Who was the ‘first Jew’ in history? We need to go back about 4000 years in history to a place called Ur (in modern day Iraq) to where a man named Abram grew up. At that time, worshipping multiple gods was common practice. Abram pioneered the idea that there was one G-d – an all powerful creator of everything, who didn’t have a physical form. We now call this idea monotheism.
According to the story in the Torah, G-d appeared to Abram and told him to leave his home and head for the land of Canaan (now called Israel) and that he would be the father of a whole nation. In Genesis 25 we read, ‘G-d said to Abram, “Go from the land where you grew up, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’’
Abram and his wife Sarah made the journey as requested and their family grew in the land called Canaan. This was the start of the strong link between the Jewish nation and the land now known as Israel.
Where did the name Abraham come from? Abram’s name later had the Hebrew letter ‘ה֙’ (H sound) added into it, representing G-d in his life… and he became known as Abraham.
Abraham is an important figure in Jewish thought, representing Jewish identity, history, faith and community. Traditionally Abraham is seen as the ancestor of the Jewish people, and his story is central to Jewish identity.
Abraham is credited with being the first person to recognize and worship the one G-d amidst a world of polytheism. His rejection of idolatry and his devotion to the monotheistic belief in G-d’s oneness are seen as foundational principles of Judaism. Abraham’s monotheistic stance is considered a significant contribution to the development of Jewish theology.
Abraham’s journey and covenant with G-d are seen as the foundation of the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d. Abraham is upheld as a model of faith and obedience to G-d. His willingness to leave his homeland, his trust in G-‘s promises, and his readiness to follow G-d’s command to sacrifice Isaac demonstrate his unwavering faith. Abraham’s faith is seen as an example for Jews to emulate in their own relationship with G-d. To mark this covenant with G-d, Abraham was the first to be circumcised. This is a symbol of Abraham and his descendant’s bond with and loyalty to G-d.
Abraham’s hospitality and kindness towards strangers are emphasized in Jewish teachings. His welcoming of the three strangers in the biblical story is seen as a moral lesson and a model for how Jews should treat others. Abraham’s acts of kindness and generosity are seen as an integral part of Jewish ethics and values. Abraham is also associated with the value of ‘hesed’ (sometimes written as ‘chesed’)- meaning kindness. This involves selfless deeds, and showing love and compassion for fellow humans.
The existence of Abraham as a historical figure is a topic of debate among scholars. While there is no direct archaeological evidence to confirm his existence, many scholars believe that Abraham may have been a real person who lived in the ancient Near East during the second millennium BCE.
The primary sources for Abraham’s story are found in the Hebrew Bible, specifically in the book of Genesis. However, the biblical narratives were likely written down centuries after the events they describe. Some biblical scholars view the events as mythic, while others see them as more definitely historical.
Some scholars argue that the stories of Abraham were developed as a way to explain the origins of the Israelite people and their special relationship with G-d. They view Abraham as a legendary figure who embodies the ideals and beliefs of the Israelite community.
Others, however, suggest that the stories of Abraham may have been based on historical figures or traditions that were passed down orally before being recorded in written form. They argue that while the biblical accounts may contain embellishments and theological interpretations, they could still reflect some historical kernel.
Ultimately, the question of whether Abraham was a real person remains a matter of interpretation and belief. For many Jews, Abraham’s existence is accepted as a foundational part of their religious tradition.
The Patriarchs and Matriarchs
Abraham and Sarah were the first of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people – followed by Isaac and Rachel, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah and the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel.
Most of the history of the Jewish people told in the Torah takes place in Israel, (apart from 210 years of slavery in Egypt… see the story of Passover) After this, the Jewish people returned to Israel under the leadership of Moses, who was succeeded by Joshua, but now with a guiding set of principles for living called the Torah.
Some Jews believe that the Torah was given word for word by G-d directly to Moses and therefore see every word as holy and relevant for all time. Others see the Torah as a history book which tells the story of their people, along with some good advice which was important at the time, but may need reinterpreting due to changes in society and technology.
Who are the Jewish Patriarchs?
The Jewish patriarchs are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their stories are recorded in Torah. Abraham is considered the first patriarch and is known for his faith, hospitality, kindness and obedience to G-d. Isaac is his son, who is known for being peaceful, restrained and forgiving and Jacob who was know for wanting harmony and truth. He later became known as Israel (meaning ‘wrestling with G-d’) after he wrestled with an angel. This is why Jews are often referred to as Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). The twelve tribes of Israel descended from Jacob’s children and grandchildren.
Who are the Jewish Matriarchs?
The Jewish matriarchs are the four biblical women who are considered the founding mothers of the Jewish people. They are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Here is a brief overview of each matriarch:
- Sarah is the wife of Abraham and the mother of Isaac. She is known for her faithfulness to G-d, and her role in the fulfilment of G-d’s promises to Abraham. Sarah is remembered for her hospitality, her laughter upon hearing that she would bear a child in her old age, and her protection of Isaac.
- Rebecca is the wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob and Esau. She is known for her kindness, her role in the selection of Jacob as the heir to Isaac’s blessings, and her guidance of Jacob in obtaining the blessings. Rebecca is remembered for her generosity towards strangers and her willingness to follow G-d’s plan.
- Rachel is the wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. She is known for her beauty and her love for Jacob. Rachel is remembered for her devotion to Jacob, her fertility struggles, and her burial place near Bethlehem.
- Leah is the first wife of Jacob and the mother of six of his sons, including Levi and Judah. She is known for her loyalty, her role in the deception that led to her marriage to Jacob, and her eventual acceptance and love from Jacob. Leah is remembered for her strength, her faithfulness to G-d, and her important lineage within the twelve tribes of Israel.
These four matriarchs are revered in Jewish tradition and their stories are significant in understanding the history and identity of the Jewish people. They are seen as examples of faith, resilience, and the important role of women in Jewish history and spirituality.
What are ways of understanding the stories of the Patriarch and Matriarchs?
There are several ways to understand the stories of the Jewish matriarchs and patriarchs. Some scholars approach these stories from a historical perspective, seeking to understand them as accounts of real individuals and events. They analyse archaeological evidence, ancient texts, and cultural context to gain insights into the lives of these figures and their significance in the development of the Jewish people.
From a religious and theological standpoint, these stories are seen as sacred texts that reveal G-d’s interactions with humanity. They are interpreted as narratives of faith, obedience, and divine promises. The matriarchs and patriarchs are seen as exemplars of faith and models for believers to emulate. The stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs often contain moral and ethical lessons. They depict virtues such as hospitality, compassion, and perseverance, while also highlighting the consequences of negative traits like jealousy, deceit, and pride. These narratives can serve as moral guides and sources of inspiration for individuals seeking to live a righteous life.
Some interpret the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs symbolically or allegorically. They view these narratives as representing broader themes and concepts rather than literal historical events. For example, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac can be seen as a metaphor for the importance of surrendering one’s desires and submitting to G-d’s will.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in interpreting the stories of the matriarchs from a feminist perspective. This approach seeks to highlight the agency, strength, and contributions of the female characters in a patriarchal society. It aims to challenge traditional gender roles and explore the significance of women in shaping the Jewish narrative. Although traditional Judaism is patriarchal, there has always been a focus on women’s strengths. Even within traditional gender roles, a woman is seen as having authority in the home, which is not insignificant. Women can also be seen as operating on a higher spiritual level. For example, the idea behind the requirement for men to wear a kippah (skullcap) is a reminder to them of G-ds’ presence and how they should behave, with the view that women do not need to be reminded. The 4 matriarchs as well as other key females such as Miriam and Ruth are seen as very important role models and leaders.
The Jewish Temple
The heart of the ancient city of Jerusalem was the Jewish Temple. Jerusalem emerged around 1000 BCE, designated by King David as the main city of the kingdom of Israel. King Solomon, the successor to David, oversaw the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, completed in 957 CE. The Temple provided a centre of worship for the kingdom, a place of sacrifice, ritual observances and as the focus of pilgrimage. In ancient times male Jews were expected to make three pilgrimages a year to the temple in Jerusalem. This was to observe the festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot (see section on the Jewish Calendar).
The Temple built in Solomon’s reign is called the First Temple, it was destroyed in 587 BCE by the invading Babylonian Empire, which occupied the kingdom and took many Jews into exile.
The land of Israel and city of Jerusalem has been invaded, besieged and attacked many times. The Babylonians were one of several empires who wanted to control the kingdom.
The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem in 587 BCE and destroyed the Temple. After some time, the Babylonian empire was attacked by the Persian empire. In 539 BCE the Persian king Cyrus gained control of Babylon. In 538 Cyrus released the Jews from exile in Babylon and returned them to Israel where they re-built the Temple. The Second Temple was completed in 516 BCE.
Israel came under Greek control in the 300s BCE and, after a brief period of independence, fell under the control of the Roman empire. The Jews resisted Roman rule. In 66 CE a rebellion arose, but eventually the Romans under Titus conquered Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple and much of Jerusalem in 70 CE. A Jewish attempt to retake the land failed in 135 CE and Jews were exiled from the land for good.
Today one wall of the Temple remains, called the Western Wall. The Temple is a focus for Jews all over the world and remains of great importance to this day.