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 (Manna 10)
A Sketch of Jewish History
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A Sketch of Jewish History

Israel,” to which special sanctity attaches, is the name a nation is known in the Bible. “Hebrews” and “Jews” are the other names commonly in use, both of which are rich in historical and emotional connotations. Abraham and the prophet Jonah were called “a Hebrew”, whereas Mordecai in the Book of Esther is called a Jew. “Hebrew” has remained important: as the name of the language which Jews often call “the holy tongue,” the language of the Bible and liturgy, as well as the modern state of Israel. The word “Jews” is derived from Judoh, the ancient territory of which Jerusalem was the capital, and which Jews in ancient times looked to as their homeland.

It is important for us to learn the background of Judaism. Let us start with a historical sketch of the Jewish people so as to deepen our knowledge of the land and the people of the Bible. The long and complex history of the people of Israel con easily be divided into three periods: ancient, medieval, and modern. The ancient period can be further subdivided into three: extending from the Biblical period, the Greek period, to the Early Arabic period, which saw the establishment of the political power of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries and of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries. This is the period in which the foundation of Judaism was laid, and its classical literature, the Bible and Talmud, was written.


1.1 The Biblical period encompasses the remote beginnings of the Jewish people as nomads, the settlement in the Land of Israel and the establishment of the monarchy. David (1004-965 BC) conquered a new capital, Jerusalem, and made it an effective center by installing there the Ark of the Covenant, the religious symbol to which all gave allegiance. Solomon (965-928 BC) consolidated the victories of his father but his tight bureaucratic control and heavy taxes proved too much for his people. After his death the northern portion of his realm became a separate kingdom of Israel. After a series of bloody uprisings as a means of succession to the throne, it was destroyed by the Assyrians (721 BC). Like its northern neighbour, the Southern Kingdom of Judah could not escape the same fate of destruction by the Babylonians (587-86 BC). The traumatic experience of the Exile lasted a period of seventy years until they were permitted to return to their homeland (538 BC) to rebuild Jerusalem in 516 BC under the Persian rule (538-332 BC).

1.2 The Greek period (332-63 BC) extends from the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great of Macedonia (331 BC) until the destruction of the second Temple in 70 AD. After the death of Alexander, the land of Israel became the battleground of his two generals. Ptolemy acquired Egypt and Seleucus had Syria and Bobylonia under his control. The Ptolemies held Palestine until 200 BC when it passed into the hands of the Seleucidae. The Seleucidae displaced the traditional Zadokite high priesthood and imposed the Hellenistic culture upon the Jewish ways of life and religion. Eventually the three Maccabean brothers revolted in 167 BC, struggling for religious freedom and political independence. The Maccabees succeeded to establish the Hosmonaean dynasty which extended the Jewish dominance to the whole of Palestine, the Golan and the east bank of the Jordan, almost the extent of the empire of David and Solomon.

The Jewish world widened its frontiers throughout the Middle East and the Eastern Roman Empire and as far to the west as Spain. This dispersion (Greek “diaspora”) is an encounter with Greek culture, which was in turn countered by Phorisaism and nascent Christianity.

1.3 Following the Grecian period is the Roman period (63 BC — 324 AD). Herod the Great (40 BC — 4 AD), who received some autonomy and some added territories from the Romans, undertook the project of renovating the Temple and expanding its areas. His sons, Antipas, Philip, and Archaelaaus locked the qualities of their father, forcing the Romans to resume direct control. Political authority was vested in a Procurator who resided in Coesaria. This Roman witnessed the ministry of Jesus Christ (AD 27- 30) whose crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension destined to have such tremendous consequences for the world. Under the Roman mismanagement, the First Jewish Revolt broke out in 66 AD. In reprisal Titus and Vespasian laid waste the land. The destruction of the Temple in 70 precipitated a major shift within Judaism, The sacrificial worship no longer existed and old priestly aristocracy gave way to the legalists. Later, when the nationalist aspirations became more and more active and defiant, the Roman emperor Hadrian resolved to raze it completely. This provoked the Second Revolt (132 - 135) led by Bar Kokhba. The Roman victory permitted Hadrin to carry out his plans. Aelia Copitolina was built on the levelled ruins of Jerusalem. Being refused entrance to Jerusalem and harassed in Judaea, Jews began to move northward and built villages and synagogues in Galilee and the Golan.

1.4 The Byzantine period (324- 640) started with the transfer of the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium which was renamed Constantinople (330). As one of the most important political events, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 and fostered its development. His consecration of the sites associated with Christ’s birth, death-resurrection, and ascension awakened interest in the Holy Places which become the centers of the pilgrims. Churches were established everywhere and monasteries flourished in the desert. During these centuries, Palestine suffered theological controversy and was troubled only twice: the Samaritan revolt (529) and the Persian invasion (614). Both were short-lived but proved extremely destructive.

1.5 The Early Arabic Period (640- 1009). By the seventh century, the Byzantine Empire was infested with internal intrigues and struggles against Persia. Mohammad (570- 632) preached the new faith of Islam which soon swept over the Arabian desert. The bottle of the Yarmuk on 20 August 636 marked the end of Palestine for the Christians. In 638, caliph Omar, successor to Mohammad, accepted the surrender of Jerusalem. From this time onwards, the holy city had been protected and embellished by the successive dynasties until 1009. when the mad caliph Hakim savagely persecuted Christians and destroyed many churches.

During the ancient period, following the adaptation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire in the early fourth century and the consolidation of Christian influence in the fifth century, the opportunities open to the Jews become progressively reduced. Access to political power and to the educational institutions of the majority culture were deprived and their economic and social life was circumscribed. Often they suffered physical attacks by Christian mobs, and harsh and arbitrary decrees, including expulsion from Christian cities and states. Meanwhile, the conquest of the Middle East and North Africa by Muslim Arabs in the seventh century led to similar, if less oppressive, conditions to the Jews. Religious persecution and massacres were frequent.

But this third phase of the ancient period was also the Talmudic period in which Judaism in Palestine and Babylon developed under guidance of rabbis. The learned doctors of the law were the heirs of the priests and scribes of the previous period. They undertook the codification of Jewish law and embodied their discussions and decisions in the Talmudic literature. Rabbinic Judaism was to retain its dominance for most Jews throughout the subsequent long Middle Ages.


2.1 The Crusader Period (1009-1291). Seeing that the Holy Land and Christendom in the East were under the domain of the Arabs, Pope Urban II called for a crusade to liberate the Holy Places in 1095 and the great religious enterprise thus began. On 15 July 1099 the Crusaders occupied the Holy City, massacred all the Muslim inhabitants (From this act of atrocity was born the inflexibility of Islam). Baldwin 1(1100 - 18) became the first king over the new territory. The Crusaders introduced their European feudal system and governed effectively. Castles, abbeys and manor houses were built all over the land. But the era of the Crusaders did not last long when in 1187 Salodin finally defeated them at the Horns of Hottin. In 1250, the Bahri Mamelukes toppled the Ayyubid dynasty of Salodin and began a series of campaigns which culminated in the capture of the last Crusader stronghold, Acre (Akko) in 1291.

2.2 In the Mameluke Period (1250 - 1517), the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453, bringing an end to the Eastern Roman Empire and established the beginning the Ottoman Empire (1517-1918). The first two sultans of the Ottoman Empire were effective administrators. Constantinople and Salonica emerged as the prominent cities. On the part of Palestine, Suliman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, the spectacular appearance of which remains until today. But, subsequent incompetent sultans, local chieftains, and raiding Bedouins resulted in a population decline in Palestine. Villages and fields were abandoned, and parts of Jerusalem fell into ruins.

During the above-mentioned medieval period, the heads of the main Talmudic academies (called “Geonism”) were responsible for elaborating the teachings of the Talmud and spreading them to other parts of the Jewish world. In the eleventh century the Geonic academies declined, and the center of gravity shifted to North Africa, Spain, and northwestern Europe. Jewish philosophy, Bible, commentary and Hebrew poetry, both sacred and profaned flourished. Moses Maimonides, the philosopher, poets Solomon lbn Gobirol and Judah ha-Levi, the commentators Rashi, Abraham ibn Ezra and David Kimhi are just a few among many great names.

The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, coinciding with the completion of the Christian reconquest of the country, marks the end of an era. Many of those expelled from Spain found their refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and the New World began to see the Jewish communities. Among the Jewish population in Europe there were two main notable groups, Sephardim (a word deriving from Hebrew “Sephard” for Spain) and Ashkenazim, Jews of German origin. The expulsions from France and the central European states had pushed the Ashkenazim eastwards into Poland. They contributed to the prosperity and cultural flourishing of the country in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As a result of the turmoil of the Cossack rebellion (1648), Yiddish-speaking Ashkenozim migrated westward to settle in the Rhineland where their ancestors had originated.

These upheavals brought changes to the character of the Jewish life. The Jews tended to retreat from the real world and pursue esoteric speculation and instant salvation, as evidenced by a mystical school in a small town Safed of Galilee hod influence abroad in the sixteenth century. As a contrast, the humanism of the European Renaissance, the spread of printing and other broadening aspects of cultural life stimulated Jewish cultural and scholarly activity, among the culturally active groups, the Crypto-Jews returned to the Judaic faith from the Christian belief which had been imposed on their forefathers centuries ago in Portugal. It was a time when the Jews were emancipated from the condition of segregation and subjection.


The Modern Period of the Jewish history began with the French Revolution of 1789. From then until the Russian Revolution in 1917, ills characterized by a period of renewed vitality. This is the, age of Haskalah (enlightenment) movement which enabled the Jews to adapt the new influence of European culture. Religious reforms emerged from the new ways of thought and life. But along with the process of emancipation there come anti-Semitism in central and eastern Europe. Because of economic hardship, more than two millions Jews left Europe for the United States.

The Revolution of 1917 in Russia, a country with the largest Jewish population, cast a spell of darkness and terror on religion. The communal structure of schools and synagogues were abolished and rabbis were arrested. Religious practice was outlawed and driven underground.

Another decisive historical event in this period was the First World War in which the Turks sided with the Germans. The victors dismembered their empire, and the British troops advanced into Palestine. The Balfour Declaration was issued on 2 December 1917, supporting the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. A series of treaties between 1920 and 1923 subdivided the Holy Land, for 400 years. Part of the Ottoman Empire (1517- 1918), was created the British Mandate of Palestine and Transjordan, and the French Mandate of the Levant States. Increased immigration led to racial strife which grew in intensity to a point where the British turned the problem over to the United Notions. In 1947 U.N. recommended that Palestine be partitioned between Arab and Jew. War broke out when the British withdrew on 14 May 1948. The same day came the declaration of an independent state of Israel. An armistice was accepted on 18 July 1948 leaving Jordan in possession of the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem while the new state of Israel hod control of the western port of Jerusalem and the rest of the country. In June 1967 Israel was victorious in the war and since then it has occupied the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In 1917 the American intervention in the First World War was accompanied by on assumption of responsibility by American Jews for the struggle for civil rights of their brethren in Europe. The severe tribulation suffered by Russian Jews was followed by the “Jewish” question in Germany which led to the brutal murder of half of the Jews in Europe. The holocaust, in which six million Jews were annihilated by the Nazis and their collaborators, was a haunting psychological blow to the Jewish memory for many generations to come.

Since 1948 the state of the Israel has become a symbol of national revival and hope for all Jews in the world. Warfare in 1948 split Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan. After the Six Day War in June (5 - 10), victorious Israel annexed the Arab sector, took Golan from Syria and the West Bank from Jordan. During this period most Jews in North Africa and Asia emigrated to Israel. Whereas the American Jews reaches 44% of the world Jewish population, Israel has 25% and USSR, 13%. In France, Great Britain, Conada, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere one can find a significant number of Jews.



ALBRIGHT. WY., FROM THE STONE AGE TO CHRISTIANIFY, 2nd edn. (Garden City, N.Y., 1957).

BARON, S.W., SOCIAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF THE JEWS. 2nd edn. (18 vols to date, New York and Philodelphio. 1952-).

BEN-SASSON. H.H., A HISTORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE (Harvard University Press. 1969).

DE LANGE, N., ATLAS OF THE JEWISH WORLD (Oxford and New York, 1984).


KAUFMANN. Y., THE RELIGION OF ISRAEL, trans. and abridged by M. Greenberg, (Chicago, 1960).



ENCYCLOPAEDIA JUDAICA (16 vols, Jerusalem, 1971-72).

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