Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, known as the Patriarchs, are both the physical and spiritual ancestors of Judaism. They founded the religion now known as Judaism, and their descendants are the Jewish People. Of course, technically, it is incorrect to refer to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Jews, because the terms "Jew" and "Judaism" were not used generally to refer to this nation until hundreds of years after their time; nevertheless, for convenience and in accordance with common practice, I will use these terms.
The history below is derived from written Trah, Talmud, Mishra and other sources. Modern scholars question the existence of the Patriarchs and the historical accuracy of this information; however, it is worth noting that scholars also questioned the existence of Babylonia and Troy... until archaeologists found them.
According to Jewish tradition, Abraham was born under the name Abram in the city of Ur in Babylonia in the year 1948 from Creation (circa 1800 BCE). He was the son of Terach, an idol merchant, but from his early childhood, he questioned the faith of his father and sought the truth. He came to believe that the entire universe was the work of a single Creator, and he began to teach this belief to others.
Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship. One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, "The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones." His father said, "Don't be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can't do anything." Abram replied, "Then why do you worship them?"
Eventually, the one true Creator that Abram had worshipped called to him, and made him an offer: if Abram would leave his home and his family, then G-d would make him a great nation and bless him. Abram accepted this offer, and the b'rit (covenant) between G-d and the Jewish people was established. (Gen. 12).
The idea of b'rit is fundamental to traditional Judaism: we have a covenant, a contract, with G-d, which involves rights and obligations on both sides. We have certain obligations to G-d, and G-d has certain obligations to us. The terms of this b'rit became more explicit over time, until the time of the Giving of the Torah. Abram was subjected to ten tests of faith to prove his worthiness for this covenant. Leaving his home is one of these trials.
Abram, raised as a city-dweller, adopted a nomadic lifestyle, traveling through what is now the land of Israel for many years. G-d promised this land to Abram's descendants. Abram is referred to as a Hebrew (Ivri), possibly because he was descended from Eber (Gen. 11) or possibly because he came from the "other side" (eber) of the Euphrates River.
But Abram was concerned, because he had no children and he was growing old. Abram's beloved wife, Sarai, knew that she was past child-bearing years, so she offered her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife to Abram. This was a common practice in the region at the time. According to tradition, Hagar was a daughter of Pharaoh, given to Abram during his travels in Egypt. She bore Abram a son, Ishmael, who, according to both Muslim and Jewish tradition, is the ancestor of the Arabs. (Gen 16)
When Abram was 100 and Sarai 90, G-d promised Abram a son by Sarai. G-d changed Abram's name to Abraham (father of many), and Sarai's to Sarah (from "my princess" to "princess"). Sarah bore Abraham a son, Isaac (in Hebrew, Yitzchak), a name derived from the word "laughter," expressing Abraham's joy at having a son in his old age. (Gen 17-18). Isaac was the ancestor of the Jewsih peopl. Thus, the conflict between Arabs and Jews can be seen as a form of sibling rivalry!
Isaac was the subject of the tenth and most difficult test of Abraham's faith:G-d commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. (Gen 22). This test is known in Jewish tradition as the Akeidah (the Binding, a reference to the fact that Isaac was bound on the altar).
But this test is also an extraordinary demonstration of Isaac's own faith, because according to Jewish tradition, Isaac knew that he was to be sacrificed, yet he did not resist, and was united with his father in dedication.
At the last moment, G-d sent an angel to stop the sacrifice. It is interesting to note that child sacrifice was a common practice in the region at the time. Thus, to people of the time, the surprising thing about this story is not the fact that G-d asked Abraham to sacrifice his child, but that G-d stopped him!
Judaism uses this story as evidence that G-d abhors human sacrifice. In fact, I have seen some sources indicating that Abraham failed this test of faith because he did not refuse to sacrifice his son! Judaism has always strongly opposed the practice of human sacrifice, commonplace in many other cultures at that time and place.
Isaac later married Rebecca (Rivka), who bore him fraternal twin sons: Jacob (Ya'akov) and Esau. (Gen 25).
Jacob and his brother Esau were at war with each other even before they were born. They struggled within Rebecca's womb. Esau was Isaac's favorite, because he was a good hunter, but the more spiritually-minded Jacob was Rebecca's favorite.
Esau had little regard for the spiritual heritage of his forefathers, and sold his birthright of spiritual leadership to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. When Isaac was growing old, Rebecca tricked him into giving Jacob a blessing meant for Esau. Esau was angry about this, and about the birthright, so Jacob fled to live with his uncle, where he met his beloved Rachel. Jacob was deceived into marrying Rachel's older sister, Leah, but later married Rachel as well, and Rachel and Leah's maidservants, Bilhah and Zilphah. Between these four women, Jacob fathered 12 sons and one daughter.
After many years living with and working for his uncle/father-in-law, Jacob returned to his homeland and sought reconciliation with his brother Esau. He prayed to God and gave his brother gifts. The night before he went to meet his brother, he sent his wives, sons, and things across the river, and was alone with G-d. That night, he wrestled with a man until the break of day. As the dawn broke, Jacob demanded a blessing from the man, and the "man" revealed himself as an angel. He blessed Jacob and gave him the name "Israel" (Yisrael), meaning "the one who wrestled with God" or "the Champion of God." The Jewish people are generally referred to as the Children of Israel, signifying our descent from Jacob. The next day, Jacob met Esau and was welcomed by him.
Children of Israel
Jacob fathered 12 sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin. They are the ancestors of the tribes of Israel, and the ones for whom the tribes are named. Joseph is the father of two tribes: Manasseh and Ephraim.
Joseph's older brothers were jealous of him, because he was the favorite of their father, and because he had visions that he would lead them all. They sold Joseph into slavery and convinced their father that Joseph was dead. But this was all part of God'slan: Joseph was brought into Egypt, where his ability to interpret visions earned him a place in the Pharaoh's court, paving the way for his family's later settlement in Egypt.
The Exodus and the Giving of the Torah
As centuries passed, the descendants of Israel became slaves in Egypt. They suffered greatly under the hand of later Pharaohs. But God brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses. God led them on a journey through the wilderness to Mount Sinai. Here, G-d revealed Himself to the Children of Israel and offered them a great covenant: if the people would hearken to G-d and observe His covenant, then they would be the most beloved of nations, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex 19). G-d revealed the Torah to his people, both the written and oral Torah, and the entire nation responded, "Everything that the L-rd has spoken, we will do!" According to Jewish tradition, every Jewish soul that would ever be born was present at that moment, and agreed to be bound to this covenant.
Moses, Aaron and Miriam were the leaders of the Children of Israel at a pivotal time in our history: the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years of wandering in the desert before the people entered the Promise Land.
An entire book could be written on the stories of these three people. Indeed, four books have already been written: the biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which tell the story of their life and times. This page can only begin to scratch the surface.
The history below is derived from written Torah, Talmud, Midrash and other sources. Where information comes directly from the Bible, I have provided citations.
As with the stories of the patriarchs, modern scholars question the historical accuracy of this information; however, scholars also claimed that the Torah could not have been written at that time because alphabetic writing did not exist … and then archaeologists dug up 4000 year old samples of alphabetic writing.
Moses was the greatest prophet, leader and teacher that Judaism has ever known. In fact, one of Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith is the belief that Moses' prophecies are true, and that he was the greatest of the prophets. He is called "Moshe Rabbeinu," that is, Moses, Our Teacher/Rabbi. Interestingly, the numerical value of "Moshe Rabbeinu" is 613: the number of mitzvot that Moses taught the Children of Israel! He is described as the only person who ever knew God face-to-face (Deut. 34:10) and mouth-to-mouth (Num. 12:8), which means that G-d spoke to Moses directly, in plain language, not through visions and dreams, as G-d communicated with other prophets.
Moses was born on 7 Adar in the year 2368 from Creation (circa 1400 BCE), the son of Amram, a member of the tribe of Levi, and Yocheved, Levi's daughter (Ex. 6:16-20). Unlike the heroes of many other ancient cultures, Moses did not have a miraculous birth. Amram married Yocheved, and she conceived, and she gave birth (Ex. 2:1-2). The only unusual thing about his birth is Yocheved's advanced age: Yocheved was born while Jacob and his family were entering Egypt, so she was 130 when Moses was born. His father named him Chaver, and his grandfather called him Avigdor, but he is known to history as Moses, a name given to him by Pharaoh's daughter.
The name "Moses" comes from a root meaning "take out," because Moses was taken out of the river (Ex. 2:10). Some modern scholars point out that the root M-S-S in Egyptian means "son of" as in the name Ramases (son of Ra), but it is worth noting that Moses' name in Hebrew is M-Sh-H, not M-S-S. According to one Jewish source, Pharaoh's daughter actually named him Minios, which means "drawn out" in Egyptian, and the name Moshe (Moses) was a Hebrew translation of that name, just as a Russian immigrant named Ivan might change his name to the English equivalent, John.
Moses was born in a very difficult time: Pharaoh had ordered that all male children born to the Hebrew slaves should be drowned in the river (Ex. 1:22). Yocheved hid Moses for three months, and when she could no longer hide him, she put him in a little ark and placed it on the river where Pharaoh's daughter bathed (Ex. 2:2-3). Pharaoh's daughter found the child and had compassion on him (Ex. 2:6). At the suggestion of Moses' sister Mirriam, Pharaoh's daughter hired Yocheved to nurse Moses until he was weaned (Ex. 2:7-10). Yocheved instilled in Moses a knowledge of his heritage and a love of his people that could not be erased by the 40 years he spent in the antisemitic court of Pharaoh.
Little is known about Moses' youth. The biblical narrative skips from his adoption by Pharaoh's daughter to his killing of an Egyptian taskmaster some 40 years later. One traditional story tells that when he was a child, sitting on Pharaoh's knee, Moses took the crown off of Pharaoh's head and put it on. The court magicians took this as a bad sign and demanded that he be tested: they put a brazier full of gold and a brazier full of hot coals before him to see which he would take. If Moses took the gold, he would have to be killed. An angel guided Moses' hand to the coal, and he put it into his mouth, leaving him with a life-long speech impediment (Ex. 4:10).
Although Moses was raised by Egyptians, his compassion for his people was so great that he could not bear to see them beaten by Pharaoh's taskmasters. One day, when Moses was about 40 years old, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and he was so outraged that he struck and killed the Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-12). But when both his fellow Hebrews and the Pharaoh condemned him for this action, Moses was forced to flee from Egypt (Ex. 2:14-15).
He fled to Midian, where he met and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (Ex. 2:16-21). They had a son, Gershom (Ex. 2:22). Moses spent 40 years in Midian tending his father-in-law's sheep. A midrash tells that Moses was chosen to lead the Children of Israel because of his kindness to animal. When he was bringing the sheep to a river for water, one lamb did not come. Moses went to the little lamb and carried it to the water so it could drink. Like God, Moses cared about each individual in the group, and not just about the group as a whole. This showed that he was a worthy shepherd for G-d's flock.
I'm sure everyone knows what happened next - if you haven't read the book, then you've certainly seen the movie. G-d appeared to Moses and chose him to lead the people out of Egyptian slavery and to the Promise land (Ex. Chs. 3-4). With the help of his brother Aaron, Moses spoke to Pharaoh and triggered the plagues against Egypt (Ex. Chs. 4-12). He then led the people out of Egypt and across the sea to freedom, and brought them to Mount Sinai, where G-d gave the people the Torah and the people accepted it (Ex. Chs. 12-24).
God revealed the entire Torah to Moses. The entire Torah includes the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) that Moses himself wrote as G-d instructed him. It also includes all of the remaining prophecies and history that would later be written down in the remaining books of scripture, and the entire Oral Torah, the oral tradition for interpreting the Torah, that would later be written down in the Talmud. Moses spent the rest of his life writing the first five books, essentially taking dictation from G-d.
After Moses received instruction from G-d about the Law and how to interpret it, he came back down to the people and started hearing cases and judging them for the people, but this quickly became too much for one man. Upon the advice of his father-in-law, Yitro, Moses instituted a judicial system (Ex. 18:13-26).
Moses was not perfect. Like any man, he had his flaws and his moments of weakness, and the Bible faithfully records these shortcomings. In fact, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promise Land because of a transgression (Deut. 32:48-52). Moses was told to speak to a rock to get water from it, but instead he struck the rock repeatedly with a rod, showing improper anger and a lack of faith (Num. 20:7-13).
Moses died in the year 2488, just before the people crossed over into the Promised Land (Deut. 32:51). He completed writing the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) before he died. There is some dispute as to who physically wrote the last few verses of Deuteronomy: according to some, Moses wrote these last few verses from a vision of the future, but according to others, the last few verses were added by Joshua after Moses' death. In any case, these verses, like everything else in the Torah, were written by G-d, and the actual identity of the transcriber is not important.
Moses' position as leader of Israel was not hereditary. His son, Gershom, did not inherit the leadership of Israel. Moses' chosen successor was Joshua, son of Nun (Deut. 34:9).
Moses was 120 years old at the time that he died (Deut. 34:7). That lifespan is considered to be ideal, and has become proverbial: one way to wish a person well in Jewish tradition is to say, "May you live to be 120!"
As important as Moses was to the Children of Israel, it is always important to remember that Moses himself was not the deliverer or redeemer of Israel. It was G-d who redeemed Israel, not Moses. Moses was merely God's prophet, His spokesman. The traditional text of the Pessach Haggadah does not even mention Moses' name. In order to prevent people from idolatrously worshipping Moses, his grave was left unmarked (Deut. 34:6).
Aaron was Moses' older brother. He was born in 2365, three years before Moses, before the Pharaoh's edict requiring the death of male Hebrew children. He was the ancestor of all koheins, the founder of the priesthood, and the first Kohein Gadol (High Priest). Aaron and his descendants tended the altar and offered sacrifices. Aaron's role, unlike Moses', was inherited; his sons continued the priesthood after him (Num. 20:26).
Aaron served as Moses' spokesman. As discussed above, Moses was not eloquent and had a speech impediment, so Aaron spoke for him (Ex. 4:10-16). Contrary to popular belief, it was Aaron, not Moses, who cast down the staff that became a snake before Pharaoh (Ex. 7:10-12). It was Aaron, not Moses, who held out his staff to trigger the first three plagues against Egypt (Ex. 7:19-20; Ex. 8:1-2 or 8:5-6; Ex. 8:12-13 or 8:16-17). According to Jewish tradition, it was also Aaron who performed the signs for the elders before they went to Pharaoh (Ex. 4:30).
Aaron's most notable personal quality is that he was a peacemaker. His love of peace is proverbial; Rabbi Hillel said, "Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them near the Torah." According to tradition, when Aaron heard that two people were arguing, he would go to each of them and tell them how much the other regretted his actions, until the two people agreed to face each other as friends.
In fact, Aaron loved peace so much that he participated in the incident of the Golden Calf (Ex. 32), constructing the idol in order to prevent dissension among the people. Aaron intended to buy time until Moses returned from Mount Sinai (he was late, and the people were worried), to discourage the people by asking them to give up their precious jewelry in order to make the idol, and to teach them the error of their ways in time (Ex. 32:22).
Aaron, like Moses, died in the desert shortly before the people entered the Promise land(Num. 20).
Miriam was Aaron and Moses' older sister. According to some sources, she was seven years older than Moses, but other sources seem to indicate that she was older than that. Some sources indicate that Miriam was Puah, one of the midwives who rescued Hebrew babies from Pharaoh's edict against them (Ex. 1:15-19).
Miriam was a prophetess in her own right (Ex. 15:20), the first woman described that way in scripture (although Sarah is also considered to be a prophetess, that word is not applied to her in scripture). According to tradition, she prophesied before Moses' birth that her parents would give birth to the person who would bring about their people's redemption.
Miriam waited among the bulrushes while Moses' ark was in the river, watching over him to make sure he was all right (Ex. 2:4). When the Pharaoh's daughter drew Moses out of the water, Miriam arranged for their mother, Yocheved, to nurse Moses and raise him until he was weaned (Ex. 2:7-9).
Miriam led the women of Israel in a song and dance of celebration after the Pharaoh's men were drowned in the sea (Ex. 15:20-21). She is said to be the ancestress of other creative geniuses in Israel's history: Bezalel, the architect of the mishkan (the portable sanctuary used in the desert) (Ex. 31:1-3) and King David.
According to tradition, because of Miriam's righteousness, a well followed the people through the desert throughout their wanderings, and that well remained with them until the day of Miriam's death.
Like her brothers, Miriam was not perfect. She led her brother Aaron to speak against Moses over a matter involving a Cushite woman he had married (Zipporah, or possibly a second wife) (Num. 12:1). They also objected to his leadership, noting that he had no monopoly on Divine Communication (Num 12:2). For this, Miriam was punished with tzaaras (an affliction generally translated as leprosy) (Num. 12:10). However, Aaron pled on her behalf, and she was cured (Num. 12:11).
What is a Prophet?
Many people today think of a prophet as any person who sees the future. While the gift of prophecy certainly includes the ability to see the future, a prophet is far more than just a person with that ability.
A prophet is basically a spokesman for God, a person chosen by G-d to speak to people on G-d's behalf and convey a message or teaching. Prophets were role models of holiness, scholarship and closeness to G-d. They set the standards for the entire community.
The Hebrew word for a prophet, navi (Nun-Beit-Yod-Alef) comes from the term niv sefatayim meaning "fruit of the lips," which emphasizes the prophet's role as a speaker.
The Talmud teaches that there were hundreds of thousands of prophets: twice as many as the number of people who left Egypt, which was 600,000. But most of the prophets conveyed messages that were intended solely for their own generation and were not reported in scripture. Scripture identifies only 55 prophets of Israel.
A prophet is not necessarily a man. Scripture records the stories of seven female prophets, listed below, and the Talmud reports that Sarah's prophetic ability was superior to Abraham's.
A prophet is not necessarily a Jew. The Talmud reports that there were prophets among the gentiles (most notably Balaam, whose story is told in Numbers 22), although they were not as elevated as the prophets of Israel (as the story of Balaam demonstrates). And some of the prophets, such as Jonah, were sent on missions to speak to the gentiles.
According to some views, prophecy is not a gift that is arbitrarily conferred upon people; rather, it is the culmination of a person's spiritual and ethical development. When a person reaches a sufficient level of spiritual and ethical achievement, the Shechinah (Divine Spirit) comes to rest upon him or her. Likewise, the gift of prophecy leaves the person if that person lapses from his or her spiritual and ethical perfection.
The greatest of the prophets was Moses. It is said that Moses saw all that all of the other prophets combined saw, and more. Moses saw the whole of the Torah, including the Prophets and the Writings that were written hundreds of years later. All subsequent prophecy was merely an expression of what Moses had already seen. Thus, it is taught that nothing in the Prophets or the Writings can be in conflict with Moses' writings, because Moses saw it all in advance.
The Talmud states that the writings of the prophets will not be necessary in the World to Come, because in that day, all people will be mentally, spiritually and ethically perfect, and all will have the gift of prophecy.
Who are the Prophets of the Jewish Scriptures?
The following list of prophets is based on the Talmud and Rashi.
Abraham Gen 11:26 - 25:10 Isaac Gen 21:1 - 35:29 Jacob Gen 25:21 - 49:33 Moses Ex. 2:1 - Deut. 34:5 Aaron Ex. 4:14 - Num. 33:39 Joshua Ex. 17:9 - 14, 24:13, 32:17 - 18, 33:11; Num. 11:28 - 29, 13:4 - 14:38; 27:18 - 27:23, Deut. 1:38, 3:28, 31:3, 31:7 -Joshua 24:29 Pinchas Ex. 6:25; Num. 25:7-25:11; Num. 31:6; Josh. 22:13 - Josh. 24:33; Judges 20:28 Elkanah I Samuel 1:1 - 2:20 Eli I Samuel 1:9 - 4:18 Samuel I Samuel 1:1 - I Samuel 25:1 Gad I Sam 22:5; II Sam 24:11-19; I Chron 21:9-21:19, 29:29 Nathan II Sam 7:2 - 17; 12:1 - 25. David I Sam 16:1 - I Kings 2:11 Solomon II Sam 12:24; 1 Kings 1:10 - 11:43 Iddo II Chron 9:29, 12:15, 13:22 Michaiah son of Imlah I Kings 22:8-28; II Chron 18:7-27 Obadiah I Kings 18; Obadiah Ahiyah the Shilonite I Kings 11:29-30; 12:15; 14:2-18; 15:29 Jehu son of Hanani I Kings 16:1 - 7; II Chron 19:2; 20:34 Azariah son of Oded II Chron 15 Jahaziel the Levite II Chron 20:14 Eliezer son of Dodavahu II Chron 20:37 Hosea Hosea Amos Amos Micah the Morashtite Micah Amoz (the father of Isaiah) Elijah I Kings 17:1 - 21:29; II Kings 1:10-2:15, 9:36-37, 10:10, 10:17 Elisha I Kings 19:16-19; II Kings 2:1-13:21 Jonah ben Amittai Jonah Isaiah Isaiah Joel Joel Nahum Nahum Habakkuk Habakkuk Zephaniah Zephaniah Uriah Jeremiah 26:20-23 Jeremiah Jeremiah Ezekiel Ezekiel Shemaiah I Kings 12:22-24; II Chron 11:2-4, 12:5-15 Barukh Jeremiah 32, 36, 43, 45 Neriah (father of Barukh) Seraiah Jeremiah 51:61-64 Mehseiah (father of Neriah) Haggai Haggai Zechariah Zechariah Malachi Malachi Mordecai Bilshan Esther Oded (father of Azariah) Hanani (father of Jehu) Female Prophets Sarah Gen 11:29 - 23:20 Miriam Ex. 15:20-21; Num. 12:1-12:15, 20:1 Deborah Judges 4:1 - 5:31 Hannah I Sam 1:1 - 2:21 Abigail I Sam 25:1 - 25:42 Huldah II Kings 22:14-20 Esther Esther
Why is Daniel Not a Prophet?
I am often asked why the Book of Daniel is included in the Writings section of the Tanakh instead of the Prophets section. Wasn't Daniel a prophet? Weren't his visions of the future true?
According to Judaism, Daniel is not one of the 55 prophets. His writings include visions of the future, which we believe to be true; however, his mission was not that of a prophet. His visions of the future were never intended to be proclaimed to the people; they were designed to be written down for future generations. Thus, they are Writings, not Prophecies, and are classified accordingly.
Hillel and Shammai
These two great scholars born a generation or two before the beginning of the Common Era are usually discussed together and contrasted with each other, because they were contemporaries and the leaders of two opposing schools of thought (known as "houses"). The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the House of Shammai). In almost every one of these disputes, Hillel's view prevailed.
Rabbi Hillel was born to a wealthy family in Babylonia, but came to Jerusalem without the financial support of his family and supported himself as a woodcutter. It is said that he lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the admission fee to study Torah, and because of him that fee was abolished. He was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity. One of his most famous sayings, recorded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a tractate of the Mishnah), is "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" The Hillel organization, a network of Jewish college student organizations, is named for him.
Rabbi Shammai was an engineer, known for the strictness of his views. The Talmud tells that a gentile came to Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot. Shammai drove him away with a builder's measuring stick! Hillel, on the other hand, converted the gentile by telling him, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was the youngest and most distinguished disciple of Rabbi Hillel. He has been called the "father of wisdom and the father of generations (of scholars)" because he ensured the continuation of Jewish scholarship after Jerusalem fell to Rome in 70 C.E.
According to tradition, ben Zakkai was a pacifist in Jerusalem in 68 C.E. when the city was under siege by General Vespasian. Jerusalem was controlled by the Zealots, people who would rather die than surrender to Rome (these are the same people who controlled Masada). Ben Zakkai urged surrender, but the Zealots would not hear of it, so ben Zakkai faked his own death and had his disciples smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a coffin. They carried the coffin to Vespasian's tent, where ben Zakkai emerged from the coffin. He told Vespasian that he had had a vision (some would say, a shrewd political insight) that Vespasian would soon be emperor, and he asked Vespasian to set aside a place in Yavneh (near modern Rehovot) where he could move his yeshivah (school) and study Torah in peace. Vespasian promised that if the prophecy came true, he would grant ben Zakkai's request. Vespasian became Emperor and kept his word, allowing the school to be established after the war was over. The yeshiva survived and was a center of Jewish learning for centuries.
Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph (approx. 15-135 C.E.)
A poor, semi-literate shepherd, Rabbi Akiba became one of Judaism's greatest scholars. He developed the exegetical method of the Mishnah, linking each traditional practice to a basis in the biblical text, and systematized the material that later became the Mishnah.
Rabbi Akiba was active in the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome. He believed that Bar Kokhba was the Moshiach (messiah), though some other rabbis openly ridiculed him for that belief (the Talmud records another rabbi as saying, "Akiba, grass will grow in your cheeks and still the son of David will not have come.") When the Bar Kokhba rebellion failed, Rabbi Akiba was taken by the Roman authorities and tortured to death.
Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi (approx. 135-219 C.E.)
The Patriarch of the Jewish community, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi was well-educated in Greek thought as well as Jewish thought. He organized and compiled the Mishnah, building upon Rabbi Akiba's work.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) (1040-1105 C.E.)
A grape grower living in Northern France, Rashi wrote the definitive commentaries on the Babylonian Talmud and the Bible. Rashi pulled together materials from a wide variety of sources, wrote them down in the order of the Talmud and the Bible for easy reference, and wrote them in such clear, concise and plain language that it can be appreciated by beginners and experts alike. Almost every edition of the Talmud printed since the invention of the printing press has included the text of Rashi's commentary side-by-side with the Talmudic text. Many traditional Jews will not study the Bible without a Rashi commentary beside it.
Rambam (Maimonides; Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) (1135-1204 C.E.)
A physician born in Moorish Cordoba, Rambam lived in a variety of places throughout the Moorish lands of Spain, the Middle East and North Africa, often fleeing persecution. He was a leader of the Jewish community in Cairo. He was heavily influenced by Greek thought, particularly that of Aristotle.
Rambam was the author of the Mishneh Torah, one of the greatest codes of Jewish law, compiling every conceivable topic of Jewish law in subject matter order and providing a simple statement of the prevailing view in plain language. In his own time, he was widely condemned because he claimed that the Mishneh Torah was a substitute for studying the Talmud.
Rambam is also responsible for several important theological works. He developed the 13 Principles of Faith, the most widely accepted list of Jewish beliefs. He also wrote the Guide for the Perplexed, a discussion of difficult theological concepts written from the perspective of an Aristotelian philosopher.
Ramban (Nachmanides; Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) (1194-1270 C.E.)
Ramban was the foremost halakhist of his age. Like Rambam before him, Ramban was a Spaniard who was both a physician and a great Torah scholar. However, unlike the rationalist Rambam, Ramban had a strong mystical bent. His biblical commentaries are the first ones to incorporate the mystical teachings of kabbalah.
He was well-known for his aggressive refutations of Christianity, most notably, his debate with Pablo Christiani, a converted Jew, before King Jaime I of Spain in 1263.
Ramban could be described as one of history's first Zionists, because he declared that it is a mitzvah to take possession of Israel and to live in it (relying on Num. 33:53). He said, "So long as Israel occupies [the Holy Land], the earth is regarded as subject to Him." Ramban fulfilled this commandment, moving to the Holy Land during the Crusades after he was expelled from Spain for his polemics. He found devastation in the Holy Land, "but even in this destruction," he said, "it is a blessed land." He died there in 1270 C.E.
Baal Shem Tov (the Besht, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer) (1700-1760 C.E.)
The founder of Chasidic Judaism. Although many books of his teachings exist, the Besht himself wrote no books, perhaps because his teachings emphasized the fact that even a simple, uneducated peasant could approach God (a radical idea in its time, when Judaism emphasized that the way to approach G-d was through study). He emphasized prayer, the observance of commandments, and ecstatic, personal mystical experiences.