Jewish Praxis during a Crisis

Online BarMitzvahPerhaps the greatest crisis in Jewish history was the period known as the Babylonian Captivity. It was actually the apex of a progression of calamities beginning with the Assyrian Captivity of 711/12 BCE. Though the Assyrian siege targeted only the northern kingdom of Israel, more than just the tribes of the North were impacted. There was a great influx of northern kingdom citizens into the southern kingdom of Judah in the frenzy to escape exile, so that all 12 Israelite tribes came to be represented in the population of Judah. Many (but not all) were taken into captivity in Assyria.

Babylon would later seize control over the Assyrian kingdom and inherit all of her captives, including the exiled Israelites. The Israelites proved to be very self-sufficient, making good lives for themselves outside the Land of Israel. Nebuchadnezzar recognized this and in 607 BCE took captive 4 men of renown from the southern kingdom of Judah: Daniel, Shadrach, Meshak, and Abed-Nego. A second wave of captive-taking occurred in 597 BCE, and a third and final wave followed in 586/587 BCE.

During the next fifty years, closing with the Cyrus Decree of 536/537 BCE, a Diaspora court called the Anshei Knesset HaG’dolah (Men of the Great Synagogue) was convened. It consisted of 120 Sages with the Scribe Ezra presiding. This court aimed to unite the scattered synagogues which had emerged throughout the Babylonian Empire around a common liturgical system. They developed the parasha schedule, dividing the Torah Shebikhtav into 54 portions, one for each week of the Biblical calendar, so that every synagogue would be on the same passage on any given Sabbath. They also determined that seats should be made available in the synagogues. Up to this time, worship was conducted with all in attendance standing for the duration of the service, from sunup to sundown. These kinds of adjustments are called in Hebrew takkanot. Both of these innovations have stood the test of time, continuing to enjoy a central place in worship settings around the globe to this day.

Just as Ezra and the Men of the Great Synagogue got creative during the Babylonian Captivity in order to unify a Jewry which had become disconnected from Jerusalem and scattered, we now find ourselves doing the same thing… with new technology. Here are some examples.

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