Purim Special: The ‘Azores Megillah’

The Azores Megillah at the National Library of Israel provides beautiful and early textual evidence of Jewish life in the Azores, and it has has recently been digitized for the first time.

Measuring just 12.7 cm (5 in) in height, this exquisite scroll was written in the 19th century and dedicated to David Sabach [i.e. Sabath], a well-known member of the Azorean Jewish community and a man eulogized as having great Torah knowledge. He was born prior to 1847, probably in Sao Miguel, Azores and died in 1915 in Portugal.

The Azores Islands belong to Portugal and are located some 1500 km (950 miles) from Lisbon. Jews fleeing persecution fled there in the 16th and 17th centuries, though they left no known written record of their Jewish lives or practices. The first written record we have of Jewish life on the islands comes with the arrival of Moroccan Jews in 1818. By the mid-19th century, the Azorean Jewish population was about 250, most of them living in Ponta Delgada, on Sao Miguel Island. The historic Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Ponta Delgada has recently been renovated and converted into a museum about the history of Azorean Jewish life.

The Azores Megillah came to the National Library of Israel as part of the famed Valmadonna Trust Library, the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world, which was purchased jointly by the National Library of Israel and archaeology, book and Judaica collectors Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn through a private sale arranged by Sotheby’s. The Valmadonna collection is currently being digitized and it will be showcased in the National Library of Israel’s landmark new building, designed by award-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron, and currently under construction in Jerusalem.

The Esther Megillah (or Esther Scroll in English) contains the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is read in Jewish communities throughout the world every year on the holiday. The National Library of Israel holds hundreds of handwritten Esther Scrolls from across the world, some of which are hundreds of years old. Each was written in a different community. Many of them are decorated in a style which may reflect their origins, and they are often dedicated to prominent members of the community, sometimes the individuals or families who commissioned them.

The digitized Azores Megillah may be viewed here in its entirety.

A Rare Photo Album Reveals the Lives of the Samaritans in Early 20th Century Nablus

The fascinating series of photographs documents ceremonies and traditions, some of which no longer exist in mainstream Judaism.

Like the majority of ancient nations, the truth regarding the origins of the Samaritan sect is lost in the mists of time. Samaritan tradition claims that the members of the sect are the Shomrim [guards] – the guardians of the true Torah who refused to accept what they saw as the false Jewish version, which considers Mount Moriah in Jerusalem as the holiest site in the Jewish faith and which was traditionally compiled during the Second Temple period.

According to this tradition, only the Samaritans – “the true Israelites” – live according to God’s law. This is because they sanctified Mount Gerizim, the sites of the temporary alter built by Joshua when the Israelites people entered the promised land, and built their temple there.

The book of Kings II 17:24, the most ancient source containing information about the origins of the Samaritans, presents a different version:

“And the king of Assyria brought [people] from Babylonia and from Cuthah and from Avva and from Hamath and from Sepharvaim, and he settled them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel, and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities.”

Based on this source, the Jews believe the Samaritans do not originate from the ancient Hebrews who were faithful to the original tradition concerning Mount Gerizim, but rather from a considerably later period. In their opinion, the Samaritans originate from nations brought by Esarhaddon king of Assyria, son of Sennacherib (who ruled between 681-669 BCE) to Samaria to take the place of the ‘ten lost tribes’. According to the book of Kings, the new settlers began to worship the God of Israel out of fear of the lions God sent against them (Kings II 17:26) and were therefore also referred to as ‘lion converts’. This is also the reason why the Jews who returned from Babylonia to the Land of Israel in the period of Cyrus refused to allow the Samaritans to help them rebuild their destroyed Temple.

Over time the two groups became so detached that the Samaritans, who branched off from the Jewish people over a thousand years ago, have their own version of the Torah, which they refer to as Sefer Abisha. The Samaritans do not accept the books of Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”), only the Torah, and they continue to use an ancient script known as Daatz. They similarly reject the Oral Torah.

Researchers who compared the traditional wording (that accepted by Jews) of the Torah and Sefer Abisha found some 6000 differences between the two versions. The majority stem from differences in spelling but others relate to the crux of the dispute between the two nations. The most prominent example is the question of the precise location of the holy place chosen by God.

“And it will be, that the place the Lord, your God, will choose in which to establish His Name there you shall bring all that I am commanding you: Your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and the choice of vows which you will vow to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 12:11)


The Samaritans continued to live in Samaria for centuries. However, the sect which had extensive influence and resources during the Byzantine period underwent a process of gradual, constant decline following the quashing of the violent revolts during the Byzantine period, and later with the influx of Arab tribes into the region following the Muslim conquest.

By the beginning of the 20th century the sect had only a hundred and fifty adherents and Western travelers who toured through Israel at the time predicted their impending demise. Despite this, the sect continued to cling to its holy sites and to hold its traditional ceremonies, including the ceremony of the Passover sacrifice on Mount Gerizim as in the days of old. The renewed interest of the Western world in the history of the sect and later the establishment of the State of Israel improved its social and economic standing. Due to this, the tiny sect expanded, and currently consists of eight hundred members some of whom live in the city of Holon and some who continue to live in Nablus, adjacent to their holy mountain.

A rare photograph album preserved in the National Library of Israel offers a rare glimpse into one of the most important of the Samaritan customs – the pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim on the festival of Passover.

View the entire album

We are unable to determine the precise year the photographs were taken, but it appears to be a ceremony held in the early 20th century, no later than 1911, the year of the death of the tour guide Rolla Floyd whose name appears on one of the tents in the photographs.

Pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim

The Samaritans are commanded to go on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain on three different festivals – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The pilgrimage on Passover is considered the most significant, a fact clearly seen in the photographs themselves.

The pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim is conducted as a journey infused with grandeur and holiness, during which the worshipers recite a series of special prayers.

After ascending to the holy mountain, the sacrifices must be prepared. In the photograph we see young boys in the camp of tents established on Mount Gerizim at the foot of the alter together with the sheep brought to be used as a Passover offering.

At sunset, as the sun begins to sink behind the hills of Samaria, the High Priest (who we identified as Yaacov son of Aharon) recited the sacrificial prayer while lifting up the Torah scroll he brought with him. The Aramaic piyut which accompanies the ceremony deals with Isaac and the ram Abraham sacrificed in his stead – an event which the Passover offering sacrificed by the members of the sect comes to replicate. This is an ancient custom no longer found in Judaism and was therefore an object of curiosity for contemporary European researchers and tourists.

Two final preparations for the central event – the offering of the sacrifices: shearing the fleece and igniting the coals.


When everything is ready for sacrificing the offerings, the sheep are slaughtered and hung to be roasted.


Guests who are not members of the sect are permitted to attend the ceremony, and several curious figures in European dress appear in the ceremony documented in the photograph album.

The Passoverl offering was the only festival in the Samaritan calendar in which women were permitted to ascend the mountain and participate in the prayers together with the men.

Only members of the sect are permitted to eat from the offerings, which are eaten under the supervision of the High Priest – standing in the center leaning on his staff. The parts not eaten are burned on the alter.

Natan Sharansky’s Little Book of Psalms that Survived the Soviet Prison

During the darkest period of his eventful life, a small black book gave light to the imprisoned Natan Sharansky, symbolizing his connection with his wife and with the Land of Israel

Natan Sharansky's Book of Psalms

“On January 20th, 1980, my birthday, I was impatiently waiting for a congratulatory telegram from home…The next day I received an unexpected surprise – a real birthday gift! – when the official in charge of storing the prisoners’ belongings brought me a tiny book with a black binding, my Book of Psalms!”

(Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky, translated by Stefani Hoffman, Random House New York, 1988)

This is how former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky describes a rare moment of joy which he experienced on the 21st of January, 1980, when his prison officer gave him back his little black Book of Psalms. The book provided Sharansky with renewed hope throughout the long years of his imprisonment. He was never to be separated from this book ever again.

Natan Sharansky with his Book of Psalms

The book accompanied Sharansky during his most difficult years in prison. In his autobiography, Sharansky tells of how the book, given to him by his wife Avital on the eve of his arrest, was confiscated. As a religious book printed outside the Soviet Union, it wasn’t exactly recommended reading material in the Soviet prison system. At one point, when Sharansky was being transferred from one prison to another, the book was temporarily returned to his possession.  The prisoner took advantage of this opportunity and tore out the page which indicated the book had been printed in Israel. When asked about it later, Sharansky described it as a “book of folklore”. It was only thanks to this that the prison authorities finally agreed to return the book to him.

“The Psalm book was the sole material evidence of my mystical tie with Avital. What impelled her to send it to me on the eve of my arrest? And how did it happen that I received it on the day of my father’s death? The reading of the Psalms not only reinforced our bond but also demystified their author. King David now appeared before me not as a fabled hero or as a mystical superman but as a live, indomitable soul – tormented by doubts, rising against evil, and suffering from the thought of his own sins.”

In 2014, Natan Sharansky visited the National Library of Israel. One of his meetings was with the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, Timna Elper.

“I was so excited to meet Sharansky,” she said, “I told him of the impact that the story of his Psalm book, as he described it in his autobiography, had on my life.” Sharansky then pulled the tiny book out of his pocket and showed it to her. It wasn’t in great shape, as could be expected after years in a Soviet prison.

Upon seeing the state of Sharansky’s book, the Library administrators who accompanied the visit offered to restore it.


Natan Sharansky’s Book of Psalms, before and after restoration

The book was given thorough treatment in the Library’s facilities.  The heavily damaged cover was restored, torn pages were mended and and the many eroded page corners were treated using the Conservation and Restoration Department’s unique techniques. Finally, on the 8th of May 2014, the Psalm book was returned to its excited owner.

Sharansky receives his Psalm book after its restoration

Towards the end of his autobiography, Sharansky writes about his very last moments of imprisonment, all those years ago, just before he stepped onto the plane that would take him to freedom:

“Where’s my Psalm book?

“You received everything that was permitted,” answered the intellectual in an unexpectedly rough tone. He signaled to the tails to take me away. I quickly dropped to the snow.

“I won’t move until you give me back my Psalm book.” When nothing happened, I lay down in the snow and started shouting, “Give me back my Psalm book!”

The photographers were aghast, and pointed their cameras to the sky.

After a brief consultation the boss gave me the Psalm book. I got up and quickly mounted the ramp.

In a dark world of suffering and injustice, one small black book gave light to the imprisoned Sharanksy. It was a reminder of his Jewish heritage. It was a reminder of his wife, Avital, who gave him the book before his arrest. It was what provided him with the strength to survive those most terrible times.


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Ephraim Moshe Lilien: “The First Zionist Artist”

According to E.M. Lilien, Zionism would be the art of the new Jews through which the new Jews would represent themselves.

Ephraim Moshe Lilien at his desk, 1902. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection

In December 1901 the art nouveau artist Ephraim Moshe Lilien joined his compatriots in the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. There, he became part of an art revolution. Lilien, along with the Democratic Faction led by Martin Buber and Chaim Weizmann, called on the World Zionist Organization to adopt a program of Hebrew culture and a greater degree of democracy within the organization

At the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901. Theodor Herzl can be seen in the center along with other Zionist who’s who of the day. E.M. Lilien is sitting on the floor on the bottom right. From the National Library’s Photography Collection

One of Lilien’s most famous pieces of art was the Jewish National Fund (קק”ל) emblem and logo which you can see below. The Fifth Zionist Congress’ most memorable accomplishment was the establishment of the Jewish National Fund.

Jewish National Fund postcard, ca. 1901,Warsaw Levanon Company

Lilien’s friendship with Martin Buber enabled his art to become not merely Jewish, or nor be an artist with who worked with Jewish themes, but to be a Zionist artist and thus part of a movement that was not merely political and social, but cultural as well.

The illustration Lilien created for the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901-02. Warsaw Levanon Company. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

Lilen’s part in the art revolution began he attended the Fifth Zionist Congress. Born in Drohobycz, Galicia (now Ukraine) in 1874. By 1889 Lilien went on to study painting and graphic techniques at the Academy of Arts in Kraków until 1893. It was during that time that Lilien studied under the painter Jan Matejko, considered one of Poland’s greatest historical painters  from 1890 to 1892. Initially his art wasn’t specifically Zionist; at least he didn’t think so. But in 1900 he published his first major art project: He illustrated biblical scenes and Jewish images in the book “Juda, ballads of Börries von Münchhausen”, which is, ironically enough, a Christian retelling of the bible

Dancing in Ancient Israel, an illustration from “Juda”, 1900, reproduced on a postcard published by Charlottenburg

He didn’t shy away from contemporary Jewish issues in his art.  When the Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld’s book, “Poems from the Ghetto”, was translated into German, he was commissioned to illustrate it for the German audience. He very seriously and diligently illustrated the suffering of the Jews as they migrated from one form of poverty in Eastern Europe to another in America, where the majority of immigrants became peddlers or sweatshop workers exploited by factory managers.

Eternal Vagabonds, ca. 1903, Warsaw Levanon Company. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

In 1903 the Russian persecution of the Jews came to a head during the Kishinev Pogroms. The Russian Empire’s oppression of Jews made it clear to Lilien that anti-Semitism had to be fought both politically and culturally and that the victims had to be honored.

“In Honor of the Sanctified Dead of Kishinev”, ca. 1903. Of Maxim Gorkis Zbornik, Berlin. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

It seemed that Lilien decided that art would be the gentle sledgehammer with which Jews would break the chains of the Diaspora. And the art of the new Jew would represent the new Jew. The illustration below shows the tension between the opposing forces of the Jewish world at the time. One line shows religious, traditional Jews moving backwards, whereas the other line shows modern, muscular Jews moving forwards towards the horizon.

Father and Son, ca. 1904. Verlag Zion, Wien. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

Lilien went on several expeditions to the Land of Israel on behalf of the World Zionist Organization. One of these expeditions was with Boris Schatz in 1906, when they established the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the emblem of which is Lilien’s design. Lilien also taught the school’s first class in 1906. Lilien didn’t stay at Bezalel or in the Land of Israel after that first year. He returned to Berlin in 1907, but continued to visit the Land of Israel periodically until 1918.

The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design emblem

Lilien died in Germany in 1925 at the age of 51. A street in Jerusalem is named for him.

E.M. Lilien in his studio in Berlin, ca. 1910. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection

Information for the article gathered from The Art and Artists of the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901 and Zionism and the Creation of a New Society.

The article was written with the help of Dr. Gil Weissblei.

All illustrations are by E.M. Lilien.