Saturday, July 28, 2007

Berbers, Jews, Europeans; connection?

My French-Morrocan friend Yoel Ohayon mentioned to me recently the origins of his surname. Ohayon is a combination of Berber and Hebrew language; Berber (O=son) + Hebrew (Hayon=life)hence son of Life (O-Hayon). The thought struck me that this is an interesting paralel to the Gaelic language. In Gaelic the prefix 'O' (as in O'brien, O'malley etc.) refers to a descendant of a particular person (though Mac or Mc literally means son of). This got me thinking; I recalled that there were North African Berber tribes who have a tradition that they originate from Northern Europe (while that may in fact be true it is geographically improbable that these Northern Europeans make up the bulk of the indigenous North African genepool).

The North Arican Jewish historian, Andre Chouraqui in his Between East and West: A History of the Jews of North Africa writes that the Berbers had a tradition that they originate from ancient Canaan/Israel. An interesting parallel is found in the Jerusalem Talmud: “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: three decrees were sent out into the land of Israel before they went into the land. Whoever wishes to leave - should leave. To make peace - should make peace. To make war - should do so. The Girgashi left and believed in the Holy One, Blessed be He, and went to Afriki … [1]

By the way, Chiriqui's other theory regarding the Berber origin of most of Morrocan Jewry [2] has been disproven by modern Genetic research which showed an almost 100 percent genetic affinity with Iraqi Jews.


[1]. See Tractate Shevi’it 6:1

[2]. There are several recorded waves of conversion to Judaism among the native Berber tribes of the Maghreb, though its influence on the Jewish genepool appears to be negligble, possibly because many of them later converted to Islam with the Arab invasion, one example includes the 2 sons of the North African Jewish queen Qahina (pictured in drawing), of which I will write about more in a future post.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Origin of the Yiddish term 'Chunyuk'

Many of you may be familiar with the Yiddish word 'Chunyuk' literally a super religious fanatic but are unaware of the origin of the term.

Some time ago I came across a small booklet entitled Yiddish; the holy language by Rabbi David Cohen, Rabbi of Congregation Gvul Yaabetz in Brooklyn, NY. The book contains a listing of Yiddish terms and expressions and highlights their origins. According to the Sefer the origins of the term Chunyuk are as follows (translation mine):

During the early years of the Second temple period, Shimon Hatzadik (Simon the Just) officiated as the High Priest (which was at the time the most senior political and religious Jewish leader). Shortly before his death he bequeathed his position to his younger son Chonyo instead of his older son Shimi. Shimi was overcome with jealousy and decided to play a cruel trick on his younger brother. On the day that he was to enter the Temple to perform the sacrifices, Shimi called to his brother and told him that he wanted to assist him in doing the rituals properly. He then proceeded to dress him up in women's clothing and when Chonyo ascended the altar, those present became enraged at this perceived sacrilege and sought to kill him. Chonyo eventually fled to Egypt where he built the famed "Mikdash Chonyo" [1] [2].


[1]. Yiddish; the holy language by Rabbi David Cohen. pg. 96

[2]. See Tractate Menachot 109B.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

SERIES Sephard in Ashkenaz and Ashkenaz in Sephard. More on Rosh's descendants and different approaches to Jewish martyrdom

In a previous post I mentioned Rabbenu Asher (Rosh) and his descendants in Toledo, Spain. I have finally gotten a hold of H.Z. Zimmel's Ashkenazim and Sephardim which sheds some more light on the subject at hand.

R' Asher imported many characteristics from his native country. He introduced the Ashkenazic approach to Talmudic methodology which differed considerably from the Sephardic one. In many ways, Toledan Jewry was as much influenced by him as he and his descendants were influenced by them. The book also mentions his (Rosh's) 2 daughters marrying Sephardim [1].

Zimmel writes: After Rabbi Asher's death in 1327 his son Judah succeeded him in office. According to Zimmel, the 'asherites' -as he calls them- set a striking example of piety modesty and self sacrifice and made a deep impression on both Jews and gentiles.

He mentions that during the anti Jewish persecutions in 1391 as the Christian mobs swept over the Jewish communities with the cry 'baptism or death', it was Judah ben Asher II a great-grandson of the Rosh who followed the example of his forefathers in Germany by killing his family and himself, a deed which was highly praised by Sephardi authors [2]. [3].

We see here an interesting difference in approach to the unfortunate age old Jewish dilemma of baptism or death. Franco-German Jewry on the one hand -since the period of the Crusades- almost always chose the latter option, whereas Iberian Jewry-with few exceptions either chose to emigrate or live as secret Jews (Anusim).

If I remember correctly, it was Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz 1565-1630 ,(known as the Shelah) who attributed this ‘weakening of faith’ among the Sephardim to the widespread study (or at least tolerance) of Philosophy (if anyone can direct me to the exact source, I'd appreciate it).


[1]. Zimmel. H.Z. Sephardim and Ashkenazim . Oxford, 1958. Pg. 22

[2]. Ibid, 32-33 (see original source in Sefer Yuchasin p. 51a).

[3]. Apparently there was also some controversy surrounding this incident.

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