29 Tamuz 5775
Erev Rosh Chodesh Av
Yom Kippur Katan
"How are the mighty fallen!" (2 Samuel 1:19): 29th of Tammuz, remembering two Jewish giants
by Daniel Pinner
Thursday 29th of Tammuz. The day before the Nine Days begin; one day before we begin intensified mourning for our destroyed homeland, our destroyed Temple.
The 29th of Tammuz. The date that two Jewish giants who changed Jewish destiny forever were called to the great Academy on High.
This Thursday marks 910 years since Rashi ascended to his eternal reward on the 29th of Tammuz 4865 (13th of July 1105), and 75 years since Ze’ev Jabotinsky died on the 29th of Tammuz 5700 (4th of August 1940).
Rashi was born in Troyes, then the capital of Champagne in northern France, on the 5th of Adar 4800 (22nd of February 1040), the only child of Rabbi Yitzchak and Leah Miriam. Rabbi Yitzchak was a renowned rabbi, a poor but hard-working wine merchant, and his wife Leah Miriam was the sister of Rabbi Shimon ben Yitzchak, the renowned paytan (liturgical poet), a close disciple of Rabbeinu Gershom Meor ha-Golah (The Light of the Exile).
According to legend, Rabbi Yitzchak found a precious diamond which was valuable enough to solve all his poverty problems. However, the only person he found who could afford this diamond was the local bishop, who wanted it to adorn his crucifix. Rabbi Yitzchak decided that it was forbidden for him to profit from idolatry; but suspecting that if he did not sell the stone it would be taken from him forcibly, he cast it into the sea. A Heavenly Voice then resounded: “For this great sacrifice you will be blessed with a son who will shine brighter than all the precious stones in the world, and the light of his Torah will shine for ever”.
The following year a son was born to him and his wife, whom they named Shlomo (Solomon), saying: May G-d grant him wisdom like that of King Shlomo.
At the age of 17 the young Shlomo married and moved to Worms, Germany, where he studied in the Yeshivah of Rabbi Ya’akov ben Yakar. He returned to his native Troyes after eight years, when he was 25, and was invited to join the Beit Din (rabbinical court) there.
Under Rashi’s influence, the Yeshivot of Champagne, and of northern France in general, increased greatly in scholarship, reputation, and influence. Until then, the greatest Yeshivot were in the Rhenish provinces – primarily Mainz, Worms, and Speyer; by the late 11th century, the Yeshivot which came under Rashi’s inspiration began to overtake the older-established academies of learning.
Rashi is best known for his commentaries on the entire Tanach and most of the Talmud. Tradition has it that he died while writing the word tahor (“pure”) in his commentary to Makkot 19b.
The appellation Rashi is the acronym of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki; so influential was he, that the name Rashi was given the additional meaning “Rabban shel Yisra’el” (the Master of Israel).
Perhaps the clearest indication of Rashi’s pre-eminence as Torah commentator is that over 300 super-commentaries on his commentary to the Torah have been published. Indeed the first Hebrew book ever to be printed was Rashi’s commentary on the Torah (Reggio, 1475).
The Ramban, in the introduction to his Commentary on the Torah, describes Rashi’s commentary as “a crown of beauty and a diadem of glory” (Isaiah 28:5), and says of him: “his is the birthright of the first-born” (Deuteronomy 21:17) – i.e., he takes precedence over all other commentators. And the Chid”a (Rabbi Chayyim Yosef David Azulay, Israel, 1724-1806) stated that Rashi fasted for 613 days to prepare himself for writing his commentary to the Torah.
Rashi founded the academy of the Tosafot (literally “additions”) – the disciples who studied and expounded on the Talmud, the academies which eventually spread all over France and Germany, which lasted for more than two centuries, which included scores of the greatest rabbis in history, who gave us some of the greatest chiddushim, novellae, original ideas and interpretations which enlighten us until today.
Every printed edition of the Talmud includes the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot – Rashi invariably on the inside margin, giving him greater prominence.
Rashi’s final years were devastated by the massacres of the first Crusade, which Pope Urban II launched on the 27th of Kislev 4856 (27th of November 1095), when Rashi was 55. The pope launched the crusade at the conclusion of a council convened at Clermont-Ferrand; the results of the crusade were so horrendous – entire Jewish communities slaughtered, uncountable thousands of Jews massacred, women and girls raped, destruction throughout Europe and Israel – that in Jewish literature, Clermont-Ferrand earned the name Har Afel (“The Mount of Gloom”).
Even though the prime motivation for the crusades was (theoretically, at least) for Christian forces to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslim occupiers (who had conquered it from the Christian Byzantine Empire in 638), the crusaders saw the Jews as just as much of an enemy as the Moslems – and a far more convenient one, at that, since they were both more easily available to slaughter in the heart of Europe and also far more vulnerable than the Moslems were.
The crusaders eventually reached Israel four and a half years later, arriving at Jerusalem on the 15th of Sivan 4859 (7th of June 1099), slaughtering their way through Europe.
It was against this backdrop that Rashi concluded his life.
Some 775 years later, on 13th of Marheshvan 5641 (18th October 1880), Ze’ev Jabotinsky was born in Odessa, Russian Empire (today Ukraine). His family background and education were secular – “no inner contact with Judaism”, as he wrote in his autobiography, even though his mother kept a kosher home and lit Shabbat candles every week – yet he revolutionised the Jewish world, both physically and spiritually, perhaps more than anyone since Rabbi Akiva had inspired and spiritually led the Bar Kochba Revolt.
In 1903, with pogroms looming all over Russia, Jabotinsky began organising Jewish self-defence units wherever necessary. The same year he was elected as a Russian delegate to the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, and after Theodore Herzl’s death a year later, he became the leader of the right-wing Zionists.
Jabotinsky devoted his very being to fighting to defend Jews, and realised that he would have to infuse the Jewish nation with a too-long-dormant spirit of militarism.
In 1915, during World War I, he, together with Joseph Trumpeldor, a one-armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, established the Zion Mule Corps, a unit within the British Army which fought against the Turkish Ottoman Empire which was then occupying Palestine.
Then, at Jabotinsky’s inspiration, the British Government established three Jewish battalions in 1917, initiating the Jewish Legion. This was a time when the war was going desperately badly for the Allies: one major ally, Russia, had gone through a revolution and was on its way out of the war, weakening Britain and France; the German and Austro-Hungarian armies were winning battle after battle on the Western Front, capturing vast swathes of territory; British forces were beating beaten back in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq); and British and French forces were suffering a veritable bloodbath in Salonika.
Under these circumstances, the idea of a Jewish fighting force which would bolster the Allied war effort was exceptionally attractive to Britain.
Thus Jabotinsky founded the nucleus of a Jewish military force, the prerequisite to defending the Zionist enterprise.
Zionism of course meant different things to different people. On the 14th of August 1917, Captain William Ormsby-Gore, who had studied the Jewish situation in Palestine and had been in close contact with the Yishuv (the Jewish resettlement in Palestine), wrote in a memorandum to the British Government: “The Zionists want a British victory, and will do what they can to further it – not to have political control of Palestine, but to further their cultural and ideological aims. All that Zionism seeks now is to give the Jewish people freedom to settle, acquire land, and build up industries and schools”.
It is difficult to imagine today, but at the time most Zionist leaders – David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weitzman, Moshe Shertok (later Sharrett, the second Prime Minister of Israel), Levi Shkolnik (later Eshkol, the third Prime Minister of Israel) – were not thinking in terms of Jewish sovereign independence in Israel: their aspirations went no further than Jewish cultural autonomy in the framework of the British Empire.
Hence the Balfour Declaration offered “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, deliberately vague wording which could have meant almost anything.
Of all the Zionist leaders, Jabotinsky alone envisioned an independent Jewish state with full national sovereignty. While mainstream Zionism saw the British as liberators who would remain in permanent control, Jabotinsky saw the British as foreign occupiers, albeit far more benign than any who had come before.
Once the World War was over and the British administration firmly ensconced in Palestine, aliyah became a possibility for tens of thousands of Jews who began streaming into the homeland.
(Arabs, too, now that Jewish restoration of the Land was making it more fertile than ever in the previous 2,000 years, and enlightened British rule graced it with more freedom than it had known since the Roman conquest.)
Perhaps the greatest challenge to restoring the Jewish communities in Israel was Arab hostility to Jews, as Arab gangs began murderous rampages against Jews.
The Arab riots of 1920 demonstrated conclusively that the British administration was either unable or unwilling to defend the Jewish communities, and so Jabotinsky concluded that the Yishuv would have to form its own defence mechanism.
Relying on his military training and experience, he set up self-defence organisations throughout Palestine, which eventually merged to form the Haganah (“Defence”).
Jabotinsky was arrested by the British and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment – an outrageous sentence, given that the Arab leaders who had instigated the murderous riots were given similar sentences. Field Marshal Wilson reduced Jabotinsky's sentence to a year, and the new civilian government under Herbert Samuel granted a general amnesty in early 1921.
Jabotinsky was virtually alone in perceiving the necessity for armed defence. And he was also virtually alone in perceiving the mortal dangers that awaited the Jews in Europe.
While the official Zionist leadership instructed the Jews to remain placidly in Europe, Jabotinsky thundered out his warnings: “Get out now, while you yet can! A great fire is burning, and it will destroy the Jews of Europe!”. “Jews, liquidate the exile before the exile liquidates you!”.
But the official leadership of Ben Gurion and Weitzman lulled the Jews of Europe into tranquillity, admonishing them to pay no heed to this militant extremist, the panic-monger who imagined unprecedented slaughter of Jews in Europe.
The famous Jewish author Shalom Asch declared that “what Jabotinsky is now doing in Poland goes beyond all limits… Heaven help a people with such leaders.”
Asch declared at a press conference in Jerusalem in 1952: “I deeply regret that I fought against Jabotinsky’s evacuation plan”. No doubt millions of Jews regretted it at least as much as did Asch…when it was no longer controversial to regret it.
In the summer of 1933, Chaim Arlosoroff, the Political Director of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, was assassinated by unknown assailants in Tel Aviv. Without any evidence whatsoever, the left-wing Zionist organisation Mapai immediately accused three Revisionists, Abba Ahimeir, Abraham Stavsky and Ze’evi Rosenblatt, of the murder.
They were all acquitted in court, but the unsolved (to this day) murder influenced the 18th Zionist Congress, which began two months later in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Ben Gurion, Shertok, and other Mapai leaders successfully used the murder to incite against Jabotinsky and the Revisionists – so successfully that they swung the vote for the leadership of Zionism from the Revisionists to the Socialists.
The result was that official Zionist policy did not promote mass aliyah from Europe, did not work towards Jewish national independence, and did not promote Jewish self-defence.
We can but speculate, with infinite grief: had Ben Gurion and his cohorts not incited against Jabotinsky, and had Jabotinsky and the Revisionists won the elections in that fateful Zionist Congress in 1933, and had world Zionism then devoted its considerable resources to aliyah from Europe, Jewish independence in Israel, and Jewish self-defence – how many millions of Jewish lives might have been saved in the next 12 years?
Ze’ev Jabotinsky died in exile in New York, banned by the British from the country he loved, on Sunday 29th of Tammuz 5700 (4th of August 1940).
Like Rashi, who died 835 years earlier to the day, Jabotinsky’s final years were devastated by the slaughter that was just beginning in Europe – the slaughter that he had foreseen and screamed out his warnings against, and had been vilified and reviled by the Jewish establishment for warning about.
17 days after Jabotinsky died, on the 17th of Av (21st of August), the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Joseph Hertz, eulogised him in London’s Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place (a magnificent building that was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing in the Blitz the next year). In the capital city of the country for which Jabotinsky had fought in the First World War and which had later betrayed him and exiled him from the Land he loved, the Chief Rabbi of Britain paid his tribute:
“To-night we are assembled in this venerable House of Worship to pay our last tribute of love and respect to a departed Leader in Israel; to one who, like another Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, faced a ruined Jewry and the consequent agony of millions of his brethren; to one who heard the call for its reconstruction in the Land of our Fathers. Vladimir Jabotinsky felt that both the beginnings of redemption and the foundations of reconstruction in contemporary Israel would, as in the days of old, be Truth, Justice, Peace…
“We thus mourn a great Jewish patriot, a great friend of Britain; a lovable and beloved leader of the Jewish masses. He had more than a spark in him of our ancient warriors; we may well say of him that in spirit he was a gilgul of Bar Kochba. He has written his name on the heart of our men and women of to-morrow; and the Jewry of the future will possess greater vision, will secure more justice, and enjoy more lasting peace, because of the life-work of Vladimir Jabotinsky”.