1. Jerusalem in
Judah Benjamin – Because of the later Kingdom of Judah, whose capital was of course Jerusalem, it's only natural to think of the Holy City as belonging to the tribe of Judah. Originally, however, Jerusalem belonged properly to the tribe and territory of Benjamin, which abuts the northern border of Judah and which was later incorporated within the latter.
2. King for a Week – Army officer Zimri was the treasonous murderer of his master Elah, king of Israel. Like his forerunner Baasha, Zimri on his accession slew the entire line of his predecessors, in this case of the House of Baasha (even killing friends of the dynasty). Zimri was one of several senior military officers then vying for the monarchy. He reigned only for 7 days before the Israelite army at Gibbeton promoted Omri, a military captain, to the throne. Omri promptly besieged the capital Tirzah with Zimri therein. When he saw that the capital had fallen, the desperate Zimri set fire to the royal palace and perished in the flames.
3. High Priests & Murderers – In the Persian period, the high priest Johanan ben Jehoiada was provoked by his brother Jeshua into murdering him in the Temple. Josephus called the murder "so great a crime, and so much the more horrible, that there never was so cruel and impious a thing done, neither by the Greeks nor Barbarians" (Jewish Antiquities, XI:7, § 1). In the Seleucid (Syrian Greek) period, the Jewish high priest Menelaus bribed a Seleucid high official to murder a predecessor, Honya (Onias) III, who was the legitimate scion of a high priestly dynasty and who had accused Menelaus of corruption and misdeeds. For his efforts, Honya was slain outside the temple at Daphne, Syria, where he had been seeking refuge. Later, the high priest Alcimus (Eliakim) pledged peace to the pious Hassideans who solicited him, but betrayed his word and arrested and slew 60 rabbis on the same day. When as high priest King Yannai Alexander offered the prescribed water libation during Sukkot, he let the water run on his feet, incensing the Pharisees, who pelted him with etrogs and vitriol in contempt. Yannai let loose his mercenaries upon the Pharisees and 6,000 were slaughtered. 6 years of civil war ensued, amid which the Pharisees invited the Seleucid ruler Demetrius III Eucaerus to war against Yannai, who was defeated. Yannai recuperated and had 800 Pharisees crucified in Jerusalem. By the cessation of hostilities, 50,000 Jewish lives had been lost and the Pharisees, including their leaders, had been scattered among foreign lands, awaiting the king's demise before their eventual return.
4. Chanukah's Arch-Villain Mourned Jewish Leader – Due to the corruption and hellenizing extremes of his successors Jason and Menelaus, the high priest Honya III fled for safety to a temple in Daphne, near Antioch. He was murdered at Menelaus' instigation by Andronicus, a Seleucid high official, who was soon thereafter put to death for the cold-blooded crime. Remarkably, according to 2 Maccabees (4:37), "King Antiochus was deeply grieved and was so filled with sorrow that he was moved to tears when he recalled the wisdom and self-control that Honya had shown throughout his life."
5. Peace Was Agreed in the Hasmonean Civil War – The sons of King Yannai Alexander and Queen Shalom Zion, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, disputed the royal succession. Hyrcanus' soldiers defected to Aristobulus in battle at Jericho; Hyrcanus retreated to Jerusalem but was compelled to surrender when Aristobulus captured the Temple. A victorious Aristobulus deprived Hyrcanus of the throne and high priesthood alike, but peace was made, though it proved short-lived. Thanks to the wily Antipater, a seditious Idumean and father of Herod the Great, the sibling rivalry and civil war were renewed, eventuating in the Roman occupation and annexation of Judea.
6. A Jewish Royal Was the First Ever Put to Death by the Romans – In 40 BCE, the Parthians (Arsacids) of Persia conquered Jerusalem and crowned the Hasmonean contender Mattathias Antigonus king and high priest of Judea. Mattathias' uncle Hyrcanus II was once again deposed as high priest, and Herod the Great's brother Phasael was held hostage. Herod fled and rallied his Roman allies: Marc Antony defeated the Parthians, and Herod besieged Jerusalem and captured Mattathias in 37 BCE. Herod delivered Mattathias to the Romans at Antioch, Syria, where they promptly beheaded the last Hasmonean king of Judea in the first known instance of the Romans putting to death a defeated monarch.
7. Entrepreneurial Pedagogues – Many of the sages of Israel were as intrepid as they were erudite. Schools were founded in various eras by the enterprising likes of Shimon ben Shetah, Joshua ben Gamla, Hiyya bar Abba I (Rabbah), Judah Nesiah II, Rav (Abba Arikha), Judah bar Ezekiel, Sheshet, Papa, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Israel Lipkin Salanter, Hayyim of Volozhin, Samuel Tiktinsky, Nathan Tzvi Finkel, Abraham Isaac Kook, Moses Mordechai Epstein, Joseph Kahaneman, Yehezkel Sarna, Aharon Kotler, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, Noah Weinberg, and Berel Wein, inter alios.
8. Sages & Tradesmen – Jewry's greatest sages were also toilers earning a living in a wide variety of roles: flax merchant (Shimon ben Shetah, Hiyya bar Abba I Rabbah), woodcutter (Hillel the Elder), mason (Shammai the Elder), flower grinder (Joseph), tanner (Yosi ben Halafta), blacksmith (Joshua and Yitzhak Nappaha), silk merchant (Hiyya bar Abba I Rabbah, Shimon ben Judah HaNasi), shoemakers (Johanan, Hanina, and Oshaiah), coin tester (Eleazar ben Pedat), winetaster (Karna), carpenter (Abbina), tailor (Abba bar Zminah, Daniel, Hanan, Yehudah), shepherd (Adda), baker (Judah), honey dealer (Hanina bar Hama), orchard guard (Resh Lakish), jewelry dealer (Abbahu), digger (Nehunya), cowherd and fruit picker (Huna), porter and clothing merchant (Sheshet), wine merchant (Judah bar Ezekiel), brewer (Hisda, Papa, Huna bar Joshua), and poppy seed dealer (Papa, Huna bar Joshua).
9. The Pre-Renaissance Man – A native of Kafri, near Sura in Babylonia, and a disciple of Judah HaNasi, Hiyya bar Abba I Rabbah descended from Shimei the brother of King David and was the uncle and teacher of Abba Arikha (Rav) and Rabbah bar Hana, whom he tutored in an open marketplace. Hiyya possessed considerable knowledge of medical science and may have originally been a physician. Later in life, when Hiyya and his sons immigrated to the Land of Israel and settled in Tiberias, in partnership with Shimon ben Judah HaNasi he established a business exporting silks to Tyre, and also dealt in flax. Hiyya all the while maintained an academy at Tiberias. He was very wealthy and always provided for the poor who solicited him at his home. It was said of Hiyya that, after his arrival, "shooting stars, earthquakes, storms, and thunder ceased, wine did not sour, nor was flax ruined." His prayers were said to have elicited rain during a drought and to have prompted a prowling lion to leave the Land of Israel. Ever the entrepreneur, he also founded elementary schools and personally instructed children. In addition, Hiyya helped compile the Tosefta and, with his pupil Hoshea (Oshaiah), other baraitas as well, redacting halakhot known variously as "Baraitot de-Rabbi Hiyya", "Mishnat de-Rabbi Hiyya", and "Mishnayot Gedolot" that were omitted from the Mishnah by Judah HaNasi. He earned the epithet "Rabbah" (The Great) and was also known to his colleagues as "the lion of the company." It was said that when Hiyya died fiery stones fell from heaven. He was buried in Tiberias.
10. The Proto-Feminist – The daughter of the sage Rabbah bar Avuha, Yalta married Nahman bar Jacob, a disciple of her father. Despite being immersed in the realm of renowned Torah scholars, Yalta was no shrinking violet and was immortalized in the Talmud for being strong-minded and assertive. She once broke 400 wine casks when a guest, the sage Ulla, declined to pass her a cup of wine over which he had recited a blessing. When Ulla attempted to placate her, Yalta replied: “All your words are as meaningless as a peddler’s tale” (BT, Berakhot 51b). On another occasion, when her husband Nahman ordered the sage Judah bar Ezekiel to appear on trial before him in Nehardea, only to have Judah correct his grammar and critique his Torah learning, Yalta unhesitatingly advised Nahman to "send the man away or else you will earn a reputation as an ignoramus" (BT, Kiddushin 70b). Her husband also permitted her to be carried about in a palanquin on the Sabbath, despite objections from scholarly colleagues, on the grounds that the people required her guidance.
11. The Hebrew Grammar War – A Moroccan-born disciple of Saadia Gaon, Dunash ben Labrat became a rabbi and religious judge (dayyan). After migrating to Spain, he wrote a tract against Menahem ben Jacob ibn Saruk, secretary to respected Jewish statesman Hasdai ibn Shaprut and author of the Hebrew lexicon Mahberet, because Mehahem had criticized Saadia unfairly in Dunash's estimation. His polemic, which disputed 160 items in Menahem's work, was dedicated to Hasdai, whose favor Dunash earned. A literary feud followed between the immediate students of Dunash and Menahem in Spain, and centuries later it was revived in France between Jacob ben Meir (a.k.a. Rabbenu Tam, who sided with Menahem) and Joseph Kimhi (a.k.a. Rikam, who sided with Dunash). In the interim between these debates, Rashi quoted Dunash dozens of times and Abraham ibn Ezra, who Hebraicized the Berber name Dunash into "Adonim HaLevi", recovered in Egypt another polemical and philological treatise of Dunash's authorship. Ironically, both Menahem and Dunash erred in their grammatical techniques, which allowed for Hebrew roots of one or two letters (Hebrew stems are triliteral).
12. The Chaplain's Apostasy – Wecelinus, a cleric in the service of Duke Conrad I of Carinthia (a relative of Holy Roman Emperor Henry II), converted to Judaism in 1005 and joined the Jewish community in Mayence (Mainz), Germany. Not content to part ways with Christianity, he polemicized against it, eliciting a rebuttal from the irate emperor's own churchman, and prompting Henry II to briefly expel all the Jews from Mayence in 1012.
13. The Defector's Wrath – Upon denigrating the Talmud, Nicholas Donin was excommunicated in 1225 by Rabbi Yehiel of Paris. After languishing for a decade in the purgatory of excommunication, Donin converted to Christianity and became a Franciscan friar, changing his name to Nicholas de Rupella. Embittered and vengeful, he incited crusaders against French Jewry: 3,000 Jews died and over 500 forsook Judaism. He then visited Rome in 1238 and delivered to Pope Gregory IX a written denunciation of the Talmud with 35 references supposedly hostile to Christianity. During the Disputation of Paris in 1240, he was opposed by 4 leading rabbis including Yehiel of Paris and Moses of Coucy (Semag/Ram MiCoucy), who were unable to prevent the many public burnings of the Talmud and other Judaic works that ensued in Europe.
14. Rabbi on the Moon – A grandson (or great-grandson) of Moses ben Nahman (Ramban/Nahmanides), Levi ben Gershom (1288–1344 CE), a.k.a. Ralbag/Gersonides, is most famous for his philosophical masterwork, Milhamot Adonai, dealing with: the immortality of the soul; dreams, divination, and prophecy; divine omniscience; divine providence; the celestial spheres; and Creation and miracles. Yet he also wrote the astronomical treatise Ben Arba'im LeBinah and commentaries on the works of Euclid, Aristotle, and Ibn Rushd. A lunar impact crater (lunar latitude: 34.7° south/lunar longitude: 23.6° east) was named "Rabbi Levi" in his honor.
15. The Shul that Love Built – Moses Isserles, a.k.a. the Rama (1525-1572 CE), married Golda, the daughter of one of his teachers, Shalom Shakhna. She died in 1552 at the tender age of 20, and the widower Moses, not only a great halakhic authority but also a man of means, constructed a synagogue in her honor in Krakow, Poland. The Isserles Synagogue, built in 1553, became known as Rama's Synagogue, and exists to this day.
16. The Convert Messiah – Before he was Solomon Molcho, he was Diogo Pires (1500–1532), a Christian born into a family of conversos (Jewish converts to Christianity who secretly practiced Judaism). In 1525, after meeting the charismatic adventurer David Reubeni in Portugal, he circumcised himself and took a Hebrew name. He was forced to flee Portugal and settled in Salonika, Greece, where he studied kabbalah and likely encountered Joseph Caro, who admired Solomon greatly. He also was supported by leading Talmudist and kabbalist Joseph Taitatzak (a teacher of Joseph Caro and Solomon Alkabetz). Solomon wrote Derashot (a.k.a. Sefer HaMefoar), a collection of his mystical sermons. In 1529, he returned to Italy where he preached of the coming redemption to sizable crowds of Jews and Christians. When he was soon accused of being a converso who had reverted to Judaism, he fled to Pesaro then Rome. Convinced he was the Messiah, Solomon garbed himself as a beggar and for a month dwelt among the ailing and infirm on a bridge over the Tiber river, near the Papal Palace. Oddly, he gained the favor and protection of Pope Clement VII, and his predictions of natural disasters were confirmed by events, thereby bolstering his credibility. Solomon helped prevent the Inquisition from spreading to Portugal, but in Rome an inquisitional tribunal sentenced him to death, though he was saved on this occasion through the Pope's direct intervention. In 1532, he joined David Reubeni on a mission to Ratisbon (Regensburg), Germany, in the hope of persuading Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to inspire the Jews to resist the Turks. In the event, the emperor incarcerated both men then conveyed them to Italy. An ecclesiastical court in Mantua condemned Solomon to burn at the stake. He refused the late offer of a pardon if he recanted his Judaism and resumed his Christianity, preferring instead martyrdom.
17. Edel the Patroness – A native of Krakow, Poland, Samuel Eliezer ben Judah HaLevi (Maharsha) moved to Posen as a young man and soon married the daughter of Moses Ashkenazi Heilprin. His new mother-in-law Edel, whose name was later applied to Samuel, was very wealthy and financed the academy Samuel headed, including supporting his many pupils, for 20 years (!).
18. The Lady Rebbe – Born in Lodmir, Volhynia (now Vladimir-Volynski, Ukraine) to an affluent family, Hannah Rachel Verbermacher (1805/6-1888 CE) underwent a spiritual transformation after a severe illness in her late adolescence and subsequently declined to marry. Instead, she developed a reputation as a healing miracle worker and became the only woman "Tzaddik" in the history of Hasidism, despite lacking the associative authority derived from being related to a Hasidic Rebbe. Hannah used her inheritance to establish her own beit midrash (study house), where she delivered discourses on the Sabbath to her Hasidim, and she became known as the Maid of Ludomir (or Maiden of Ludmir). Under pressure from Mordechai Twersky (the Maggid of Chernobyl), Hannah reluctantly married at the age of 40, but the union was unconsummated and divorce soon ensued. Around 1859, she immigrated to the Land of Israel, where she settled in Jerusalem and became renowned as a saintly kabbalist who engaged in rituals to hasten the advent of the Messiah. She died in Jerusalem and was buried on the Mount of Olives.