Monday, January 2, 2012

Why Study Jewish History? Part 1 - As an Aid to Torah Study

This is the first of a series of four posts on why the proper study of Jewish history is a very important part of the development of a true ben Torah (a Jew who is focused on Torah study). The focus in these posts will be on the importance of Jewish history for a Jew’s spiritual development. Each post will focus on one major aspect of this topic.

This material was originally written for a course in Jewish history given at a yeshiva high school. I have modified it somewhat for a broader audience.

History as an Aid to Torah Study


The study of history, especially of the period of Chazal (Chachmeinu Zichronom Livrocha – “Our Sages, may their memory be a blessing” – a term used to refer to the Sages of the Talmud), is very important as an aid for Torah study. In fact, most of the major history seforim were written for this purpose. Rav Yechiel Heilprin (1660-1746), in his great historical work, Seder HaDoros, explains in his introduction:
...דע לך כי תועלת ידיעת הדורות רב הוא... ואם תורתנו הקדושה, שאין בה יתור אות וקוצי, התחיל מבראשית, שלא היה צריך אלא בשביל רנון אומות שלא יאמרו לסטים אתם, כ"ש ידיעת הדורות ממש, כל גופי התורה והלכה פסוקה יתבררו עי"ז, שמן הצורך להיות רשום בלב כל נבון. ואם הראשונים, שלבם היה פתוח כפתחו של היכל ואולם..., עכ"ז ר' יוסי, שנימוקו עמו, עשה חבור על זה וקראו סדר עולם, אלא שקיצר מאד כי היה די לדורות ההם, אבל בדור העני בדעת... מרבוי הצרות... ונסתמו מעינות חכמה ובינה, לא די שנחתם ונסתם שבילי ים הש"ס, כי גם בתורה נביאים וכתובים אשר "למקרא בן חמש" אם הוא בן שבעים אין בו ממש וכעור באפלה ימשש... ע"כ ערכתי לפניך סדר הדורות
You should know that the knowledge of the generations is of great benefit…. If our holy Torah—which does not contain an extra letter or point—begins with Genesis, which is only necessary because of the accusations of the nations so that they shouldn’t say, “You are bandits!”,[1] then certainly the [history of the] generations [through which] all the basics of Torah and halacha (Jewish law) are made clear, must be imprinted on the mind of any intelligent person.[2] Furthermore, [even in the time of] the early generations, whose minds were open like the entry to the Temple, … Rav Yosi [ben Chalafta], "whose learning is with him"[3] nevertheless saw fit to write a book on [history] which he called Seder Olam,[4] although he wrote very concisely, for that was sufficient for those generations. However, in [this] generation which is poor in knowledge… because of the numerous troubles… and in which the springs of wisdom and understanding have been sealed, not only have the ways of the sea of the Talmud been sealed and shut off, but even with regard to Torah, Neviim, and Kesuvim (Tanach i.e. Scripture), [of] which [we are taught that] “a five year old begins the study of Scripture”[5], [even] seventy year old men have no knowledge and are like blind men groping in the dark…. For this reason I have assembled before you [this work], Seder HaDoros….

Rav Heilprin continues with a detailed discussion of the importance of this study and he gives many examples of the kind of errors in learning and halacha which can be made when one is ignorant of the order of the generations of the chachamim.

Similarly, the Vilna Gaon is quoted as recommending the translation of the Greek writings of Josephus Flavius, a Jewish historian who lived at the time of the destruction of the second Temple, because his writings can help us understand chazal and their times.[6]

A good basic knowledge of Jewish history is essential to any serious Torah scholar. Without it, a scholar will make many elementary errors in his understanding, and possibly even errors in psak halacha. As we shall see, in future posts on this topic, the study of Jewish history serves several other important functions for a Torah Jew as well.


[1] See Rashi on Genesis 1:1, that really the Torah could have begun with the mitzvos (commandments) and skipped the historical narrative of Creation and the Patriarchs, except to establish the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the land of Israel so that the nations cannot accuse us of being robbers. For a full discussion of this issue, see Ramban and Nachalas Yakov on Genesis 1:1.

[2] Rav Heilprin’s reasoning is that if God is willing to insert historical information in the Torah just to respond to the accusations of the nations, then certainly we should be knowledgeable in that historical information that is necessary for our basic understanding of Torah and halacha.

[3] This was a special praise that was said of R’ Yosi ben Chalafta, see Gittin 67a and Avos d’Rabbi Noson 18.

[4] This refers to the classic rabbinic work, Seder Olam Raba.

[5] Avos 5:21

[6] The Encyclopedia L’Toldos Gedolei Yisroel (ערך ר' אליהו מוולנא) states:
ר' אברהם בן הגאון מספר שאביו הגאון אמר לו שהוא משתוקק לראות את ספרי יוספוס פלביוס מתורגמים עברית משום "שעל ידם נוכל לבוא אל כוונתם של רבותינו ז"ל בתלמוד ובמדרשים בדברם במקומות רבים בעניני ארץ קדשנו בימי קדם ההם."


3 comments:

Tzemer Upishtim said...

Do you know of a way to teach history to kids in Grade 3,4 and almost grade 1?

LazerA said...

I've never taught that young an age, so I can't give you any tips from personal experience.

Fundamentally, it should be like teaching any subject to that age group. You present the material in a simplified and stimulating manner, focusing on basic themes that they will be able to build upon in later years.

What specific issues are you concerned about?

Tzemer Upishtim said...

First, making the Torah come alive through the study of ancient history.I thought to bring them to www.blmj.org/en/index.php . One time when I was there they had what would have been similar to the idols that Rachel Imeinu hid from her father Lavan.. Things of that sort.

Also,Teaching about Jewish history in different locales.. i.e. customs of Sephardim and Ashkenazim..with hands on things like making sephardic clothing, food and the like. The same with Ashkenazim..