People have always been fascinated with breaking old records and setting new ones. Without really intending to, Jews have been setting records of their own over the centuries. We will review the earliest and latest, most and least, biggest and smallest, nearest and furthest achievements, most of which are not listed in world-record literature.
AMERICA AND NEW YORK
In 5762/2002, the Jewish population numbered approximately 12.9 million and North America had more Jews than anywhere else in the world – 5,814,000. Although the USA was the country with the most Jews, its Jewish population was estimated to be shrinking at the rate of 50,000 Jews a year. Numerically, Israel seemed to outnumber the USA since, in 5763/2003, its official Jewish population was officially 5.4 million out of a total population of 6.7 million. However, this number was artificially large as it included the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are only counted as “Jewish” due to the “Law of Return” that counts anyone with a Jewish grandparent as a Jew.
So we will begin in America in 5418/1658, the first incidence of an American court taking Shabbos into consideration. An early New York Jew, Jacob Barsimson, never showed up to a court hearing that year. The court records read: “Though the defendant is absent, yet no default is entered against him as he was summoned on his Sabbath.”
Asher Levy was the first Jew to open a kosher butchery in America. It was located on Wall Street in 5420/1660. He also opened the first kosher abattoir outside the town precincts “so that all persons should have the liberty to kill and hang therein meat.” The first legal proceedings to protect kashrus in America occurred on 11 Av 5556/1796 when the Council of New York City revoked the license of a non-Jewish butcher who was putting kosher seals on treife meat.
The oldest surviving shul in America is the Touro shul which was built in 5523/1763 in Newport, Rhode Island, the second Jewish community in North America. The oldest surviving Jewish residence is Mill House, a flint-stone block house, built in around 5480/1720. It is about twelve miles north of Newburgh, New York, in the Hudson Highlands. The house was built by Luis Moses Gomez who emigrated from Spain to America. He traded furs with Indians outside the house, near what became known as Jew’s Creek.
The first American millionaire was Harmon Hendricks, a Jew who founded America’s first copper rolling mill in the mid-5500s/late 1700s and provided copper to Paul Revere. By 5660/1900, New York had become the world’s largest Jewish community (350,000 at the time) and has remained so ever since.
We will continue with Eretz Yisroel, which was at its largest during the reign of Dovid HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech, when their authority stretched from Eilat to the Euphrates River of Iraq and the country measured about 40,000 square miles. By the time Bavel conquered Eretz Yisroel, it was only about a tenth of the size.
The largest Jewish kingdom anywhere outside Eretz Yisroel was the Kuzari kingdom that remained Jewish for about 270 years (although it also included Christians, Muslims and idolaters) until it was destroyed in 4729/969. However, the first Jewish monarch outside Eretz Yisroel (who is mentioned in the Mishnah) was Queen Helena of Adiabene, a state in northern Iraq. Her son was the wealthy King Monbaz, who distributed his royal treasury to charity. The oldest town on record is Chanoch, the city Kayin built for and named after his son Chanoch (Bereishis 4:17). However, the oldest city in existence is Damascus, mentioned later in Bereishis during Avraham’s battle with the four kings (14:15). It is probably the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.
The oldest Jewish communities are those of Iraq and Iran that have continued to exist ever since Nevuchadnezer destroyed the first Beis HaMikdash in 3338/423 BCE. The most remote Jewish community was the Kaifeng community in China that was cut off for so long that when one of its members, Ai Ti-en met an Italian Jesuit priest, Mattei Ricci, in Beijing, in 5365/1605, he thought the man was Jewish. The last rav of Kaifeng passed away at the start of the nineteenth century, but hundreds of Jews still live in the vicinity.
When was the largest shul built? The largest shul ever recorded was the giant one of Alexandria where, the Gemara records, it was impossible for people in the back to hear the shaliach tzibbur. It seems that the two largest ones at present are the Satmar shul in Monroe and the Belz shul in Yerushalayim. The oldest shul in Europe, and the oldest functioning shul in the world, is the Alt- Neu shul of Prague, built sometime between 4990/1230 and 5030/1270.
The word “anti-Semite” was first coined in 5639/1879 in an anti- Semitic pamphlet, entitled “The Victory of Judaism over Germany.” Although the greatest bestseller is the Bible, l’havdil, the second greatest bestseller is the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” forged under the auspices of the Czarist secret police, in Russia, at the end of the nineteenth century.
Which is the most anti-Semitic nation? The Zohar (II 17a) says that the verse, “Veshifchah yoreshes gevirtah, And a maidservant who inherits her mistress,” refers to Hagar who gave birth to Yishmael, and that there is no more severe exile than that of Yishmael. Similarly, the Rambam (Iggeres Teiman) writes that no nation will stand against Israel with greater enmity than the sons of Yishmael and that as long as we search to make peace with them, they will pursue us with war. He says that this is hinted at in the verse, “Woe to me… that I dwell with the tents of Kedar… I am for peace but when I speak they are for war (Tehillim 120).” Kedar, of course, was one of Yishmael’s sons (Bereishis 25).
The largest terror attack in Israel was on March 11, 5738/1978, when 43 people were killed and 72 injured in a shooting attack on a Tel Aviv beach. Thirteen terrorists landed by boat on a beach near Tel Aviv and seized a bus.
Israel’s largest civil disaster was the collapse of the Versailles wedding hall in Yerushalayim in May 5761/2001. 23 people were killed and almost 400 wounded. The collapse was caused by use of the dangerous Pal-Kal construction method, invented in the mid- 5740s/1980s, by Eli Ron, former chief structural engineer for Israel’s Public Works Authority. The owners of the wedding hall were convicted last month for crimes related to this catastrophe.
The most significant anti-Jewish decree of the Church was in 4452/692, when the Council of Nicaea enacted anti-Semitic legislation. Christians were forbidden to use Jewish doctors, intermarriage with Jews became a capital offense, building of new shuls was forbidden and no Jew could own a Christian slave.
The earliest blood libel-type accusation was when Apion of Alexandria claimed that Jews capture a Greek each year and fatten him for sacrifice. The earliest blood libel was in 4904/1144, when the Jews of England were accused of purchasing the boy, William of Norwich, to crucify him. Although many popes declared that the blood libel was a vicious lie, they were by and large ignored. The first Papal encyclical refuting blood libels was issued by Pope Innocent IV in 5007/1247.
The first and last blood libel in the U.S.A. was in Massena, New York, on Erev Yom Kippur, 5688/1928. This began when Albert Connas, a Greek immigrant, claimed that the town’s hundred Jews had murdered four-year-old Barbara Griffiths for the upcoming festivals. While the police were interrogating Rav Berel Brennglass of the Adas Yisroel Shul, the girl emerged from the woods where she had been lost overnight. It took some time for the affair to die down.
The largest mass conversion was in 5151/1391, when terrible pogroms erupted all over Spain and Portugal. Within twenty years, tens of thousands of Jews converted. Some researchers put the number of converts as high as 200,000. The word “ghetto” was coined in 5276/1516 in Venice, named after an iron foundry by that name. The largest ghetto was the Warsaw Ghetto, which held 450,000 Jews at its height.
The Chassidic custom of eating shirayim has early roots. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Moed Katan 9a) states: “In the morning, R. Yochanan went to the gathering place and gathered crumbs and ate and said, ‘May my portion be with those who ate from this.’”
The first account of artificial respiration is also found in Jewish sources. The Yalkut Shimoni (Bamidbar 742) writes: “When the spies came to Chevron, they took from there five figs, five pomegranates and one bunch of grapes. Talmai (a Canaanite giant) shouted at them and they fell on their faces to the ground. They (the Canaanites) began blowing in their mouths and breathing into their noses until they regained consciousness.”
The first kosher soap was created by Yisrael Rokeach when he made a coconut-oil based soap in Kovna in 5630/1870.
The oldest Jewish Magen David symbol was on a seal found in Sidon, Lebanon, that was made about 2,600 years ago. The oldest one found in Eretz Yisroel was discovered decorating the 1900-year old ruins of a shul next to Lake Kinneret.
The most disastrous shadchanim were two Jewish bankers, Shlomo of Aragon and Avraham Senior of Castile, who arranged the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon to Queen Isabella of Castile. This is the royal couple that expelled the Jews of Spain in 5252/1492. The Jews are first termed “Jews” in Melachim II (16:6) the verse reads: “At that time, Rezin, king of Aram, restored Eilat to Aram and drove the Jews from Eilat. And the Edomites came to Eilat and dwelt there until this day.”
The Medrash learns that from Yaakov’s blessing to Yehudah: “Yehudah ata yoducha achicha, Yehudah, your brothers will acknowledge you,” that all the tribes would eventually all use his name. However, the word Yehudi (Jew) is used extensively for the first time in Megillas Esther.