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Emet m'Tsiyon

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Did the Philosopher Theophrastos Observe Jewish Evening Prayers?

The philosopher Theophrastos [or Theophrastus] was the leading pupil of Aristotle. Upon his teacher's death, Theophrastos became the leader of the Peripatetic School. Like his teacher, Theophrastos had wide interests and wide knowledge. Among other things, he took an interest in different peoples, cultures and religions. Two other pupils of Aristotle, Clearchos of Soli and Megasthenes, also discuss the Jews in their writings that have come down to us. Writing about Jewish worship, Theophrastos first identifies them ethnically and geographically as part of the Syrians:
. . . Theophrastos says, the Syrians, of whom the Jews constitute a part, . . . [conduct sacrifices]
"Syrians" refers to the Semitic speaking peoples at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The name "Syria" originally applied to the area around Tyre [Tsor in modern Hebrew, Sour in Arabic], the great ancient Phoenician trading city. Greeks broadened the application of "Syria" to the whole region, encompassing the Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Syria of today.

Theophrastos then went on to what he considered significant in Jewish worship:
During this whole time [of their worship], being a nation of philosophers, they [the Jews] converse with each other about the deity, and at night-time they make observations of the stars, gazing at them and calling on God by prayer. . .
Let's now look at some blessings that come near the beginning of the Jewish evening prayers:
Blessed art Thou. . . Who gathers the dusk by His word, opens the gates [of heaven] in wisdom, and changes the times and causes the seasons to follow one another by reason, and arranges the stars in their constellations in the sky according to His will, He is the Creator of day and night, [Who] rolls away light before darkness and darkness before light, and moves day away and brings night, and distinguishes between day and night . . . Blessed art Thou O Lord Who gathers the dusk.

. . . Thou hast taught us Law [= Torah] and commandments, statutes and judgments. Therefore, O Lord. . . when we lie down and when we rise up we shall discuss Thy statutes; we shall rejoice in the words of Thy Law [= Torah] and in Thy commandments forever. . . We will ponder them day and night. . .
Theophrastos wrote that the Jews are a nation of philosophers who discuss God and at night observe the stars. The evening blessings quoted show that the ancient Jews observed the stars and related natural phenomena at night and that they discussed and pondered God's laws and commandments day and night.

It is reasonable to conclude that Theophrastos may very well have observed the Jewish evening prayers at first hand or have heard reports from others who had observed them. In his lifetime, Alexander of Macedon had conquered Greece and other lands from northwestern India to Egypt, including the Land of Israel. These conquests increased the already existing contacts between many cultures and peoples of the ancient East and the Mediterranean Sea.Theophrastos' contemporary, Clearchos of Soli, another pupil of Aristotle, wrote that their teacher knew about the Jews and had had a discussion with a learned Jew years before Alexander's conquests. Clearchos' report demonstrates that ancient Greeks had some knowledge about the Jews as well as contact with them. This would have given Theophrastos an opportunity to know and observe Jews perhaps before Alexander's conquests.

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Quotes from Theophrastos based on Menahem Stern, ed., Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, vol. I (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 1974), p 10. I have made some changes in the translation. The Greek word translated here as "nation" is genos, also translated as "race" or "origin."

Quotes from the evening prayers based on the Hebrew text in Simeon Singer (translator), The Standard Prayer Book (New York: Bloch Publishing 1954), pp 130-131. The translation is mainly my own with help from Singer's translation.

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