Thursday, January 19, 2012

Our Dark Ages

An old joke asks: What's the difference between ignorance and apathy? Answer: I don't know and I don't care.

That's in general the attitude towards the period of Israeli history which starts in the early 3rd century, when the Mishna was edited, and ends in the late 19th century, with the Zionist aliyahs.

Isn't that what we all learned? The Mishna was written in Israel, and after that the focus of Judaism moved to Babylon for the Talmudic and Gaonic periods. Whatever few Jews remained in Israel during this period were forcibly converted to Islam and finished off by the Crusaders. In Exile, Jews continued to yearn for Israel, but the land was empty, waiting for its rightful owners to come back.

Turns out the truth is quite different. During those "Dark Ages", Jews not only lived here, they set the foundations for almost every aspect of Jewish life today. Whenever we daven in shul, read the Torah, look up a Rashi, sing around the Shabbat table or light the Hanukkah candles, we connect to the Jews who lived in Israel during the Exile. We just have no idea that's what we're doing.

Some of this ignorance is due to the fact that we really don't know much about this period. Before the discovery of the Cairo Genizah in the late 1800s we didn't know how much of our cultural heritage was composed here in Israel under Christian and Muslim rule. Take for example the recent discovery of a Menorah stamp near Akko (Acre): We now know about an entire Jewish community we had no idea existed!

But what of all we do know about this period?

Several months ago I wanted to prepare a clip about Jewish longing for the Land of Israel. I started by collecting materials about Jewish praise for Israel. The more I read, the more I realized Jews didn't just long. They didn't just praise Israel from afar. They came, and they were here all along. My clip fell apart. At some point, the shock of these new discoveries turned to anger. Why wasn't this common knowledge? Zionist romanticism aside, shouldn't a nation know its own history?

It certainly wasn't part of my school's curriculum. My history classes ended with the Second Temple and picked up again with the advent of Zionism. In literature we studied the Spanish Piyyut, not the extensive Israeli work. Although it was a religious school, I never heard of the many Israeli Midrash books.

This is our heritage, our culture, and our identity. Sheik Jameel graciously agreed to host my posts in this corner of the Muqata, and so I hope in future posts to shed some light on this little known but very influential era of our history.

See here for more articles about our history in Israel.

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Nachum said...

Sure. The Yerushalmi, the Tosefta, pretty much all the Midrashim, the Masoretes, the Shulchan Aruch, much of the Kabbalah...lots was going on in Israel. There were waves of Aliyah every hundred years or so starting in the 1200's at least.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Nachum: Correct - but no one learns about life in Israel during that period.

Rabbi Michael Tzadok said...

May I suggest that is more than a bit counter to Zionist Romanticism, its counter productive to the Zionist cause. The whole point is that for the first time in over a 1000 yrs Jews are once again in the land, that's the propaganda that the Zionsit movement built is financial appeal, and thus its very essence on.

You think you are the first one to do one of those clips, sound bites, ect that found out that there were Jews living hear all along? Of course not. You're just one of the few who are honest enough to let the project fall apart under the weight of its inaccuracy.

I remember the horrified look on my Ulpan teachers face when I offered documentary proof that Hebrew was spoken in the Yeshivot here, and used exclusively by several communities as their Shabbat language. Didn't I know that Hebrew was dead until Ben Yehuda revived it? Didn't I know how monumental that was? How dare I challenge that no matter what some old books said.

Reuven Chaim Klein said...

I don't see the חידוש in all of this?

Ora said...

Nachum: I knew about this, and yet I still had no idea how much we're influenced by it. For example, I always thought our halacha came only from the Babylonian Talmud.

Rabbi Michael Tzadok: In their defense, the early Zionists came before the research of the Cairo Genizah started. Even today we still have no idea what's still hiding there. Also, Zionism is not just about making Aliyah, it's about having a Jewish country. The Jews who lived here throughout the ages were not living in a Jewish country and saw themselves as living in Exile.

Reb Chaim HaQoton: I'd love to find out everybody already knows this.

Shmilda said...

Rabbi Michael Tzadok:

Hebrew was a spoken language in yeshivot, at least on Shabbat for some? Would you provide more details?

Reuven Chaim Klein said...

About speaking Loshon HaQodesh on Shabbos, I remember seeing this mentioned as something that the group associated with the Arizal did. I think it is mentioned in Sefer Chareidim (written by Rav Elazar Azkiri), but I don't remember exactly where. Regarding the history of Loshon HaQodesh, you might be interested in a paper I wrote about the subject which you can read here: The History of Loshon HaQodesh.

Juniper in the Desert said...

Thank you, Reb Chaim HaQoton, bookmarked.

Anonymous said...

When I made aliyah I started reading Israel's history so I would know what I missed out on.

I was also shocked to learn how much was done by Israel, and how much thrived here. I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that most of it was done in the North.

As for speaking only Hebrew on shabbat, what does that mean exactly? Does it mean they were silent monks except for davening and reading Torah?

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