Did Arabs and Jews ever get on?

January 31, 2022 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Did Arabs and Jews ever get on?

A. This is obviously not an academic question, though a number of academic historians have researched and written on the subject.

Since human experience seems to be that history repeats itself, there is every good reason to wonder whether the two peoples were ever able to enjoy a good relationship and what the prospects are for the future.

The story seems to begin with Abraham, regarded by both peoples as their ancestor. The Jews claim descent from one of his sons and the Arabs from the other. Certainly, both derive from Semitic forebears and their languages are interconnected.

In Biblical times, long before Mohammed and Islam, Arabs and Jews were frequently allies, especially in commerce and trade. Late in the Biblical period, there was an Arab nation, the Nabateans, who developed a sophisticated culture in the south of Judea, with advanced engineering skills and achievements.

As the Jewish Diaspora spread far afield, Jews lived in prosperity in the Arabian Peninsula and played a significant role as merchants.

Early in the 7th century CE, Mohammed proclaimed a new religion which all scholars admit owes a good deal to Judaism.

At first, Mohammed expected support from the Jews but when this was not forthcoming he became hostile towards them. The Caliph Omar, Mohammed’s successor, set out laws concerning “unbelievers”, and though there were restrictions against Jews the roles were often ignored and Jews fared better under Islam than under Christianity.

There followed a long period of cultural cross-fertilisation in which Islam had a debt to Judaism and in turn influenced Judaism in literature and philosophy. In Spain in particular there was a so-called Golden Age in which the two cultures enriched each other.

Thereafter the Jewish relationship – or lack of it – with Christianity loomed much larger on the scene of history, but Jews and Muslims continued to have intermittent contact.

Both groups developed a passionate national feeling in the 20th century. Jews have no aggressive designs on Arabs, though prior to 1948, few had worked out a blueprint as to how the Jewish-Muslim connection would operate once the Jewish State came into being.


Q. Do cigarettes have to be kosher?

A. No form of smoking is really kosher.

There is so much evidence that smoking is bad for your health that no one should be smoking at all, either cigarettes or anything else. Maimonides says bluntly that anything which carries a known risk to life or health must not be indulged in (Hilchot Rotze’ach 11:5).

Historically, cigarettes began in Spain in the 18th century. Before this, people had known about smoking tobacco, and it is said that beggars in the streets picked up remnants of used cigars, wrapped the tobacco in paper and made money from selling the resultant cigarettes.

Rabbis had long debated the use of tobacco, especially on Pesach when there was a problem with the additives mixed with the tobacco. The Magen Avraham (Hilchot Pesach 467) reported that beer was mixed with the tobacco and the result was chametz on Pesach.

Others retorted that the tobacco is not actually eaten, so the most that can be said is that tobacco should not be taken on Pesach as a stringency.

Since tobacco is no longer soaked in beer, there may not be such a strict prohibition of smoking on Pesach these days. However, there could still be a problem of other additives.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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