A Half-Angel, Half-Demon Named Azazel and His Connection to Yom Kippur

What are the strange biblical origins of the term "scapegoat"? And what does it have to do with the Jewish Day of Atonement?

The demon Azazel from the Dictionnaire Infernal

You may or may not be aware that the word Azazel is often used in modern Hebrew in a similar function to the word “Hell” in English – as in a place where you can tell someone particularly annoying to go to. Some of you may also have heard of the ancient Jewish practice, dating from before the destruction of the temple, of se’ir la’azazel (“a goat for Azazel“), the ritual of sending a goat into the wilderness as atonement for the sins of the people, hence the term scapegoat. But did you know that Azazel was also the name of a dangerous and destructive angel, who according to Jewish mystical tradition, was responsible for teaching humans some of history’s most horrible lessons?

So, who exactly is this rebellious angel Azazel and how is he related to Yom Kippur?

HaSe’ir La’Azazel, Leora Wise. This is the second engraving in a series of nine on the scapegoat, inspired by Goya’s “Los caprichos”. Printed in the Jerusalem Print Workshop. For the series on Leora’s website: https://www.artleora.com/scapegoat

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for the LORD, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the LORD, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness. [Leviticus 16, 8-10]

It begins with an age-old tradition rooted in the Bible that took place once a year on Yom Kippur. On that day, a day of atonement and fasting, the high priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and bring with him a sacrifice to the God of Israel. After leaving the temple, he cast lots for the two goats. The first would be sacrificed to God on the spot, and the second would be sent into exile to Azazel, after all the sins of Israel had been transferred to it. The casting of the lot symbolized God’s choice of the se’ir la’azazel (the scapegoat to be sent to exile to Azazel).

How are we to understand the instruction to send this creature to Azazel? It all depends of course on the meaning of the word Azazel. According to the Talmudic Sages, the word Azazel, which is mentioned three times in the Bible, is the name of a particular cliff or especially treacherous mountain (Az-el). They explained that on Yom Kippur the high priest would cast lots and decide which goat would be sent to Azazel. Then an emissary would accompany the goat that was selected to the location, some 7 miles from Jerusalem, and there he would throw the poor goat off the cliff to its death.

From the Lenkin Family Collection, the National Library of Israel

There is also another way of understanding the word Azazel, and that is as the name of a supernatural being to whom the poor goat must be sacrificed. If God is the essence of good, Azazel is an evil demon or a lesser god that is fed by the sins of the people.

This second interpretation comes from the Jewish apocrypha, or more specifically the First Book of Enoch, which details Azazel’s awful nature. Here there is no trace of a helpless animal forced to carry the sins of the collective through no fault of its own. Rather, Azazel is the rebellious angel at the head of a heavenly plot to take over the earth.

The First Book of Enoch retells the story cited in Genesis (6, 1–4) of the angels who had relations with the daughters of men. The offspring of their unnatural union were the nefilim—giants of renown who filled the earth. Enoch, the seventh generation between Adam and Noah, is naturally the central figure of this book and is chosen to bring God’s message to the rebellious angels. One of those evil angels, and second in importance only to their leader Shemhazai, is our Azazel.

Azazel’s influence on mankind is destructive and eternal: he “taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all coloring tinctures.”  He teaches humans not only how to make weapons of war, he shows them the power of artifice and hypocrisy. And as a result of this destructive influence, “there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways.”

Although Enoch warned the rebellious angels, they remained steadfast in their destructive ways. And were punished for it. Thus, Azazel finds himself bound in the desert. This is in fact an original and interesting explanation of the origin of the sacrifice of the scapegoat in the desert:

And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there for ever, and cover his face that he may not see light. And on the day of the great judgment he shall be cast into the fire.”

Azazel appears in other Jewish works from the first centuries CE, and even more interestingly, he has a starring role in various Christian traditions. The religion that grew out of Judaism also preserved something of the scapegoat from the Book of Leviticus. According to some of the early Church Fathers, Azazel was even one of the names of the devil himself. Is it any wonder that so many illustrations show the devil with the hindquarters and hooves of a goat?

So the next time you decide to make someone a scapegoat, or heaven forbid wish someone a long visit to hell or some other desolate wilderness, we recommend that you hurry and cool off, appease your demons and prove to the devilish Azazel that you were just joking. There’s really no need for all that -after all, the modern kapparot (atonement) chicken is the natural heir to the Biblical and Talmudic scapegoat—a helpless creature onto which we transfer all our sins on the Jewish calendar’s Day of Atonement.

Rosh Hashanah Pilgrimage Under Fire

Border smuggling, dancing, and prayer - What did Breslov Hasidim do when war made their annual trip to Uman a true matter of life and death?

The structure that once covered the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Uman. Seated in the doorway is the Hasid Rabbi Alter Teplicker who was murdered by an anti-Semitic mob during the Russian civil war in 1919. The photo was taken before 1910.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, some young Jewish men in Poland discovered the figure and writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. All but unknown in Poland at that time, there were small circles of Breslov Hasidim living in a number of towns in Ukraine and in the Land of Israel, but they had little influence. The journey of these young Jewish men to Uman in Ukraine, where they participated in the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) prayers together with other Breslov adherents proved to be a constitutive event for them. On their return to Poland, the young men began to spread the word and induce others to join their “new” discovery; and so began the Polish Breslov movement. Breslov followers in Poland became famous for their annual pilgrimage to Uman, and in the press and on the street they were referred to as the “Uman Hasidim” and the “Dancing Hasidim traveling to Uman.”

The Uman pilgrimage focused around Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Nachman’s disciple, Rabbi Natan, who interpreted his teacher’s remark uttered at the end of his life, “my Rosh Hashanah,” to mean the period after his death, was responsible for instigating the gathering around Rabbi Nachman’s gravesite. “That people might then receive tikkunim [spiritual rectification], which all year long it was not possible for them to receive in any way […] the main thing is to be with me.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Korman sitting in the sukkah. Courtesy of the Korman family

In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution swept through Russia, followed by a civil war. The “Red,” “White” and “Green” armies battled each other, but the Jews were often a target for all of them. This made the journey to Uman much more dangerous than usual.

In a Rosh Hashanah announcement from 1955 (courtesy of Rabbi Shmuel Tefilinski), Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Korman (one of the leaders of the Hasidim in Poland who immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in the mid-1930s and worked at the Schocken Institute in the late 1940s) recalls this period:

The many dangers of gathering on Rosh Hashanah at Uman began from then [1918] – even from Ukraine – because of the gangs of murderers (may their memories be erased). And our brethren [Breslov Hasidim] from Poland, out of longing for Uman, endangered themselves, but many were imprisoned and disappeared, God have mercy, and two were killed on the border near the town of Ostra, as is known. And since then the road had become very difficult and visitors from Poland stopped coming to Uman…

From Shomrei Mishpat, Lodz, 1934. National Library of Israel

Some of the movement’s leaders vociferously opposed the dangerous border smuggling. For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Breiter wrote in a 1923 letter to a young Hasid who was considering traveling from the Land of Israel to Uman:

“And our opinion is that it is unwarranted to travel to Uman at present, when [heavenly] protection shows it does not agree … Furthermore, he is not permitted this nonsense that might endanger himself along the way. And this folly might endanger him over days and rivers and borders and he does so out of fastidiousness, which our Master z”l [of blessed memory] was most emphatically against…”

[She’erit Yitzhak, pp. 42–43]

Instead, the movement’s leaders offered new prayers and rituals as a way to fill the void. With the cessation of visits to Uman, they decided to hold a “kibbutz” (gathering) in the city of Lublin, known as the “Jerusalem of Poland” on Rosh Hashanah. Beginning in 1930, they prayed at the Hakhmei Lublin Yeshiva, at the invitation and with the participation of the head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Meir Shapira, who also famously initiated the “Daf Yomi” daily Talmud study regimen.

In addition to the hundreds of letters from among his broad correspondence with Breslov followers in Poland and Ukraine, Korman preserved several documents and leaflets of Polish Breslov Hasidim, which he left to the Shocken Institute, including: Kol Kore BaMidbar [A Voice in the Wildnerness] from 1932 (pictured below). According to the handwritten announcement, copied in stencil (for duplication and distribution to the public), when

“the path to Uman to prostrate on the tomb of the late Rabbi on the eve of Rosh Hashanah was blocked and to determine a place for the continuation of the Rebbe of blessed memory’s tikkunim [rectifications] in his synagogue there — then our brethren in Poland decided to gather and determine the place in the city of Lublin where our late Rebbe of blessed memory’s spiritual Rosh Hashanah rectifications [tikunei] could continue.”

The authors of the declaration understood the essence of the gathering in Uman was “to determine a place for the continuation of the Rosh Hashanah rectifications of the late Rebbe.” “Determining the place” worked to sanctify the place, and prepare it as a tool for the appearance of the “light of our late rabbi of blessed memory” in a barren world. Participation in the kibbutz — even just arriving to it and breaking through the obstacles and barriers involved in reaching it — leads to a noticeable spiritual renewal, and to the “longing for a true simple faith … which is the true tikkun olam [repair of the world].”

The rectification that happens in this gathering is not only for the Hasidim — and not only for the Jewish people — but for the whole world: “For his soul and for the whole world”; “And all the judgements shall be sweetened above us, for all Israel and for all of the world.”

Kol Koreh BaMidbar. Korman Collection, Shocken Institute for Jewish Research (KC-L-10)

Additional documents from the Korman Collection at the Schocken Institute shed light on Breslov “kibbutzim” in Poland during the Holocaust.

In a unique letter from the beginning of the war, in 1940, the Hasid Rabbi Zvi Lasker, a student of Breiter’s, writes to Korman, from Vilnius (where he fled, ahead of the city’s conquest by the Germans):

“Was there a Rosh Hashanah kibbutz this year?  Although there was a kibbutz in Warsaw, woe to the kibbutz that prays under a flood of bombs, shooting, fires and strange deaths from the ‘demons of the world’ [מזיקי עלמא]. Let me try to give you on cold paper — which can withstand everything — a brief summary of the battles of our Rebbe’s people.”

With great literary flair, Lasker describes the Rosh Hashanah prayers of Breslov followers during the German bombing of Warsaw, about two weeks after the outbreak of the war (the bombings had come after three days of quiet, which gave the city’s Jews hope that there would be a peaceful holiday, a hope which quickly proved false).

The Hasid Rabbi Beirech Rubensohn (Robinson), who lost his family in the Holocaust, survived Auschwitz and moved to America and later to Israel, wrote in 1947 to Korman about Rosh Hashanah in the middle of the war:

“And in the year 1941, on Rosh Hashanah with God’s help there was a gathering in the city of Apt (Opatów), where they [the Hasidim] prayed together, and also danced.”

I conclude with more recent history. On a trip around Rosh Hashanah (in the pre-Covid era), on a flight from Ukraine to the Czech Republic that was filled to brim with Hasidim and their guitars, I stood in the aisle at the back of the plane to do some yoga. A young Czech flight attendant approached me (perhaps the yoga made him feel like we could communicate), and shared with me his bewilderment at the unconventional pilgrims. He had heard of the pilgrimage (all of Eastern Europe is abuzz because of it), but he wanted to understand what it was all about.

I said to him:

“Buried in Uman is a man who said there is no reason at all for despair. The devotees believe that by traveling to his grave, they project encouragement and hope to all who are in need of it, to all the broken and depressed, all over the whole world, just by their being there.”

He was touched by this thought.

May “all the judgements of the Jewish people and of the world be sweetened,” Amen.


The Worm That Built Solomon’s Temple

Did a mysterious little creature, the enigmatic "Shamir", really help build the First Temple?


The Book of Kings contains a precise description of the building of the First Temple: its dimensions, the cedar and cypress beams that covered the walls, the gilded ornaments and carvings, and the two cherubim that stood wing to wing above the Ark of the Covenant. It also includes this puzzling verse: “And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone finished at the quarry, and there was neither hammer nor axe (nor) any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” (1 Kings 6:7)

How could it be that no hammers, chisels or iron tools were used to carve the stones of the Temple, while the Bible also states that the stones were hewn? The Jewish sages offer a simple answer:  the stones were prepared in another location and transported from there to the construction site at the Temple Mount. The Book of Kings even brings support for this explanation: “And the king commanded, and they quarried great stones, heavy stones, to lay the foundation of the house (with) hewn stone.” (1 Kings 5:31).

But our interest here is the alternative explanation, appearing in Rabbinic literature, according to which the stones were hewn with the help of something called Shamir. The obscure Shamir appears in the Bible itself, though not in the Book of Kings. In Ezekiel (3:9) it is written that Shamir is “stronger than flint.” The Hebrew text of Jeremiah 17:1 also makes mention of Shamir, though English versions have translated the word as “flint” or “diamond”: “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, with a diamond [Shamir] point, engraved on the tablet of their heart and on the horns of your altars.” These passages clearly suggest that Shamir is a hard material of some kind.

The Talmud provides additional information about the mysterious Shamir. For example, in Tractate Avot, Shamir is mentioned as one of the ten things created on the “Sabbath eve,” before the completion of the act of Creation. The substances created in that moment were somewhat enigmatic in nature, including the Shamir which had the power to hew stones. Tractate Sotah (48b) explains that the Shamir was used to engrave the stones inserted into the Priestly breastplate (Hoshen), which were cut “like a fig which splits open in summer.” It also says there that because nothing could withstand the Shamir’s strength, it is stored in tufts of wool in a lead box filled with barley bran.

Model of the Temple from a book of photographs of Temple models donated to the National Library of Israel in the 1930s

The Talmud, Tractate Gittin (68a) contains the most detailed legend surrounding the Shamir. According to the story, King Solomon asked his advisors how the stones for the Temple could be prepared without the use of an axe or chisel, as it was inappropriate to use tools of bloodshed and war to construct such a building. They told him of the miraculous Shamir but did not know where to find it. The king then summoned forth spirits and demons, but these were also unable to say where it might be found. They did, however, suggest that Solomon consult their lord, Asmodeus, king of demons, who might know the answer. King Solomon sent his general, Benayahu son of Yehoyada, who subdued Asmodeus and brought him to the king’s palace. Asmodeus (or Ashmedai) revealed to Solomon that the Shamir was in the possession of the Lord of the Sea, guarded by a certain bird, a woodcock according to most English versions of the story. Solomon quickly sent off another of his servants who prevailed over the woodcock and managed to steal the Shamir away. From here the story continues, with further twists and turns. You can read a version of the legend in Louis Ginzberg’s classic, “The Legends of the Jews”, as well as a Hebrew version which is available online here (in Kol Agadot Yisrael, ed. Israel Benjamin Levner, Tushiya Publishing).

“…and He named it ‘Shamir’, and placed it to rest in safekeeping, in a place unknown to humans“, a page from the legend of King Solomon and Asmodeus, Kol Agadot Yisrael, I. B. Levner

In Rashi’s commentary to the legend, he deduced that the woodcock was in fact a hoopoe (duchifat in Hebrew, דוכיפת), which became a popular fixture in the legends of King Solomon. But more to the point, he suggested that the Shamir was not a stone or other inanimate object at all, as can be assumed from some of the versions of the legend, but was in fact a living creature—a worm. The source of Rashi’s explanation is unclear, but the phrase “Shamir worm” was born and even made its way into the writings of Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovic, 1836–1917), who mentions the Shamir as one of the wondrous creatures that Benjamin the Third sets out to find in his travels.

Illustration for the legend of King Solomon and Asmodeus. Illustrator: J. Apter. From the book Shlomo Hamelekh – Agadah Ketuva Beyad, [Hebrew] H.N. Bialik, Frankfurt, 1923

The religious commentators do not agree on whether the Shamir was a living creature or a kind of stone with miraculous powers. On the other hand, based on the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 48b), they determined that after the Temple was destroyed, the Shamir was obliterated from the world. However, about two years ago, a team of researchers in the Philippines discovered a worm capable of eating through limestone. While limestone is a relatively soft form of rock, nevertheless, the existence of a stone-carving worm might not be such an unrealistic notion after all…

The Feminist Revival of Tu B’Av, the Jewish Festival of Love

Did an Orthodox girls' movement and its legendary founder revive an ancient and obscure holiday in the forests of Poland?

"...the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women.” (Photo: The Yad Izhak Ben Zvi Archive, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

Do a quick Google search on Tu B’Av, and two sorts of material will appear. The first describes a festival dating back to late antiquity, in which, according to Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8, “On these days [the 15th of Av] the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none…  The daughters of Jerusalem would come out and dance in the vineyard. What would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…”

Girls dancing on Tu B’Av in Hadera, early 20th century. From the Khan Hadera Archive and Museum (Photo: Sonia Kolodany / Photo Sonia / CC BY 2.5)

Along with this ancient matchmaking festival, we might also learn of the revival of Tu B’Av in modern Israel, as a Jewish Valentine’s Day, or festival of love. The Orthodox world, in Israel and beyond, has also taken up this day as a “Global Day of Shidduchim,” in which great rabbis pray, without charge, for unmarried men and women to find their mates.

Yet Tu B’Av, it turns out, may have been first revived in the modern period neither by modern Zionists celebrating romance nor by Orthodox organizations praying for “shidduchim.”

Bais Yaakov

Now generally associated with perhaps less-than-progressive ultra-Orthodox educations for girls, the Bais Yaakov movement was actually quite radical in its early years.

In 1917, a dressmaker with an eighth-grade education named Sarah Schenirer opened a girls’ school in Kraków, hoping to stem the tide of Orthodox girls who were abandoning tradition.

Sarah Schenirer. From Collected Writings, the National Library of Israel collection

By the 1930s, the movement had branches on three continents and dozens of schools, not to mention vocational training institutes, a chain of colonies and summer camps, three teachers’ seminaries, a monthly literary journal and other periodicals, its own publishing houses, a youth movement and much more. The character of the movement changed dramatically after the Holocaust, yet recently the Bais Yaakov Project was founded to preserve and share this fascinating early history.


The women’s holiday

Online as part of the Bais Yaakov Project archives, a 1926 issue of The Bais Yaakov Journal reports local celebrations of Tu B’Av throughout Poland that year. The newspaper describes the numerous correspondents who wrote in to the office of the Bnos (the youth movement associated with the Agudah and Bais Yaakov) to report on how they had celebrated the day and to express “the outpouring of joy awakened by the revival of this traditional historical women’s holiday.”

Beis Yaakov activities in Rabka (near Skawa), 1929. From Collected Writings, the National Library of Israel collection

The fact that this was not a one-time occurrence in 1926 but a regular feature of Bnos and Bais Yaakov life is evident from other writings, including by Sarah Schenirer, detailing how this old-new holiday might be celebrated, and clarifying its meaning for the Bais Yaakov movement. One participant in a Tu B’Av ritual led by Sarah Schenirer herself provided a rich description of the 1932 celebration in the woods of Skawa, a village thirty miles south of Krakow where the seminary students were spending the last summer before they left for their assigned teaching posts.

The celebration of Tu B’Av, in Hodo Movshowitz’s retelling, involved a moonlight hike in the woods, with 115 students and teachers walking hand-in-hand behind their leader and guide, Sarah Schenirer. After some difficulties, a bonfire is lit, and a student gives a talk, followed by Sarah Schenirer, and then the girls and women rapturously and prayerfully sing and dance, an experience of great mystical meaning.

Beis Yaakov activities near Skawa, 1929. From Collected Writings, the National Library of Israel collection

Tu B’Av was revived in Bais Yaakov as a “traditional historical women’s holiday”; the student who spoke to the group around the bonfire explained its meaning, according to the description, as “the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women.”

The ecstatic dancing was done not before the eyes of prospective mates, as in the Mishnah, but rather, Movshowitz stresses, with no one watching. Tu B’Av was celebrated in Poland by Orthodox Jewish girls and women, alone in the woods with their God, their guide, and each other.


Tu B’Av 1932 in Skawa

Below is the full text of the article, which appeared in a 1932 issue of the Bais Yaakov Journal. It was originally written in Yiddish by Hoda Movshowitz, a teacher in Sokolov, and recently translated into English by Frieda Vizel.

Evening. The sun is about to set. It is already on the other side of the linden trees. (Yes, the trees of Skawa, you will remain in our memory for a long time!) And suddenly it occurs to me: why does the sun hide behind these giant trees every day before it sets? Does it hide behind these enormous trees to prevent people from seeing the last few moments of its day? Maybe it doesn’t want people to see the the misdeeds it has witnessed — is that why it reddens so with shame, and hides its face among the enormous trees?

But I can’t be lost in thought for long. The sound of some exalted mood reaches my ears and rouses me from my speculations.

All the seminary girls are standing in front of the villa, ready for our excursion. We count a hundred and fifteen, and I too am among them.

And so we set out.

Frau Schenirer at the head. One hundred and fifteen of us go step by step, hand in hand, along the path, Frau Schenirer first among us, our guide. Our hearts beating with extraordinary joy, we follow in the steps of our leader and flag-bearer.

The sun is already completely gone. A star-speckled sky is above us. The glow of the moon illuminates our path.

And we walk and walk, but to where? Our great leader is before us, and we follow her lead.

Finally, we reach a forest. It’s pitch dark all around. The trees obstruct even the bright glow of the moon.

Suddenly, the center of our group lights up. “Campfire!” we pass the word from ear to ear. A flash of light, and then it’s pitch dark again. Something over there doesn’t want to burn. The bonfire doesn’t want to start. Our teachers busy themselves with it, to no avail. Some of us despair, but not those in charge of lighting fire, who keep on working with their bundle of twigs. They work with all their energy, lying flat on the ground with their faces close to the spot where a tiny spark still flickers. There they add a bit of their own life force and, finally, they’re successful and the fire catches.

Soon a large fire is burning in the center of our circle, almost like the Jewish fire which we kept burning for so long, deep in our hearts.

It’s quiet. No one dares to speak out loud, to break the silence, to interfere with what we are all feeling. Who? Every one of us! Because we are all experiencing something tremendous—you can see it in our eyes. . .

And then someone does break the silence. Who speaks? One of the students, who begins to give a talk. She speaks and each of her words rings out and is echoed back by the trees.

She speaks of the meaning of the fifteenth day of the month of Av, about the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women. The mood is serious, even sad, as she finishes.

Again a silence lasts for a long time. From time to time we hear the crackle of the burning twigs. And suddenly we hear the voice of Frau Schenirer. All eyes are now focused in one direction, and with great anticipation we listen to the words of our great leader.

Her eyes and the features of her face are sunken in the firelight, but her voice rings out: “And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall make smoke thereon the fat of the peace-offerings” [Leviticus, 6: 5]. And she draws a picture to help us understand what this means. In the desert among the camps of Israel, the tribe of the Levites, and in their midst the tabernacle and the altar on which a fire burns that may never go out. This fire was sent by God himself to the altar. So was this divine fire not all that was needed to burn the sacrifices? But no, every morning the priest would add some wood. The divine fire can only burn for us when we have such divine priests who guard it, who feed the fire without cease, who add firewood without tiring of it. Only then can we be sure that the fire will always burn on our altar. And then, no power in the world can extinguish it.

And after a short silence her voice rings out again. “Many waters cannot extinguish love” [Song of Songs, 8: 7]. Every person has within herself an altar. The heart of each person is a temple, and the fire that burns of its altar is the “Fear of God” and “Love of God”. God starts off this fire on our altar. But we have to guard this spark, to blow on it again and again, without tiring.

And again there is silence. All eyes are turned to the fire. Meanwhile it burns; dry twigs flame out on the ground. Our eyes are burning, too, and maybe something else as well, something invisible, in a secret place, a small and hidden flickering flame. No question about it — each and every one of us knows this about herself, without the slightest doubt.

And suddenly we hear again the familiar voice; “Let the children sing!”

And so we sing. Suddenly we are so overcome with the urge to sing that no power in the world can stop us.

“There is none like our God!”

We sing. Quietly at first, and then louder and louder and from the middle of that song, the tune of a deep prayer rings out:

“Cleanse our hearts so we can serve you in truth!” And ever more beautiful and stronger grows the song, until we are no longer singing — this is a fervent prayer!

And it continues for another minute or two, until some extraordinary longing overcomes our soul, and out of our hearts tear the words “Next year in Jerusalem!”

The tune grows stronger, more emotional, more prayerful. The fire in our eyes grows brighter, more radiant. We add wood to the fire and the flames leap up. We can no longer sit still, we rise. Everyone wants to dance.

And so we dance.

Alongside us dances our leader, Frau Schenirer. Hand in hand with us, together. We dance, we can no longer see anything before our eyes. Our eyes close, our souls pine for something, everything around us disappears. It is so good… Our feet dance of their own accord. And so we dance, strong, stronger, even stronger still.

The dancing lasts for a long, long time, and still dancing we return from the woods. And still we dance. We dance as we accompany Frau Schenirer home, and only later do we ourselves go to sleep.


That was the fifteenth of Av, 1932, in Skawa. A year has already passed since then. We have dispersed, each to her own way. But did the bonds we forged then slacken? No, a thousand times no!

We hold each other by the hand, united in one organization, united just as we were then, as we danced out of the woods with no one seeing us. We are each and every one of us deeply connected with the rest, even as each of us works in our own circle.

A version of this article was previously published as part of The Bais Yaakov Project. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.