Excerpt: Mormon’s Guide to Judaism

Section from the book “A Mormon’s Guide to Judaism: Introduction to Jewish Religion and Culture for Latter-day Saints”, by Marlena Tanya Muchnick and Daniel C. Baker. Available from: www.jewishconvert-lds.com and Amazon. Also a Kindle book. Contact the author: comeuntochrist@att.net.

History of the Jews

There is no written history about the lives of the Hebrews in their homeland or about the Dispersion from Babylon after about 430 B.C. but there are narrative histories from the period 170 B.C. to A.D. 70. These come from the works of Josephus (37 B.C.- A.D. 100) who was a priest in the rebuilt Second Temple, Herod’s temple. He was a Pharisee and politically astute. He was of course not immune to bias or self interest or even selective ignorance, but his works are better than none at all.

Jewish history really began with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the period between 722 B.C. and 586 B.C. Through the eyes of the prophet Isaiah we read the warnings that were given the Israelites about their enemies, the Assyrians. It was at that time the name “Jew” really became their identity. Before that they were pre-exilic, pre-Babylonian Exile, not to be confused with the Exodus from Egypt back in 1500-1000 B.C., also known as the beginnings of the Iron Age. They were called Hebrews at that time. Some historians believe they fled before the Advance of the Hyksos, an Asiatic people who conquered Egypt in about 1650 B.C. Some of them were Semitic, descendents of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. They were wandering tribes from northern Arabia, around the area of the Tigris and Euphrates River valley. They were called the Habiru, Hapiru, or Apiru. Josephus tells us many of these people made an exodus from Egypt in about 1550 B.C. Some of the Habiru groups became the ancestors of the Arab people. The later chapters of Genesis appear to chronicle these times.

The Hebrews coalesced as a social order during this period, though there is no real history of them until the 13th century B.C. It is also possible the name came from the word “eber”, to cross. This denoted those people who had crossed over from beyond the Euphrates. Our LDS Bible Dictionary does not apply dates to a sequence of events until after the death of Joshua and the period of the reign of Judges in Israel. It lists the start of Saul’s reign as 1095 B.C. We read of his reign in 1 Samuel.

The fog really lifts by the eleventh century with the rise in the north of the kingdom of Israel and in the south, the kingdom of Judah, lasting until the eighth century. King David wrote many of the Psalms during his and Solomon’s reign from 1000-925 B.C. The Hebrews at that time worshipped a primary god called Yahweh, which comes from the Hebrew letters YHVH, called the Tetragrammaton, a four lettered symbol which, according to the priests of the time, is a code for the actual name of God. They also paid homage to other gods who were public deities of the general Canaanite population.

That period was a time of radical change in the eastern Mediterranean area. Empires were broken down into city-states, ideographic writing gave way to syllabic script. The Greek and Hebrew alphabets were coming into everyday usage.

Babylon gave way to Persian rule in 500 B.C. Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews religious freedom and encouraged the rebuilding of their temple. He introduced the Aramaic language, which was to become to the Jews a language second to Hebrew. Persia eventually fell to Alexander the Great who introduced Hellenism the Jews to in 330 B.C., and that is where the apostles of Christ found them on their journeys around the Mediterranean in the first century A.D.

But the discourses of the prophets Amos and Hosea did a lot to change that. Yahweh dwelt on Mount Zion. They taught that Yahweh was no tribal god. He controlled the fate of humanity and ruled with justice, not mere whim. These Yahwist prophets, as they were called, came largely from the Judahite upper classes. They had Semitic names, meaningful names, like Yehoyishma=Yahweh will hear.

These prophets encouraged the Israelites to accept a declining interest in the worship of multiple gods. But during the reign of King Josiah in 609 B.C. the king of Babylon overthrew his Assyrian emperor and destroyed his city of Ninevah. We find our information on this war in the book of Jeremiah, who prophesied until after the downfall of Jerusalem under King Zedekiah.

In 586 B.C. the capture of Jerusalem occurred. The kingdom of Judah survived only two more decades. The Jews were deported to Babylon, but by then the religious life of the Judahites had become somewhat established as a monotheistic life. They gradually, in two major waves, returned to their homeland during the 5th and 6th centuries. It is from this period that the transformation of Israelite religion to Judaism is thought to have its most formative roots.

What are the most important events in Old Testament Hebrew history? Blessings from these seminal events resulted in numerous achievements in Jewish history:

The first Israelites of Avraham and Moses’ time (circa 2000 B.C.) were descendants of nomadic Phoenician and Semitic groups wandering in the Levant area that surrounds the Mediterranean Sea, now consisting of Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Greece and Egypt. Semites were of Caucasian blood. These people claimed descent from Avraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were the ancestors of the Hebrew people who were in the area of Israel during the time of the Old Testament writings.

The father of the Semitic people according to scripture was not Avraham but Shem, second son of Noah(Gen 9:26, 10:21, Moses 8:12). A great grandsonof Shem, named Eber (6 Gen 11:10-14) may be where the name of Hebrew (colonist, colonizer, he who came from beyond or across the river) originated.

The ten “lost tribes (families) of Israel” who left Babylon following the Assyrian conquests there in 722 B.C. and 586 B.C. led to the scattering of the Israelites throughout the world. Some are the progenitors of the Anglo-Saxon (from “Isaac’s sons”) tribes that gave rise to the Celtic peoples and their Druidic priests.

The Exodus from Egypt 1500-1000 B.C. (1250 B.C. – the greatest exodus)

  1. Moses transformed the liberation of slaves into the birth of a nation.
  2. Formation of delegation of rule: Procedural law became model for English and US and French common law.
  3. The monarch of King David, King Solomon, the erecting of temples.
  4. Production of histories, psalms, messianic hope attached to Davidic line.

The destruction of Israel in 722 B.C.

  1. The wandering and preservation of the ten tribes of Israel.
  2. The destruction of Judah and exile to Babylon resulted in the formation of much of the Hebrew Bible.

The conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70

Beginning of the foundation of classical, rabbinic Judaism under the leadership of great rabbis. It also created a crisis of faith and the Sabbath became Israel’s sanctuary.

The Moslem conquest of the Middle East in A.D. 640

Leads to philosophical and mystical inquiry that has become part of the Jewish religion and culture.

Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah)

 “Yea, and ye need no longer hiss, nor spurn, nor make game of the Jews, nor any of the remnant of the house of Israel; for behold, the Lord remembereth his covenant unto them, and he will do unto them according to that which he hath sworn. Therefore ye need not suppose that ye can turn the right hand of the Lord unto the left, that he may not execute judgment unto the fulfilling of the covenant which he hath made unto the house of Israel.” (3 Nephi 29:8-9)

Hitler’s rise to power was the initiation of a period that wrought great fear and destruction. Millions were forced to live in ghettos, only to be deported later to the concentration camps. The tragic details remained obscure until the liberation of the death camps and the further revelations during the Nuremberg War Trials. From the rise of the Nazi party in 1933 to the end of World War II in 1945, a diverse group was imprisoned, including Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, dissenting clergy, homosexuals, as well as others who were denounced for making critical remarks about the Nazis. More than 6 million Jews perished. The area of devastation included all the countries Hitler’s army invaded, including Germany itself.

Dachau, one of the first Nazi concentration camps, opened in March 1933, Six death or extermination camps were constructed in Poland. These so-called death factories were Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibór, Lublin (also called Majdanek), and Chelmno The primary purpose of these camps was the methodical killing of millions of innocent people. Hitler had several camps built in 1935. In the beginning of the systematic mass murder of Jews, Nazis used mobile killing squads called Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen consisted of four units of between 500 and 900 men each which followed the invading German troops into the Soviet Union.

By the end of 1943 the Germans closed down the death camps built specifically to exterminate Jews.

The approximate death tolls for the camps are as follows: Treblinka, (750,000 Jews); Belzec, (550,000 Jews); Sobibór, (200,000 Jews); Chelmno, (150,000 Jews) and Lublin (also called Majdanek, 50,000 Jews). Auschwitz continued to operate through the summer of 1944; its final death total was about 1 million Jews and 1 million non-Jews. Allied encirclement of Germany was nearly complete in the fall of 1944. The Nazis began dismantling the camps, hoping to cover up their crimes. By the late winter/early spring of 1945, they sent prisoners walking to camps in central Germany. Thousands died in what became known as death marches. (From A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust, University of South Florida)

Also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom ha-Shoah is a relatively new holiday. It occurs on the 27th of Nisan. “Shoah” is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. This is a memorial day for those victims.

Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith

  1. God exists
  2. God is one and unique
  3. God is incorporeal (has no body)
  4. God is eternal
  5. Prayer is to be directed to God alone and to no other
  6. The words of the prophets are true
  7. Moses’ prophecies are true, and Moses was the greatest of the prophets
  8. The Written Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) and Oral Torah (teachings now contained in the Talmud and other writings) were given to Moses
  9. There will be no other Torah

10. God knows the thoughts and deeds of men

11. God will reward the good and punish the wicked

12. The Messiah will come

13. The dead will be resurrected

The Seven Laws of Noah

Jews believe the 613 commandments in the Old Testament are for Jews in particular. They leave the Gentiles to follow the less exacting rules of conduct known as the Noahide Laws. According to traditional Judaism, God gave Noah and his family only seven commandments to observe when he saved them from the flood. These commandments, referred to as the Noahic or Noahide commandments, are inferred from Genesis Ch. 9, and are as follows: 1) to establish courts of justice; 2) not to commit blasphemy; 3) not to commit idolatry; 4) not to commit incest and adultery; 5) not to commit bloodshed; 6) not to commit robbery; and 7) not to eat flesh cut from a living animal. The Noahic commandments are binding on all people, because all people are descended from Noah and his family. The 613 mitzvot of the Torah, on the other hand, are only binding on the descendants of those who accepted the commandments at Sinai and upon those who take on the yoke of the commandments voluntarily (by conversion.)

Character of Hebrew Writings

Hebrew has fewer words than English, but many more word roots. Some words have great variety of meaning, depending upon the context in which they are used. Hebrew verbs and clauses are unique as well, and there are only two tenses: perfect and imperfect. These explain modes of action as complete or incomplete. Verbs are found in different stems, expressing varying modes of intensity. This lends the language to have a vivid style, being rich in imagery. Note: Some Hebraisms: A stubborn people are criticized for being “for backward, not forward”, divided loyalties are described as being “a heart and a heart”. God’s anger: shortness of breath, or redness of nostrils. Hebrew nouns can be used like adjectives: “a garden of beauty” or “a mountain of holiness”, instead of “a beautiful garden” or “a holy mountain”. Many of these word arrangements are reminiscent of their Aramaic background.

The psychology of the Hebrew bible and Old Testament is concrete and physical. Bodily organs stand for emotions. Distress and fear may be described as “my bones melted”. Hebrew is also rich in metaphor and simile. Israel is described as a “wild heifer”, a “crooked bow”, and so forth. Use of word images abound as well. God is described in anthropomorphic terms: His eye, hands, arms, feet, etc. He has divine anger, sorrow and repentance.

It should be noted here that the Jews believe Moses saw God face to face on Mt. Zion (Ex 19). Moses, as a prophet, had that gift and revelation. But Jews, oddly, do not believe that God is a person with human attributes because they do not see how He can be omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, yet contained in a human body. How to explain the seeming confusion? In the Talmud is the answer: The Jewish doctrine of Incorporeality asserts that terms are borrowed from human creatures to assist in the understanding. Where is our soul? We do not know, but we know we have one. So it is with God’s place in the universe. References to God’s bodily parts are analogies in the Jewish mind of human attributes.

The Book of Mormon was, of course, translated into the King James idiom, a solemn, antique style that was right for its time and season. Though it states it was written “in the language of the Egyptians”, there is no doubt that it includes many Hebrew idioms, words and syntactical patterns, as well as Semitic language construction. It leaves no doubt that it is an inspired book full of revelatory surprises.

Some Hebraisms include the frequent repetition of “yea”, “and”, and “yes”. Also the use of “behold”, and especially the phrase “it came to pass” and “I say unto you.” In the Hebrew this would have been said “And it came to pass in those many days.” (From the Hebrew “Ħayaħ”).

Several other indications of Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon are:

English Hebraism   English Hebraism
Stone altar Altar of stones   Dark mist  Mist of darkness
Brass plates Plates of brass   Iron rod  Rod of iron
Harshly With harshness   Joyfully  With joy
Surely With surety   Spiritually In the spirit
Strongly (be with) strength   Abundantly In abundance
Go to Jerusalem Go up to Jerusalem   He thought He said in his heart

Chiastic Structures

 According to author and scholar John W. Welch, chiasmus literary forms are originally Hebrew and date at least to the 8th-10th centuries B.C. in Isaiah and the Psalms. There are many in the New Testament as well, and in the Book of Mormon.

Chiasmus describes a form of poetry told in parallelisms where the second (and other lines) are inverted. That is to say, the last element is placed first and the first, last:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts

Neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. (Isa 55:8)

A chiasm in Hebrew may be expanded to include any number of terms and lines written in one order and then in the exact reverse order. In Hebrew there appears to be no end to the terms or ideas that can be employed. A common structure of lines expressing parallel and inverse parallel ideas is repeated below:

a.  And the Jews

b.     Shall have the words

c.        Of the Nephites

c.        And the Nephites

b.     Shall have the words

a.  Of the Jews

(A portion of the chiasm in 2 Ne 29:13)

There are many chiastic structures in the Book of Mormon. See Mosiah 3:18-19, 5:10-12, 1Ne 15:5-11, 17:36-39, 2 Ne 27:1-5, Alma 41:13-15, Alma 36, to name a few.

Letters of the “Alefbet”

The Hebrew and Yiddish languages use the same alphabet. The picture below illustrates that, in alphabetical order. Note that Hebrew is written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English, so Alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and Tav is the last. It also does not have upper or lower case letters. The Hebrew alphabet is often called the “alefbet,” because of its first two letters.  The consonantal pairs “KH” and “CH” are pronounced with a throat-clearing sound. Final letters (specifically used at ends of some words) are also included. Note: This throat-clearing sound is used in the common greeting “Shalom Aleichem”. The table below represents formal Hebrew. Cursive writing is quite different.

Each letter in the alefbet has a numerical value. There is a study known as Gematria that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of Hebrew words. For example, the number 18 is very significant, because it is the numeric value of the word chai, meaning life.

These values can be used to write numbers, as the Romans used some of their letters (I, V, X, L, C, M) to represent numbers.

Alef through Yod have the values 1 through 10.
Yod through Qof have the values 10 through 100, counting by 10s.

The number 11 would be rendered Yod-Alef, the number 12 would be Yod-Bet, the number 21 would be Kaf-Alef, the word Torah (Tav-Vav-Resh-He) has the numerical value 611, etc.

The only significant oddity in this pattern are numbers 15 and 16, which if rendered as 10+5 or 10+6 would be a name of God, so they are normally written Tet-Vav (9+6) and Tet-Zayin (9+7).

The order of the letters is irrelevant to their value; letters are simply added to determine the total numerical value. The number 11 could be written as Yod-Alef, Alef-Yod, Heh-Vav, Dalet-Dalet-Gimel or many other combinations of letters.

Qof through Tav have the values 100 through 400, counting by 100s. Final letters have the same value as their non-final counterparts.

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