History of the Jews

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The deadly assault on a kosher supermarket in Paris on Friday confirmed the fears of many French Jews that anti-Semitism is a persistent and growing threat in France. Already, thousands of Jews have departed for Israel in the wake of shooting at a Jewish day school and an attack last year on the Jewish museum in Belgium. The history of the Jewish community in France has, in some ways, been shaped by anti-Semitism—but it is also shaped by the type of support that coalesced around the Jewish community over the weekend.

Today we saw France, and the France we saw was a spitting image of biblical descriptions of Jerusalem, where brothers unite. Within two years of the Revolution, France became the first country in modern Europe to grant Jews equal rights under the law, setting a precedent for France and a new standard for Europe as a whole. Proposing to put the question to the Jewish people, in Napoleon convened an assembly of important leaders in the Jewish community to clarify their political and religious loyalties.

A year later, religious leaders gathered for what was called the Great Sanhedrin, named after the Jewish high court in ancient Israel, to ratify the declarations of the assembly. Through this process, Napoleon effectively asked whether the allegiances of French Jews lay in the Jewish community or in the larger society, says Mandel. The assumption that Jews had become an integral part of French society was rocked in the late 19th century. In , Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was convicted of spying for Germany, spawning a decade-long scandal.

Dreyfus was eventually exonerated, but the period was marked by anti-Semitic riots and a vocal anti-Semitic press—as well as by equally vocal non-Jewish defenders of Dreyfus. Jews in France interpreted the Dreyfus Affair in different ways, according to Mandel. But for others, the scandal was proof that anti-Semitism was endemic to Europe. One of the people who felt that way was an Austro-Hungarian journalist reporting from Paris, Theodor Herzl—the man who would found the modern Zionist movement.

Even before the war, the influx of Jewish refugees and immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe had sparked an anti-Semitic backlash. At the turn of the century, there were about 80, Jews in France; by , there were about , Observant Jews do not perform any work on the Sabbath, which is spent in prayer and religious study. In addition to the Sabbath, Jews both in ancient times and today celebrate holidays and festivals, each of which have their own rituals associated with observance.

Among these are:. It is both a joyous and a solemn holiday. Jews around the world do not work and do not attend school on that day. Yom Kippur : This is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Jews do not go to work or to school on Yom Kippur, and refrain from eating or drinking for the entire holiday. It is considered by Jews to be the day in which every individual is judged by God, and thus it is a solemn day marked by prayer and repentance. Passover : Passover is an eight-day festival commemorating the freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.

A ritual feast on the first two nights of this holiday, called a Seder, includes the recounting of the Passover story. Ritual foods are eaten during these eight days which are not eaten at other times of the year. Observant Jews do not work or go to school the first two days and the last two days of this holiday. Sinai by God. It is a two-day holiday which is often celebrated by having an all night study session on religious topics with friends.

Observant Jews do not work or go to school on Shavuot. Succot : Succot is a commemoration of the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness before they received the Torah. It is also a commemoration of the final harvest before the winter rains. It is an eight-day holiday, and observant Jews do not work or go to school the first two days or the last day. It is customary to build a structure called a Succah as a symbol of the types of structures the Israelites lived in while they were wandering in the dessert. Simchat Torah : Simchat Torah commemorates the conclusion and the beginning of the cycle of Torah readings which lasts one year.

It occurs the day after Succot ends.

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Observant Jews do not work or go to school on Simchat Torah. Hanukkah : Hanukkah is an eight-day holiday which marks the victory of the ancient Israelites, led by Judah Maccabee, over the Syrian-Greek army in B. In recent times, it has become traditional to exchange gifts on this holiday. Although Hanukkah usually occurs during the time of Christmas, it is in no way a comparable holiday to Christmas for the Jews. Purim : Purim is a minor festival of the Jewish calendar which commemorates the triumph of the Jews over a murderous plot by an advisor to King Ahasuerus in Persia in the fifth century B.

It is a joyous holiday and is celebrated by reading the Megillah a scroll which tells the story of Purim by baking hamintaschen triangular-shaped cookies containing jams and by dressing up in costumes. For centuries, observant Jews have dressed differently than citizens of their host countries while engaged in secular and non-secular activities. During prayer, Jewish males have traditionally worn the following:. Phylacteries Tefillin : these are small boxes containing Torah passages written on parchment with leather straps which are worn on the forehead and left arm during prayers.

Circumcision Bris male Jewish children are circumcised on the eighth day after their birth as a sign of a covenant between Abraham and God. The boy is given his name at this ceremony. Bar Mitzvah : at the age of thirteen, Jewish law considers boys to have reached adulthood. The comparable ceremony for girls is a Bat Mitzvah which varies in religious significance depending on the sect of Judaism.

Marriage and Divorce : at a marriage ceremony, observant Jews sign a marriage contract called a Ketuba. The Ketuba describes the conditions of marriage. The marriage ceremony, as in many other religions, has been ritualized and often includes the breaking of a glass by the groom to symbolize the destruction of the Temple. Jewish law recognizes divorce, made official by a document called a Get. Even if observant Jews obtain a civil divorce, the spouse is unable to remarry in the absence of obtaining a Get from a Jewish court.

Death and Mourning : upon the death of a Jew, the body is ritually washed and placed in a coffin for burial, generally the day after death. Loved ones observe a seven-day period of mourning called Shiva at which time religious services are held in the home of the bereaved. The anniversary of the death of a parent Yahrzeit is observed by lighting a candle and saying a prayer Kaddish in memory.

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The history of the Jews, as described in the Bible, begins with the patriarch Abraham. Abraham was the first to forsake the polytheism and idol worshipping of his people for a belief in one God. He was sold as a slave to the Egyptians by his own brothers. However, in approximately B. In the Book of Exodus, the story of Moses and his liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage is told. Moses led the Jews out of Egypt after the Egyptians were afflicted with ten plagues.

While in the desert, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and, according to tradition, returned with the Ten Commandments from God as well as the Torah. After capturing Jericho, the Israelites systematically conquered the rest of Israel. Challenges from Canaanites and Philistines were repelled, the latter people suffering a defeat at the hands of Samson.

The Israelites, seeking an alternative to theocratic leadership, convinced the religious leader at the time, the prophet Samuel, to anoint a king. The first king was Saul B. However, Samuel became disillusioned over the autocratic way King Saul ruled the country. David had won renown as the warrior who had slain the giant Goliath. David was the eventual victor of a power struggle, which eventually made him king over all of Israel.

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He was noted for lavish building projects, including the First Temple in Jerusalem. There was discontent among the tribes which settled in the north concerning the heavy taxation and forced labor policies of King Solomon, which he felt necessary to create his lavish palaces and public buildings. The capital of the Northern Kingdom was established in Samaria, and the capital of the Southern Kingdom remained in Jerusalem, the historic city in Judah under Jewish control.

In B. Much of the population of the Israelites was sent into exile in Babylonia. Jerusalem itself fell under siege in B.

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In exile, the Israelites found themselves to be able to participate in the economic and social life of their new land, and to reorganize and maintain Jewish life. When the Persians conquered Babylon in B. About 50, Jews returned to Judah, although many stayed in Babylon, having established a new life there.


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Following centuries of relative peace and calm in which the ancient land of Israel was ruled by the Egyptians, the Syrians gained the upper hand in B. At first, Syrian rule was benign. He required the erection of a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Temple, which kindled a revolt. The military commander for the Jews was Judah Maccabee, who overcame a superior force of highly equipped Syrians to win several battles.

Following these victories which bordered on the miraculous, Judah Maccabee reentered the Temple, cleansed it of its desecrations, and rededicated it. The Festival of Hanukkah commemorates these victories. Triumph over the Syrians was short-lived. The Roman Empire engulfed the area, and with brief exceptions, controlled what became known as Palestine for almost years.

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King Herod B. He was a master builder, creating magnificent temples, public works, ports and palaces. The ruins of many of his works, including the reconstructed Second Temple, may still be viewed today. The Jews revolted against Roman rule in 70 C. After a siege, the Second Temple was destroyed once again, on the 9th of Av of the Jewish calendar and resistance was crushed except for a company of zealots who took over a fortress at Masada, near the Dead Sea.

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The Roman army tried for three years to crush that resistance. When defeat of the revolt was inevitable, the defenders drew lots and killed themselves rather than surrender.


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Jerusalem was restored by the Romans as a pagan city. The focus of Jewish intellectual life following the destruction of the Second Temple was established in Yavneh. Jewish scholars met here and during the end of the second century and beginning of the third established an oral Jewish law to complement the Torah. This oral law was written down at the end of the second century C. Judah ha-Nasi, and is known as the Mishnah.

Discussion on the Mishnah was also put to writing, and is known as the Gemara. The Mishnah and Gemara together are called the Talmud. The Jewish scholars in Babylon also developed a Talmud, which eventually supplanted the Palestinian version as the ultimate authority in Jewish legal matters. New centers of Jewish scholarship were established in the diaspora, principally in North Africa and Muslim Spain by the end of the 10th century.

Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. Jewish legal rights were restricted.


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    Palestine was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century. Many Jews served in the Arab armies which conquered the Iberian peninsula, and settled in Spain. For centuries, Jews flourished in Spain and North Africa, and recorded achievements in science, medicine, music, philosophy and culture. Jewish life in the Middle Ages was for the most part a story of social and economic isolation, persecution and massacres.

    Jews were isolated both physically and socially from the fabric of life in the Middle Ages and the period following the Middle Ages. Yet they filled an important niche. Christianity outlawed usury, the lending of money. Jews were permitted to fill this vacuum by acting as moneylenders and financiers.

    At first, Jews in the diaspora segregated voluntarily. This was partly for self-protection, but it was perhaps more the result of the requirements of the Jewish religion: to be close to a synagogue and other religious institutions. The concept of segregating Jews involuntarily behind walls was developed in ancient times, but it was not actually implemented as a policy until in Frankfurt, Germany.

    The idea caught on in the rest of Europe and became the norm in the 16th century. Unlike its modern 20th century counterpart, the ghetto of 16th century Europe permitted Jews to leave during the day and do their business. While the ghettos permitted Jews to live peacefully, conditions were often crowded and inadequate. However, the isolation of Jews in ghettos had the effect of eliminating assimilation with the host communities, and preserved and enhanced the survival of the Jewish culture.

    Those governments unwilling even to tolerate Jews who were segregated in ghettos expelled them. At one time or another, all Jews were expelled from England , France and , Austria , and Spain There were local expulsions throughout Europe including those in Germany. Some expulsion policies were reversed when governments realized that the Jews served a useful purpose. It was not until the Enlightenment see Chapter 5 that Jews had the opportunity to participate in modern society free from persecution.

    The fundamentalist acceptance of Jewish law underwent a severe challenge, and the result was the development of reformist movements which eventually culminated in the establishment of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements. Jews of both Western and Eastern Europe created a culture of religious practice, arts and music, language principally Yiddish , and education. It was an entire culture which the Nazis sought to make extinct. They were more likely to speak the language of their host nation, less likely to be religiously observant, more likely to intermarry, more likely to be urban settlers, more likely to be middle-class, more likely to be formally educated, and more likely to affiliate with generic political parties which represented more than just Jewish interests.

    Western European Jews were more likely to be accepted by their host countries as full citizens. For the most part, they were able to live side by side with their non-Jewish neighbors, free from the threat of physical attacks and anti-Semitism. Eastern European Jews did not feel safe from pogroms.



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