* The first peace treaty made in Eretz Yisroel, the one between Avraham and Avimelech, was rife with problems. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 54:5) records: “The Holy One said to him (Avraham), ‘You gave him (Avimelech) seven sheep. By your life, I will delay the joy of your sons for seven generations (in Egypt). You gave him seven sheep – corresponding to the seven tzaddikim among your sons that they (the Plishtim) will kill, and they are: Shimshon, Chofni and Pinchas (the sons of Eli), Shaul and his three sons. You gave him seven sheep – corresponding to the seven sanctuaries of your sons that they (the Plishtim) will destroy, and these are: the Ohel Moed, Nov, Gilgal, Givon and Shiloh (locations of the Mishkan), and the two Temples. You gave him seven sheep – corresponding to the seven months that my aron will go and circle the fields of the Plishtim.”
Incidentally, in the light of recent political developments, it is fascinating to take note of a comment of the Radak (Bereishis 26:23), concerning an incident involving the Plishtim that occurred a generation later: “All these incidents of [Yitzchak] digging the wells and giving them names [are] to tell us that, in the part of Eretz Yisroel that he had a hold on, he dug wells as he pleased and no one could object. And all this was a sign of what Hashem had set aside for their descendants. But the land of Plishtim (that corresponds more or less to modern Gaza), even though it is part of Eretz Yisroel, was not held in [Yitzchak’s] hands and therefore they quarreled… about the border. And all this was to inform them that it would not all be held in their hands. Even though it was apportioned, it would not be held until the end (of days), in the days of Mashiach, like the land of the three nations, the Keini, the Kenizi and the Kadmoni.”
* The country that ruled over Eretz Yisroel for the record length of time, 677 years, was the Roman Empire. The total combined length of all Jewish self-rule adds up to only about thirty years less.
* At present, Israel has many ‘mosts.’ No country in the world has so many per capita citizens with semicha, university degrees, museums and doctors (about one per 450 people) as tiny Israel.
* The first organized Arab attack against Zionists was in 5646/1886 when they assaulted the settlement of Petach Tikvah.
* What was the largest tank battle of all time? Some historians give the place of honor to Israel’s tank battle with Egypt in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War of 5734/1973. This is claimed to have surpassed the size of the Kursk Battle of July 5703/1943 that smashed German power in the East – it was the first major offensive the Germans lost in World War II. In this battle, 3,700 Russian tanks pulverized 2,700 German tanks.
* The oldest Torah source describing the world as a spinning ball is the Zohar (Vayikra 1.3) that writes: “The whole earth spins in a circle like a ball. The one part is up when the other part is down. The one part is light when the other is dark. It is day in the one part and night in the other.”
* An amazingly accurate astronomical measurement is that mentioned in Rosh Hashanah 25a: “Rabban Gamliel said: According to the tradition [received] from my father’s house, the moon does not renew itself for less than 29 days and a half and two thirds of an hour and 73 parts.” In modern terms, this comes out to 29.53059 days, not far from the NASA calculation of 29.530588 days.
* The first person to make a realistic calculation of the distance of the earth from the stars was Rav Levi ben Gershon, the Ralbag (5048/1288-5104/1344). The famous ancient Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, had calculated the distance as about 10-5 light years, which is a million times too small. The Ralbag’s estimate was 10 million times greater (105 light years). Modern astronomers calculate that the average star is about 104 light years from earth. Another unusual fact connected with the Ralbag is the metamorphosis of his famous philosophical work, Mekor Chaim. After being translated into Latin and renamed Fons Vital, it became a basic text of the Catholic Church.
* No Man’s Land: Besides the Torah’s ban against returning to Egypt, the only offlimits place for Jews is, perhaps, Spain. After the 4253/1492 expulsion, a cherem was promulgated forbidding Jews from ever living there again. Although there is evidence that a cherem was once enforced in Leghorn and London, it is uncertain whether it still applies today.
* The Inquisition was initiated in Rome by Pope Clement IV, in 5027/1267. The first time a victim of the Inquisition was burnt at the stake was in 5241/1481, and the last time this crime was committed was in Peru, in 5566/1806.
* Only one yahrzeit is explicitly mentioned in the Torah – the day of Aharon’s passing on Rosh Chodesh Av (Parshas Mas’ei).
* The Magen David symbol is also found in ancient sites in Iraq, Britain and India. The oldest Magen David of Jewish origin was stamped into a seal in Sidon about 2,600 years ago, and the oldest Magen David discovered in Eretz Yisroel is a 1,900 old sample found in a shul, next to Lake Kinneret.
* The first attempt to try and prove a halachic point from a portrait or photograph is a retort to the Be’er Eshek’s claim that some rabbanim shaved their beards, apparently for kabbalist reasons. In particular, he wrote: “I thoroughly investigated the custom of Rav Arama of Panu, and I found out for certain that he used to… shave his beard, according to the Italian custom.” Rav Yosef Irgas (Teshuvos Divrei Yosef) retorted that he had evidence against this from a portrait, “I enquired about the matter from Rav Binyamin Cohen of Rigive who answered me, ‘I saw a portrait of Rav Arama in Mantua and he had a full grown beard.’”
* The formulator of the heter iska, that enables one to take interest by becoming one’s business partner, was Rav Yeshayahu Menachem ben Yitzchak of Krakow (passed away 5349/1599).
* The first sefer with an identified author, written after the sealing of the Gemara, is the She’iltos of Rav Acha of Shavcha (4440/680-4512/752) from Pumbedisa, who lived in the time of the Geonim. The first systematic hashkafah sefer is Rav Saadyah Gaon’s Emunos Vedei’os. He also wrote the first Talmudic dictionary, entitled the Agron. The first systematic mussar sefer is Chovos HaLevavos, written in about 4840/1080. The first peirush on the Gemara is that of Rabbeinu Chananel, who passed away in 4815/1055, while the first Talmudic code was written by his talmid, the Rif.
* The most prolific Torah publisher ever may be Rav Yehudah Leibovetz (passed away 5763/2003), the director of the Leibovetz- Kest library that printed cheap seforim. He claimed that he published four million seforim.
* The Chida writes that no Tanna has the name Avraham or Yitzchak, and that the names Yisroel and Moshe were first used in the days of the Geonim. Concerning double- barreled names, the Noda BiYehudah (Orach Chaim Tinyana 113) writes: “I remember no place in the Shas that any Tanna or Amora is called by two actual names, except Abba Yossi and Abba Shaul, and those, too, are not two names, because I think Abba is not an actual name but an expression of honor.” The Chasam Sofer (Even HaEzer 118) also writes that the common use of double-barreled names is a relatively recent phenomenon.
* Hebrew was a popular subject in America’s first college, Harvard, founded in 5496/1636, because most of its students were prospective priests. The first Hebrew grammar book in America was Judah Monis’ Dikdook Leshon Gnebreet, published in 5495/1735. He converted in order to become an instructor of Hebrew at Harvard but kept Shabbos for the rest of his life.
* The oldest surviving shul in the U.S.A. is the Touro synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, built in 5523/1763. After visiting this shul in 5540/1790, George Washington sent its members his famous “to bigotry no sanction” letter of religious tolerance:
“To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. Gentlemen… “The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while ‘every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.’ May the Father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
*Besides Shlomoh HaMelech, the world record husband seems to be Rav Tarfon. The Yerushalmi relates that he married 300 wives, during a famine, to enable them to eat terumah.
* The first Jewish doll was produced in Tel Aviv, four years ago. To fulfill halachic requirements that proscribe keeping human images in one’s home, “Shimmy” had only four fingers and no proper nose. He came complete with regulation kippah and tzitzis.
(Many American records culled from “Celebrate 350: Jewish Life in America 1654- 2004” presentation.)