The Riddle of the Baal Shem Tov

No one knows when or where he was born, but on the festival of Shavuot we mark the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, one of the most influential figures in the Jewish world of the past few centuries. Was "The Besht" a real person or just a Hasidic legend? How has this enigmatic figure influenced generations of followers? How did he foresee his own death? Dr. Chaim Neria, curator of our Judaica Collection, offers insight on the life of this fascinating person.

The Baal Shem Tov, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

According to legend, when the Baal Shem Tov was just starting out, he arrived in a Jewish town. Early in the morning, he stood with his cart, met a Jew on his way to the synagogue, started talking to him, and told him a story. The Jew enjoyed the story and stayed to hear another one. In the meantime, more Jews passed by, saw what was happening, listened to the story being told, and they too stayed to hear yet another story. This kept happening until all the Jews of the town stood there listening to the Baal Shem Tov and his stories.

The stern Rabbi of the town was very strict about praying on time. The Rabbi arrived at the synagogue waiting for a minyan (a quorum of ten required for prayers), but no one showed up. He waited for half an hour, then an hour, until he realized there would be no minyan that day. Annoyed, the Rabbi prayed on his own and then went to find out why no one else in the town had shown up to pray that day.

That’s when the Rabbi understood that a Jewish traveler was standing in the center of the town and telling stories, keeping everyone from arriving on time to pray. The Rabbi instructed his assistant to go bring that man to him so he could be punished for stopping the prayers from happening that morning. A few minutes later, the Baal Shem Tov went to see the Rabbi, who asked him why he had stopped everyone from coming to pray. The Baal Shem Tov answered, “Honorable Rabbi, I truly deserve to be punished for preventing the public from praying, but before you punish me, let me tell you a story.”

And so, the Baal Shem Tov told the town’s Rabbi story after story, until that Rabbi took it upon himself to be among the Baal Shem Tov’s greatest disciples. The Hasidim say that this Rabbi was called Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, known for being a great student of the Baal Shem Tov and one of the first great Hasidim.

The Hasidic movement’s extraordinary story-telling abilities contributed quite a bit to the confusion surrounding the enigmatic and wonderous character of its founder, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer – the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”) – who has kept generations of historians and researchers occupied. Simon Dubnow, a pioneer in the critical study of Hasidism, wrote the following in the opening section of his book The History of Hasidism:

“Out of the fog, the historical image of the creator of Hasidism emerges and becomes visible to us…a thick mask, woven into the imagination of his contemporaries and later generations, hides the true image of the Baal Shem Tov from our eyes until it almost seems to us as if this person never existed, but was rather a metaphor, a fictitious name for whatever may have caused a religious movement to shake the world of Judaism.”

Dubnow himself never doubted the Baal Shem Tov’s existence, but a lack of factual information overshadowed Hasidic research for decades. To this day we can’t say with certainty where or when he was born. We don’t know anything about his parents or his teachers. His entire childhood is shrouded in mystery. Eliezer Steinman wrote that it was “as if a loyal hand had gone to the trouble of obscuring his footprints.”

It was only when he began his public activity, in the 1730s, that he began to be revealed little by little, but by then he was already appearing in the full extent of his stature. By this point he was meeting with Kabbalists, and had students, admirers, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, thinkers and simple folk clustered around him. He was particularly known as the “Baal Shem,” a healer and miracle worker.

Dubnow, Gershom Scholem, and many scholars of Hasidism assessed with certainty that the Baal Shem Tov was not merely a legend – after all, his students mentioned him and taught Torah in his name, we have the siddur (prayer book) that he used, and we know exactly where he is buried. Still, several other scholars did began raising doubts about whether this person had ever truly existed. Isn’t it possible that different legends about different figures merged to tell one story? Is it possible that a person whose whole life was one of miracles and wonders truly walked this earth? Maybe there truly was such a person, but his students created a legend surrounding him after his death.

Professor Moshe Rosman is a skilled professional historian, who also benefited from a bit of luck. At the beginning of his academic career, he decided to focus not on the theology of the Baal Shem Tov, but on his life. He tried to avoid writing an intellectual biography about the man and instead rummaged through archives that offer an understanding of what Jewish life in that period may have looked like.

Rosman made a very important discovery at the beginning of his career, in the 1990s.  The 1740-1760 tax records of the town of Medzhybizh in Ukraine – the town where the Baal Shem Tov lived – which are kept in the Czartoryski Library in Krakow, contain references to a “Kabbalist” or “Baal Shem, Doctor” who lived in a house owned by the Jewish community and was exempt from paying taxes.

Appearing alongside this “Baal Shem” in the tax records are many familiar figures from the book In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov. All of this indicates that not only did the Baal Shem Tov exist, but that he was already known as the Baal Shem Tov, a healer, “doctor”, and even a “Kabbalist” in his lifetime. The tax records also show that the Baal Shem Tov wasn’t necessarily an anti-establishment figure – as later generations tended to portray him – but rather someone whose community recognized his uniqueness and showed its appreciation by providing him with a home, and a tax exemption from the authorities.

As of 1760, the Baal Shem Tov no longer appeared on any tax records, indicating that he likely passed around this time.

The Baal Shem Tov continues to serve as an enigmatic, wonderous, legendary figure. To this day, there are differences of opinion about when he was born, but there is a consensus that he died during the festival of Shavuot in the year 1760. But just as the life of the Baal Shem Tov was full of riddles and legends, so is everything surrounding his passing.

In a story that appears in In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov’s death seems to be controlled by the Baal Shem Tov himself. He knows the timing, he feels the struggle, and to him, death is simply a transition from one type of existence to another:

“First, the Baal Shem Tov gave his students a sign: when both clocks in his house stopped, it would mean that he had passed on from this earth.

And then, when the Baal Shem Tov returned from the bathroom and washed his hands, the large clock stopped. And the people and students surrounding him tried to hide it from him so that he wouldn’t see that it had stopped.

The Baal Shem Tov said to them: ‘I know the clock has stopped, and I am not worried, for I know with certainty that when I leave through this door, I will immediately enter another.’

The Hasidic tale continues:

The Baal Shem Tov sat on a bed and asked for his students to stand around it. He shared Torah lessons with them. The Baal Shem Tov said that there was a pillar used to ascend from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden, which exists in every world. And that pillar exists in every person at all times.

Slowly, his voice grew weaker until his students could no longer understand the words and letters coming out of his mouth. He told them to cover him with a sheet, and he began to tremble and shake, just as he used to do when praying.

Then, he rested a bit and his body relaxed, and they all saw that the smaller clock had stopped as well.

Rabbi Leib Kessler, who was there, later testified that he had seen the Baal Shem Tov’s soul depart his body as a pale-blue colored flame.”

In the Hebrew song Kol Mi She’At (“Everything You Are”) which he wrote as a farewell to his mother Naomi Shemer, Ariel Horowitz describes clock hands moving like a pair of scissors, counting time backward.  The hands on the clock are like a pair of scissorsClose to touching the thread of your lifeAnd it’s impossible to catch in a glimpseEverything you are Horiwitz’s song doesn’t describe a big clock and a small clock, but rather clock hands moving like scissors, cutting through time and cutting off the thread of life.

Perhaps it was like the Baal Shem Tov himself said: “The pillar on which you ascend from the lower Garden of Eden to the higher Garden of Eden…exists in every person at all times,” and it is impossible to grasp the enigma of a person – “everything you are” – in a glimpse. 

For the Hasidim, the fact that the Baal Shem Tov died during Shavuot symbolizes more than anything his status and how his soul was deeply connected to the giving of the Torah. The Baal Shem Tov’s image is interwoven with that of other Jewish leaders who were also deeply connected to Shavuot, including Moses, who received the Torah, and King David, from whose descendants the Messiah is to come and who also died on Shavuot, according to Jewish tradition. The Baal Shem Tov’s passing on Shavuot symbolizes that he was a link in the long chain spreading the teachings of the Torah outward and thus bringing redemption closer.

Space Left Behind: Ilan Ramon’s Diary Has Arrived

He was the kind of guy everyone wants to be. Ilan Ramon's story began in Be'er Sheva in Israel's Negev desert and came to an end somewhere beyond our planet. But before he became the first Israeli astronaut, he was just Ilan – a husband, father, son, and brother. Miraculously, the diary he kept aboard Space Shuttle Columbia survived. This diary, containing his personal feelings as well as descriptions of the historic event he was a part of, somehow landed relatively intact in Texas. It later underwent complex restoration processes and recently received a warm welcome at its new home – the National Library of Israel, where it is on extended loan.

Ilan Ramon and a page from his diary which somehow survived the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster

Ground Control: “And Columbia, Houston, we see your tire pressure messages and we did not copy your last…”

Commander Rick Husband: “Roger buh…”

That utterance by mission commander Rick Husband was the last communication sent to Ground Control in Houston, Texas from the Space Shuttle Columbia, which was on its way back to Earth on February 1, 2003.

On board the Columbia, which would disintegrate as soon as it reentered the atmosphere, was one Israeli. Almost against his will, Ilan Ramon – the first Israeli astronaut – became a national symbol in his lifetime.

Columbia Makeshift Memorial הכניסה למרכז גונסון ב 1 בפברואר 2003 לאחר שהתברר אסון הקולומביה צילום נאסא
The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on February 1st, 2023, after the magnitude of the Columbia disaster became clear. Photo: NASA

As the son of Holocaust survivors Tonya and Eliezer Wolferman, Ilan Ramon dreamt big when he was growing up. But “being an astronaut” was not one of those dreams. “In Israel, when you tell someone, ‘You’re an astronaut,’ it means that they aren’t…  connected [to reality], so it’s almost a joke,” he explained in one of his last interviews with American media before the Columbia took off. Still, when he accepted his assignment, he was “over the moon” with excitement.

It wasn’t the first time that Ramon was chosen to lead and carry out a mission that had never been done before. He was an outstanding, determined pilot who enlisted in the Israeli Air Force and twice returned to service after an injury. In 1980, he was sent to the U.S. as part of a small elite team tasked with learning to fly the new F-16 aircraft that Israel was about to receive. A year later, he was the youngest pilot in the squadron that flew those aircraft to Iraq to bomb a nuclear reactor being built there by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Along with the space shuttle, an Israeli national symbol was also lost on that fateful day in February 2003. Ilan Ramon served as an example of what we can become. For his family – his wife Rona, his children, his father, and his brother – it was a completely different loss. They lost their loving partner, their father, their son and brother – a serious man with a captivating smile, a sense of humor, an almost childlike enthusiasm, and hopeless optimism. They lost the individual he was, aside from all the incredible things he achieved. “At home, you don’t think of him as if he’s Israel’s first astronaut. He’s that too, but he’s my father. Do I worry about him a bit? No, not really,” Assaf Ramon said during an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 filmed before Ilan launched into space, though it was only broadcast many years later.

The Ramon family at home, screen capture courtesy of Israel’s Channel 13 (formerly Channel 10)

Ramon enlisted in the mission with all his heart and soul. He was well aware of the significance of what he was doing, and he took it seriously. But he was also able see the lighter side of things, and would often laugh and joke with his family.

Everything we know about Ramon’s journey to space consists of these two extremes: the national, and the personal. Among the things he brought with him onto the shuttle were items that carried with them all the weight of Jewish history: a tiny Torah scroll that had come all the way from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a copy of a Petr Ginz painting from the Terezin Ghetto (Moon Landscape), the last letter written by captured Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, wine for Kiddush, and more. He also took with him a letter from his son Assaf (who warned his father only to open it once he had taken off) and a notebook he planned on using to record his personal experience.

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One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel
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Moon Landscape, the Petr Ginz painting created in the Terezin Ghetto. Ramon carried a copy with him onto the Columbia.

The notebook probably had at least one page written before lift-off, but the rest of the pages were filled in the days that followed. He wrote in a short, purposeful manner, interspersing his words with fragments of thoughts, feelings, conversations, and descriptions of routine actions that became extraordinary, not only because of the place where they were carried out.

An excerpt from the diary reads:

“Launch. No, I couldn’t believe it. Until the moment the engine(s) were ignited, I still doubted it. In the last few days of our isolation in the Cape, since the fateful discussion [on] Sunday afternoon – in those days we all already felt that [this was] real, and yet – we didn’t believe it.”

אילן רמון מרחף במעבורת החלל קולומביה צולם על ידי צוות קולומביה, נאסא
Ilan Ramon, gliding through Space Shuttle Columbia, photo: NASA

In what follows, along with other documentation from the Colombia mission, this duality can be seen again and again. It ranges from the personal to the public, from the routine to the historic. He described how he brushed his teeth and how he performed scientific experiments; he wrote to his family about how much he missed them but also mentioned, almost as an aside, conversations with the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, performing Jewish rituals such as Kiddush before the entire world, and strong friendships with the other crew members.

“Travel diary, day six. Today was perhaps the first day that I truly felt like I was really ‘living’ in space! I’ve turned into a man who lives and works in space. Like in the movies. We get up in the morning with some light levitation and we roll into the ‘family room’. Brush my teeth, wash my face, and then go to work. A little coffee. Some snacks on the way, off to the lab…a press conference with the Prime Minister, and then immediately back to work, observing the ozone layer.”

Diary excerpt
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One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel

On the one hand, he was a representative of the Jewish state. All eyes were on him, and he had something to say to the entire world:

“From our perspective here in space, we look at you and see a world without borders, full of peace and splendor. Our hearts carry a prayer that all humanity as one can imagine the world as it appears to us, without borders, and can strive to live together in peace.”

From a conversation with then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

On the other hand, Ramon was a loving family man who missed his loved ones:

“Even though everything here is amazing, I can’t wait any longer until I see you all. A big hug to you and kisses to the kids.”

From an email Ramon sent his family the day before the scheduled landing

But he never saw them again. They waited for him at the base, excitedly watching the clock counting down the minutes till landing, and then with increasing anxiety, watching it reach zero and then switch to displaying the time elapsed since the Columbia was scheduled to land. It wasn’t long before the news channels started broadcasting the image of the space shuttle’s wreckage burning in the Texas sky. Debris from the shuttle and the astronauts’ bodies were scattered over a vast area in Texas and Louisiana. The diary, a personal and national treasure, should have disintegrated along with the shuttle and its crew, but a few weeks after the disaster, to the surprise of the search party, someone found the remains of the diary on a muddy patch of land in Texas.

צילום היומן כפי שנמצא בשדה צילום נאסא
The remains of the diary, found in Texas, photo: NASA

How is it possible that it survived? It withstood the explosion, and then a journey of several kilometers till it hit the earth. No one knows for sure, but leading researchers in the field believe that due to the light weight of the pages, the diary didn’t fall directly to the ground but probably glided slowly downwards, carried on wind currents that eventually allowed for a soft landing. Most of the damage to its pages probably only happened after it reached the ground, resulting from the humid conditions in the marshy area where it landed.

Once it was found, the diary was transferred to the Israel Museum for restoration and preservation. The wetness caused the pages to stick together and blurred the words that were written inside, turning them into shapeless ink blots. It was almost illegible, and restoring it was a complex undertaking that included the use of the most advanced technological means, with the assistance of the Israel Police’s forensics department.

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Yiftach and Tal Ramon with their father’s diary, when it was still at the Israel Museum, photo: National Library of Israel

One of the pages that was recovered was apparently written while Ramon was still on the ground, before lift-off. The restoration team identified letter patterns between the ink spots that had spread across the page. To do so, they used some of Ramon’s other handwriting samples. When they tried to connect the letters and the spaces between them into a meaningful, understandable text, they discovered the words of the Jewish Kiddush prayer recited on Friday night. Ramon had made advance preparations to consecrate the wine during the time designated as “Shabbat” onboard the shuttle (which itself was an interesting question because the Jewish sabbath is from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday, but he had traveled somewhere without sunset), and he had made sure to write the exact wording of the prayer in advance so that he wouldn’t forget a single word.

For twenty years the diary was kept in the Israel Museum, but it was recently moved to its new home in the National Library of Israel, where it will be on extended loan.

“If only every item we received was at the level of preservation which this diary was at when it reached us from the Israel Museum,” said Marcela Szekely, head of the Library’s Conservation and Restoration Department.

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One of the pages of the diary that survived, photo: National Library of Israel

After the initial intake phase, during which both sides of all pages of the diary were photographed, the diary entered the Library’s rare items storeroom. The storeroom, which serves as a highly guarded vault, is bulletproof and is under strict environmental control. The humidity and temperature are continuously monitored and adjusted to preserve the materials stored inside it.

“Later, after the diary goes through additional conservation processes at the Library, we will consider presenting it to the general public as part of the Library’s permanent exhibition,” Skezely says. “In the meantime, it is being kept in good company here. It ‘lives’ in the same room as the writings of Newton and Maimonides.”

The Library also preserves other items linked to Ilan Ramon as well as the diary of another astronaut.

In 1977, Ramon, then a 23-year-old pilot, wrote a letter to Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, asking him: “What is man’s purpose in this world?” Leibowitz, answered, and this correspondence in its entirety is preserved in the National Library.

In 1985, Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish American astronaut, went into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. Like Ilan Ramon, he also wrote a diary documenting his journey in space, and he had also taken with him Jewish symbols such as a small Torah scroll. In March 2023, Hoffmann visited the National Library and handed over that diary, along with several other items that are now preserved in a collection that bears his name.

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An Astronaut’s Diary, by Jeffrey Hoffman. A copy can be found at the National Library of Israel.

The transfer of Ilan Ramon’s diary – which carries both national and personal significance – was accompanied by his sons, Tal and Yiftach.

Their father’s tragic death was not the last tragedy the family would suffer. Assaf, Ilan’s firstborn, was killed in an operational accident six years after the Columbia disaster. Rona, Ilan’s widow who turned Ilan and Assaf’s legacy into a tremendous social and educational enterprise, died of cancer in 2018.

Today, Tal, Yiftach, and Noa are the ones left carrying the flag of this amazing family that, despite all the tragedies it has known, has always continued to look ahead with its head held high.

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Tal and Yiftach Ramon remove the diary from its case upon arrival at the National Library of Israel, photo: National Library of Israel

No words we write will ever be stronger or more accurate than their own:

“My name is Yiftach Ramon, and I have come here to say that my family and I insist that our name not become a symbol of tragedy or mourning. I have come here to say that people can take their grief and their mourning and turn it into action to create a better future.”

From Yiftach’s speech at the annual conference of the Israeli American Council, IAC

We at the National Library of Israel are incredibly moved to have this treasure in our collections. We are grateful for the privilege of preserving this diary, along with the spirit that created it, for future generations.

The Prime Minister’s Stuttering Speech

In the lead-up to one of Israel's greatest-ever military victories, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol took to the airwaves to address the nation. It didn't go well, and the national crisis became significantly worse as a result. Despite his failure in a critical moment, today Eshkol is often viewed as one of Israel's greatest leaders.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and IDF troops during the Six-Day War, 1967. Both images are part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and are made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Levi Eshkol Archive, the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

If only Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, prior to addressing panic-stricken Israelis on live radio on May 28, 1967, had reviewed his short speech to ensure that everything was in order—or, better yet, rehearsed it.

If only word processing existed then, it would have obviated the need for Eshkol’s top aide, Adi Yaffe, to scribble a change to the text that the Prime Minister—fresh off a cataract procedure, exhausted from late-night meetings in the lead up to the Six-Day War and having rushed to the Tel Aviv broadcast studio to deliver his remarks—struggled to read. Confused by the wording, Eshkol whispered to Yaffe in Hebrew, “What does it say?” (again, this was a live broadcast) and stumbled and stuttered. That undermined Israel’s confidence in its 71-year-old leader, led to Eshkol being compelled to relinquish his other job as Defense Minister, necessitated the government’s being expanded on an emergency basis to include opposition parties and, at least temporarily, tarnished Eshkol’s reputation.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol speaking at the podium of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, 1967. Photo by IPPA, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The episode would become known as Eshkol’s Stutter, hardly Israel’s parallel to Abraham Lincoln’s stately Gettysburg Address at wartime a century earlier.

It wasn’t what Eshkol said, but how he said it—and its context was everything.

IDF tanks near Jerusalem’s famous Montefiore Windmill, during the Six-Day War, 1967. Photo by Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

By the time Eshkol addressed the nation, Israelis were white-knuckled, fearing for the country’s survival after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in mid-May evicted United Nations peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula and deployed his own troops there, then blocked the Straits of Tiran to cut off Eilat from Israel’s Red Sea commerce—an act of war under international law. Israel’s military mobilized, and Tel Aviv residents dug ditches in anticipation of mass fatalities.

Reassurance through a national address was needed. Eshkol’s meetings at the Defense Ministry’s Kirya compound in Tel Aviv ran long, leaving no time to record the address that afternoon at his office on the grounds. Instead, he went across the street to a radio studio to speak live.

In a vacuum, Eshkol’s mistakes during the address were minor. Cross-outs and insertions dotted the 1½-page text, and Eshkol handled them fine, with slight hesitations and stutters here and there.

His pivotal screw-up centered on one word.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol during a visit to Dimona in southern Israel, 1967. This image is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Levi Eshkol Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

It occurred near the end of a broadcast that ran just over three minutes. Listening to a recording of the speech today while following along on the typed text containing the handwritten changes, the drama builds. That’s because Eshkol reached the end of the first page, flipped to the second page—we hear the crinkle of the paper—and immediately encountered the fifth word crossed out and two scribbled words above replacing it.

Instead of reciting, “Likewise, directions of activity were specified for withdrawing the [Egyptian] military concentrations from Israel’s southern border,” we can imagine Eshkol’s confusion upon encountering the handwritten Hebrew word for moving. (Italics added for this article.)

That’s when Eshkol turned to Yaffe and whispered his question. Yaffe made a hand-rolling motion to signal Eshkol to quickly continue. An engineer cut the sound for seven seconds. Silence. The sound returned, and Eshkol proceeded.

But the whisper, the sound cut and the resumption—all vital to understanding the magnitude of the screw-up—aren’t grasped by listening to the audio recording today. Rather, those key components, and Yaffe’s gesture, come courtesy of an archived interview the Israel Broadcast Authority conducted years later with Yigal Lossin, who was working that day in the studio’s sound engineer booth.

The audio that exists is Eshkol’s address after it was edited—the whispered question and the seven-second pause were deleted—for rebroadcast later that night, because Eshkol’s staff realized the magnitude of the Prime Minister’s blunder.

The edited speech in Hebrew can be heard here:

Where the original audio is today is anyone’s guess.

Ehud Shapira, a businessman who was 11 years old at the time, remembers the tension Eshkol’s hesitancy caused. Shapira’s father had been called up to reserve duty and was away. Shapira, his siblings and their mother listened together to Eshkol’s radio address. She pronounced in Yiddish, “Oy a brokh!”—What a disaster!

With Eshkol’s performance, “she thought it was impossible to rely on him,” he said. “The Six-Day War was a big victory, but it was not taken as a given” at that point, he added.

Afterward, like a game of Telephone, Israelis’ anxiety levels multiplied. People commiserated about their fears, magnifying the collective dread. Rumors spread of a coup. Shapira recalled that a Hebrew term coined at the time evoked both the military and the deteriorating mood of the street: “Maj. Rumor” (Rav-seren Shmuati), which typically refers to the unclear or dubious source of whatever widespread rumor is circulating in Israel at any given moment. These days, he quipped, social media’s power would bump that up to Lt. Gen. Rumor.

Arnon Lammfromm, who worked for the Israel State Archives for many years and authored a 2014 biography of Eshkol, holds Yaffe responsible for not ensuring that his boss rehearsed, or at least reviewed, the speech. Eshkol also bears responsibility, he added, for not ensuring that Yaffe did just that.

The fallout was swift, and shocking. Opposition leader Menachem Begin approached former premier David Ben-Gurion to urge that his Rafi party join Eshkol’s ruling coalition during the wartime crisis, something Begin and his Gahal party did. Moshe Dayan, a Knesset member from Rafi and a former IDF chief of staff, replaced Eshkol as Defense Minister. (Dayan wouldn’t be sworn in until after the war.)

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center, middle row) sitting between Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (left) and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin (right). Other members of the general staff are also pictured, including Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, Maj. Gen. Chaim Herzog, Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizmann and Maj. Gen Shlomo Goren, among others. Photo by Avraham Vered, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Eshkol’s stuttering address didn’t politically doom the Prime Minister, who remained in office until his death in early 1969, having served nearly six years. Nor did it harm his legacy in the long term. Lammfromm considers Eshkol one of Israel’s most important leaders for his range of accomplishments, including, as Prime Minister, signing a defense pact with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson that became the basis for Israel’s ongoing alliance with Washington.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center) reads the newspaper as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan eats an apple and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yitzhak Rabin relaxes. The three were on their way to visit the troops shortly before the war broke out in June, 1967. Photo by Avraham Vered, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Lammfromm pointed to Eshkol’s wide-ranging impact on Israel. As Treasury Minister, and as treasurer and settlement director of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel before that, Eshkol handled the deficit arising from the War of Independence, helped the country fund the absorption of more than 650,000 immigrants (doubling Israel’s population), transferred the Absorption Ministry from the Jewish Agency to the government, expanded the economy from agriculture-based to industry-based and added approximately 300 settlements. Eshkol also launched the Mekorot water utility.

As time will do, Eshkol became forgotten in subsequent decades. But historians and older Israelis later came to appreciate Eshkol, Lammfromm said.

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Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (center) reviewing the Independence Day IDF parade in May, 1967. On the left are President Zalman Sazar and IDF chief Yitzhak Rabin. Photo by IPPA, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“In 1967 was the last time that Israel went to war and won a clear victory. People long for victory and for his personal leadership,” he said. Eshkol wasn’t charismatic, but “his strength wasn’t there,” Lammfromm added. “It was managing people, getting into the weeds in many things. He was multidisciplinary.”

That said, was it fair that Eshkol is so well-known for his inopportune mistake in 1967?

“No, because he was a good prime minister and defense minister,” Lammfromm said. “But that’s life.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at

Declaring Independence With 150 Lira in Your Pocket

In May of 1948, designer Otte Wallish was given his “mission impossible”: Get everything ready for a Declaration of Independence ceremony. You have 24 hours. Also: Were there nude images hiding behind Theodor Herzl’s portrait?

independence hall

Declaration of Independence ceremony on May 14, 1948. Photo: Rudi Weissenstein

At 11:00 AM on the morning of May 13, 1948, one day before Israel declared statehood, Otte Wallish was given a very sensitive assignment. The official graphic artist of the Hebrew Yishuv (the Jewish community in pre-State Israel) was summoned to an urgent meeting at the Tel Aviv Museum – at the time, the only museum in the first Hebrew city. He had been summoned by Ze’ev Sherf, who had only recently been appointed “Temporary Secretary of the People’s Administration”. During the hasty meeting, which lasted no more than a few minutes, Sherf assigned Otte Wallish his task: “Get the large hall of the museum ready within 24 hours. That’s where the ceremony for the Declaration of Independence will take place.” Before Wallish could even ask for details, Sherf disappeared from the room to in a rush to attend to the other pressing items on his agenda that day.

Otte Wallish at work. Source: Wallish family

Wallish was given a budget of 150 lira.

Ben-Gurion’s plan was for the ceremony to be held under a heavy veil of secrecy.

Wallish approached this urgent task with every ounce of energy he had left after having spent several sleepless nights designing the first series of stamps to be used by the state-in-the-making. As the battles of the War of Independence were underway in neighboring Jaffa, Wallish ran around the streets of Tel Aviv to purchase a wooden desk, cloth to cover up the walls that were covered in nude images behind the stage upon which the nation’s leaders would be sitting in a few short hours, and a carpet to lend the hall a more dignified ambiance. The chairs to be placed on the stage were confiscated from local cafes. The meager budget wasn’t enough to cover flags, and it wasn’t possible to get a picture of the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl from any of the stores. He therefore borrowed both of these items from the Keren Hayesod (the United Israel Appeal). However, the flags needed to be washed, so Wallish took them to a nearby laundromat and ordered “lightning-fast washing.”

Some of the expenses that were paid for the Declaration of Statehood ceremony, from the Ari Wallish Collection

The nude statue at the entrance to the museum was covered in white cloth, and even though the War of Independence was still in its initial stages, Wallish decided to cover all the window curtains in the hall with black, as a precaution to avoid damage from possible aerial bombardments launched against Tel Aviv. It was a case of “who knows what will happen?” And as if all that wasn’t enough, Wallish was called back to Sherf’s office to receive another assignment: to prepare – without delay – a parchment upon which the Declaration of Independence itself would be written.

Wallish hurried off to the Beit HaMehandes (“engineer’s house”) at the end of Dizengoff Street. He asked to see examples of various parchments, but since he wasn’t permitted to reveal why he needed this strange request fulfilled, the clerk helping him got the feeling that this fellow was just a bit “off.” Wallish bought the parchment and brought it back to his office to test it for durability, to make sure it would last for generations to come.

The end of the Declaration of Independence, designed and prepared by Otte Walish

As soon as his dizzying spree of purchasing/borrowing/confiscating was complete, this graphic artist turned interior designer was free to prepare the hall for the historic occasion. And so, at 11:00 AM the following day, exactly 24 hours after he was assigned his task and only five hours before the declaration was signed and the State of Israel came into being, the hall was finally ready for the attendees. This was all described in a pictorial article by Pinchas Yourman in the Davar newspaper five years later, in 1953. The Hebrew article can be found online in the National Library’s Historical Press Collection.

The official invitation given to Otte Wallish to attend the Declaration of Independence ceremony. Ari Wallish Collection.

That same Pinchas Yourman described the declaration itself in his book The First 32 Minutes, as follows:

“It is unbelievable – but it is a fact; the most important and decisive ceremony ever held in Israel – the historic ceremony for the Declaration of Statehood in the Tel Aviv Museum – lasted only 32 minutes; it included one short speech; was conducted with exemplary order, and was praised afterward by its participants with the best of compliments, ranging from “great and impressive” to “once in a lifetime, moving and felt in the depths of the soul.”

Despite the cloud of secrecy cast over the location of the ceremony, the large gathering inside the Tel Aviv Museum – which had previously served as the private home of the late mayor Meir Dizengoff – guaranteed that a large crowd would show up outside the entrance hall in the hope of catching a glimpse of the most important ceremony in the country’s history. One particularly amusing story told by historian Mordechai Naor in his book The Friday that Changed Destiny concerned a guest who almost didn’t get in. The guest was Pinchas Rosen, then chairman of the small and now forgotten “New Aliyah” political party. Since Rosen had forgotten his official invitation to the ceremony at home, the guard stationed at the entrance to the museum refused to allow him to enter. None of his begging and pleading helped. He remained stuck outside until Ze’ev Sherf intervened, and Rosen, who would soon become Justice Minister of the State of Israel, was finally allowed to enter the ceremony and sign the declaration. The truth is that there was no shortage of offended parties and people with all manner of grievances trying to use all their contacts to gain entry to the prestigious event.

Ultimately, only 350 people were allowed through the doors of the museum at 16 Rothschild Blvd. The newspaper reporters didn’t even reveal where it was being held. The entire event was broadcast on the Kol Israel (“Voice of Israel”) radio station, as its inaugural broadcast.

A Broadcast From the Meeting of the Jewish National Council” – This laconic announcement informing the public of a radio broadcast on Kol Yisrael at 4 pm was published in every morning paper on May 14, 1948. This particular item is taken from HaTzofe.

Pinchas Yourman offered the following description:

“After a light banging of the (walnut-colored) gavel on the desk, everyone stood up and sang HaTikvah. In a voice that was later described in the newspapers as “trembling,” David Ben-Gurion began by uttering 15 words that have been stamped by the seal of history: “I will read for you the founding Declaration of the State of Israel, which has been approved in the first reading by the Jewish National Council.”

Upon hearing the name of the State of Israel being called out explicitly, the crowd burst into thunderous applause. One of the men sitting on the stage, Rabbi Y. L. Fishman, didn’t take part in the spontaneous applause. He burst into tears.

The haste with which the Declaration of Statehood ceremony was organized, and the amount of improvisation required in order for it to take place within such a short time didn’t manage to detract anything from the importance of the event. Ultimately, the ceremony was every bit as moving as it was brief, and it also symbolized a new beginning in many ways, for example, with new institutions (the radio station, for one) being established which would continue to accompany the new state for many years to follow.

Long live the State of Israel!