The Cairo Genizah And Anwar Sadat By Saul Jay Singer and So Bernie won’t be the first Jewish president — here are 10 people who could be and How to Contend with the Coronavirus Crisis: A Jewish View and The Song of Songs and the Story of the Exodus from Egypt and our no Exit
Yehuda Lave is an author, journalist, psychologist, rabbi, spiritual teacher, and coach, with degrees in business, psychology and Jewish Law. He works with people from all walks of life and helps them in their search for greater happiness, meaning, business advice on saving money, and spiritual engagement. Now also a Blogger on the Times of Israel. Look for my column
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The Song of Songs and the Story of the Exodus from Egypt and our no Exit
It is customary to read the Song of Songs on Pesach. Some read it at night after completing the Haggadah; some read it in synagogue on Shabbat of Hol Hamoed. This year we read it at home as we locked down on both the Passover Seder and the 7th night of Passover when we celebrate the splitting of the Sea.
The springtime atmosphere of bloom and blossoming described in the Song of Songs provides a natural link to the holiday of Spring, but a look at the Rabbinic sources teaches us that the association between the Song of Songs and the Exodus goes much deeper.
Exodus 14 tells the story of Israel's exodus from Egypt. Although Pharaoh has sent Israel out from his land, he quickly regrets it. Seeing that Israel has turned in the direction of the desert, he concludes that they have lost their way: "They are entangled in the land, the wilderness has shut them in" (Exodus 14:3) (locked down). He harnesses his chariot and gives chase, pursuing the people of Israel with a large army. They catch up to Israel, who is camped on the shores of the Sea.
There appeared to be no way out. . But then deliverance comes from an unexpected direction.
The beauty of Rabbinic Midrashim is that they set Biblical stories in a new and refreshing light. A Midrash concretizes the danger in which the Israelites found themselves, fleeing from the Egyptians (It is interesting that the image of a hawk symbolized the Egyptian god Horus, one of the nine major gods of ancient Egypt. Horus was associated with Pharaoh and thought to be the protector and patron of the king). to the desert, only to encounter the threatening sea.
The Midrash dwells on this moment of hopelessness: "And the Egyptians pursued after them, and overtook them encamping by the sea" (Exodus 14:9). Danger engulfs them from all sides, from land and from sea, and they know they have no escape. They are overwhelmed by fear and terror and cry out to God. The Egyptians are sure that Israel is their easy prey, because "the desert has closed in upon them," (locked in) but just then rescue comes from an unexpected direction: "They were very afraid and the children of Israel cried out to God" (Exodus 14:10)… and "God saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians" (Exodus 14:30).
God easily overcomes the Egyptian army, its horses, chariots and officers. The Egyptians are surprised not only by God's appearance outside of the land of Egypt but also by His ability to pave a totally unexpected path of deliverance by splitting the Red Sea. At that moment the Egyptians realize that Israel is a special nation; that God comes to their aid as soon as they cry out to Him. Just as it is clear that man has dominion over the animals, it becomes evident that God dominates all His creations – the Egyptians and the sea both – and thus only from Him can Israel seek full deliverance.
The parable is not only a story about the splitting of the sea but also transmits a relevant message to its audience in the early rabbinic period. Enemies press from all sides, and there is no apparent way out. The author's message is to remember that when threatened we need only to cry out to God Who will hear, come and save us.
The parallel between Israel and the tame dove is not accidental. The Midrash wishes to stress that Israel's strength does not lie in military prowess, nor will fleeing to caves and hiding places bring salvation. True deliverance comes from God: "God will fight for you and you will hold your peace" (Exodus 14:14).
What is the connection between the Song of Songs and the splitting of the sea?
On the face of it there is a simple answer to this question. It is known that the Song of Songs is thought to be an allegory about the relationship between God and Israel. The dove is the beloved, the people of Israel, and God is her spouse. Yet the answer is more complex than this. Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah (1,2:1) presents a fundamental disagreement over the interpretation of the Song of Songs:
"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" – where is it said?
Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa said, this was said at the sea, for it is written, "[I have compared you]…to a mare of Pharaoh's chariots."
Rabbi Yochanan said: this was said at Sinai, for it is written, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth."
Rabbi Meir said: this was said at the Tent of Meeting, and brings proof from the verse, "Awake, O north wind, and come O south wind …"
The rabbis said: this was said at the temple, and they bring proof from the same verse, "Awake, O north wind…"
The splitting of the Red Sea was an event at which Israel experienced a direct revelation of God. Their witnessing of God was so sweeping and so imposing that the Sages declared, "the merest handmaiden at the Sea saw what Isaiah and Ezekiel never saw;" (Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shira, Parasha 3). "a tot on its mother's knees and a babe suckling at its mother's breast even a fetus in its mother's womb" witnessed the Shechina." (Tosefta Sotah, סוטה ו ה"ד).
At this uplifting moment, they broke into song. According to the "it was said at the sea" approach, Israel sang not only the Song of the Sea but also the Song of Songs. The verses of the latter take on a holy dimension and are presented as words of the prophecy, an expression of the experience of witnessing God face to face. The Song of Songs enhances the Splitting of the Sea with its ambiance of a longed-for encounter between a pair of lovers.
The custom of reading the Song of Songs on Passover thus renews that lofty religious experience of seeing God face to face, and expresses our fervent desire that God's love and concern for us will abide forever.
Rabbeinu Bahya, Shemot 2:23:1-2
Even though the time of the redemption had arrived, they weren't worthy of being redeemed. However, once they all cried out in unison from the work that they were undergoing, their tefillos were accepted… This is to teach you that the Tefillah of a person is only complete when one cries out from the pain and stress that are contained within one's heart. This type of Tefillah is more accepted by Hashem then mere lip service... It is possible to say that this Parsha is a hint to our future redemption which depends on returning to G-d and prayer. For we find that in Egypt they were redeemed because they returned to G-d and prayed to G-d who responds in time of distress and their prayers were accepted; then the Redeemer came to them immediately."
Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman zt"l, wrote in a letter: "Several times I heard from the holy Chofetz Chayim, that we can learn about the end of our exile from what happened at the end of our exile in Egypt
How? The posuk[ says, "It happened during those many days, that the king of Egypt died and the Children of Israel groaned because of the work and they cried out. Their cry for help from the oppression rose up to G-d."
תניא רבי סימאי אומר נאמר ולקחתי אתכם לי לעם ונאמר והבאתי אתכם מקיש יציאתן ממצרים לביאתן לארץ מה ביאתן לארץ שנים מס' ריבוא אף יציאתן ממצרים שנים מס' ריבוא אמר רבא וכן לימות המשיח שנא' וענתה שמה כימי נעוריה וכיום עלותה מארץ מצרים
It has been taught: R. Simai said: It says, And I will take you to me for a people,' and it is also said, And I will bring you in [unto the land, etc.]. Their exodus from Egypt is thus likened to their entry into the [promised] land: just as at their entry into the [promised] land there were but two out of six hundred thousand, so at their exodus from Egypt there were but two out of six hundred thousand. Raba said: It shall be even so in the days of the Messiah, for it is said, And she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the days when she came up out of the land of Egypt.
Since we are G-d's wife, we can appreciate a good wife
A Good Wife, Who Can Find?
Sam is enjoying his 80th birthday party with family and friends. Even Rabbi Landau is present. Sam is so happy that he decides now is the time to let out his secret and to everybody's surprise, announces his forthcoming marriage to 50-year-old Hetty.
Everyone comes up to wish them mazel tov. Later, Rabbi Landau takes Sam aside and says, "Don't be offended, but I must ask you a few questions. Do you really love Hetty?"
"To tell you the truth, Rabbi, I'm not sure," Sam replies.
"Well, is she a good cook? Is her chicken soup special?" asks Rabbi Landau.
"I'm not sure, I've never seen her in the kitchen, Rabbi," Sam replies.
"Is Hetty rich?" he asks.
"I'm not sure about her finances, we've never discussed money," replies Sam.
"But if you don't know whether you love her, if you're not sure whether she's a good cook, or if you don't know whether she's rich, why on earth do you want to marry her?" asks Rabbi Landau.
"She can drive at night," replies Sam.
Passover Message from 2020 Genesis Prize Laureate Natan Sharansky
How to Contend with the Coronavirus Crisis: A Jewish View
As deadly as the coronavirus has thus far proven to be, it does not even remotely approach other outbreaks.By MICHAEL FREUND APRIL 6, 2020
As we hunker down in our homes, sequestered from society and gripped by uncertainty about what the future may hold, it is tempting to succumb to the notion that the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything mankind has ever known, an idea that only further exacerbates the situation.
But such thinking is not only feckless and unhelpful, it is also patently untrue. And while the coronavirus has indeed taken a devastating toll in human life and agony, it is important to view things in the proper historical perspective, if only because doing so may help to alleviate, even somewhat, the anxiety that many people feel.
No less crucial is the fact that by casting a glance backward, we can see that there is much to be learned and even an element of reassurance to be derived from how our ancestors contended with far graver epidemics.
But first let us assess the cold, harsh facts.
It is undeniable that the annals of mankind are filled with countless examples of contagion and pestilence.
Among the most infamous is the Black Death of the 14th century, which halved the population of Europe.
In the Great Plague of London in 1665-6, nearly a quarter of the city's population perished, while the Third Plague Pandemic, which struck beginning in 1855, led to more than 1 million deaths in China and over 10 million in India.
Sadly, there are numerous other instances as well.
But we should not lose sight of how fortunate we are to live in an age where medicine, science and public health are more advanced than ever, providing us with policy tools and solutions that previous generations could not have imagined.
Indeed, as deadly as the coronavirus has thus far proven to be, both in absolute numbers and in percentage terms it does not even remotely approach the outbreaks mentioned above.
That may seem like small comfort, but when compared to living in medieval Europe while the bubonic plague swept the continent, our overall situation is significantly more encouraging.
Consider the following. Among the "cures" that were tried to stem the Black Death, medieval medical practitioners would engage in blood-letting, where they intentionally cut a vein to drain "hot blood" from the body, or instruct those stricken with the disease to sit in the sewer in the hopes that doing so would drive away one's symptoms.
We have thankfully come a long way since then.
In terms of the Jewish approach to contagion, it is instructive to see how prescient our tradition was with regard to ways with which to grapple with infectious disease.
In Bava Kamma 60a, the Talmud says, based on a verse in Isaiah, "Our Sages taught: If there is plague in the city, gather your feet", meaning that you must limit the time you spend outside your home, "as it is stated in the verse: 'And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning.'" This is further elucidated to mean complete, round-the-clock seclusion until the danger has passed.
As if to underline the importance of self-quarantine, the Talmud goes on to note that the sage Rava would close the windows of his home during an epidemic.
Similarly, in Tractate Ketubot 77b, while discussing an infectious skin disease known as ra'atan, the Talmud states that, "Rabbi Zeira would not sit in a spot where the wind blew from the direction of someone afflicted with ra'atan," which clearly indicates the need to be careful around those who have contracted the disease.
It further states that, "Rabbi Elazar would not enter the tent of one afflicted with ra'atan", suggesting the need for social distancing, "and Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi would not eat eggs from an alley in which someone afflicted with ra'atan lived", possibly out of fear that the illness could survive on surfaces for a period of time.
More recently, in 1831, when a cholera epidemic struck Poland, Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher of the community of Pleszew wrote to his teacher, the famed Rabbi Akiva Eiger, who was the spiritual leader of Poznan's Jews, asking him what to do.
Rabbi Eiger, who is best known for his glosses and commentaries on the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), answered with a series of directives that included imposing strict limits on the size of public gatherings such as prayer services, urging people to stay clean and maintain proper hygiene, and asking the police to enforce the necessary restrictions on the public.
To say that many of the recommendations adopted by Israel's Health Ministry in recent weeks echo those espoused by Jewish tradition would be an understatement.
But no less crucial, particularly now as we find ourselves confined to our homes for prolonged periods of time, is to ensure that we maintain our mental fortitude and refuse to give in to despair.
"Do not worry, and stay away from all forms of sadness," Rabbi Eiger advised, and his words are equally relevant to our current situation.
A simple yet profound tip as to how to do just that, and make the most of our social isolation, beyond just catching up on Netflix and sharing funny internet memes, is one that dates back more than 2,500 years, when the prophet Isaiah (26:20) wrote, "Go, my people, enter into your rooms and close your doors about you; hide for a moment, until the wrath passes".
In one of his explanations of the verse, the great medieval commentator Rashi, quoting Rabbi Tanhuma, explains, "Think about your deeds, in the chambers of your heart".
So rather than just staring at the four walls all day and bemoaning the world's fate, we should all strive to keep things in perspective and utilize to the fullest the time that we now have whether for personal introspection and improvement or for reaching out and helping others.
That, in a nutshell, is how Jews have always responded to crisis and, in this respect, corona must be no different.
The writer is founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.
The Cairo Genizah And Anwar Sadat By Saul Jay Singer
The Ben Ezra Synagogue in the Coptic section of Old Cairo, one of the only surviving remnants of the once glorious Jewish Egyptian community, stands on the place where, according to local legend, Pharaoh's daughter retrieved baby Moses from the bulrushes along the Nile River.
There are many other legends associated with the synagogue, including one that identifies it as the site where Jeremiah gathered the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple when they were expelled from Jerusalem. The synagogue is most famous, however, for its genizah, an enormous storeroom containing material mostly from the 10th-13th centuries. Long-abandoned and discovered only in the 19th century, it contained hundreds of thousands of sacred and secular manuscripts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-Arabic.
Its contents included works of momentous theological significance, such as an original 2nd century copy of the Hebrew proverbs of Ben Sira; a 10th century vellum copy of Saadia Gaon's Torah translation into Arabic; handwritten documents by Yehuda Ha-Levi, R. Yosef Karo, and R. Isaac Luria; and the world's two oldest haggadot.
Original AP newspaper photo, June 24, 1992: "Workers outside the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Babylon, Old Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian Antiquities Organization has been restoring Egypt's oldest synagogue for 10 years with money from the World Jewish Conference [sic]."Other documents ranged from the conventional and ordinary, such as the doodling of a child learning the Hebrew alphabet, miscellaneous business invoices, and mundane correspondence; to blasphemous manuscripts and works of magic and superstition; to marriage contracts and prenuptial provisions.
Fortunately for us, rather than burying their sheimos (documents and works containing G-d's name) and other materials, the Jews of the Ben Ezra community, for some unknown and inexplicable reason, stored the material in a literal hole in the wall where the arid Egyptian air facilitated their preservation for many centuries.
This unparalleled archive, a veritable treasure of historically important Judaica, constitutes a unique window into all aspects of Jewish life at the time, including the religious, commercial, political, social, and cultural life of the Jewish community; its internal connections and communications; and its relationships with broader Christian and Muslim societies.
After Alexander the Great's conquests, Jewish communities extended through the Greek world, and many Jews settled in coastal cities such as Alexandria as part of the Pharaohs' great colonization effort. By the dawn of the Roman era, Egypt had perhaps the largest Jewish population in the world, but the relatively decent relationship between Egyptian Jews and Rome ended with the 2nd century Bar Kochba revolts against Trajan and Hadrian in Eretz Yisrael after the destruction of the Second Temple.
Jewish life in Egypt improved dramatically, however, under Islamic rule; from the 10th through 12th centuries, a huge Islamic empire extended through the Middle East and North Africa, and some 90 percent of the world's Jews lived in its territory.
Although some documents from what became known as the Cairo Genizah contain gruesome details of Jewish persecutions through the centuries, including eyewitness accounts of the horrors of the First Crusades, other material upended centuries of prevailing historical theories regarding the mistreatment of Jews and the harsh restrictions placed upon them by their Islamic masters.
These records demonstrate that Islamic rulers promoted Jewish self-governance and that Jews were not only tolerated but, to a large extent, integrated into Egyptian social and commercial life. Cairo became the capitol of the Fatimid Caliphate, a dynasty that ruled from 909-1171, with a large Jewish population settling there.
Jews, though subject to Islamic law, were allowed to erect synagogues. The date of the founding of the Ben Ezra Synagogue cannot be determined, though records from the Genizah suggests that it may predate 882, when the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria sold a church and its grounds to Abraham ben Ezra, a Jewish native of Jerusalem. (The synagogue was not named for the purchaser but, rather, for Ezra the Scribe of Biblical antiquity.)
Nineteenth-century scholars assumed that this transaction was the origin of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, but contemporary researchers argue that this assumption is likely false given that the purchasers of the church were disciples of Babylonian Talmudical academies while the Ben Ezra congregation followed the rival Jerusalem academies.
In about 1012, when Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of all Jewish (and Christian) places of worship, the original Ben Ezra Synagogue was torn down. Based upon studies of an incredible carved wooden Torah ark door known to belong to the synagogue (which is now jointly owned by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Yeshiva University Museum in New York and well worth seeing in person), it is estimated that the Ben Ezra was rebuilt in approximately 1030, when caliph Ali az-Zahir sanctioned reconstruction of synagogues and churches.
In 1168, the Islamic vizier Shawar ordered the burning of the city of Fustat, the original Arab-Muslim capital in Egypt and now part of Cairo, to prevent it from being conquered by the invading Christian Crusader army. This order included the deliberate burning of the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
The year 1168 in Fustat is also important for another reason: It is the year the Rambam (Maimonides), one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and commentators, established residence in Fustat, only a short walk from the Ben Ezra Synagogue, where he lived for 36 years until his death in 1204.
There is evidence that the Rambam lived in Fustat for the very purpose of gaining access to the vast assemblage of writings in the Genizah. However, though he served as Nagid, or leader, of the Egyptian community, as a follower of the Babylonian Talmud he was not a member of the Ben Ezra synagogue. Nonetheless, some of the most important documents found in the Genizah include portions of his Mishneh Torah, a draft of Moreh Nevuchim (Guide to the Perplexed), correspondence in his own handwriting, and missives discussing his life and work, all of which constitutes the primary source for much of what we know about him today.
Because Jews were generally secure under Egyptian rulers during the Middle ages, Cairo became one of the biggest centers of Jewish life and a leading storehouse for Jewish knowledge, much of which found its way to the Cairo Genizah.
After accumulating documents for five centuries, the Genizah documents inexplicably became forgotten during the Ottoman period until the late 19th century, when Romanian Rabbi Jacob Saphir (1822-85) became the first person in centuries to appreciate the significance of the Genizah, which he described in an 1874 book.
During the rebuilding of the synagogue (1889-92), an enormous pile of Genizah documents were left outside in the open, during which time Egyptologist Count Riamo d'Hulst studied some of them. In December 1896, Solomon Schechter – a scholar, educator, Conservative theologian, and president of the Jewish Theological Society of America – undertook the first in-depth, contemporary academic investigation of the Genizah documents before arranging to have them sent to various university libraries, where they are still studied today.
Prior to 1948, Egypt was home to some 75,000 Jews, but the Egyptian government expelled most of them in the aftermath of Israel's birth so that, at most, 100 mostly elderly Jews remain in Egypt today and less than a minyan reside in Cairo. Although the Ben Ezra Synagogue no longer functions as a congregation, it is a Historic Cairo UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains the most visited Jewish site in Egypt – although one could argue that the pyramids, which we all know were built by Jewish slave labor, are actually Egypt's top Jewish site.
Surprisingly, one person who was very much concerned about the preservation of the Ben Ezra Synagogue was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat (1918-81), who succeeded President Gamal Abdel Nasser upon his death in 1970, is celebrated for being the first Arab leader to visit Israel (November 1977); for going on to sign the Camp David Accords (1978); and for making peace with Israel, which led to both his being awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize and his assassination by radical Islamists.
In this October 11, 1980 correspondence written from Cairo on his presidential letterhead a year before his murder, Sadat writes about the development of what he calls "the Compound of Religions in Sinai," which is actually the Cairo Multi-Religious Compound containing the holy sites of all three Abrahamic religions, including the Coptic Christian Hanging Church, which dates from the third century; Amr Ibn Al'As Mosque, the first mosque in Egypt; and the Ben Ezra Synagogue:
It is with a deep sense of recognition that I have received your kind message together with the (3) dollar cheque you were good enough to send me as a contribution on your part to establishing the Compound of Religions in Sinai.
It delights me very much, on this occasion, to hail your humanitarian feelings and noble sentiments as well as your highly appreciated keenness to support this project which will help deepening the correct understanding of the Heavenly Messages and serving the principles of justice, fraternity and peace.
Thanking you once again for that kind gesture on your part, I wish you the best of health, happiness and success.
The structural integrity of what is known as Historic Cairo, the site of the Multi-Religious Compound and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, has historically faced many challenges – some natural, such as earthquakes and salty groundwater seepage, and some preventable, including environmental pollution, high population density and, in particular, a history of poor maintenance and governmental neglect.
Some substantive conservation efforts were undertaken in the late 19th century, but the 1952 Egyptian revolution slowed such efforts to a virtual halt. In the wake of the Six-Day War (1967), the Ben Ezra Synagogue was abandoned but, ironically, it was this very abandonment that led to an increased awareness of the importance of preserving Egypt's heritage, which became even more pronounced when foreign embassies moved into the area and rejuvenated life there.
Since the 1960s, the synagogue had been in structural decline due to, among other things, foundational damage caused by rainwater seepage, groundwater, and soluble salts. It was in this environment, particularly after Historic Cairo was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, that Egypt undertook to establish and sustain the Compound of Religions. As our letter demonstrates, this endeavor was strongly supported by President Sadat; it is not often that a head of state writes a personal note to thank a donor for a three-dollar contribution!
It was Sadat's initiative that led to the first serious discussions about restoring the Ben Ezra Synagogue. After the Camp David Peace Accords were signed in September 1978, a meeting between Philip Klutznick, president of the World Jewish Congress (and later President Carter's Secretary of Commerce) and the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs led to an agreement pursuant to which the WJC undertook to finance a project to further the spirit of Camp David, which became a plan to repair and renovate the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
Years after the commencement of the restoration effort, the synagogue held a reopening ceremony in March 2010 that was attended by Israel's Ambassador to Egypt. However, because the celebration included a traditional "L'Chaim" – i.e., the drinking of alcohol – Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities canceled the synagogue's official unveiling, which was scheduled to take place a week later.
This year, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi announced that it would allocate $71 million to restore Jewish holy sites in Egypt, but, after a mass public furor, the Egyptian Antiquities Authority qualified its statement, declaring that the money would be spent on restoring the three holy sites in the Multi-Religious Compound of Historic Cairo. Nonetheless, much of the Egyptian public, focusing on the Ben Ezra Synagogue, protested that the project should be paid for by wealthy foreign Jews rather than penurious Egyptians.