Wandering Jew. What is the source of the expression?

August 24, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. What is the origin of the name, “Wandering Jew”?

A. There is a plant which bears the name Wandering Jew because it has a tendency to spread.

The name was probably given without conscious antisemitic malice. There is also a bird called Wandering Jew, and even a card game and a game of dice.

However, in Christian legend there is certainly a mythical figure called the Wandering Jew who embodies anti-Jewish animus. The underlying notion is that the Jews are destined to wander and be reviled because they rejected Jesus.

The story takes many forms and its origin is likely to have had little if any specific connection with Jews.

Not until the 13th century did it become a clearly antisemitic legend, often linked with the tradition that an officer of the high priesthood struck Jesus on the way to the cross and Jesus condemned him to suffer punishment until the so-called second coming (“You will go on forever until I return” is what Jesus is said to have told him).

The Wandering Jew is said to be called Ahasuerus, the same name as the Persian king in the story of Mordechai and Esther. The Wandering Jew legend says that the Ahasuerus who struck Jesus was a Jerusalem shoemaker.

Centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice inexorably conditioned Christian communities to see the Jew as a pathetic sinner doomed by his rejection of Jesus.

The Wandering Jew was given different names in different versions of the story and became the central character in a sheaf of poems, novels and artistic and musical works, though the tragedy of the Holocaust has largely discredited the notion.

However, some fundamentalist Christian circles who hang on to the story find it hard to come to terms with the vitality, dignity and creativity of the Jewish people and the vibrancy of the State of Israel.


Q. Why do we read the Mishnaic tractate “Pirkei Avot” (“Ethics of the Fathers”) on Shabbat afternoons?

A. The long-standing practice is to read one chapter each week after Minchah, from the first Shabbat after Pesach up to and including the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah.

The complete book of six chapters is finished for the first time on the Shabbat before Shavu’ot and is recommenced on the following Shabbat, and twice more during the months leading up to Rosh HaShanah.

In the northern hemisphere this is the time of year when Shabbat afternoons are long and there is ample time for study. In the southern hemisphere the days are shorter, so a special effort needs to be made to have time for the weekly “perek” (chapter).

Pirkei Avot is a tractate of the Mishnah and belongs to “Seder Nezikin” (“Damages”). Why is it placed in the section of the Mishnah which deals with law and legal procedure?

Maimonides replies, “It is because none are so in need of the ethics propounded in Pirkei Avot as the judges. If ordinary people do not behave in an ethical way, they harm none but themselves, whereas a judge who behaves unethically harms others in addition to himself.”

The title “Avot” – “Fathers” – derives from the fact that its contents – ethical behaviour and good manners – are the teachings of our spiritual fathers, or perhaps because these are seminal categories of the Torah.

According to one view, just as the Children of Israel sanctified themselves before the first Shavu’ot when the Torah was given, so we prepare ourselves each year to receive the Torah by studying ethical teachings each Shabbat.

Originally Pirkei Avot had only five chapters. Later, a sixth chapter was added so that there would be a chapter for each of the six Sabbaths leading up to Shavu’ot.

The origin of reading Pirkei Avot after Minchah is said by Sa’adia Ga’on to be a mark of honour, ordained by the sages, to Moses our Teacher, who died on Shabbat at Minchah time.

No tractate is so easily understandable. The sayings it contains are terse and stimulating. They give wise advice as to how to live; they have something for everybody.


Q. Is it true that there is a message in the letters of “Ellul”, the name of this month? What about other months?

A. Ellul – alef-lamed-vav-lamed – is “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”, “I am my Beloved’s (i.e. God) and my Beloved is mine” or “Ish l’re’ehu umattanot la’evyonim”, “Everyone (should turn) to their fellow and give gifts to the poor”.

The same method can apply to other months too. “Tishri”, for example – tav-shin-resh-yud, is:
• “Tamim tih’yeh im HaShem E-lohecha”, “Be wholehearted with the Lord your God” (Deut. 18:13),
• “Shiviti HaShem l’negdi tamid”, “I set the Lord always before me” (Ps. 16:8),
• “Rosh d’var’cha emet”, “The head of Your word is truth” (Ps. 119:160), and
• “Yissa HaShem panav elecha”, “May God turn His face towards you” (Num. 6:26).

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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