The Book of Isaiah

Prophets are people who have a special ability for listening to and speaking for God. The prophet Isaiah, who lived around the eighth century B.C.E., was an adviser to the king of Judah. At that time, the kingdom was under attack from Assyria, Isaiah told the king that god would protect the people if they had faith, but if they rejected god, they would be destroyed.

My friend had a vineyard on a fertile hillside; he spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines; . . . Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes . . . Now, I will let you know what I mean to do to my vineyard: Take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! Yes, I will make it a ruin: it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it. The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his cherished plant. (Isaiah 5: 1-7))

In your own words, explain what Isaiah was saying here.

A Light Unto the Nations

The prophet Isaiah said to the Jewish people, “Be a light unto the nations.”

This is one of the responsibilities of being a Jew. To do this, Jews are directed to study and live by the laws of Moses. These laws are the very will of God.

What do you think it means to be a “light” to other nations? Describe someone or something that is a “light” to you.

The Maccabean Revolt

Around 333 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered Israel. However, the Jews were allowed to continue practicing their own religion.

This ended in 175 B.C.E. when Antiochus IV became king. Antiochus wanted to make Jerusalem a Greek city. He banned Jewish Sabbath observance and scripture study. He built an altar to Zeus in the temple and forced Jews to make sacrifices to Greek gods.

Many Jews accepted the Greek religion in order to maintain peace. But some didn’t. Finally, in 167 B.C.E., a revolt broke out. It was led by Judah Maccabee, son of a priest. Most of the Jewish fighters were farmers, not soldiers. Still, they managed to defeat the Greek army and liberate Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E.

Judah and his followers reconsecrated the temple. The final step was lighting the lamp in the temple. A special oil was used for this lamp; it took several days to prepare properly. When they went to light the lamp they found only enough oil for one day. Still, they filled the lamp and lit it. Amazingly, the lamp continued to burn. It burned for eight days – long enough for more oil to be prepared.

This even is still celebrated today in a celebration sometimes know as the Festival of Lights. What is the proper name of this festival?

Hillel and the Meaning of Torah

Hillel was a Jewish teacher who lived around 70 B.C.E. He was devoted to the study of Torah, or Jewish sacred writings.

One day a non-Jew came to Hillel intending to mock Torah. He said to Hillel, “Teach me the Torah in the time I can balance on one foot. If you do this, I will convert to Judaism.” Hillel responded, “The main idea of the Torah is ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour.’ Everything else is commentary.”

The visitor was so impressed with Hillel’s response that he began to study Torah seriously and became a Jew.

What is your reaction to Hillel’s response?

The Fall of Masada

Masada is an oblong mountain in Israel, near the Dead Sea. It has steep sides but an almost flat top and a panoramic view of the land around it.

In 70 C.E., Jerusalem was conquered by a Roman army, and the temple was destroyed. A group of about 1,000 Jewish resisters, called Zealots, fled Jerusalem and went to Masada. A fortress stood at the top of the mountain. Surrounded by ravines, the fortress was approached only by two narrow tracks. The Zealots took refuge in this inaccessible place.

The 15,000-man Roman army laid siege to Masada. Because of the mountain’s steep sides, they could not come close enough to the fortress to take it. Finally after a two-year siege, the Romans managed to build a ramp up one of the slopes of the mountain. When they entered the fortress, they found the Zealots dead. Rather than surrender to the Romans, the Zealots had killed themselves. Only seven women and children, who had hidden in a cistern, remained alive to surrender.

Today Masada is a symbol of freedom and independence for the Jews. Why do you think this is so?

The Mishnah

By 200 C.E., Jews had developed an extensive set of laws that dealt with everything from daily prayer to the judicial system to taxation. These laws were passed on orally, not in writing, because any written version was necessarily incomplete and thus subject to misinterpretation.

However, after the Jewish rebellion in 132 C.E., the Roman rulers prohibited Jews from living in Jerusalem. Jewish leaders realized that their expulsion from Jerusalem could leave them without teachers or temple to maintain this oral tradition. To keep the laws from being lost, they decided to write them down. In around 200 C.E., Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi prepared the first written version, The Mishnah.

What are the advantages of having a teaching in written form? What are the disadvantages? What can teachers do that books cannot?

The Talmud

By the year 500 C.E., all existing Jewish holy books were gathered into one book called the Talmud. This book contains all the Jewish laws and the essential stories and aphorisms of Judaism. To study, understand, and carry out the teachings in the Talmud is one way to be a practicing Jew.

Some people think of laws as things that restrict their actions. Others see laws as creating a framework within which to act. How do you think having a clear system of laws can be helpful?

Maimonides and Nachmanides

Around the end of the 600s, Spain’s Christian rulers outlawed Judaism. Then, in 711, the Moors invaded, and Spain became part of a vast Islamic empire. Under Moorish rule, Spain became a centre of Jewish learning and culture, with Jewish poets, philosophers, and statesmen. This period was known as the Jewish Golden Age in Spain.

Two thinkers of this period were Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270).

Moses Maimonides was born in Spain and moved to Cairo in 1165. In Egypt, he spent a great deal of time studying the Talmud. Maimonides focused on the human intellect. He wrote about the importance of studying, the “work of the mind.”

Moses ben Nachman – also known as Nachmanides – spent most of his life in Spain, moving to Israel just a few years before his death. Like Maimonides, Nachmanides was both a physician and a Talmud scholar. However, Nachmanides wrote that the human soul and spirit were more important than intellect and studying.

Which is more important to you, the intellect or spirit?