THE ISRAELITES: JEWS & SAMARITANS
As an ancient people dating back over 3000 years, many of the things societies take for granted today were actually the creation of our ancestors! This post will address a few of them.
SEVEN DAY WEEK
While there are references to seven-day cycles from ancient Mesopotamia in relation to moon festivals, the ancient Israelites were the first to create the concept of a seven-day week.
The seven-day cycle is first mentioned, of course, in Bereshit [Genesis] in the Torah. Jewish tradition tells us that God dictated the Torah to Moses letter by letter, some 3500 years ago. However, this post — and my account in general — will address these issues from an archeological, linguistic, and secular historical lens.
From this perspective, the predominant hypothesis is that Bereshit was written predominantly sometime between the tenth and eighth centuries BCE; however, some parts were written as late as the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. For more on this, check out my post WHEN, HOW, & WHY THE TORAH WAS WRITTEN.
There are various theories as to why the Israelites created the seven day week. Some historians cite possible nearby influences, but others disagree. According to Biblical scholar Jeffrey H. Tigay:
“It is clear that among neighboring nations that were in position to have an influence over Israel – and in fact which did influence it in various matters – there is no precise parallel to the Israelite Sabbatical week. This leads to the conclusion that the Sabbatical week, which is as unique to Israel as the Sabbath from which it flows, is an independent Israelite creation.”
THE CONCEPT OF WEEKENDS
As far as historians are aware, the Israelites were the first to differentiate between the workweek and the weekend. This, of course, is intimately related to the Israelite concept of the seven day week, while the final day, Shabbat [the Sabbath], is reserved for rest. Historians date the Jewish practice of Shabbat to the sixth century BCE at the very latest, though it likely dates all the way back to the tenth-eighth centuries BCE.
While the Babylonians has a seventh day that was used for “recreation,” it was considered an unlucky day. It was the Israelites that came up with the concept of a day of rest.
The observance of Shabbat also stems from Bereshit [Genesis], which tells us that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. Jews observe Shabbat every week from Friday evening to Saturday evening, as days in the Hebrew calendar begin at sundown.
Ancient Israelite society was a highly agrarian society. Most Israelites were farmers and lived off the land in one way or another. Some worked in their own farms, while others were laborers for wealthy landowners. Because the ancient Israelites performed so much manual labor, taking a day of rest was especially important.
Shabbat begins with the lighting of the candles Friday at sundown. According to Rabbinic tradition, two of the three Shabbat meals must begin with a special kiddush [sanctification]. The prayer services for Shabbat begin with the welcoming service, Kabbalat Shabbat, and end with the Havdalah ceremony on Saturday evening after at least three stars are visible in the sky. Observant Jews refrain from working, driving, using technology, and many other tasks until Shabbat is over.
In 1880, Harvard University was the first to grant its scientists, physicians, and other academics the option of a paid sabbatical leave. But the ancient Israelites were the first to come up with the concept nearly 3000 years prior!
Since the times of the Torah and perhaps even earlier, Jews and our ancestors have practiced Shmita, also known as the “Sabbath of the land.”
The Torah mandates that Israelites follow a seven-year agricultural cycle. Just like God commands that we rest on the seventh day of the week, Jews believe that we have been entrusted with a special responsibility to our Indigenous land. As such, the earth, too, deserves to rest.
During the seventh year of the agricultural cycle, the land is left un-farmed to allow for it to rest and recover.
Beyond the agricultural elements of Shmita, all interpersonal loans are also forgiven. Jews in the Diaspora can commemorate Shmita in some ways — e.g. forgiving loans, not purchasing fruit from the Land of Israel — but the agricultural practice applies *exclusively* to the Land of Israel. In other words, Jewish farmers in the Diaspora continue farming during the Shmita year. This is because we only have stewardship over our ancestral land.
During the Shmita year, Jewish farmers in the Land of Israel must allow their fields to lie fallow. Food storage and perennial harvests are made accessible to all.
In recent decades, environmentalists have begun studying the Indigenous practice of Shmita as a means of addressing environmental problems.
PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE
The presumption of innocence is a principle in law that every person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty.
It was the Talmud — the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the main source of Halacha [Jewish Law] — that repeatedly emphasized that the burden of evidence rests on the accuser, not the accused, such as in Bava Kamma 46b.
The Jerusalem Talmud was completed in the fifth century and the Babylonian Talmud was completed in the sixth century.
Equality before the law was also an ancient Israelite idea. The Israelites were the first not to assign their kings divine rights; in other words, Israelites did not believe that their kings ruled in the name of God. As such, kings, too, had to obey the Ten Commandments and the other laws outlined in the Torah. In other words: the kings were not above the law.
In the Torah, Leviticus argues that all should be treated equally before the law: “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow.”
SEPARATION OF POWERS
The Israelites were among the first — if not the first — to establish a system of checks and balances in government: (1) the Torah, responsible for communicating God’s will to the people, (2) Kehunah, or the priesthood, and (3) Malkhut, meaning civil rule, which is responsible for day-to-day business of civil governance.
Prior to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel in 1047 BCE, the Hebrew tribes formed a loose confederation. Archeologists and secular historians believe that there was no centralized governance during this period, but that instead each of the tribes was responsible for its own leadership; however, each of the tribes recognized the authority of the chieftains outside of their own tribe. These chieftains — or judges, as they are generally called today — were generally men, though arguably the most famous judge of the time was Dvora (Deborah), a woman.
Rabbinical courts, known as beit din, date back to antiquity. In ancient times, a beit din was the main legal structure preceding over the Land of Israel. While initially the judges to each court were appointed by their predecessors (in other words: a judge was appointed to the court by a judge in the court), by the fourth century, the selection process was democratized. That is, the people elected the judges, taking great care to choose the most qualified and impartial candidates. The standards for candidature were rigid, to ensure that they were “wise men, and understanding and full of knowledge,” who were charged to “hear the causes between your brethren and judge righteously between a man and his brother and the stranger," to not be “partial in judgment," and to "hear the small and the great alike; fear no man, for judgment is God's.”
In small Israelite towns, a minimum of three judges were appointed to the beit din, so that, in case of a split opinion, the opinion of the majority prevailed. In large towns, too, judicial opinion was deferred to majority rule.
Jews were the first to come up with the concept of public and compulsory education. In 64 CE, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Gamla decreed that all Jewish children, age six and up, should attend school, whether their parents could afford to pay for their studies or not. The Jewish community was receptive to the idea and began establishing subsidized or public schools for their children.
According to educational philanthropist George Hanus: “[This] is the first instance in recorded history of a people instituting compulsory universal education funded by the larger community…Many scholars believe Gamla’s model was the inspiration for free public education systems in the contemporary West, including the United States.”
A little over a hundred years earlier, in 75 BCE, Simeon ben Shetah argued that education should be compulsory. The Torah itself emphasizes the importance of parents educating their children.
The Talmud states that children should begin their formal education at age six and that their education should override all other tasks and responsibilities.
Literacy among the ancient Israelites was shockingly high, around 15-20 percent. Though that sounds low by today’s standards, in the ancient world, such a percentage was astronomical.
Today most people view the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] as a religious document. Non-Christians and non-Muslims even regard it as as religious document with little to no basis in history. This mischaracterization is primarily due to the appropriation and universalization of the Tanakh by other religions.
In reality the Tanakh was written as something of a tribal charter, outlining the spiritual beliefs, mythologies, laws, genealogies, and oral histories of the ancient Israelites. In other words: the Tanakh was written in a particular place for a specific nation. The mythological origins delineated in the Torah were passed down for many generations prior to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel in 1047 BCE.
In 1047 BCE, a loose confederation of Hebrew tribes united to form the first centralized state in the Land of Israel, known as the Kingdom of Israel. Given that each of the tribes had their own identities and mythologies, the Israelites needed a unifying national narrative. Thus began the approximately 500+ year-long process of the writing and compilation of the Torah, based on earlier oral traditions and histories. Many scholars believe that the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) is one of the oldest poems in the history of literature, dating as far back as the thirteenth century BCE, making it among the oldest portions of the Torah.
Because the Tanakh was never meant to be understood outside of its intended context, for 2000 years, others both misinterpreted and weaponized said misinterpretations as justification to murder Jews. For example, the term “Old Testament” implies that the Tanakh is unfinished, that our sacred text is not complete and instead comes in two (or more) parts. For this reason, many Jews — myself included — find the term “Old Testament” problematic and even offensive.
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