Sample text for Letters to Auntie Fori : the 5000-year history of the Jewish people and their faith / Martin Gilbert.
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Dearest Auntie Fori,
So you are now ninety-one years old, a great and wonderful age. And the Jewish people, of whom you are a part, are more than five and a half thousand years old. According to the Jewish calendar—the oldest calendar in the world—this present year is the year 5759.
The Five Books of Moses, the core of the Jewish Bible, begin with the story of Creation, which, based on the Biblical narrative, is calculated by Orthodox Jews as having taken place 5759 years ago. That narrative begins in the most precise way, which any historian could envy: (I will use in these letters the seventeenth-century King James version, on which all schoolchildren, myself included, were brought up in England half a century ago): 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.' The Bible goes on to say that the Creation took God six days, during which time he created day and night, land and water, grass and trees, sun and moon, 'great whales, and every living creature'—including cattle—and man.
'God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female created he them.' He then blessed the man and the woman and told them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply.' This—as recorded in the Book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 28—was thus God's first command to man and woman. He then told them to 'replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.' Next he gave them all the herbs and the fruit of every tree, to be their food.
'And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.'
Six days had passed since the start of creation. On the seventh day God rested 'from all his work'. His day of rest is the origin of the Sabbath, which Moses was to institute during the exodus from Egypt in around 1250 BC. Every week of the year, every year of their lives, Jews—starting at sunset on Friday and going on until sunset on Saturday—are told to rest also. Practising Jews do no work that day, do not drive cars or carry money or transact business or turn on lights, or cook, because all these activities constitute work.
The story of God having created man and woman during the six days of creation is how the Bible begins—in verses 26-27 of chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis. The Bible continues, however, with a different version of the story. According to this second version, in the aftermath of creation, and following his day of rest, plants and herbs were in the earth but had not yet grown, because it had not rained.
God, we are told, 'had not caused it to rain upon the earth because there was not a man to till the ground'. It was only then-according to verse 7 of chapter 2 of Genesis—that he formed man 'of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul'.
Following the creation of man—but not yet of woman, according to this second Biblical version—God brought rain in the form of 'a mist from the earth', and then planted a garden, the Garden of Eden—in Hebrew the word eden means fruitful or delightful. God then put the man he had created into the garden. 'And out of the ground made the Lord to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.'
God told the first man—whose name was Adam—that he could eat the fruit of all the trees, but that he must not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The reason which God gave was that 'in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die'. God then formed 'every beast of the field and every fowl of the air', after which Adam gave them all their names. But Adam was lonely, one man amid the wonders of creation. Seeing this, God said: 'It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.' God then put Adam to sleep and while he slept 'took one of his ribs' and made woman.
One result of the creation of a female partner for man was set out with stark clarity: 'Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.' The perpetuation of the species was paramount.
The Garden of Eden figures in Jewish rabbinical tradition and prayers. One of the blessings recited at a marriage is to ask that the bride and groom may rejoice 'even as of old thou didst gladden thy creatures in the Garden of Eden'. In prayers for the dead one asks that the soul of the departed should rest in Eden. Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, who died, dearest Auntie Fori, the year after you were born, believed that the Garden of Eden was a real place, even though it had not yet been discovered by explorers. In one of the central books of Jewish rabbinic reflections, the Ethics of the Fathers, compiled two centuries after Jesus, it is said that those who were modest in their lifetime are destined for the Garden of Eden while those who were without shame will go to a place of torment—Gehinnom in Hebrew, the valley where, in pagan times, children were burned in fire by those who worshipped the idol Moloch.
Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, naked and unaware of sin, until a serpent tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This tree was in the middle of the garden. Eve ate the fruit: the Bible does not say what fruit it was. Jewish tradition holds it to be the grape—possibly intoxicating wine. Later Christian writers and painters made it an apple! Eve then gave some to Adam, and suddenly they became conscious of being naked, and so ashamed that they made themselves clothes out of fig leaves.
God was extremely disappointed that Adam and Eve had chosen to disobey him, and explained to Eve the three consequences of this—consequences, it seems to have been intended, for all women through the ages. He would 'multiply' her sorrow so that 'in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children'. She would have a craving for her man. And her man would rule over her.
As for Adam, he would have to work hard in order to live off the soil: 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread'. Adam's life (and Eve's presumably) would not be perpetual, 'for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return'. In Hebrew, the words for 'man' and 'ground' have the same root: 'adam' and 'adamah'. In colloquial Hebrew today, 'ha-adam' means 'the person', as in the sentence, 'the person I was talking to . . .'.
Adam and Eve were sent away from the garden—driven out, the Bible tells us—and had to work the fields elsewhere, but not before God made each of them a 'coat of skins, and clothed them'. He also explained that, as far as the future of mankind was concerned, 'man is become as one of us, to know good and evil'. According to rabbinic tradition, the first laws laid down by God for human conduct were given to Adam—and later given to Noah.
Dearest Auntie Fori,
After being driven from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had two children. They were indeed the first parents of the human race–in that regard, both your predecessors, Auntie Fori, and mine. Their first-born, Cain, was jealous because his younger brother Abel's sacrificial offerings–'the firstlings of his flock'–had been more acceptable to God than Cain's offering of the 'fruit of the ground'. Cain then killed Abel. When God, who knew of course of Abel's murder, asked Cain where Abel was, Cain replied by asking God: 'Am I my brother's keeper?'
According to Jewish tradition the rest of the Bible is God's attempt to emphasise that the answer to this question is 'yes', to teach us that every one of us is responsible for all others.
In anger at Cain's fratricide, God cursed him and made him 'a fugitive and a vagabond'. But he also put a protective mark on him 'lest any finding him should kill him'. And he warned that if anyone killed Cain, 'vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold'. Even the outcast was to be protected.
Cain and Abel's fatal quarrel has been the subject of much rabbinical reflection. Some saw it as a dispute over land, one of the brothers taking all the land and ordering the other off it–telling him to fly in the air. Others said it was as a dispute over women–Abel having claimed their two sisters for himself. A third tradition is that they quarrelled over where the Temple should be built, each wanting it on his own land.
Other traditions abound. Jews love to try to illuminate obscurity and build ornate palaces on simple hovels. According to Jewish mystical tradition–the kabbalah–Cain's soul belongs to the demonic aspect of mankind, while Abel's soul came down to earth again as the soul of Moses. Was this not a type of Hindu-style re-incarnation? Another legend, reiterating the demonization of Cain, places his descendants in the netherworld as two-headed monsters. There are also Jewish commentators who point out, not so much in justification as in explanation of the deed, that Cain had no experience of the fact or nature of either death or killing: Abel's is the first recorded death and the first recorded murder.
Cain later married. The Bible does not tell us that Adam had daughters or how otherwise Cain's wife had come into existence, but it does say that Cain and his wife had a son, Enoch, and that Cain then 'builded a city' which he named after his son. Enoch is the first recorded city, though its whereabouts remain unknown. Like the Garden of Eden, it has never quite been discovered.
Dearest Auntie Fori,
After Abel's killing, Adam and Eve had a third son, named Seth. According to one Jewish tradition, he inherited the clothes God had made for Adam. Another tradition asserts that Seth will be one of the seven shepherds advising the Messiah after the resurrection of the dead. Seth is also a figure in Muslim tradition: Arab genealogists trace the descent of mankind through him, his name believed to mean 'a present from Allah'–God's present to Adam after the murder of Abel, thus perpetuating the human race.
Seth's descendants, each of whom is named in the Bible, included Methuselah, who, the Bible tells us, lived to the age of 969–the longest-living person in recorded history.
How to explain Methuselah's longevity? The Psalmist–Methuselah's descendant King David–refers to a thousand years being a day in God's eyes ('For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.'). Hence, despite his longevity, Methuselah did not live for even one whole day–he would have had to live to the age of 1,000 for that. Rabbinical tradition asserts that this curtailing of Methuselah's age was done deliberately, in order to counteract the heathen concept of human beings being admitted to the ranks of gods by virtue of their longevity.
Methuselah's descendants included his grandson Noah–a direct descendant of Adam. Before the great flood which covered all the earth, God instructed Noah to make an ark and take on board a few–some in sevens and some in twos–of every creature on earth, as well as his wife, his three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth) and their wives. The flood was God's punishment for man's wickedness, because 'every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually'. Noah, however, 'found grace in the eyes of the Lord' and was to be saved. God gave him the exact specifications of how to build the ark–length, breadth, height (three storeys), the type of wood–and it proved seaworthy.
It rained for forty days and forty nights. When the rains ceased the whole earth was covered in water, and all its inhabitants and creatures had drowned. 'And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man: All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.'
Only the ark was afloat; only those whom Noah had brought into it were alive. After seven months and seventeen days the floodwaters began to subside, and the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat–the very mountain whose conical snow-capped peak I have seen twice, first on my Turkish travels in 1957 and again on my way to India a year later.
The creatures on Noah's ark, saved from the flood that killed everything else, re-populated the earth. A rainbow appeared, which God explained as 'a token of a covenant between me and the earth' that he would never again bring a flood on such a scale. God then promised that while the earth remained in existence 'seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease'.
God then blessed Noah and his sons, telling them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.' This they did: the Bible lists Noah's male descendants generation after generation. One of them, Terah, was the father of Abraham, about whom I will write in my next letter.
God had already given Adam a set of laws, and he now gave them to Noah. There were seven in all, known as the Noahide Laws. Six were prohibitions: against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery and incest (counted as one) and the eating of flesh torn from a living animal. One was a positive law: to establish a system of justice. These are not, of course, Israelite or Jewish laws, since God had yet to 'choose' Abraham for the special task of creating a nation, but laws for all peoples. In Hebrew 'son of Noah' is the name given to any non-Jew, or Gentile. Non-Jews who keep the Noahide Laws are considered among 'the righteous of the nations of the world' who have a share in the world to come.
The Babylonians also recounted the story of a flood in their legends, and there was in fact a great flood around 3000 BC. But whereas the legendary hero of the Babylonian flood, Ut-Napishtim, eventually became a god, Noah remained a man, saved because he was righteous, but not elevated beyond the realms of humanity.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Jews History, Judaism History