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May 18: Alexander the Great and the Talmud

May 18, 2014
Jews_Byzantine_Greek_Alexander_Manuscript_(cropped)Alexander the Macedonian (“the Great”) died at age 32 on this date in 323 BCE, after conquering large swaths of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Southwest Asia. Although he had little actual contact with Jewish leaders (he passed through Judea on his way to and from the conquest of Egypt, and left the Jews to rule themselves), the Talmud and other Jewish philosophical texts tell several tales about the young warrior-emperor, most notably in Tamid 32b, which portrays Alexander arriving at the gate of paradise. “Only the just can enter here,” declares a divine being. Alexander replies: “I am a renowned king” and demands a token to show he was there. He is given an eyeball, which, placed on a scale, outweighs all of his treasure. In another tale from the same tractate, Alexander puts ten questions to the “elders of the Negev,” which affords the rabbis the chance to trot out various proverbs: “Who is called a mighty man? He who subdues his impulse to evil.” “Who is called a rich man? He who rejoices in his lot.” In real life, of course, Alexander spread Hellenism throughout his empire, which had a growing and enduring impact upon Judaism straight through to the modern age. “Remember, upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” -Alexander the Great