A Haggadic Sister: New Acquisition Illuminates Artist’s Journey

In 2012, artist Maty Grünberg decided to revisit his 1984 work, The Bezalel Haggadah – ranked among the finest modern illustrated Haggadot. The resulting volume, The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah, reveals the artist's creative process, from concept to final print.

From "The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah": Grünberg's visual language derived from various sources, including Egyptian art

The National Library of Israel’s collection of Haggadot is considered the most comprehensive in the world, containing more than 15,000 examples from different periods and from across the globe. The collection was recently enriched by a singular new addition: an artist’s proof of The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah by Israeli artist and sculptor Maty Grünberg, renowned for his limited edition artist books, produced using techniques such as etching, silk screen, and woodcut.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel views The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah with artist Maty Grünberg.

The volume is a companion piece, a “sister”, due to its close relationship to Grünberg’s 1984 Bezalel Haggadah. Considered one of the finest modern illustrated Haggadot, the Bezalel Haggadah has been in displayed exhibitions together with Haggadot by Marc Chagall and Ben Shahn. Copies have been collected by museums, libraries and private collectors.

The “sister” story, however, is about the artistic process. In 2012, Grünberg reviewed his preparatory sketches, and placed them alongside their final versions. The resulting Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah, documents the transformation from early sketch to final print. In this sense, it is also the work of the artist as an older man looking across the bridge of time, revisiting the work of his younger self.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: preliminary sketch for “Tam”, the innocent of the Four Brothers contrasted with the final woodcut print

Grünberg is still a working artist whose latest creations – monumental bronze and stone sundials situated in locations like Ascot, UK, the New York Hall of Science, and Teddy Kollek Park in Jerusalem – express a fascination with the passage of time. His most recent was inaugurated on April 7th, 2022, at the Madatech – Israel National Museum of Science, Technology and Space in Haifa. Speaking from his car on the drive up to the ceremony, Grünberg says his motivation for revisiting the Bezalel Haggadah stemmed from an interest in how the process developed.

The story begins following the 1978 exhibition of Grünberg’s Megillat Esther, a boldly colorful volume of silkscreens that drew controversy at the time due to its modern approach. The Jewish Theological Seminary then expressed interest in having Grünberg create a Haggadah, “but they didn’t want a contemporary one,” he says. In the end, the Haggadah was commissioned in 1979 by the Friends of Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design, Grünberg’s alma mater.

The Bezalel Haggadah itself took five years to create. According to Grünberg, the bulk of that time was spent searching for the visual language that would express his view about the creation of the Jewish nation through the story of Exodus from Egypt. His initial sketches for the project were colorful drawings in mixed media. Then something happened.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: initial color sketches for the Four Questions, as compared with the pared-down final woodcut

It was the high point of his search – though perhaps, for the artist, the lowest – a day locked in a heavily guarded room in the British Library in London with the Golden Haggadah (c. 1320-1330). This small but richly illustrated and gilded volume from Catalonia, Spain, is considered among the world’s most famous illuminated manuscripts. Even today, Grünberg says of that encounter, “My hands were trembling. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I was taken to a private room and given white cotton gloves, the librarian came in, rolled a cart in front of her with the ancient book on it, and handed it to me with extreme caution. I was shivering at the beauty of this ancient book. I realized I could not compete with this glorious Haggadah.”

That day, Grünberg decided to change direction, abandon vibrant color, and find another language for creating his Bezalel Haggadah. “I discovered the Prague Haggadah and I switched to woodcuts.”

The Prague Haggadah, 1556, the Valmadonna Trust Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Prague Haggadah (c. 1526), the earliest printed Haggadah, featured woodcut illustrations and large, elaborate fonts – now standard elements for Haggadot. The National Library of Israel holds one of the two earliest existing copies of the Prague Haggadah, as part of its Valmadonna Trust Collection; the other copy resides at the British Library.

Now inspired, Grünberg began exploring 19th century woodcut techniques in creating a unique visual language for his Haggadah. “What I like about woodcuts is that it’s very concise,” he says. “Unlike other media, you have to eliminate what is irrelevant.” The inspiration for the images in the Bezalel Haggadah derives from motifs found in synagogues and other sites in Jerusalem, as well as additional ancient Jewish scripts and early Egyptian art.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: Grünberg’s visual language derived from various sources, including Egyptian art

The resulting volume consisted of 75 pages of original woodcuts printed on handmade acid-free paper, and pulled by the artist on an 1860 Albion printing press. Published in 1984 in a signed, limited edition of 150 copies, the Bezalel Haggadah immediately sold out, acquired by leading institutions such as the libraries at Harvard and Yale, the Jewish Museum, as well as private collectors.

In 2012, twenty eight years after the Bezalel Haggadah was published, Grünberg reopened his files, selected several drawings, placed them alongside the final versions of the woodcuts prints, and began the work on what would become The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah. The resulting volume contrasts the freehanded concept sketches with their final woodcut print versions – sometimes similar, other times wildly different – to surprising and moving effect.

A decade later, Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, was invited to visit Grünberg’s studio to view the work. For Finkelman, the companion volume represented an exciting opportunity for researchers to understand and track the artist’s creative process: exploration, absorption, interpretation, and expression.

Maty Grünberg presents The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah to Library staff

On February 22, 2022, Grünberg presented his work at a modest ceremony held at the National Library of Israel. Finkelman stated “The selection of this volume will enable research on Grünberg’s work, which takes its place in the long tradition of Haggadot, along with the great inspiration and respect for the ancient Haggadot that he examined.”


The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah was acquired on behalf of the Library through the generosity of Lord Simon Marks of Broughton.

Automated Food Distribution and Hi-Tech Plumbing: Noah’s Ark Re-Envisioned

A 10th-century Karaite scholar was somehow able to conceive a vision of Noah’s Ark that made use of advanced technology that was unknown in his time

The fictional submarine Nautilus, featured in a Hebrew poster advertising the film 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, based on the book by Jules Verne

Take a moment and imagine Noah’s Ark. Chances are, you are probably picturing a wooden ship of some sort, perhaps with an elephant or a giraffe peeking out of one of the portholes.

But according to the view of a 10th-century Karaite scholar who composed a commentary on the Torah in Judeo-Arabic, Noah’s Ark was much more than a simple wooden vessel filled with animals.

The Book of Genesis devotes only a brief description to the Ark’s construction, consisting of only three short verses (Genesis 6: 14–16). Yet Ya’qub (Jacob) al-Qirqisani, the Karaite scholar in question, goes much further than that. In his lengthy Judeo-Arabic commentary on the Torah, titled Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq, he devoted page after page, in manuscript, to what he imagined was the complex and sophisticated structure of Noah’s Ark.

According to Qirqisani’s interpretation, the Ark incorporated extremely advanced technological innovations, even for his time, including a motorized food distribution system that was able to rotate autonomously (remember, this was the tenth century CE, electricity was nowhere on the horizon!). This system was , in his conception, used to automatically fill the animal troughs. Qirqisani’s Ark was also installed with a sophisticated plumbing system of pipes and waterworks that managed to satisfy the diverse needs of all the various occupants in all three of the Ark’s levels. The commentator also claims that the Ark featured unique methods for allowing in light, but also for preventing water from entering the craft, by means of hundreds of specially glazed windows and doors, some of which even allowed air to enter while still keeping water out.

A copy of Qirqisani’s work, Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq, is preserved at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. A digitally scanned version of it can be accessed online via the National Library of Israel website, here.

Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq (Parashat Noah) by Ya’qub al-Qirqisani, the National Library of Russia
Image: RNL Evr.-Arab. I:4529, folio 1v – 2r


This is just one example of the new, revolutionary approaches to traditional Jewish texts that we find in Judeo-Arabic works of the tenth century. From around the ninth to the twelfth century CE, most of the Jewish population in the world spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. These Jews, lived in the heart of one of the greatest civilizations of the time, which was a center for innovation in philosophy, theology, science, linguistics, and more. Living in the midst of a rapidly developing scientific world dramatically influenced how they saw and wrote about the Bible. The treasures preserved in Judeo-Arabic Bible exegesis, as well as the fields of exegesis that sprang from this Judeo-Arabic font in later centuries, in places like Iberia, stand witness to this fascinating revolution.

The Lost Story of Hebrew’s First Female Author, Now Discovered

Sarah Feiga Foner's story is found in an obscure handwritten text inscribed in Solitreo script from Ioannina, Greece...

Sarah Feiga Foner née Meinkin (Zager, 1954 – Pittsburgh, 1937) was, as far as is known, the first woman to publish original Hebrew fiction. Between the years 1881 and 1903 she published a novel, two historical-national stories and a memoir about her childhood town Dvinsk in Latvia. In addition to her Hebrew writing, she also wrote a novella in Yiddish, titled Der Froyen Bunt (“The Women’s Revolt”), which she printed on her own, without a date, though she did note the printer’s address in London. On the front cover of Der Froyen Bunt there is a list of the author’s Hebrew publications, which include, in addition to her four known works, an additional story titled “The Annals of the Holy Sh’lah”. This story, which revolves around the Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz (often referred to with the Hebrew acronymn – “the Sh’lah” – after his main composition, Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit [“The Two Tablets of the Covenant”]), was never found. The assumption was that the author printed it on her own, like the Yiddish novella.


This – until in November 2021 a Hebrew manuscript written in Solitreo (the cursive form used in Ladino) from Ioannina, Greece, arrived at the Manuscripts Department of the National Library in Jerusalem. The manuscript included three copied pieces: one is titled “On the Counting of Years” and consists of a dispute between Yosef Halevi of London and Menashe Grassberg of Trzcianne (near Bialystok, Poland); another includes a story about Rabbi Gershom ben Judah’s boycott of polygamists – this work omits the author’s name, and the third is titled “The Holy Sh’lah” and is attributed to “Sarah Feiga Foner”.

Dr. Yacov Fuchs from the National Libraryof Israel’s Manuscripts Department, who received the manuscript from Ioannina, searched for information about Sarah Feiga Foner and contacted me since I had written a dissertation about her. I was excited to hear about the discovery, but could not read the story since I am not familiar with Solitreo. I hoped to find the source from which the story was copied. The manuscript indicated that the three pieces were copied from “Ha-Yehudi”. A search of the Serials catalog of the National Library of Israel pointed to “Ha-Yehudi: a periodical letter concerning all matters of Jews and Judaism in all the countries,” which was published in London between 1897-1913, under the editor Yitzhak Sovalski. The newspaper’s geographic location and time period fit Foner’s biography, since during the first decade of the 20th century she immigrated from Lodz to London, lived there for a while and in 1909 immigrated to the U.S. with her son Noah.


The National Library of Israel is in possession of the “Ha-Yehudi” back issues, but the newspaper has not yet been digitized for the Historical Jewish Press project. As a result, it is not possible to conduct a quick search for the keywords “Holy Sh’lha” or “Sarah Feiga Foner”. I had to conduct a manual search for the story, page after page. I began the search in 1905, the year when I estimate Foner arrived in London, following the pogroms in Lodz after the failed Polish revolt against the Russian regime. At first I found the dispute over the counting of the years between Yosef Halevi and Menashe Grassberg, which began in late 1906 and lasted well into 1907. Then I found the story about Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, which turned out to be a translation from German by Aharon Leib Bisko for a story by Marcus Lehman. Finally, I located the story “The Holy Sh’lha” which appeared in five installments during 1907.

From the first installment of “The Holy Sh’lah”


The content of “The Holy Sh’lah” fits well into the transformations which are apparent in Foner’s writing – from an Enlightenment (Haskalah) novel advocating integration into European society and culture to historical-national stories in the spirit of the Revival (Techiya), to childhood memories of daily life in the traditional Jewish community in Eastern Europe. The author’s preference of highlighting a rabbi and Kabbalist who settled in the Land of Israel in the 17th Century and is buried there, confirms her return to the Orthodoxy of her family in her childhood, and her shift to religious Zionism in the vein of the Mizrahi movement.

The search for Foner’s story ended on a pleasant note when I found two ads which appeared in “Ha-Yehudi” early in 1908. In those ads Foner announced that she printed the first part of a story in Yiddish titled Der Froyen Bunt, which she offered for sale from her address in London. As said, in 1909 Foner immigrated to the United States, and no additional ads were found in the newspaper about the subsequent parts of the story.

I am grateful to Dr. Yacov Fuchs and all those who took part in discovering the manuscript from Ioannina and sending it to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People near the National Library of Israel. Thanks to their conscientious work a new Hebrew story has been added to the corpus of the first Hebrew woman writer. The search for other lost writings by Sarah Feiga Foner still continues. At the top of the list is the second part of the novel “Ahavat Yesharim” which was not published due to lack of funds, followed by a historical story about Don Isaac Abravanel, as well as additional stories in Yiddish.

For further information about Sarah Feiga Foner see the Encyclopedia for Jewish Women.


Michal Fram Cohen works as a seminar paper supervisor at the Open University of Israel. Her book about Sarah Feiga Foner (in Hebrew) is in print by Resling Publishing, Israel.


Revealed: The Renowned Kabbalist’s ‘Hidden’ Letter

Message sent to 'The Holy Ari' reflects his influence at the time, outside the mystical realm

The influence of renowned 16th century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria continues to be felt to this day. Also known as “The Ari”, “The Holy Ari” or “The Arizal”, Rabbi Luria promulgated new Kabbalistic concepts, and many customs adopted by his students, such as the “Kabbalat Shabbat” service, have since become staples of Jewish tradition worldwide. Rabbi Luria (1534-1572) was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Egypt and famously lived in the Galilean city of Safed. He is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Kabbalah, yet no physical manuscripts on mystical topics that he himself wrote are known to have survived. Practically all that we know about him has come down through the students who surrounded him in Safed, first and foremost Rabbi Chaim Vital.

Nonetheless, some tangible evidence of Rabbi Luria’s life has survived, including this fragment of a letter that was sent to him during a period in which he lived in Egypt.

Letter sent to Rabbi Isaac Luria in Egypt. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

The letter, now preserved at the National Library of Israel, was written by someone named David, who asked the Ari to support the efforts of a fundraiser sent from Safed. The content of the letter clearly indicates that the Ari was an internationally respected figure even during his own lifetime, and it reflects his prominence and influence not just in the realm of Kabbalah, but also more broadly in the eyes of his 16th century contemporaries in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

A few other original documents relating to the life of the Ari have been found in the Cairo Geniza, but this singular letter was preserved in a unique way: discovered in the binding of a book. Long before the invention of cardboard, bookmakers would glue together scraps of paper and parchment in order to make bookbindings. For decades, legendary American-born Jerusalemite Ezra P. Gorodesky would painstakingly disassemble antique bookbindings, in many cases discovering treasures like this one and donating them to the National Library of Israel, which he saw as their rightful home.

Ezra passed away in 2020, though his many discoveries will continue to enrich the academic world and the broader Jewish story for generations to come.