A Brief History of a Long Split
Korach, the son of Itzhar, the grandson of Kehat, and the great-
grandson of Levi; Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliab; and On, the son of
Pelet, descendants of Reuben, began a rebellion . . . (Bamidbar 16:1)
You know what it is like when you first tear something, even just a
little? And then, it just seems to keep tearing for one reason or another.
Well, that is the way it has been for the Jewish people. We started off
from a single piece of cloth, and then we ripped, and we have kept ripping
for thousands of years, for one reason or another, until we have come to
resemble different pieces of cloth altogether. To disagree, it seems, has
become an inherent trait of being Jewish, at least that is what many have
come to believe.
Moshiach will have to be a master tailor to sew it all back together and
restore achdus -(unity) until we return to being a single, seamless piece
of fabric. Fortunately, he will have miraculous abilities to do so, but in
the meantime, this parshah sheet will be devoted to knowing at least a
little, and I mean only a little, of the history of the split within Klal
Yisroel and the reasons for it.
It is a point of disagreement as to when the split in this week's parshah
occurred, but most hold it was in the year 2487, one year prior to
entering Eretz Yisroel. The rebellion was quickly extinguished, and Dasan
and Aviram, Moshe's nemesis since Egypt times, were finally no more.
However, THE split of Jewish history from which we have not since
recovered, was the breaking off of the ten tribes into an independent
nation called the Kingdom of Israel. The other two tribes of Yehudah,
Binyomin (and Levi), were called the Kingdom of Yehudah. This happened
after the death of Shlomo HaMelech -(2964/796 BCE), and according to the
Talmud (Source), was blamed on Dovid HaMelech. Only 240 years later, they
were driven into exile by the king of Assyria and they became the Ten Lost
Whether they will EVER return is a point of debate in the Mishnah. Whether
they completely disappeared is also another point of discussion. For
example, the Talmud says that the resurrection that Yechezkel performed in
the Valley of Dry Bones was on the 30,000 Ephraimites who had left Egypt
prematurely and were killed as a result. They were resurrected just before
the destruction of the First Temple and subsequent exile of the Kingdom of
Yehudah, and if they were, ironically, they would have survived the split
into the two kingdoms and exile of the Ten Lost Tribes.
In 3338/423 BCE, Nebuchadnetzar and the Babylonian Empire finished off the
job that the Assyrians had begun. Within ten years, practically every Jew
was in exile, either lost in Assyria or living in Babylonia. And, seventy
years later after the Purim miracle, as Jews began to make their way back
to Israel to rebuild the Temple on their land, many did not return with
them. Rather, they had built up communities, seeing little if any reason
at all to return to the Holy Land.
The second time was around 3410/350 BCE from Creation. It was finished in
Herod's time, some 315 years later. During that time the Greeks invaded
and occupied Eretz Yisroel for 180 years, which lead to the Chanukah
miracle, and by 63 BCE Pompey had conquered Jerusalem, officially
beginning the fourth and final exile: Golus Edom. It was the Romans who
moved Jews, primarily as slaves, to various parts of their vast empire,
widening the Diaspora for the Jews.
By 70 CE, the Second Temple had been destroyed, and a bitter period of
exile only got worse. With the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus,
Jews were shipped back to Rome and other parts of Europe as spoils of war.
Once a small, compact nation localized on a single piece of land, we were
in the process, a long process, of fulfilling the words of the Torah to be
sent to the four corners of the earth.
And, between persecution and poor lines of communication, it was just a
matter of time before communities lost complete touch with one another.
But, until this time there had only been Jews, those who kept Torah and
those who did not. There was no such thing as Ashkenazic or Sephardic
communities at that time. There were communities of Babylonia and Eretz
Yisroel, and some other smaller ones scattered throughout. But as Jews
sought refuge by going further east to the lands of Ashkenaz (Germany,
Poland, and Lithuania), and west to France and Spain, the foundations for
the divisions of today's Jewry were being laid, creating demands upon the
leaders of Torah Jewry to respond with extraordinary measures to assure
the survival of Torah and the Jewish people.
For, it is a time to act for G-d, they have voided Your Torah.
So much of Torah convention is in reaction to a crisis. For example, the
Oral Law was not supposed to be written down, but in 187 CE Rebi Yehudah
HaNasi did just that with the approval of his colleagues, because he saw
how persecution and exile were weakening the ties of the people to Torah
learning and law. About 300 years later, for similar reasons, the Talmud
went a big step further, recording the explanations of the Mishnah in
order to make sure that the tradition remained intact as the Jewish
community scattered and thinned out.
In the period of the Geonim (589-1030 CE), the age of responsa began and
flourished. Not every community had great rabbis to bring their halachic
questions to, and many were new because the situation for the Jew was new
and constantly changing. Torah is rarely performed under ideal
circumstances, but it addresses EVERY type of circumstance and few knew
enough Torah to make major halachic decisions.
Therefore, it was quite common for communities to send their shailos to
the leading Gedolei HaDor -(Torah leaders of the generation) of their time
for responses. But, in any case, as Rebi Yehudah HaLevi writes, all of it,
without exception, is a matter of Hashgochah Pratis -(Divine Providence).
Going back to the time of Yosef and his brothers, we see how G-d moves the
pieces around and draws out certain responses based upon the needs of the
moment, and the greater needs of history and the ultimate goals of
Creation. He writes:
This was, in truth, one of the wondrous manifestations of Divine
Providence, which provided each of these approaches [to Torah study] with
its own place, each traveling its own road, until they converged and
joined together. It is true that in France and Germany it was a while
before the Geonic responsa and literature found its rightful place . . .
In the days of the early Tosafists, however, the words of the Geonim and
of the Sephardic Torah scholars began to reach them more frequently, while
on the other hand, all of the literature of the Tosafists was received in
Sephardic communities and was delved into carefully. This combined wealth
of halachic literature was mutually clarified during the generations of
Rabbeinu Zerachiah Ba'al HaMa'or, the Rambam, the Ra'avad, and all of
their contemporaries; and after them, the Ramban, the Rashba, the Rosh,
and all the scholars of those subsequent generations. This was truly the
developmental approach of Torah scholarship that was ordained by G-d, and
a true manifestation of the wondrous direction of Divine Providence in
regard to all that bears upon a clarification of Torah knowledge. (Doros
HaRishonim, p. 295)
Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi lived from 1075-1151 CE, around Rashi's time, and
thus only wrote about what he had learned and seen in his time. He died in
the 2,464th year after Torah had been given, 852 years ago. Clearly, the
vast majority of Torah history until the time of Moshiach had already been
lived out. Yet he described a process that would continue on well after
Indeed, the average Jew, and even Torah scholars often only see things in
terms of keeping Torah to the best of their abilities, always trying to
respond to the needs of the moment as per the teachings of Torah to the
best of their knowledge. And, though situations arise that we fear and
resist, especially when they make living by Torah next to impossible, G-d
Himself is busy directing history in ways we'll never understand until
The truth is, the origins of split and different traditions can even be
traced back to Parashas Yisro. It was Yisro, Moshe's father-in-law, who
had suggested that he share the power with other leaders. As Moshe
criticized later in Parashas Devarim, "If you can learn from the teacher
or from the student, which is preferable?" The answer is obviously the
teacher. The people chose the students, opening the door for a system that
could only lead to differences of interpretation and opinion, especially
when persecution made intense Torah study extremely difficult, and exile
made comparisons of traditions impossible.
Thus, the Talmud laments yeridas hadoros -(the going down of generations).
The students of Shammai fought virulently with the students of Hillel,
says the Talmud, because they did not serve their masters well enough.
And, the split just kept getting bigger. It's hard to imagine G-d's master
plan including the idea of the weakening of Torah knowledge and the
breakdown of the Jewish community, but . . .
When Christopher Columbus set sail for America in 1492, there were Jews
aboard his ships escaping the persecuting hands of the Inquisition.
Indeed, the Inquisition, as is the case with all anti-Semitism, forced
many Jews out of Spain for other lands, perhaps because the Holy Sparks of
one place had been depleted sufficiently, while those of distant lands
beckoned for Jews to come and collect them on behalf of G-d and history.
By the 1500s, there were Jews all over Europe, Russia, Asia, and America.
Some had held on to Torah in spite of the hardships, while many had simply
given up. The Western world was also evolving, and it was having its own
profound impact on the ways Jews lived, especially on those who had lost
their connection to Torah tradition.
On the other hand, in the 1300s the Zohar was finally published and was
making its way through the Torah world. Until that time, one either had a
tradition in the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and most did not.
With the publishing of the Zohar, Kabbalah became far more accessible than
the previous millennium, and though the revealed part of Torah became
weakened, the hidden part -(Nistar) was becoming increasingly more
revealed, especially with the life and teachings of Kabbalists such as
Rabbi Moshe Cordevero (1522-1570) and Rabbi Yitzchak Luria - the Arizal
However, the volcano of world history was still simmering and was destined
to erupt soon after, especially against eastern European Jewry. The
Chelminicki Pogroms of 1648 were still to come that would devastate many
communities, inflicting torture and cruel deaths on countless innocent and
peace-loving Jews. Perhaps, had it not been for these pogroms, the stage
would not have been set for Shabbtai Tzvi, the false messiah of 1650, a
Kabbalist and self-proclaimed savior of the Jewish people.
He may have come to unify the Jews of Europe in a common cause of
redemption from the hostile gentile populations of time, but his escapade
had the opposite effect. He may have wanted to encourage the learning of
Kabbalah among the masses, but instead he instigated a ban on the learning
of Kabbalah until age 40. And, it was in the wake of his disaster that
left the Torah Jews of Eastern Europe somewhat paranoid, and which laid
the groundwork for one of the last great splits of Jewish history between
a new approach to Torah -(Chassidism) and their opposers -(the Misnagdim).
Therefore I have loved Your commandments, more than gold, even more
than fine gold. Therefore, I have declared the fairness of every precept
regarding everything! I have hated every path of falsehood. (Tehillim
So we'd like to believe.
Today we read the writings of the Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto,
with enthusiasm and pleasure, however, while he lived (1770-1746), they
burned his books and forced him into exile. He had been a victim of the
paranoia that had set into European Jewry. As righteous and brilliant as
he was, as a Kabbalist, he spoke openly about Moshiach and the redemption,
a great mitzvah:
In the Sefer Mitzvos Katan, he wrote in his explanation of the Positive
Mitzvah of, "I am G-d, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt," that it means
one must know that He Who created Heaven and Earth alone controls [the
world] above and below. However, to this he added, "This [mitzvah] is the
basis for what the rabbis teach: At the time of a person's judgment after
death, they ask him, 'Did you anticipate redemption?' (Shabbos 31a). Where
is this mitzvah written? Actually, it comes from this [same mitzvah], for
just as, 'I am G-d, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt,' means that we
are expected to believe that G-d redeemed us from Egypt, it also
means, 'Just as I want you to believe that I took you out [from Egypt], I
also want you to believe that I, G-d your G-d, will gather you in and
redeem you in mercy a second time'." According to what he (Sefer Mitzvos
HaKatan) has said, belief in the future redemption is part of our faith
in, "I am G-d, your G-d," and thus included in the first of the Ten
Commandments. However, if we examine ourselves, it seems as if we are very
far from having faith in the future redemption. Occasionally we speak
about G-d having made Heaven and Earth, and that He directs creation.
However, when it comes to the arrival of Moshiach and the resurrection of
the dead, we are quiet, as if we are embarrassed to speak about them, as
if we have given up [on such realities] altogether. However, the words of
the Sefer Mitzvos Katan should arouse trembling in our hearts since they
are part of the mitzvah of "I am G-d, your G-d." And, anyone who is not
involved with these matters is far from having any true faith . . . In
truth, most of the Shemonah Esrei deals with the future redemption . . .
And, just as we are lacking faith in this matter, we are also distant from
the essence of prayer. We lack connection to [the blessings regarding
redemption], and all of our prayers are only lip service! (Ohr Yechezkel,
Emunas HaGeulah, 1960; p. 287)
As a result of the Shabbtai Tzvi disaster, the Jews of Eastern Europe
charted a course of Torah learning that was as mainstream as one could
get, because it was safe. Deviatation from that line of learning, one
risked being branded dangerous at the least, and a heretic at worst. And,
when the Ba'al Shem Tov introduced such a deviation which quickly resulted
in all kinds of differences in approach to performing mitzvos and serving
G-d, one that was geared more to the masses, it triggered an all-out war
that included the greatest Torah scholars of the time, such as the Vilna
Reconciliation was not forthcoming, and polarization resulted instead.
While the Misnagdim focused on the essence of Torah learning, the so-
called bread-and-butter of Torah tradition -(Talmud and Poskim),
Chassidism focused heavily on the spirit of Judaism, sometimes at the cost
of the former. And, as Rabbi Berel Wein points out, Chassidus survived the
test of time, at its start it was quite volatile and anything but
mainstream, with an emphasis on Kabbalistic teachings that seemed to put
salt into the wounds inflicted by Shabbtai Tzvi and his followers.
The trouble is that there have always been breakaways in Jewish history,
and most of them have been destructive to Torah tradition. We are a small
people who have been entrusted with a sacred mission that carries with it
tremendous responsibility. The world depends upon our living up to that
responsibility, and it is the nature of men, when living under such
conditions, to reduce everyone to either friend or foe. Change never comes
easy to the Torah world, especially when it first appears as a break with
tradition, as so many movements have proved to be, as opposed to just
another aspect of it that had yet to be revealed.
It's like raising children. If parents were prophets and could see that
the shtick their kids are doing now will not prevent them from growing up
and becoming responsible Torah adults, they could afford to be more
forgiving now. But parents are not prophets, and often today's shtick is
tomorrow's habit and way of life, and wars develop between parents and
their children (often resulting in even more rebelliousness). The whole
thing might be very entertaining in Heaven, but down here on earth it can
become as hot as Gehinnom between parents and children, and between
different groups of Jews.
When all is said and done, as of today, 5764 from Creation, 2004 by the
Western dating system, we have ALL KINDS of groups of Jews. We have
Ashkenazim (Litvacks), Sephardim, and Chassidim. We have Orthodox,
Conservative, and Reform, and a few more groups that have emerged out of
those three categories. From a halachic perspective there are only two
categories: those who observe Torah and those who do not. But from the
community's perspective, more and more keep emerging. And, when it comes
to the keeping of Torah and mitzvos, "to each his own" is not really a
relevant comment to make.
Thus, issues and topics that might be quite acceptable to discuss in some
communities is off limits in others. In some shuls you can get up and make
certain statements that will bring you praise, and in others scorn. One
student's hero may be another's heretic, and this can be true even within
a single group of Jews! Matters that should be foremost in our minds are
often taboo because of the way they have been handled in history, much to
the delight of the Sitra Achra who lives one day longer each day that we
hold off the Final Redemption.
Yes, we have come a long way since the days of Korach. Unfortunately, a
lot of it has been in the direction of division. Achdus -(unity) would be
nice, but the truth is, we really don't have the tools to bring it about.
The differences between Jews are too many and too vast. There is too much
confusion and not enough understanding of the situation and it needs to
melt the differences and fill in the rifts. The analytical approach many
take towards Torah is left behind in the Bais Midrash and not applied to
"I will sanctify My Great Name . . . And I will take you from the
nations and gather you . . . And I will sprinkle pure waters upon
you . . . And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit . . . I will
put My spirit within you, and I will make it so that you will follow My
decrees and keep My judgments and do them. You will dwell in the
land . . ." (Yechezkel 36:23-28)
"[Israel] will no longer be divided . . . They will no longer be
contaminated . . . My servant Dovid will be king over them, and there will
be one shepherd for all of them; they will follow My judgments and keep My
decrees and follow them. They will dwell on the land . . ." (Yechezkel
We live in an era of specialization, of division. Once there was a concept
of the Renaissance Man, someone who knew something about everything.
Today, people know a tremendous amount about only a few things.
The Talmud actually debates this approach to learning (Horios 14a), and
the decision is quite interesting. Even more interesting is that in spite
of the Talmud's decision the Academy followed the opposite course of
learning. "Sinai adif" means that it is better to have a leader who knows
something about ALL of Torah, than "oker harim," someone who performs deep
analyses on only specific topics.
The truth is, the Jewish people as a whole require both, and every talmid
chacham must possess both abilities. But, overall, Torah is a totality, a
big picture, and though it is possible to learn out the general scheme of
themes from the specifics, it is unlikely that most will do so. For a
Torah outlook to be a Torah-true outlook, it must take into account as
much of the totality of Torah as is possible, and that is what makes our
Torah leaders so unique and reliable (not to mention the Heavenly help
they received as well).
It is the big picture of Torah that possesses the power to unify the
Jewish people, as we saw when G-d gave Torah at Mt. Sinai, and as we learn
when the Jewish people collectively face a crisis. It is by knowing all of
Torah, all of the Mishnah, the entire Talmud, both of them -(Babylonian
and Jerusalem), and all the myriad of commentators that interpret all of
this. AND by knowing and understanding Kabbalah, one rises above his or
her selfish tendencies and biases to respond honestly and accurately to
the moment. A VERY tall order, even for a talmid chacham today.
And, rather than try and know all of Torah, instead we continue to focus
only on certain aspects of it, and on sections that do not usually result
in the kinds of lessons for living that make people better husbands,
fathers, and Jews in general, and better in touch with the ultimate
demands of Jewish history. Rather scary, is it not?
Perhaps, if one did not know Sod, for in the realm of Sod, as the Leshem
explains, tikun of history takes place on two planes, at least until
Moshiach arrives. On the surface of things, explains the Leshem,
everything seems to be moving away from each other, achieving just the
opposite of achdus. History is supposed to unify everything, but it seems
as if just the opposite has been occurring.
Not so, says the Leshem. Somehow, the spiritual world is able to work in
the opposite direction of the physical world without disturbing it. Of
course, all that means is that we are actually misperceiving the physical
world, which is easy to do when it does such a darn good job of appearing
to be what it seems to be, even though we have found out time and again
how we were wrong all along.
Thus, what we have been perceiving as the ultimate splitting of the Jewish
nation into an exponential amount of parts and divisions in the physical
world, has actually been masking a unification that has been occurring
simultaneously out of the grasp of our mind's eye. How does G-d do it?
Beats me. But then again, He can do anything He wants any which way He
chooses to do it, and human beings seem only too willing to make easy and
comfortable assumptions about physical reality, which only makes G-d's job
that much easier, and free-will that much more possible.
I'd love to discuss the concept more, but it is late, and after eight
pages of divrei Torah, one for each of the meals of Shabbos and a Melave
Malkah, it is time to "split," I mean close for today.
Have a great Shabbos,
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.