David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Parshat Ki Tavo – To the ends of the earth

I'd like to see the curses from this week's Torah portion convert to blessings (and soon!), just as an Amsterdam rabbi used this text to instigate blessing 360 years ago (Ki Tavo)
Portrait of a rabbi, possibly Menasseh ben Israel, by Rembrandt. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of a rabbi, possibly Menasseh ben Israel, by Rembrandt. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On July 18, 1290, King Edward I (Longshanks) of England signed the royal Edict of Expulsion, forcing all Jews to leave the country by All Saints’ Day (November 1) of that year. There were some 2,000 Jews in England at that time, and they packed what little they had and headed to Scotland, France, the Netherlands and even as far as Poland.

The expulsion of Jews from England was the culmination of a series of edicts, persecutions and blood libels that they had suffered since they 1066, when they came with William the Conqueror and first settled in the country in significant numbers. The first written record of Jews in England dates to 1070.

There had been countless blood libels, from William of Norwich in 1144 to Hugh of Lincoln in 1255. Jews had been excluded from 1215’s Magna Carta which gave citizens certain civil liberties. Jews remained direct subjects of the king (in a feudal system where everyone else were under the protection and in the service of lords).

In 1218 Henry III proclaimed the Edict of the Badge, where every Jew had to wear a yellow badge on his or her clothing. This law was reinforced by Henrys Statute of Jewry in 1254, and again in 1274 when Edward enacted his version of the Statute of Jewry:

Each Jew, after he is seven years old, shall wear a distinguishing mark on his outer garment, that is to say, in the form of two Tables joined, of yellow felt of the length of six inches and of the breadth of three inches.

16th-century illustration of Edward I presiding over Parliament with Alexander III of Scotland and Llywelyn ap Gruffudd of Wales on either side of him. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Jews had long been used to provide loans to fund to the king and his barons (since they were barred from most other forms of employment, and Christians were forbidden to lend money with interest). But when the king could not repay the loans he taxed the Jews vast sums of money. The Second Barons’ War in the 1260s also provided an excuse for the landowners to encourage pogroms against Jews and destroy any evidence of loans or debts. In London alone, over 500 Jews were killed during this time.

In 1287, Edward, who was also Duke of Gascony in southwestern France, ordered all Jews expelled from the duchy. The crown seized all property owned by Jews and all outstanding debts owed to Jews now had to be repaid to the king’s treasury.

Despite this, following frequent military campaigns and a declaration to go on a second crusade, Edward was in deep debt. In 1290, he summoned his knights and imposed a steep tax on them. To sweeten the deal Edward offered to expel the Jews.

For the next three and a half centuries Jews were banned from living in England. Despite this, permits were occasionally given to individual Jews to visit, such as to Dr Elias Sabot who was summoned from Bologna to treat Henry IV in 1410. Especially following 1492’s expulsion from Spain some secret Jews who had outwardly converted to Christianity moved to England. One such converso was Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s court physician, who may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Shylock.

However, by the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651) attitudes to Jews were gradually changing. Many of the Puritans, including Oliver Cromwell, had replaced anti-Jewish attitudes with anti-Catholic sentiment. There were many calls to readmit Jews to England so they could be converted to Christianity and hasten the end of days.

Cromwell in the Battle of Naseby in 1645. Charles Landseer. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

One group of extreme Puritans known as the Fifth Monarchy Men took their name from a prophecy in Daniel (chapter 2, chapter 7 and chapter 8) that referred to four ancient kingdoms – which was interpreted to refer to the Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian and Roman kingdoms – which would precede the kingdom of God. The Fifth Monarchy Men believed that the prophecy was about to be fulfilled and they wanted to hasten the end. They believed the Messiah would arrive in 1666 and advocated for Jews to be allowed back to England in preparation of the end of time.

[As an aside, 1666 was in fact a momentous year – in 1665-6 the Great Plague of London killed an estimated 100,000 people – one quarter of London’s population. In 1666 from Sunday, 2 September to Thursday, 6 September, the Great Fire of London began in Pudding Lane and gutted large sections of the city. Although there were only six verified deaths, the fire destroyed the homes of tens of thousands of citizens. And of course, one of the reasons that the false Messiah Sabbatai Zevi was able to draw so many followers was the impending doom of the year 1666 – the year Sabbatai chose Islam over death rather than become the Messiah his followers had hoped for.]

Back to 17th century England. In 1650, a Dutch Rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel wrote “Hope of Israel” in which he encouraged England to readmit the Jews. In 1652 the book was translated into English and dedicated to the English Parliament. In 1653 Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England as Lord Protector after the beheading of Charles I, invited the rabbi to visit. He issued a directive stating:

Menasseh ben Israel, a rabbi of the Jewish nation, well respected for his learning and good affection to the State, to come from Amsterdam to these parts.

Menasseh ben Israel. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to the religious reasons for wanting to allow Jews back into England, Cromwell had practical goals in mind. He also wanted to attract Jews with strong ties to Europe who could provide finance for his expansionist dreams and would also bring intelligence from the continent to England.

The Anglo-Dutch war of 1652-1654 delayed Menasseh’s visit but in September 1655 he arrived with three other rabbis. The delegation remained until 1657, during which time he asked for a Torah scroll to be sent over from Amsterdam, and, along with a group of secret Jews, held the first public prayer service in centuries. In February, 1657, two Jews acquired property near Mile End for use as a synagogue. Although Jews were still officially banned from the country, Cromwell was tacitly letting the Jews gradually return. In fact, Edward’s Edict of Expulsion was never formally revoked. Cromwell relied on the 1655 Whitehall Conference which decided that “there is no law against their coming” because Jews were expelled by royal decree and not by an act of parliament. Thus there was no legislation banning Jews from the country.

One of Menasseh ben Israel’s strongest arguments to Cromwell was based on a verse in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo.

I conceived, that our universall dispersion was a necessary circumstance, to be fulfilled, before all that shall be accomplished which the Lord hath promised to the people of the Iewes, concerning their restauration, and their returning again into their own land, according to those words Dan. 12.7. When he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished. As also, that this our scattering, by little, and little, should be amongst all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; as it is written Deut. 28.64. I conceived that by the end of the earth might be understood this Island. And I knew not, but that the Lord who often works by naturall meanes, might have design’d, and made choice of me, for the bringing about this work. With these proposalls therefore, I applyed my self, in all zealous affection to the English Nation, congratulating their glorious liberty which at this day they enjoy, together with their prosperous peace.

Knowing that Daniel’s prophecy of the four kingdoms was important to the puritans, Menasseh argued that the prophecy could not be fulfilled until all the curses in Ki Tavo had come true. One of the curses states (Deuteronomy 28:64):

God will scatter you among the nations, from the end of the earth to the end of the earth…

England, or Angleterre, was literally the “corner of the earth.” Menasseh argued that the Christian end of days could not occur until Jews were living on the island at the end of the world.

It is a curious argument that worked to the advantage of the Jews by playing on Christian millennial fears.

Nowadays, when we say “the end of the earth” we mean it as a metaphor. But the rabbi and the puritans seem to have taken it literally.

It is clear that for the purposes of his argument, Menasseh ben Israel was prepared to ignore the fact that almost 200 years earlier Christopher Columbus had conclusively proved that England was most definitely not the end of the earth. In fact, for centuries, everyone had known that the earth had no ends but was spherical.

The ancient Greeks attributed the idea of the earth being a globe to Pythagoras (6th century BCE). Certainly, from the 5th century BCE no serious Greek writer thought the world was flat. As early as 240 BCE the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes even calculated the earth’s circumference (and his estimation was incorrect but remarkably close).

Eratosthenes teaching in Alexandria by Bernardo Strozzi, 1635. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Yet some of the rabbis of the Talmud in the 3rd-6th century CE apparently disagreed with the Greeks or were unaware of their knowledge. There are several different descriptions of the shape of the earth and its place in the universe in the Talmud and no clear consensus. But one passage (Chagiga 12a) strongly implies that the earth has edges. In discussing the height of Adam before the sin the Talmud points out an apparent contradiction:

Rabbi Elazar said, ‘Adam, the first man, stretched from the earth to heaven’… Rav Yehuda said, ‘Adam the first man stretched from one end of the earth to the other’…

The Talmud resolves this contradiction by saying that both measures are the same length. The distance from earth to heaven is the same distance as from one end of the earth to the other.

It is certainly possible (or even likely) that the rabbis were alluding to some deeper meaning and were not discussing the physical dimensions of the earth.

However, many later rabbis continued to believe that the world literally had four corners. This became relevant halakhically when discussing the Jewish concept of a date line.

As late as the 18th century, Jacob ben Joseph Reischer (1661-1733), in his halakhic book Shevut Ya’akov (vol. 3 siman 20) claimed, based on the Talmud (Chagiga 12a), that the earth was flat.

How can we learn from books of non-Jews when they base their words on the fact that the world is a sphere, against the implication of the Talmud (Chagiga) which says “both this and that are the same measure”?

Nowadays we understand the words “the four corners of the earth,” (Isaiah 11:12) to be metaphorical. But Menasseh ben Israel was skillfully able to use the literal meaning of the verse to encourage Cromwell to allow the Jews back into Israel. The rabbi from Amsterdam used the words of the curse in this week’s Torah portion to bring the blessing of the past 360 years of Jewish life in England.

The Talmud (Megillah 31a) says that we read this portion with the curses before Rosh Hashana so that, “The year and its curses will end.” I have never felt the relevance of this more than this year. May we merit to see the curses turned into blessings and prepare for a new year of health and prosperity.

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About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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