8 Things You Need to Know About… Benjamin de Tudela

Medieval Jewish traveler extraordinaire

1. Benjamin de Tudela visited Europe, Asia and Africa in the 12th century, writing vivid descriptions everywhere –  including his account of western Asia a hundred years before Marco Polo.

2. He was from the Navarrese town of Tudela in what is now Spain, where a street in the former Jewish quarter is named for him. Little is known of his early life, but it is clear that he gained a broad proficiency in languages.

3. His Travels of Tudela, also known as the Book of Travels, describes the Jewish communities of his day. It is considered a reliable source of information about the geography and ethnography of his time and is consulted for information about daily life.

4. His work, written in Hebrew, was translated into Latin and then other European languages. From the  Renaissance to the present, it has been a key primary source for scholars of medieval history.

travels of Tudela5. He started his travels sometime between 1159 and 1165 and ended around 1172 or ’73. Starting from the Iberian Peninsula, he went to France, Italy, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Lebanon, the Land of Israel, northern Mesopotamia, Persia (Iraq and Iran), Arabia, Egypt and Northern Africa. Wherever he visited, he gave the demographic count of Jews, the names of their community leaders, their occupations and the activity of their merchants. Want to know about the intellectual life of Jewish Provence or the organization of synagogues in Egypt? Tudela is your man.

6. In all he visited over 300 cities, describing their landmarks, buildings, marketplaces and the customs of their citizens, both Jewish and gentile. He gives one of the earliest accurate accounts of the ancient site of Nineveh – near modern Mosul.

7. His style was concise and easy. Want to read it for yourself? You can do so online at Project Gutenberg. His work is still available in many languages: it’s a gold mine of information for Jewish and general history.

8. The 19th century writer Mendele Mocher Sforim wrote a kind of Jewish Don Quixote with a title inspired by Benjamin de Tudela – The Travels [or Wanderings] of Benjamin III.

Jerusalem TudelaLook for Binyamin miTudela Street in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, just south of Magnes Circle.



Author’s note: OOPS! My brain was on summer vacation last week – post written, but not properly scheduled. My apologies.

10 Things You Need to Know About…Hanna Senesh

National heroine

1. Hanna Senesh (Szenes) was born in Budapest in July 1921 to a wealthy, distinguished, assimilated family. Her father was a well-known writer.

2. She, too, wished to write and, starting at age thirteen, kept a diary. She had a modern Hungarian education, but became attracted to Zionism when, in high school, she came into contact with anti-Semites.

Szenes-Hannah-23. In 1939, she went to study agriculture in Palestine. At the end of the two-year course, she joined a kibbutz at Caesarea. Working there in the kitchen and the laundry, she was less than satisfied, as reflected in her diary. During this time, she wrote poetry and a play about kibbutz life.

4. In 1943, the Jewish agency approached her about a clandestine military operation to offer aid to European Jewry. Her Hungarian background made her perfect for the project.

5. She joined the Palmach, studying first to be a wireless operator and then a paratrooper.

senesh parachuting6. In March 1944, she was dropped into Yugoslavia – one of more than thirty Jews parachuted in by the British Army to establish contact with Hungarian partisans and to aid the beleaguered Jewish populations. She crossed into Hungary in June, her entry delayed by the German invasion. Within hours, she was picked up by the Hungarian police, imprisoned in Budapest and tortured. Most of her fellow parachutists also were captured within days; only one managed to survive the war.

7. Her mother was arrested and brought to the same prison in an attempt to break her. To no avail: she would not give up the wireless codes that her enemy wanted. In November 1944 she was tried for treason and sentenced to death. Age twenty-three, she faced her firing squad.

szenes8. Her mother survived the war, and it was through her mother that her diaries were brought to public attention. In 1950, her remains were transferred to Israel and buried in the parachutists’ section on Mount Herzl. That same year, Kibbutz Yad Hannah was established, named in her memory.

9. In 1993, a Hungarian military court officially exonerated her.

Hanna S10. Here are four samples of her writing; some you may have seen set to music (please forgive the spacing in the poetry):

There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.


In my life’s chain of events nothing was accidental. Everything happened according to an inner need.


My God, my God, I pray that these things never end

The sand and the sea,

The rustle of the waters,

Lightning of the Heavens,

The prayers of Man.


Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its breath for honor’s sake

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.


In Haifa, you’ll find Hanna Senesh Street south of the Municipal Theatre, running parallel to Sederot Wingate.



12 Things You Need to Know About…Shay Agnon

0630i2-preview.pngNobel Prize-winning author

1. Shmuel Yosef “Shai” Agnon was born Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes in a shtetl in Galicia, Austia-Hungary (now Ukraine) in 1888. His father, who worked in the fur trade, was a rabbi who aligned himself with the Chasidim; his mother came from a family of Mitnagdim, who opposed the Chasidic movement.

2. After early education in a cheder, he was schooled at home by his parents. From a young age, he wrote poems and stories in Hebrew and Yiddish. He learned German from his mother and read widely. For much of the rest of his life, he was an observant Jew.

3. In 1908 he left Europe and settled in Jaffa. That same year, he published the story “Agunot” (“Forsaken Wives”) using the surname Agnon, which he was ultimately to adopt officially (1924) – wouldn’t you, if you had his last name?

4. He moved to Germany in 1913, where he met Zalman Schocken, who took him under his wing, becoming his patron and supporting him so that he could write. He married there in 1920.

5. He collaborated with Martin Buber on a collection of Chasidic stories. His prose works were published regularly in Haaretz, in the weekly journal of Hapoel Hatsair and abroad. In 1924, his personal library in Germany burned down. Later that same year, he returned to Palestine, settling in Jerusalem. In 1929, his library was again destroyed by fire, this time in an anti-Jewish riot.

6. His place in Hebrew literature was assured when, in 1931, the Schocken publishing house published his novel The Bridal Canopy (Ha225px-Agnonchnasat Kalla) to great critical acclaim.

7. His work reflects the conflict between traditional Jewish life and language, and the modern world – on being of both worlds, but belonging fully to neither. The shtetl landscape is the background for many of his stories (notably A Simple Story); others focus on the Zionist movement and contain historical figures (notably Only Yesterday). He said his inspiration came “first and foremost [from] the sacred scriptures, and after that, the teachings of the medieval sages, and the spectacles of nature and animals of the earth.” At another time, he claimed that his primary influences were the Bible, German literature and European literature in general.

8. He employs a unique idiom, rife with terms from the traditional literature in favor of terms from modern Hebrew; critics have found in his language references to the Torah, Prophets, Mishnah, midrashic and rabbinic literature. The work is a challenge to translate, because it is full of allusions, wordplay, acrostic and anagrams. Nonetheless, he has been translated into no less than eighteen languages. He brought to literature a broadened conception of the narrator’s role.

9. These are his major works: The Bridal Canopy (1931), In the Heart of the Seas (1933), A Simple Story (1935), A Guest for the Night (1938), Betrothed (1943), Only Yesterday (1945), Edo and Enam (1950), To This Day (1952). After his death, his daughter continued to publish his work posthumously: Shira (1971), A City and the Fullness Thereof (1973), In Mr. Lublin’s Store (1974). In addition there are several collections of short stories and an edition of folk tales and rabbinic texts that he edited.

200px-50_NIS_Bill_Obverse_&_Reverse10. Agnon has had enormous influence on later writers, both in Israel and beyond. I, myself, used his work as source material for my novel Rivka’s War, to gather a sense of the daily life of pioneers in Eretz Yisrael. He won the Bialik Prize twice, and the Israel Prize twice, and in 1966 was awarded a Nobel Prize “for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people.” His likeness, his works, and an excerpt from his Nobel acceptance speech are printed on the Israeli fifty-shekel bill. So great was his fame that in his later years the city police closed off his street to cars so that the noise would not disturb his writing!

11. His home, built 1931 in the Bauhaus style in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem, is now a museum, Beit Agnon. The synagogue in that area is named for him, as is a Jewish school in Ohio.

12. When he died in Israel in February 1970, a state funeral was held on the Mount of Olives.

In Jerusalem, Shay Agnon Street is the main drag in Givat HaPorezim. In Haifa, you’ll find Shay Agnon Street running parallel to Derech Stella Maris and Derech Allenby, between the two.



10 Things You Need to Know About… Joseph Vitkin

Educator and influential labor pioneer

1. Joseph Vitkin was born in 1876 in Byelorussia and made aliyah in 1897 at the age of 21. At first he worked as a laborer, but soon, being well-educated, became a teacher in Gedera.

2. As an educator, he promoted a love of Jewish values and an appreciation of the landscape of Eretz Yisrael. He became headmaster of the Gedera school and then headmaster at Rishon leZion, where, except for a brief hiatus at Kfar Tavor, he remained for most of his life.

3. He has been called the precursor to the Second Aliyah, partly because of the time at which he emigrated, but primarily because he so effectively promoted the pioneering movement in Eretz Yisrael.

4. In 1905, he wrote and distributed a pamphlet, “A Call to the Youth of Israel whose Hearts are with their People and with Zion.” It was written in Hebrew and signed, “A Group of Young People from Eretz Yisrael.” His words made a moving appeal that greatly influenced idealistic Jewish youth in Russia.

5. The pamphlet encouraged aliyah based on manual agricultural labor in the Jewish national homeland. Vitkin did not shrink from pointing out the immense physical difficulties facing would-be pioneers; sacrifice would be necessary, but he forecast that with patience and commitment would come success.

Vitkin“Now, dear brothers, listen to the voice appealing to you from the mountain peaks of Israel: Awake! Awake! Jewish youth, come to the aid of the people…. You are needed by the people and the Land, as air is needed for breathing.”


6. His pamphlet laid out the principles of the labor movement of the Second Aliyah. Vitkin was active in the founding of HaPoel HaTzair, the Young Workers Party, in 1905.

7. He was one of those who supported the campaign to have Jewish farm owners employ Jewish laborers exclusively, rather than using Arab labor; and he advocated the formation of new Jewish agricultural settlements.

8. The land he saw as the possession of the whole people, to be won through hard work and sacrifice – an “agricultural conquest” of Eretz Yisrael through Jewish settlement.

9. In 1907, he contracted throat cancer and went for medical treatment in Vienna. Six months later, he was sent by Hovevi Zion to Russia to promote emigration. He returned to Rishon LeZion in 1907. In May 1911, suffering from acute cancer, he returned to Vienna, but to no avail. He died in Tel Aviv in 1912 at the age of 36.

10. Kfar Vitkin and many streets in Israel have been named for him. Kfar Vitkin, founded in 1930, was the first settlement on the Hefer Plain and was to become, in the 1940s, the largest moshav in the land. An interesting historical note: it was at Kfar Vitkin that the Irgun arms ship “Altalena” was intended to unload its cargo of 5000 rifles and other weapons in June 1948.

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Vitkin Street running parallel to HaYarkon and Ben Yehuda, just north of Arlosoroff.

Kfar Vitkin is on the coast about midway between Netanya and Hadera.



10 Things You Need to Know About… David Wolffsohn

Zionist leader

1. He was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1856 to a financially struggling family. His father was a Talmudic scholar, and he had a traditional Jewish education.

2. In 1872, he was sent to East Prussia, where his brother lived, in order to avoid conscription in the Russian army. He continued his Jewish studies with Rabbi Isaac Ruif, also learning German and mathematics. Later, he met David Gordon, editor of HaMaggid. Both men influenced his commitment to Jewish nationhood, which had begun with his father.

3. After a number of failed business attempts, Wolffsohn became successful in the timber trade and settled in Cologne. In 1894, with Zionist Max Bodenheimer, he founded the Association for the Development of Agriculture in Israel,  a German branch of Hovevei Zion.

4. In 1896, having read and been transfixed by Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, Wolffsohn sought out Herzl in Vienna. They soon became fast friends. Wolffsohn was a loyal friend and a diplomatic one, standing by Herzl even when he disagreed with him. With his unassuming nature, he mediated between the political and the practical Zionists (explained below), and he stood by Herzl in the Uganda crisis while generally soothing ruffled feathers. The character of David Littwak in Herzl’s Altneuland is said to be based on Wolffsohn.

"Ever since I learned to think and feel, I was a Zionist."

“Ever since I learned to think and feel, I was a Zionist.”

5. As the moving spirit behind, and first president of, The Jewish Colonial Trust, Wolffsohn ensured its solvency. He became the director of all the financial and economic institutions of the Zionist movement, serving in this capacity until his death.

6. In 1898, he accompanied Herzl to London, Constantinople and Palestine. He was present during the audience with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, taking photographs that unfortunately did not come out (haven’t we all, at some important moment?).

7. When Herzl suggested seven gold stars on a white background for the Jewish national flag, Wolffsohn lifted his tallit and said, in effect, why re-invent the wheel? We have our flag right here. Thus was conceived the banner with a white field, two blue stripes near the margins, and a six-pointed Star of David in the center. Wolffsohn also introduced the shekel for the payment of Zionist members’ dues.

8. In 1907, after Herzl’s death, Wolffsohn was appointed leader of the World Zionist Organization, its second president. He took a typically moderate stance on the issues roiling up between the practical and political Zionists, all the while maintaining that all WZO programs were being carried out according to Herzl’s plans. The main issue between the political and practical Zionists was this: the political Zionists remained faithful to Herzl’s view that a charter of some kind was necessary prior to organized settlement in Palestine, while the practical Zionists (many of them from Russia, where conditions for Jews were dire) emphasized immediate local activity in Palestine.

9. Wolffsohn carried on with political efforts while allowing practical colonization. Under his watch, an office was opened in Jaffa to foster agricultural settlement; a JNF loan was granted to the founders of Ahuzat Bayit, the settlement that was to become Tel Aviv; the WZO’s official newspaper, HaOlam, was founded; and Wolffsohn traveled widely – to South Africa, Turkey, Russia, Hungary – in furtherance of Zionist efforts.

10. In failing health, he resigned leadership of the WZO in 1911, though he continued as financial director until his death in Hamburg in 1914. His estate provided the means for the National and University Library to be built in Jerusalem. In 1952, his remains were brought to Israel and buried on Mount Herzl.

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Wolffsohn Street just west of the Central Bus Station.



10 Things You Need to Know About… L. L. Zamenhof

Creator of Esperanto

esperanto4“I was taught that all men were brothers, and meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and so on.”


1. Eliezer Zamenhof (also called Leyzer Levi Zamenhov and Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof) was born in December 1859 in Bialystok. His father was a teacher of German. He grew up speaking Russian, Polish and Yiddish and later learned French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and English.

2. As a young man, he conceived the notion that ethnic and national hatreds had a linguistic basis, and that understanding among peoples could be achieved if they had a common, neutral communication tool. He began developing that tool while he was still in high school.

3. He studied medicine in Moscow and Warsaw and in 1886 established a practice as an ophthalmologist. But he had not forgotten his goal of promulgating an international language and spent the better part of two years trying to raise funds to publish a forty-page booklet describing his “lingvo internacia.”

4. Finally, with the help of his father-in-law, his International Language was published in Russian under the pseudonym “Dr. Esperanto,” which, in his constructed language, meant Doctor Hopeful.

5. The first magazine in what came to be called Esperanto came out in Germany in 1889. A formal organization was formed in the 1890s, and the first international congress was held in Boulogne in 1905. It was not a ringing success, as the French Esperantists were put off by Zamenhof’s religious enthusiasm (see below). In 1908, the Universal Esperanto Association was founded in Rotterdam.

6. Zamenhof continued to write dictionaries, texts and translations in Esperanto, including the Old Testament. Some of his works can be found today at Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org).

7. His linguistic efforts extended to Yiddish. In 1879 he wrote the first grammar of the Yiddish language, later translating it into Russia and Esperanto.

Unknown-18. After the Russian pogroms of 1882, Zamenhof joined the early Zionist movement, but left it only five years later. In 1901, in an essay on what he called Hillelism, he argued against nationalism of any sort. He wanted Judaism reconstructed on an ethical basis, advocating for people of all religions to reject national, racial and religious chauvinism. Jews, he argued, should give up Hebrew, which was “cadaverous,” and Yiddish, which was “a jargon;” instead, they should adopt Esperanto and practice a theosophical faith based on cultural Judaism. In 1906, the name Hillelism was changed to Homaranismo (Humanitarianism), which he described as a “philosophically pure” monotheism, a universal ethical order.

9. He died in Warsaw in April 1917 and is buried there in the Jewish Cemetery at Okopowa Street. Hundreds of streets, parks and bridges worldwide have been named in his memory – in Lithuania, England, France, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Belgium and Brazil. There is a Zamenhof Island in the Danube River and a minor planet, Zamenhof 1462, among the stars. A genus of lichen has been named for him. And he is honored as a deity by the followers of Oomoto, a Shinto sect.

10. Esperanto is still in use today by an estimated minimum of 100,000 people, and perhaps as many as two million. It has its own flag, and its online learning platform receives upwards of 200,00 hits a month. If you noodle around online, you will find jokes in Esperanto, tongue-twisters in Esperanto….

UnknownIn Tel Aviv, you’ll find Zamenhof Street running east off Kikkar Zina and crossing King George Street.

8 Things You Need to Know About… Micha Joseph Berdichevsky

Journalist and scholar

1. He was born Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, August 1865, in the Ukraine and into a family of Chasidic rabbis. His father was the rabbi in a town of impoverished Jews. He was to grow up to speak for a generation that was trying to navigate the rocky straits between traditionalism and modernism.

2. An early prodigy in Talmud, he began reading mystical writings and other materials that brought him into conflict with his teachers. He was married while still in his teens to the daughter of a wealthy, pious merchant. But when his father-in-law discovered that he’d been reading works of the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), Berdichevsky was forced to divorce his wife.

Berdichevski3. He ran away to Volozhin, to the yeshiva there, but again ran into difficulty because of his unorthodox reading. He was nineteen. A few years later, he published an article about these difficulties in the Hebrew language newspaper Hamelitz. The impassioned language he used – expressive of the conflict within him between tradition and assimilation – was to become a hallmark of his writing.

4. In 1890 he went to study in Germany and Switzerland, studying philosophy, notably the works of German philosophers, and earning a doctoral degree. His thought was deeply influenced by the works of Nietzsche and, to a lesser extent, Hegel. These were years of enormous productivity: between 1890 and 1900, Berdichevsky published ten books as well as articles and stories in Hebrew journals.

5. In 1900 he married and returned to his home in the Ukraine, where he was struck by the deterioration of traditional ways of life under the harsh conditions there. He returned to Germany in 1911 and lived there the rest of his life. The outpouring of stories, essays and novels continued, expressing always the ambivalence he felt between the wish to preserve Jewish tradition and the wish to live according to secular European culture. His aim, he said, was to repair the rent in the heart of the Jewish nation, making it possible to be both a Jew and a man in the modern world.

6. Berdichevsky’s essays included literary criticism and polemics against what he considered the dead weight of Jewish tradition, which he thought emphasized history over life. He spoke for a “rebellion of historically suppressed individualism.” Jews, he thought, had been detached from nature and physicality, their culture ossifying in exile. He hearkened back to ancient Israel – a time of political sovereignty and physical heroism – as a model; and he argued for a Hebrew literature that would become a means for Jews to retain their cultural and spiritual coherence while embracing the phenomena of modern life.

7. His fiction portrayed the difficulty of navigating a break from the immediate past while still continuing Jewish tradition. The characters in nearly all of his stories are either attempting to escape the weight of tradition or to survive within it, both with equally futile results.

8. In 1914, he began using the name Micha Yosef Bin-Gurion and continued to do so until his death in Berlin in 1921. In these later years, he devoted himself to collecting Jewish legends, myths and folktales, which he rewrote in a modern idiom, using a sparse, lyrical Hebrew, a kind of old-new tongue. This remarkable collection is perhaps, in the long run, his greatest contribution to Jewish literature.

 Berdichevsky“It is upon us to choose in ourselves that which is good and beautiful, that which is righteous and lasting. Free men are turned into slaves if they close the path before themselves, if we open our windows – freedom arrives from the distance.”

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Berdischevsky Street running eastward off the northern end of Rothschild Blvd., between Marmorek and Cremieux.

The moshav Sdot Micha, founded in 1955, was named for him, as well. It is located in central Israel near Beit Shemesh.

12 Things You Need to Know About… Moses Maimonides

Philosopher, scholar and physician

Author’s Note: Before we begin, please let me take a moment to commemorate this Shabbat as the 100th anniversary of the Bar Mitzvah of Mischa Lefkovits. Who, you ask? Okay, Mischa is a fictional character, brother of Rivka in my novel Rivka’s War. She is so affected by his reading of the Haftarah that she runs out into the snow and throws up her breakfast. To find out why, you’ll have to read the book. If you like Jewish history, you’ll enjoy Rivka’s War. If you know anyone else who likes history, think about recommending the book. Many thanks.

Statue in Cordoba

Statue in Cordoba

1. Mosheh ben Maimon, called Moses Maimonides – also known as the RaMBaM, from Rabbeinu Moshesh Ben Maimon (our rabbi Moses son of Maimon) and as haNesher haGadol (the great eagle) – was born in Cordoba in 1135. At an early age, he showed an interest in philosophy and the sciences; he studied Torah with his father. Because of the ill-treatment of Jews in Spain, the family moved frequently and eventually settled in Fez, Morocco, where he attended university and was trained in medicine. It was during this time (1166-68) that he wrote his commentary on the Mishneh.

2. He traveled to Eretz Yisrael and then settled in Festat, Egypt. He continued his studies in a yeshiva in Cairo. During this time, he helped raise money to rescue Jews held captive by the Crusaders. After financial reverses upon the death of his brother, he took up the practice of medicine, eventually serving as court physician to the Grand Vizier, and then to Sultan Saladin. Though he worked full days as a physician, he nonetheless also wrote trenchant treatises on medicine, on Jewish law and philosophy. About 1171, he was appointed Negid, or leader, of the Egyptian Jewish community.

3. His medical writing stressed moderation in daily life. He described a number of conditions that had not yet been adequately documented, including asthma, diabetes, hepatitis and pneumonia.

4. Of course, it is his writings in philosophy and Judaism that interest us most. His books and letters and responsa have become a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship.

Maimonides5. He is known for his adaptation of Aristotelian thought to Biblical studies and to faith. In this, he was influenced by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Central to his belief was the conviction that there could be no contradiction between the truths of revelation and the findings of science and philosophy.

6. His Mishneh Torah, a fourteen-volume codification of Jewish law and ethics, was a milestone then, and remains a touchstone today. Written in Hebrew (most of Maimonides’ works were in Arabic), it was the first full, systematic  commentary on the Mishneh. He propounded eight levels of giving charity; his thirteen principles of faith are rendered today in the hymn Yigdal.

7. He wrestled with definitions of God, of good and evil. Because of the impossibility of knowing God, he chose negative, rather than positive, terms; for example, rather than saying God is one, he said God is not a multiplicity. Evil, he believed, was the absence of good, which was created by God; evil exists, he said, wherever good is absent, and in the aggregate is but a small part of the world, when one considers all of creation.

8. His Guide for the Perplexed remains a great Jewish philosophical work, examining Aristotle in the context of Jewish theology. In all his works, he never wavered from the conviction that the path to perfection and immortality – resurrection would be incorporeal in the world to come – was the path of duty as prescribed in the Torah and Talmud.

9. Other works on Judaism include his Book of Commandments, on the 613 mitzvot; a Book of Martyrdom; a commentary of the Jerusalem Talmud, of which we have only a fragment; and possibly a Treatise on Logic, though the authorship of that is disputed. In addition, he published ten known medical works, including commentaries on the aphorisms of Hippocrates; a compilation of his own 1500 medical aphorisms, many describing illnesses; a treatise on hemorrhoids and their relation to food and digestion; a treatise on aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs; on asthma, on poisons and their antidotes, on seizures and on healthy living. He also compiled a glossary of drug names in six languages.

10. With such an output, it was inevitable that his works would cause controversy, especially as regards his ideas concerning the necessary agreement of reason with revelation, and concerning the resurrection of the dead in the world to come. These one would expect. But even his codification of the law met with opposition, some critics believing that it would halt the study of Talmud.

11. When he died in the year 1204, the Jews of Egypt observed three full days of mourning. It is said that his remains were taken to Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where the Tomb of Maimonides may be seen today.

12. This is my fifty-first post, and in all my attempts to distill the lives of great Jewish artists, writers, thinkers and statesmen, none has been as humbling as this one, leaving me feeling that I have not even scratched the surface. Best to say, with the voice of tradition, “From Moshe [of the Torah] to Moshe [Maimonides] there was none like Moshe.”

In Jerusalem, find Rambam Street running between the Knesset and the YMCA. Parallel to it runs Sderot Ben Maimon. In Tel Aviv, Rambam Street runs off Allenby to HaKarmel. In Haifa, it’s between Sderot Wingate and Leon Blum. There’s a Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and a Maimonides Medical Center in New York City; a Maimonides School in Massachusetts and a Maimonides Academy in Florida – and many more, no doubt. An Israeli stampMaimonides-URUGUAY honoring Maimonides was issued in 1953. In 2004, Uruguay issued a postage stamp honoring him.

10 Things You Need to Know About… Isaac Abravanel

Jewish statesman, philosopher and financier

1. First, a word about the Abravanel family, one of the oldest and most distinguished families of Iberia, tracing their origin back to King David. Don Judah Abravanel (1284-1312) was treasurer and tax collector to the court; Samuel of Seville, known for his wisdom and goodness, was royal treasurer (1388); the family fled to Portugal after having been forcibly converted to Christianity – and then returned to Judaism. His son, Judah, was the father of Isaac. He, too, was in financial service, to the Portuguese court.

Abravanel2. Don Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon in 1437. His scholarly promise showed early, as he studied Jewish philosophy and rabbinic literature. Not surprisingly, he had a superb understanding of financial matters, which caught the attention of the King of Portugal, who employed him as royal treasurer.

3. Wealthy in his own right and by virtue of his family, he was generous to the Jewish poor and spearheaded an effort to raise funds to free 250 Jews taken captive in Morocco. After their redemption, he supported them as they settled in a new place.

4. Upon the death of the Portuguese king, he was accused of conspiracy and had to flee to Toledo, leaving much of his fortune to be confiscated. Initially, he undertook Biblical studies there, in a scant six months producing extensive commentaries on the books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel. To each book he provided a general introduction and discussion of its date of composition and authorship – an innovation at the time.

Abravanel5. He entered the employ of the court of Castile, again dealing in financial matters and eventually lending the king money to pursue the Moorish war. All this did not prevent the banishment of the Jews from Spain in 1492, though Abravanel did his best to persuade the king otherwise by both arguments and bribery.

6. He went to Naples and entered the service of the king there, but then war forced him to go to Messina; from there he went to Corfu, then to Monopoli, and finally to Venice, where he lived the rest of his life, starting over again and rising again to wealth and prominence.

7. His philosophy dealt with science and its relation to Judaism. He was not a rationalist, not a Kabbalist, but knew both streams of thought, as well as midrash, which he quoted liberally. He believed that the Torah is a revelation from God, and therefore not subject to human science. Christian scholars readily took up his work because of its accessibility (more about that below) and its focus on Messianic ideas. Abravanel fiercely defended the Jewish idea of the coming of the Messiah.

8. It was a time of hopelessness and despair for Jews from the Iberian peninsula. Under this pressure, with the danger of their Judaism disappearing, Abravanel made his works accessible to the common reader. His introductions were an innovation; in them, he listed questions that he sought to answer in his commentary.  He compared the social structures in Biblical time with social and political conditions facing the Jews in his own time. This is perhaps his chief characteristic – the use of scripture to discuss contemporary Jewish problems.

abravanel stamp9. Also notable in his work was his knowledge of Christian theology and his discussion of Christian exegesis where it was relevant to his commentary.

10. He died in 1508. The Abravanel family has continued to produce scholars, physicians, writers and outstanding practitioners of the sciences and the arts up to the present.


Find Abravanel Street in Jerusalem between the Knesset and the YMCA, parallel to Rambam.

10 Things You Need to Know About… Chaim Tchernowitz AKA HaRav Zair

Author and Talmudic scholar

1. Chaim Tchernowitz was born in 1871 in Sebesh, Vitebsk in the Russian Empire. He studied in Lithuania with Isaac Elhanan Spektor and was ordained in 1896.

2. He aimed to rejuvenate Jewish learning by combining traditional study with modern research. He opened a yeshiva in Odessa in 1897 and later transformed it into a rabbinical seminary (1907). He believed that study was the center of Jewish life, as opposed to prayer, and the house of study as opposed to the synagogue. The seminary was attended by such later luminaries as Hayyim Nachman Bialik [see my post of May 22, 2013] and Joseph Klausner.

3. In 1914, he earned a Ph.D. in Judaica from the University of Wuerzburg. After WWI, in 1923, he settled in the United States and taught Talmud at the Jewish Institute of Religion, started by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in New York.

Unknown4. He started writing scholarly papers as early as 1898, when his first article appeared in HaShiloah. He wrote studies on the codes of law preceding Joseph Caro [see my post of October 2, 2013] and general articles on Talmud. His books were mainly methodological studies aimed at modernizing the teaching of Talmud. He wrote four volumes on the development of Halakhah from pre-Mosaic times until the Second Temple. Then he produced a further three volumes on post Talmudic thought through the medieval period.

5. He thus authored a comprehensive history of Jewish law. In a less scholarly vein, he wrote articles in Hebrew and Yiddsh concerning Zionism and contemporary Jewish issues.

6. His pen name, HaRav Zair, means “the young rabbi.”

books7. In 1940, he founded Bitzaron, a Hebrew monthly, which he edited until his death in 1949. Many of his essays of this period were later collected in book form. They included humorous autobiographical sketches, as well as articles on Mendele Mokher Seforim, Bialik, Ahad HaAm [see my post of April 24, 2013] and others.

8. A good portion of his work remains in print today. In addition, an archive of his correspondence and other writings may be found at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati.

27d280d5-613a-40bf-8270-963c3326e0389. Among his friends was Albert Einstein (shown at left, with Tchernowitz on the right), who praised his work in making Torah accessible.

10. His granddaughter said of him, “The Bible is not abstract religious text. The human beings whose stories make it up are inseparable from its meaning….Rav Zair was full of stories.”

In Tel Aviv, the street named for HaRav Zair runs north from Bene Moshe, parallel to Weizmann.