Thursday, 19 October 2017

The Long Lifespans in Genesis

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
                                      The Longevity of the Ancients Recorded in Genesis

                 We all wonder about those long lifespans recorded at the beginning of Genesis. For example, we are told that Adam lived 930 years, that Shet lived 912 years-and that Metushelach lived 969 years. How have Jewish sources understood these numbers over the centuries?
                   The first Jewish source to address this issue was Josephus (late 1st century). Here is his statement in  Antiquities, book I:
                   “Nor let the reader, comparing the life of the ancients with our own and the brevity of its years, imagine that what is recorded of them is false…For, in the first place, they were beloved of God and the creatures of God himself; their diet too was more conducive to longevity: it was then natural that they should live so long. Again, alike for their merits and to promote the utility of their discoveries in astronomy and geometry, God would accord them a longer life….”
                   Now I will survey the views of our Geonim and Rishonim.
                   R. Saadiah Gaon (10th cent.) discusses this issue in his introduction to Tehillim. He writes that the longevity of these early generations was part of God’s plan for the rapid proliferation of mankind on the earth. The longer people lived, the more children they could have. It would seem that he believed that everyone in those early generations lived a long lifespan.
                  R. Yehudah Ha-Levi (12th cent.) discusses the issue in the Kuzari (sec. 95). He believes that it was only the individuals listed who lived long. Each of the individuals listed was the heart and essence of his generation and was physically and spiritually perfect. The Divine Flow was transmitted from one generation to another through these exceptional individuals.
                 Rambam, in a famous passage in the Guide to the Perplexed (II, chap. 47) writes:  “I say that only the persons named lived so long, whilst other people enjoyed the ordinary length of life. The men named were exceptions, either in consequence of different causes, as e.g., their food or mode of living, or by way of miracle.”
                Ramban (comm. to Gen. 5:4) quotes Rambam’s view and then disagrees, calling Rambam’s words “divrei ruach.” Ramban writes that the individuals with long lifespans named in the Bible were not exceptional in their lifespans. Rather, the entire world had long lifespans before the Flood. But after the Flood, the world atmosphere changed and this caused the gradual reduction in lifespans.
              Most of the Rishonim who discussed the issue thereafter followed the approach of either the Rambam or the Ramban. Either way, they were taking the Genesis lifespan numbers literally. (An underlying factor that motivated Rishonim to accept the Genesis lifespan numbers literally was that the count from creation was calculated based on these numbers.)
              Josephus had mentioned that one of the reasons that God allowed their longevity was to promote the utility of their discoveries in astronomy and geometry. This idea of longevity to enable the acquisition of knowledge and make discoveries (and write them to be passed down) is also included in several of our Rishonim. See, e.g., the commentary of the Radak to Gen. 5:4 and of the Ralbag to Gen. chap. 5 (p. 136), and the Rashbatz (R. Shimon b. Tzemach Duran, Magen Avot, comm. to Avot 5:21).
       Rashbatz also mentions the idea that the early generations were close in time to Adam and Adam was not born from a “tipah seruchah” like the rest of us, but was made by God from the earth. Those early generations inherited his superior bodily constitution.        
       Another idea found in some of our Rishonim is that those early individuals did not chase after “ta’avat ha-guf,” which reduces the lifespan. See, e.g., the commentary of the Radak to Gen. 5:4.
      But there were some Rishonim who were unwilling to take the Genesis lifespan numbers literally.
     The earliest such source that we know of was R. Moses Ibn Tibbon (late 13th cent.) He suggests that the years given for people’s lives were actually the years of “malkhutam ve-nimuseihim,” i.e., the dynasties and/or customs that they established.
       Another figure who took such an approach was R. Levi ben Hayyim (early 14th cent.). First he mentions several of the possibilities to explain the longevity, e.g., good and simple food and “marrying late” (!). But then he concludes that in his opinion the names mentioned were just roshei avot. In other words, the number of years given for each individual reflects the total of the years of the several generations of individuals named for that first individual.
          R. Nissim of Marseilles (early 14th century) was another who did not take the numbers literally. He took the same approach as R. Moses Ibn Tibbon. The numbers did not indicate the lifespan of the specific individuals named. Rather, it included the total years of the descendants who followed his customs and lifestyle.     
            The most interesting approach I saw was that of R. Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Nathan ha-Bavli (14th century), in his work Tzafnat Paneach, pp. 29-30. (For information on him, see the article by Eric Lawee in the book Asufah Le-Yosef.) First, R. Eleazar refers to the view that perhaps the individual numbers were not to be taken literally, and points to other statements in the Torah that were not meant to be taken literally, e.g., 1) the Land of Israel was “flowing with milk and honey,” and 2) the cities in Canaan were “fortified up to the Heaven” (Deut. 1:28). (See further Moreh Nevuchim, II,47.)
            But then R. Eleazar suggests the following creative approach.  In listing these individual numbers, the Torah was merely recording the legends about these figures, even though they were not accurate. The important thing was to provide data from which the total years from Creation to Matan Torah could be derived, so that the people would be able to know the length of time between these two periods. Even though the numbers for the individual lifespans were not accurate, the Torah made sure that the total that would be arrived at would be accurate.  (In contrast, when it came to events from Avraham and forward, the Torah was careful to preserve a more accurate accounting.)          
            In modern times, one Orthodox scientist who has written much on this topic is Prof. Natan Aviezer of Bar-Ilan University. He discusses this topic in a post at the Bar Ilan University weekly parshah site for parshat Noach, 1998.  There he explains that modern science has figured out that aging is largely caused by genes, and not by a wearing out of our bodies. He then suggests that when God stated at Gen. 6:3 that man would be limited to 120 years, this was when God first introduced the gene for aging into the human gene pool.
             If you have not found any of the above answers satisfying, I have some good news. R. Saadiah Gaon writes (Emunot Ve-Deot, end of chap. 7) that in the era of the redemption the human lifespan will be approximately 500 years. Presumably, at that time we won’t be bothered by those long lifespans in Genesis anymore! 
           (Note that Radak, comm. to Is. 65:20, is a bit stingier. He predicts lifespans of only 300 to 500 years. See also his commentary to Ps. 92:15. But the 12th century Babylonian Gaon R. Samuel b. Ali predicts lifespans closer to 1000 years!)
            I would like to acknowledge that most of the material above came from an article by Prof. Daniel Lasker of Ben-Gurion University, in Mechkarim Be-Halakha U-Be-Mishpat Ha-Ivri, vol. 26-27 (2009-10). 
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at  He aspires to longevity and hopes his children can tolerate him for that long.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Why They Keep Leaving Jews Out of the Holocaust

From RRW

As published in the Jerusalem Post - October 10, 2017



By Rafael Medoff

(Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 17 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust.)

The Canadian government has announced it will correct a memorial plaque at its new National Holocaust Monument, which spoke of the “millions of men, women and children during the Holocaust,” but neglected to mention Jews. 

Unfortunately, Canadian Minister of Heritage Melanie Joly has compounded the original error, by announcing that the new plaque will acknowledge “the six million Jews, as well as the five million other victims, that were murdered during the Holocaust.”

There is, in fact, no historical basis for that “five million” figure. Yet it keeps cropping up, cited by people who apparently assume it’s true just because a lot of other people keep saying it is.

After critics blasted the Trump administration for neglecting to mention Jews in its January 2017 statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, White House spokesperson Hope Hicks said the administration was trying to be “inclusive of all those who suffered.” She then provided a link to a Huffington Post UK article titled “The Holocaust’s Forgotten Victims: the 5 Million Non-Jewish People Killed by the Nazis.”

A busy White House spokesperson doesn’t have time to start researching Holocaust statistics. That’s understandable. Evidently she assumed a reputable news outlet would not run such an article without basic fact-checking. Also understandable. But she was mistaken.

The author of the article was Louise Ridley, an assistant news editor at HuffPost UK who specializes in “media, social affairs and gender,” according to her tag line. Ridley described some of the groups that were persecuted, in differing degrees, by the Nazis, such as gays, Roma (Gypsies), and the disabled. Her list also included “communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, trade unionists, and resistance fighters.” And she pointed out that the Nazis murdered several thousand priests. The Nazis also murdered millions of Polish civilians and Soviet prisoners of war. In fact, the total number of non-Jews killed by the Hitler regime far surpasses five million.

But none of that was part of the Holocaust. The Germans murdered a lot of innocent people, for a variety of reasons. But the only ones who were targeted for complete annihilation, and whom the Nazis hunted down, in country after country, for the sole purpose of murdering them, were the Jews. The term “Holocaust” was coined to refer to that specific historical event.

Don’t blame Louise Ridley or Hope Hicks for the confusion. It was Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi-hunter, who was first responsible for spreading the “five million” figure. Confronted many years ago by Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, Wiesenthal said he invented the idea of “five million non-Jewish victims” because he thought it would help get non-Jews more interested in the Holocaust. One can understand Wiesenthal’s concern. But he chose the wrong way to address it.

The President’s Commission on the Holocaust, appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1978 and chaired by Elie Wiesel, specifically warned against “any attempt to dilute” the Jewish nature of the Holocaust “in the name of misguided universalism.”

But the Wiesenthal formulation appealed to White House aides who liked the idea of making the Holocaust more ecumenical, even at the price of historical accuracy. As a result, Carter’s October 1979 executive order establishing the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council—which then created the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum—referred to the Holocaust as “the systematic and State-sponsored extermination of six million Jews and some five million other peoples by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.”

Prof. Walter Reich, former executive director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, has written: “And so the executive order...officially defined the Holocaust in a way that realized Wiesel’s great fear–that the Holocaust would be defined as an event in which eleven million people, six million Jews and 5 million non-Jews, had been killed, and that the crucial distinction between the planned and systematic extermination of all Jews on racial grounds, and the killing of civilian non-Jews on, say, political grounds–in response to resistance, or because of acts of collective reprisal or brutality–would be lost.”

Simon Wiesenthal picked a number of non-Jewish victims that was high enough to seem substantial, but still a little less than the number of Jewish victims. He thought that formulation would still keep Jews as the primary focus. Evidently he didn’t realize how easy it would be for someone—even an American or Canadian government official—to slide down the slippery slope from “a Holocaust of Jews and non-Jews,” to a Holocaust without Jews at all. It’s just not that far from a Holocaust of everybody to a Holocaust of nobody in particular.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Tribute to my father who passed away last month

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

Tribute to my Father, Harry First,
On the Occasion of His Sheloshim

My father passed away on September 2, at the age of 91. I wanted to share his life story.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1925. His mother died when he was 17. Shortly after his mother’s death, he enlisted in the US army. In the summer of 1944, at age 18, he was sent to France and served as a machine gunner. A few months later, his division was overtaken by the Nazis in Alsace-Lorraine and he was captured.
How did he survive in captivity? One of the first things he did was throw away his dog tag, so his captors would not know he was Jewish and give him “special treatment.” Because he knew Yiddish, he understood much of what his captors were saying and could even speak some German. But he had to avoid using certain Hebrew words that made their way into Yiddish that might give away his Jewish identity. He made sure to listen more than he spoke.

He remembers that the German guards were very anti-Semitic. Once a German guard showed him a picture of Hitler and said: “Do you know who this is? He is the man who took everything from the Jews and gave it to us.” And when President Roosevelt died in April 1945, they came into the barracks shouting that “Rosenfeld” was dead. To them, the U.S. President was a Jew named “Rosenfeld!”  (In previous columns, I have addressed how names often get transformed when going from one language to another. Here is another example!)

He often had to think fast. When a Nazi guard wondered where he had learned German, he told him that he was a student. The guard got suspicious. “If you are a student,” he asked, “why are you not an officer?”  My father says that he looked down at the ground as though ashamed and came up with the following response: “Because I drank too much.” The guard was satisfied with this answer. (My father later wondered whether the guard might also have had the same problem!)

While in captivity, he bartered his cigarettes for bread and potatoes. He also bartered his milk rations with captured Indian prisoners who had been serving in the British army. They would not eat the meat rations and wanted the milk.

My father he initially hid his Jewish identity from both his captors and fellow soldiers. But after several months an American soldier approached him and said that the prisoners would probably be dead within three days. What type of burial did he want?  My father recalled that the question really jarred him. The thought of a cross over his grave hit him so hard that for the first time he risked his life and admitted that he was Jewish. But it turned out that this soldier was working for the Germans. My father and the other captive soldiers who admitted to being Jewish were then singled out for harsher treatment.

When the war was over, he went to Brooklyn College and Law School on the "GI bill." The government paid for the education of its former soldiers.

He became a lawyer and encouraged my mother Lee to become a lawyer as well. They practiced law together for 20 years. After lawyers begin practicing, many have the urge to become judges. My father encouraged my mother to achieve this goal. In 1975, New York Governor Hugh Carey appointed her a Judge in the Workers Compensation court. She held this position for 12 years. (Her accomplishment was especially impressive since she had come to this country from Switzerland at age thirteen, not knowing any English.) My father retired from the practice of law in 2005, at the age of 80.

My father was always very optimistic. One of his favorite sayings was “when life gives you a lemon, you should turn it into lemonade.” After having being a teenager in the army with bullets and death all around him, nothing in any courtroom ever scared him. Also, his ability to think well on his feet, nurtured while in captivity, helped him when he was in court.

One time, my father was trying a case in Staten Island. A statement he made offended the judge, and the judge ordered him put in handcuffs. My father responded to the judge that he had fought the Nazis as a teenager in World War II and nothing that the judge did would scare him. The judge was so impressed that my father had fought the Nazis that he ordered the bailiff to undo the handcuffs and forgave whatever my father had done to offend him.

My father and mother were among the founding families of the Riverdale Jewish Center. My parents came to Riverdale in the 1950’s when there was practically nothing there. My parents were also very involved in the founding of  S.A.R. I was born in 1958. In the early sixties, the two dozen of us young Orthodox children in Riverdale needed a school to go to, so my parents helped found the “Riverdale Hebrew Day School.” In 1970, this small but growing school, merged with two other schools:  Akiba and Salanter. These schools were located elsewhere in the Bronx, in areas with declining Jewish populations.

One of the committees my father was on was the naming committee. He suggested naming the school “RASHI,” an acronym for:  Riverdale-Akiba-Salanter Hebrew Institute. But the representatives of the Salanter school insisted that the “S “ had to come first, since R. Salanter was a prominent figure, and that school had a longer history and more students than the Akiba and Riverdale schools. That is the inside story of how S.A.R. got its name. 

How did my parents meet? My mother’s father was an Orthodox rabbi and educator, Rabbi Benzion Blech. He always wanted my mother to marry someone Orthodox and very learned. But my mother had other ideas. While attending Brooklyn College, she saw my father from afar, while he was working as a librarian in Brooklyn College. He was attending Brooklyn Law School at the time. It was love at first sight for my mother. After she won my father over, came the harder challenge: convincing her father. My father was not Orthodox and had never met an Orthodox person before. He did not at all fit her father’s image of a son-in-law.

An old friend of my mother’s, “Chayele,” now advanced in years, recently told one of my sons the following story:  My mother and father had been dating, but Rabbi Blech did not know that they were dating. Chayele came up with an idea. She told my father to sit in the front of the room where Rabbi Blech was giving shiur. Every time Rabbi Blech finished a thought, my father should nod his head approvingly and mutter: "a gut vort."  My father did this and then after the shiur, as Chayele hoped, Rabbi Blech walked over to one of his talmidim and asked "who is this new illui in the front row? Maybe he's a shidduch for my daughter!"

I am sure that this story is not true! Nevertheless, in retelling this story, I see myself in the role of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (5th century B.C.E.) In a famous passage (VII, 152), he explains that his role is to transmit the ancient stories that are told, even when he does not believe them. Sometimes entertainment value trumps truth!
The true story, as my mother relates in her book, Justice is Blonde, is that her father eventually realized that my mother was not going to marry the learned Torah scholars that he had hoped for and was set on marrying the handsome law student she had met in the library. Thus, she gradually won her father over to this shidduch with my father, who was willing to become Orthodox. However, the family legend is that Rabbi Blech prohibited everyone in his family from entering a library from that time onward! (I apologize for telling another humorous falsity here!)
One time a friend of my father’s warned him that by marrying my mother, he would not be able to eat in restaurants again. He was thrilled with the thought. Having lost his mother at age 17 and been eating out since then, he was looking forward to a life of eating at home.
My father put his life on the line to fight Hitler. God rewarded him with arichat yamim. May his memory be a blessing.
Like his father, Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney.  He has spent decades in the library and  became a Jewish history scholar as well. He can be reached at