begins at sundown on August 10, and Rosh HaShanah begins at sundown on September 9. We would do well to examine ourselves and our behavior today to look at the cruelty in our present society. And before we cry, “Those mean guys over there are doing it!” we should take care of our own contributions to the trouble.

They said [that] Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students… and they all died in one period [of time] because they did not treat each other with respect. — Yevamot 62b

If we will not take responsibility for ourselves, we cannot survive. But if we renew ourselves, if we choose the path of goodness rather than cruelty, of truth rather than lies, of humility rather than arrogance, of responsibility rather than self-pity, what might we accomplish?

Why Was the Temple Destroyed?

Image: Banquet scene from the first century CE. At such a dinner party the host might have had his fateful disagreement with Bar Kamtza. (Photo by Ian Scott, some rights reserved.)

A famous story about the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE:

A wealthy resident of Jerusalem gave a party. He told his servant to deliver an invitation to Kamtza. The servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to Bar Kamtza, whom the master disliked.

The master saw Bar Kamtza at the feast. He went up to Bar Kamtza and said, “You are not my friend! Scram!” Bar Kamtza said, “Look, I’m already here. I’ll pay you for what I eat and drink, but don’t embarrass me by throwing me out.”

The master said, “No. Get out!” Bar Kamtza replied, “I will pay for half the feast, if you will just allow me to stay.” The host seized Bar Kamtza by the hand and dragged him out the door.

Bar Kamtza was humiliated and angry. He had seen several of the Sages at the feast, and none of them defended him or expressed any sympathy. He vowed revenge upon them. He decided to tell the Roman authorities that they were plotting a revolt.

He went to the ruler and said, “The Sages are getting ready to revolt against you, sir.” The ruler was cautious and hoped to smooth things over. He sent Bar Kamtza back to the Sages with a three-year-old calf for a sacrifice. Bar Kamtza took the calf aside and gave it a blemish, a tiny wound, so that it would be unfit for sacrifice.

The Sages debated whether to go ahead and sacrifice the calf, to get along with the Romans. However, Rabbi Zachariah said, if you do that, everyone will think it is OK to bring blemished animals for sacrifice! Then the Sages said, we should execute Bar Kamtza then, so that he will not go and slander us to Caesar! But Rabbi Zachariah said, if you do that, everyone will think that blemishing animals is a capital crime! So they did nothing, and Bar Kamtza reported to the Romans that the Sages rejected their gift to insult them.

The Romans believed the slander of Bar Kamtza, and the Romans sent armies to surround Jerusalem. The story concludes:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The humility of Rabbi Zachariah ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land! – Gittin 56a

Thus the internal squabbling among the Jews – sinat chinam, baseless hatred – was what actually caused the destruction of the Temple.

  • Identify all the various people who were indulging in pointless strife, that is, arguments that were not for the sake of heaven.
  • Rabbi Yochanan blames Rabbi Zachariah. Why?
  • Bar Kamtza wants revenge on the Sages. What had they done to him? Was it bad enough to merit reporting them to the Romans as rebels?
  • What do you think of the original disagreement between the host and Bar Kamtza? Should the host have allowed him to stay? Was Bar Kamtza wrong to try to bargain with him?
  • All this started with a mistake by a servant. At what point could someone have kept it from turning into a disaster?

Yoma 9b also makes a comment on the story, although it does not retell it:

Why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b.

What lessons, if any, do you think we moderns could learn from this story?

Meet Nittai of Arbel

Image: The ancient synagogue of Arbel. (Photo by Bukvoed, via wikimedia.)

Nittai of Arbel says: “Keep your distance from bad neighbors, do not ally yourself with the wicked and do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

We do not know much about Nittai of Arbel, but we have his words, and we can decipher them by thinking about his times. In the second century BCE, the Second Temple was still standing, and the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were on the throne. You’d think it would have been a great time for the Jews, but it was a time of treachery and bad behavior.

Nittai was a country boy who rose to be av beit din (vice president) of the Sanhedrin, working and teaching alongside the Nasi (president) Joshua ben Perachya. The two of them are remembered together among the Zugot, pairs of very early rabbinic teachers.

“Keep your distance from bad neighbors” and “do not ally yourself with the wicked” sound like bitter experience speaking.  They might be a reference to Nittai’s experience with John Hyrcanus. The ruler, a nephew of Judah Maccabee, had such a taste for Greek culture that the Pharisees (the early rabbis) questioned whether he had sufficient Jewish values to function as high priest. He was enraged at the criticism and Joshua ben Perachya had to flee for his life to Egypt.

Nittai would have been left alone to lead the early rabbis, who were in deep disfavor for questioning John Hyrcanus.

“Do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – It must have been frustrating to see a bad ruler on the throne, and to feel that neither God nor humanity were doing anything to stop him. John Hyrcanus did a number of things that eventually caused grave trouble: he forced the entire nation of Idumeans to convert to Judaism, and he invited an alliance with Rome, which had a tendency to swallow its allies. He was popular in his time, but much of what he did led to disaster.

“Do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – If hope dies, then all is truly lost. The ancient rabbi, Nittai of Arbel, is telling us that we must continue to seek what is good, and to do what is right. We cannot control history, but we can be faithful to the values of Torah.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History – Book Review

Image: Political Cartoon: “USA to Russian Tsar: Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews, 1904.” Chromolithograph. Public Domain in the U.S. 

In April, 1903, 49 Jews were murdered in the small city of Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, in the Pale of Settlement section of the Russian Empire. 600 Jews were raped or wounded, and over 1000 homes and businesses were ransacked.

Unlike previous such incidents (which have precedents going all the way back to the First Crusade and before) this time the Western press mobilized public opinion against the Russian Empire for allowing the carnage. Hearst Newspapers carried one lurid photo after another. Reporters and Jewish relief workers mobilized to document what had happened and to help the survivors. The political cartoon above is a rather mild example of the coverage.

Stephen J. Zipperstein has written a gripping and fascinating account of the events leading up to the pogrom and its aftermath. It had a cacophony of effects that would echo through the 20th century and beyond.

What do the founding of the NAACP, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the rise of Zionism, the “New Jew,” and the Hebrew poem “In the City of Slaughter” have in common?  It’s Kishinev.

If you think you already know all about Kishinev, you probably don’t. If you think you know who write the Protocols, you might be surprised. If you are dreading an account of violence and gore, know that Zipperstien is more interested in causes and effects than in a salacious or bloody-minded account of the matter.

This book gave me a great deal to think about, especially about the power of publicity and its unintended outcomes. I heartily recommend it.

Our Biblical Cousins?

Some of the excavated ruins of Ugarit, or Ras Shamra. Photo by Loris Romito, via Italian Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

I have a word to tell you, a message to recount to you: the word of the tree and the whisper of the stone, the murmur of the heavens to the earth, of the seas to the stars. I understand the lightning that the heavens do not know, the word that people do not know, and earth’s masses cannot understand. Come, and I will reveal it. – Ras Shamra inscription

The Bronze Age city of Ugarit sat on the coast in northern Syria. The citizens of that city left an enormous library of clay tablets inscribed in Ugaritic, a Semitic language. From those writings, we know that they worshiped El, Asherah, and Baal, Canaanite deities mentioned in our Bible. Some of their poetry has close parallels in our Book of Psalms. As you can see from the example above, the writings were vivid and very beautiful.

The “golden age” of Ugarit came to an end about 1200 BCE, at a time of great upheaval in the ancient Near East. The invasions of the Sea Peoples (Philistines) coincided with the destruction of the city. This corresponds to the period described in the Book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes. — Judges 21:25

Mizrahim, the Jews of the East

Image: Persian Jews in Iran, 1917. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Some of the longest-thriving Jewish communities in history are the Mizrahi communities of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa. Their stories have gone largely ignored by Western Jews, which is a real shame.

The first big Mizrahi community goes back to the first diaspora of Jews: the Babylonian captivity. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 BCE, they carried off many of the educated Jews to be clerks in their vast bureaucracy. To this day we hear their grief and pain in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy.
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” – Psalm 137:1-3

Seventy years later Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians, and the Jews of Babylon were free to go home. Some headed west to rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple. Others had made a home in Babylon, and they chose to stay. Thus when the Temple was destroyed again and Jewish life in Israel was in disarray, Babylon was set to emerge as a center of Jewish life and learning. Indeed, the scholars of Babylon assembled the great Babylonian Talmud.

The Babylonian academies gave birth to the other centers of Jewish life and learning: Sepharad in Spain, Askhenaz in Europe. Elsewhere around the Mediterranean other Mizrahi communities sprang up: in Egypt, in Morocco, in Syria, and Persia (modern Iran), to name just three of many.

Mizrahi Jews lived under Ottoman rule by 1492, and when the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, the Mizrahi communities opened their doors to the refugees. Most of Christian Europe wanted nothing to do with the Sephardic exiles, so for many of them, their best chance was to head east to Muslim lands. In some of those places, the Sephardic rite of liturgy and the language became dominant. That’s why some refer to Mizrahi Jews as Sephardic.

The 20th century brought huge changes to the Mizrahi world. The events of 1948 and the emergence of the new State of Israel as the victor in its War of Independence against Arab armies triggered angry responses in the Muslim nations of the Levant. One after another, the nations which had been home to Mizrahi Jews took up active programs of persecution. 850,000 Jews were kicked out as penniless refugees, stripped of their assets. Most went to Israel. Others emigrated to the United States and Canada.

Today there are large communities of Mizrahim in Israel, in New York, in California, and in Canada. Life has not been easy; most lost everything when they were expelled from the lands that had been home for thousands of years. If you want to learn more about the individual communities, a wonderful organization called JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) has their stories, past and present, in more detail on its website and its Instagram account. I recommend you click the links and take a look; my choices for photographs were rather limited for this blog, but the photos on both the JIMENA website and its Instagram account are breathtaking.

It’s all too easy, if you are a synagogue Jew in most of the USA, to think that most Jews are Ashkenazi. That, too, is a trick of history: most of the Jews in the U.S. arrived as refugees from the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since 1924, we’ve had quotas that kept out many others. The Mizrahi communities were not seriously stressed until later, so we see fewer Mizrahi Jews in the USA.

The Jewish world is wide and beautiful. It encompasses a variety of people with many skin colors, cultures, and customs. We are all richer when we recognize our cousins for what they are: mishpacha [family.]


Women Rabbis Making History

Image: Photo of Rabbi Regina Jonas believed to have been taken after 1939. (Jewish Women’s Archive)

Tonight was the event I most looked forward to at the CCAR Convention: the Women’s Rabbinic Network gathered for our annual dinner.

One of the most moving aspects of the dinner is roll call. The president calls us by ordination years, beginning with the soon-to-be ordained rabbis: “Class of 2017!” A few of them were with us, and we clapped and cheered for them. Then the newest rabbis: “Class of 2016!” When she got to “Class of 2008!” I stood up with my classmates and enjoyed the warmth. As the years count down, we get to the pioneers, women who carved the way for the rest of us, right down to “Class of 1972!”

At that, one woman stands up. Her name is Rabbi Sally Priesand. We go crazy, standing and cheering for her, because she is the trailblazer for the rest of us, ordained on June 3, 1972. Since that day, the Reform Movement in the United States has ordained over 700 women as rabbis. We serve as congregational rabbis, as military chaplains, as academics, and as counselors. There are major scholars among our ranks, and teachers like myself. Two of us have served as presidents of the CCAR, and many women rabbis are on faculty at rabbinical schools worldwide.

For many years, we thought Rabbi Priesand was the first woman ordained as a rabbi. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did the world learn of Rabbi Regina Jonas, a German woman who was ordained in Berlin in 1935 by Rabbi Max Dienemann (1875–1939) director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis. Rabbi Jonas served the Jews of Berlin and elsewhere faithfully until 1942, when she was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. There she provided pastoral care, teaching, and services for the Jews in the camp, until she and her mother were transferred to Auschwitz on October 12, 1944. They were likely murdered that same day.

Although Rabbi Jonas worked alongside Rabbi Leo Baeck and the psychologist Viktor Frankl at Theresienstadt, neither of them ever mentioned her after the war. Were it not for the records in East Berlin, including her rabbinic thesis, we would never have known about her.

If you are interested in learning more about women in the rabbinate, there’s a wonderful new book out that explores the topic. It won a National Jewish Book Award this year: The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate. I recommend it highly.

There are now many women rabbis in America and around the world. For synagogue-going Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal Jews we are no longer a curiosity. Even in the Orthodox world, where change happens very slowly, there are now women with rabbinic educations, doing rabbinic work under various titles. When I looked around that room tonight, I felt honored to be a member of this group of women who have dedicated their lives to Torah and the care of the Jewish People. I felt honored to be part of history.