Author Archives: Larry Domnitch

Larry Domnitch

About Larry Domnitch

Larry Domnitch is a freelance writer and Jewish educator. He has a master's degree in Jewish history from Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School.

How Tu B’Av Became Matchmaking Season

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson).

To make a successful match is cause for great joy. Tu B’Av [the 15th day of the month of Av] is generally known as the Jewish “Sadie Hawkins Day.” It is a time when matchmakers are busy applying their trade. Weddings are also often held on that day. The Talmud states that both Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av were the most joyous days of the year, for on those days the young women of Jerusalem would don borrowed white garments (in order not to shame those who owned none) and dance in the vineyards chanting, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty, but set your eyes on a good family” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 26B).

In earlier times, there were different settings for the making of matches. In those days, matches were often made at fairs where the multitudes gathered. In the book Yeven Metzula (Abyss of Despair) by Rabbi Nathan Nata Hanover, the author describes how thousands converged upon the fair in Poland in the years prior to the Chmielnicki massacres (1648-1649). The open fairs of the summer were held on the seaside villages of Zaslow and Yerislav and attracted great numbers of people. The fair was a place for socializing, conducting business, and relaxation. It served as a brief respite from the difficulties of life.

Tu B’ Av marked the end of the summer sessions in the yeshivas of Poland and thousands of students would converge upon the fair with their instructors. There, they studied with students from other yeshivas.

Naturally, the fair was also an ideal place for networking and the arrangement of marriages. Rabbi Hanover wrote, “Whoever had a son or daughter of marriageable age journeyed to the fair, and there arranged a match. There was ample opportunity for everyone to find their type and suit. …hundreds and sometimes thousands of such matches would be arranged at the fair” (Yeven Metzula, p. 63).

A rabbinical ruling was issued regarding matchmaking at fairs. A convention of Poland’s rabbinical leadership, the Council of the Four Lands, which met at a fair in Lublin, Poland, in 1580, ruled that the payment of more than one fee to the matchmaker (for a successful match) was prohibited, even if more than one matchmaker was involved. They further stipulated that the fee would be set according to the means of the families of the betrothed (Shmuel A. Arthur Cygielman, Jewish Autonomy in Poland and Lithuania Until 1649, Zalman Shazar Center for the Furtherance of the Study of Jewish History, Jeruslaem, 1991, page 263).

The fairs in Poland were a substitute for the open fields in biblical times. The times, circumstances, and locations in which marriages were arranged have frequently changed over time and they continue to change. Diverse situations, however, offer the same opportunities for those in search of their bashert (destined one) and allow for the continuity of the Jewish people.

Western Wall

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson).

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning and despair, but within the sadness of the day there is also a message of hope. That message being that despite much suffering, the Jews will survive and be redeemed as promised by the prophets of old. That message of Tisha B’Av is conveyed in the history of the Western Wall. 

The Byzantine emperor Constantine adopted Christianity in the early part of the fourth century. Upon the defeat of the emperor of the east, Licinius, at Chrysopolis on September 18, 324 C.E., Constantine became ruler of the Holy Land.

Constantine built churches throughout the land and strongly encouraged the proselytism of Jews. It is theorized that Constantine enacted anti-Jewish laws.(See The Jews Under Roman and Byzantine Rule: A Political History of Palestine from the Bar Kochba Revolt to the Arab Conquest  by Michael Avi Yonah, Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1975, page 165.) He also reinstated legislation of the Roman emperor Hadrian 117-138 C.E.

tisha b'av quizFollowing his suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.), Hadrian enacted laws that prohibited the entry of Jews into Jerusalem or the surrounding region of Judea. Over time those laws remained on the books but were not enforced by all emperors; many allowed Jewish pilgrimages on the holidays. Constantine reinstated those laws, but with some changes. Jews were again permitted to reside in Judea. In addition, he also allowed the Jews to enter Jerusalem and pray at the Western Wall on one day annually–Tisha B’Av.

Being the last standing wall surrounding the Temple, the Western Wall already possessed a special significance to the Jews. Perhaps the emperor permitted the Jews access to the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av so they could revel in their sufferings and misery; maybe he had the notion that such thoughts would lead them to apostasy. But the sight of the remnant of the Temple gave the Jews hope and a sense of resolve rather than weakening them. They saw it as a sign of strength and took solace upon their annual opportunity to visit the site of their beloved Temple.

Hezekiah’s Passover

The following article views the biblical celebration of Pesach as a rejection of idolatry. The reader should be aware that the author’s reconstruction of the biblical story is based to a great extent on a non-historical reading of the biblical text and draws heavily on the post-biblical midrashic tradition. Reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson, Inc).

When the Israelites gathered lambs on the 10th day of the month of Nisan and set them aside for slaughter on the afternoon preceding Passover, they declared themselves free of the influences of the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians. Although the Israelites in Egypt had maintained a distinctive national character during the duration of their enslavement, many, if not most, adopted the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians (Midrash Tanchuma on Exodus 1:7).

The slaughtering of the lamb–considered a deity to the Egyptians–before their oppressors was a public and communal repudiation of idolatry by the Israelites. The Israelites were truly worthy of leaving Egypt only after slaughtering the Passover sacrifice. However, when the Israelites left Egypt, their repudiation of idolatry was not final. The worship of idols would continue to plague the Israelites over the next thousand years until the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.

A New King

During the chaos of the First Temple era, a righteous Judean king prevailed upon the people to desist from their idolatrous practices and mend their ways. This king’s emergence and call for change coincided with the approaching Passover holiday. Those changes were characterized by the Passover sacrifices brought by a repentant nation.

Judea had both upright and evil kings. Often the rule of evil kings was followed by the rule of just kings. At the young age of 25, King Hezekiah of Judea inherited a troubled kingdom from his father Ahaz, who had lured the Judeans into idolatry and showed contempt for the holiest site in Judaism–the Temple. Ahaz plundered the Temple of its wealth, brought sacrifices to strange gods, and placed bamot (prohibited altars) throughout the land. (During Temple times, sacrifices were prohibited from being brought outside the Temple walls.)

Blood Libels

Reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson, Inc).

When Passover night arrives, the cups of wine are filled and the prayers and songs of the holiday are joyfully chanted. In today’s times, Passover has often become synonymous with vacation, as newspapers are filled with advertisements for Passover getaways to places ranging from the Canadian Rockies to Miami Beach to the French Riviera.

But that’s not how Passover was celebrated for the Jews of medieval Europe. For them, wine–traditionally a symbol of gladness and holiday celebration–also signaled a time for contemplation on Passover. When Passover arrived, Jews celebrated with extreme caution and fear, unsure of the violence that could be unleashed against them.

That time of the year coincides with the Easter season, a time when Christians commemorate the Crucifixion. Too often, Jews, who were blamed for the Crucifixion and resented for their rejection of Christianity, became targets of hatred and superstitions. Often it was their use of wine on Passover that prompted those attacks.

On Passover, the bizarre blood libel accusations were often leveled against the Jews. These accusations usually led to violent attacks against Jewish communities. There were hundreds of blood libels throughout history, resulting in the deaths of thousands. The blood libel theme rarely deviated. A child–almost always a young boy–was lost. Allegations then arose that the Jews murdered him and used his blood for ritual purposes. Usually those leveling the accusations had murdered the child themselves in order to accuse the Jews. Sometimes the child was a victim of an accident or later found unharmed. The cruelest methods of torture were often used to force confessions and the fabricated charges would serve as a pretext to slander and attack Jewish communities.

By the 14th century, ritual murder charges became common at Passover time. The fact that human sacrifice and the use of even animal blood for any purpose are strictly forbidden according to Jewish law did not matter to those perpetrators and believers of lies. Reason is abandoned when hatred and ignorance rule. Repudiations of blood libels by many popes throughout the ages did little or nothing to stop them.

Passover After the Civil War

Reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson, Inc).

Since the time of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, Passover has been a time for families to gather together and celebrate the momentous occasion. Passover is also a time when the Jewish community must make substantial efforts to ensure that no Jew is without the provisions needed to observe the holiday. 

As the United States was divided during the Civil War, so too were the Jewish communities of the North and South. Each community felt passionately for its cause and sacrificed on behalf of its side’s war efforts. As the war was nearing its end and the war-torn Confederacy was in ruins, the Jews of the South sought to rebuild their broken lives. When Passover approached, they did not have the means to observe the holiday, and they looked towards their Northern brethren for support. The Northerners immediately put aside their differences and ensured that their Southern co-religionists would have adequate provisions. They did so with compassion and understanding.

In February 1865, two months before Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomatox, the Jews of Savannah addressed a request to their Northern brethren for Passover matzot. The requests were sent to Isaac Leeser, spiritual leader of Congregation Mikve Yisrael of Philadelphia and publisher of the Jewish newspaper The Occident, and to Meyer S. Isaacs, a prominent Northern Jewish businessman. Other appeals soon followed.

On March 3, 1865, a Jewish periodical called The Jewish Messenger appealed on behalf of Savannah’s Jews in an editorial [published March 3, 1865]. “An appeal has been made through Mr. N. J. Brady, now at Savannah, on behalf of the Jewish residents of that city. It is desired to procure for them about five thousand pounds of matzot. Many of the inhabitants, formerly wealthy, are in extremely straitened circumstances, and besides, have lost entirely the means of baking for the ensuing Passover.” The editorial urged support, noting the generosity of Savannah Jewry in the past, “The Israelites of Savannah as a community here, in former years, have been prompt and generous in response to calls for aid.”

Special Purims

Purim celebrates the salvation of Jewry during the reign of King Ahasuerus of Persia. The mere survival of Jewry throughout history is in itself a miracle. There are several individual communities that also have their own unique stories of salvation. When faced with disaster, either from a tyrant or a natural disaster such as an earthquake or a plague, these communities miraculously escaped. 

To celebrate their salvation, those communities ordained that a special Purim be celebrated. In total there might be as many as 100 such special Purims celebrated. Often families saved from certain danger also instituted their own personal “special Purims.” The message of all the Purims is the same as that of the original Purim: their deliverance was not by chance but guided by the Almighty. The following are some brief descriptions of the many special Purims.

Medieval Cairo

A poet and scholar Samuel ben Hosha’na reports that in 1323 a Muslim crowd attacked a Jewish funeral procession in old Cairo. Such attacks did occur from time to time. The Islamic Dhimmi laws prohibited the public display of Judaism or Christianity, even at funerals, and a funeral could provoke anger. Twenty-three Jews were arrested and the Jewish community locked themselves in their homes in fear as they fasted and wept.

On the third day, a group of Jews appealed to the Caliph-Al Hakim to spare the imprisoned Jews. The Caliph looked into the matter and found wrongdoing on the part of the Muslims who instigated the disturbances and had the 23 released. Out of joy, an annual feast was instituted each year to commemorate the deliverance. Hosha’na, who himself was incarcerated, composed liturgy to be recited during the feast. Hosha’na, who also composed a Megillah, or scroll, to commemorate the event, writes, “Remember this and place it before your eyes. Tell it to your children, and their children, and their children to another generation.”

Tiberius

In the early 17th century, the city of Tiberius, which borders on Lake Kinneret in Israel’s north, was reestablished by Sheikh dair el Amar, who invited Isaac Abulafia to bring Jews to join the settlement. Soon the city had a sizable Jewish community. Governor Suleiman Pasha of Damascus laid siege to the city in 1743. For the duration of the siege, 83 days, the Jews of Tiberius helped stand in its defense. On August 27, the Pasha raised the siege, but his plans to attack Tiberius were not over. While preparing his next attack, however, he suddenly died and the Jews of Tiberius were saved from certain disaster. The Jews of Tiberius declared both the day of the lifting of the siege–the seventh day of Elul–and the day of the Pasha’s death–the fourth day of Kislev–local Purims.

Herzl’s Tree

Theodor Herzl was the founder of modern Zionism. While it has the appearance of a legend, Herzl himself recorded the fact that he planted a cypress tree on his visit to Motza, located outside Jerusalem (“Jerusalem Visit,” Sefer HaYamim Shel Herzl, Nov. 1898). The author of this article states that this version of the tale  is based on “Herzl’s Cypress,” by Eliezer Shmuelit (Sefer HaMoadim 5, 446). Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson).

Most everyone knows that the holiday of Tu Bishvat is associated with the planting of trees in Israel. Throughout the centuries, trees have been planted in Israel on Tu Bishvat as a celebration of the special qualities of the land, as well as its connection to the Jewish people. Prior to the scorching of the land by Roman legions following the Judean revolts over eighteen hundred years ago, Israel was adorned with lush forests and bountiful produce.

tu bishvatIn the latter half of the 19th century, when the Turks ruled the land, the first waves of Zionist immigrants began to arrive. Their objective was to develop the land and restore it to its former splendor. When Tu Bishvat arrived, they would gather together and mark the day with tree-planting ceremonies. Soon, clusters of young saplings were transformed into forests. Each forest that was planted brought the dream of a Jewish State a little closer–a dream that seemed distant while the land was under the harsh rule of the anti-Zionist Turks.

Just as every forest was precious, so too was each tree. The story of one particular tree symbolized the plight of Zionism in its earliest days and proved that adversity might be an obstacle but not a deterrence. No impediments would prevent the development of the land of Israel.

While visiting Israel in 1898, Theodor Herzl sought an audience with German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was also in the Holy Land. After visiting the coastal settlements of Mikve Yisrael and Rishon LeTzion, Herzl traveled toward Jerusalem. As he passed through the Judean hills, he noticed its splendor as well as its barrenness due to neglect over the centuries. However, he noticed an island of green amidst the desolation. It was a small Jewish settlement, the only one in the area. The settlement, named Motza, possessed a population of 200 people and was located several miles west of Jerusalem. Its abundance of olive, date, and apricot trees, along with clusters of grapevines, gave it its fertile appearance.