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.

These Rediscovered Melodies Survived the Holocaust. Now They’re Online

Tunes from his childhood accompanied Yitzchak Freilich through the camps and on to his new life in America. Recorded by his son, they are now online as part of the National Library of Israel collection

"The rituals of Shabbes and holidays and the lively Hasidic niggunim as well as their soulful prayer marked the happiest and deepest memories of my father’s prewar life." [Image from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection]

My father Yitzchak Freilich’s stories of survival during the Holocaust were laced with liturgical references. In recounting his first Shabbes (Sabbath) as a prisoner in the Pustkow camp in southeastern Poland early in the war – forced for the first time to violate the Sabbath by performing hard labor – he returned to his barracks exhausted and despondent and fell into a deep sleep.

Dreaming that he was at home with his family for Seudah Shlishit, the afternoon Sabbath meal, he woke himself up singing zmirot, songs traditionally sung around the table.

His long and harrowing tale ended on a similar note: five camps and years later, as his Russian liberators approached Theresienstadt, my father and some of the other prisoners spontaneously burst out singing “Avinu Malkeinu“, the hallowed prayer of the High Holidays. By then, he was the only survivor of his immediate family.

This sort of musical bracketing of his wartime experiences is not surprising given my father’s upbringing. The fourth of five children born to a Hasidic family in 1922 in Radomyszl Wielki, a tiny Polish shtetl, his father, Asher Freilich, was a traveling Ba’al T’filah, an itinerant prayer leader.

Asher Freilich (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

My grandfather’s route was guided by a quest for Hasidic davening (prayer) that dug deep into his soul, and he was frequently accompanied by my father and my uncle Naftuli, my father’s older brother. Occasionally my grandfather or others in the shtetl hosted visiting Hasidic dignitaries, such as the Dembitzer or Zabner rebbes, who might leave behind a little known but striking tune, known as a “niggun” (pl. “niggunim“), that was then incorporated into the family’s repertoire.

The rituals of Shabbes and holidays and the lively Hasidic niggunim as well as their soulful prayer marked the happiest and deepest memories of my father’s prewar life. The household was poor, but my father’s memories were invariably warm, loving and inextricably linked to the music he had heard at home when his family had been intact.

In the late 1990s, with my father’s health failing and his depression deepening, my brother, Mel Freilich, had the brilliant inspiration to sit my father down over the course of a number of Shabbes and holiday eves to videotape him singing the t’fillot (prayers), piyyutim (liturgical poems), zmirot, and other songs that had formed the soundtrack of his childhood.

Yitzchak Freilich (lower left) and his family before the war (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

Mel also asked him to recall the rituals surrounding the holidays and the origin of the niggunim, insisting that my father speak in Yiddish – an astute directorial prompt, as it allowed my father to vividly channel his boyhood memories including the folkways of the town’s Jews.

On Fridays, his mother prepared a lunch of farfel and tzikker arbis (lima beans), a modest meal to ensure that they came to the main meal that night with a keen appetite. On Purim, the matzos were baked in a communal oven and hung from the attic rafters until Pesach to keep the mice at bay.

On the morning of Lag Ba’Omer, the rebbe of the kheder (children’s religious school) took them to the woods; they carried hard-boiled eggs and bagels and crude bows and arrows (“a feil und boigen“), made of two sticks and a string. They would merrily shoot into the air, vaguely in the direction of the birds so that it was never a surprise when they failed to capture any quarry. He recounts the precise order of t’fillot and niggunim on Friday night: what was recited after the fish; which zmirot were sung at Seudah Shlishit.

My father passed away in 2002, and only my brother – the keeper of the family’s flame – watched the videos in toto, my sister and I not having the heart.

Mel Freilich, keeper of the family’s flame (Courtesy: Mel Freilich)

A few years ago, my sister’s husband died and suddenly the mortality of our generation became all too real, as was the anxiety that these memories would pass along with us if we didn’t ensure their preservation.

I became an Israeli citizen a couple of months ago, joining my sister, who made Aliyah in 1968 and lives on Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi. My parents are buried on the kibbutz, and most of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren either live in Israel or think of it as a second home, so it made sense for our father’s tapes to find a home here as well. I reached out to my friend, Naomi Schacter, who heads International Relations at the National Library of Israel, and she put me in touch with Dr. Gila Flam, the Head of the Music and Sound Archives, Collections and Reading Room, who welcomed our precious legacy to the NLI’s ethnographic collection.

The videos are now preserved and available online for all to see.

Click to view two clips of Yitzchak Freilich singing various songs and niggunim, including some traditionally sung on Purim, Passover and the High Holidays, now part of the National Library of Israel collection
Click to view two clips of Yitzchak Freilich singing Shabbes and Shavuos songs from his childhood, now part of the National Library of Israel collection

Once the videos were online, I began to watch them more assiduously, finding new connections between the origin stories of these niggunim and my father’s Holocaust stories. For example, my father sang an outstanding and exceedingly rare rendition of “Yah Ribon Olam“, the popular table hymn sung on Shabbat. It was not until I listened to my brother’s recording that I heard the source of this niggun, which my father attributes to the “Melitzer rebbe,” Reb Yitzchokele Horowitz. “Melitz” rang a bell and I realized it was the Yiddishized reference to the town of Mielić, where my father had been imprisoned as a slave laborer in the city’s aircraft factory, which had been appropriated by the Nazis and turned into a camp. It was also where he had received his distinctive tattoo – a large KL on his right wrist, an acronym for Konzentrationslager Lager (concentration camp). But when asked, my father would declare that KL stood for “koidesh l’Hashem” – Holy to God.

My mother, Chana Perl Freilich, also a survivor from a Hasidic shtetl in Poland, punctuates the videos with a few well-timed and powerful cameo appearances. The Yom Kippur eve recording is particularly difficult to watch as my father repeatedly breaks down. Following his third or fourth failed attempt (before finally rallying), my mother comes into frame, kisses him on his head and says in Yiddish, “You know what? Today is Yom Kippur eve… And I don’t think you have so much to repent – you haven’t sinned very much.”

Anna and Yitzchak Freilich, 1947 (Courtesy: Toby Perl Freilich)

Implicit in her comments is the grudge many observant survivors bore toward God for the unwarranted catastrophe visited upon pious Jews. My mother would frequently wave a rhetorical fist at the heavens, saying “Ikh hub a din v’khesbon mit dem Riboineh Shel Oilem” – “I have an accounting with God”.

It was at once an expression of unquestioning faith yet resentment toward God, testifying to a longstanding and weary, yet intimate relationship.

Yom Kippur was a loaded day for my mother as well as my father, a day heavy with memory and fate. There’s a particularly chilling story related to Yom Kippur and my mother’s shtetl, Szydłowiec. The Jews of her ghetto were rounded-up and transported to the camps two days after Yom Kippur, on September 23, 1942. A surviving eyewitness recounts that as they were gathered in the central square before being deported to Treblinka, the rabbi of the shtetl, Chaim Yekusiel Rabinowitz, said, “Yidden, we will not even have anybody left to say Kaddish for us, so we are obligated to say Kaddish for ourselves.”

Jewish cemetery in Szydłowiec (Photo: Jerzy Budziszewski). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

All of the assembled began to wail and chant Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer: “Yisgadal v’yiskaddash shemei rabba.”

A day earlier, my mother along with a married cousin and her husband, Gitele and Yossel Friedenson, had been fortunate to escape to the nearby town of Starachowice, having secured forged work papers for the labor camp. They barely survived the brutal conditions and were transported to Auschwitz on Tisha B’Av, July 30, 1944.

On the Shabbes tape, my father says that it was the custom among the Hasidim in his region

to begin the Friday davening with a “kapitl Tehilim” – “a little bit of Psalms”, and he begins to chant the customary Psalm 107, reaching the following words:

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.

He finishes midway through the Psalm and says, “You see, I didn’t want to end on hunger, thirst, and bondage.”

And so, I will stop where he chose to end:

He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains.

 

This article has been published 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.

The Story of the Star of David

The six pointed star represents peace and harmony in Buddhism, while alchemists believed it symbolized nature—how did the Star of David acquire its significance in Judaism?

Something of man’s secret enters into his symbols.”

—Gershom Scholem

 

The Star of David originated long before it was adopted by the Jewish faith and the Zionist movement; it appeared thousands of years ago in the cultures of the East, cultures that use it to this day. In the past, what we know today as the Star of David was a popular symbol in pagan traditions, as well as a decorative device used in first-century churches and even in Muslim culture.

But how is the Star of David tied to the fate of the Jewish people?

In the Hebrew context, the Star of David is actually referred to as the “Shield of David” (magen David), a phrase first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, not as a symbol, but as an epithet for God [Pesachim 117b]. Another link to the shield concept is a Jewish legend according to which the emblem decorated the shields of King David’s army; what’s more, even Rabbi Akiva chose the Star of David as the symbol of Bar-Kochba’s revolt against the Roman emperor Hadrian (Bar-Kochba’s name means “son of the star”).

The Star of David only became a distinctly Jewish symbol in the mid-14th century, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted the Jews of Prague the right to carry a flag, and they chose the six-pointed star. From Prague, the use of the Star of David as an official Jewish symbol spread, and so began the movement to find Jewish sources that traced the symbol to the House of David.

The Star of David displayed in Prague’s Old New Synagogue, photo: Øyvind Holmstad

On the other hand, the renowned Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem claimed that the Star of David does not originate in any way in Judaism. Though he noted the symbol was identified on a Jewish seal from the seventh century BCE found in Sidon, as well as in 3rd–4th century CE synagogue decorations, the star was found alongside other symbols that were known to not be of Jewish origin.

So where can we find representations of the hexagram (a six-pointed star) in other cultures?

The hexagram has been used in India for thousands of years, and can be found on ancient temples and in daily use; in Buddhism it is used as a meditation aid to achieve a sense of peace and harmony, and in Hinduism it is a symbol of the goddess Lakshmi—the goddess of fortune and material abundance.

 

Hexagrams abound in alchemy, the theory and study of materials from which the modern science of chemistry evolved. Magical symbols were commonplace in this ancient theory, and alchemists recruited the six-pointed star to their graphic language of signs and symbols: an upright triangle symbolized water, an inverted triangle symbolized fire, and together they described the harmony between the opposing elements. In alchemical literature, the hexagram also represents the “four elements”—the theory that all matter in the world is made up of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire—effectively, everything that exists. One could say that the star is the ultimate alchemical symbol.

 

 

Alchemy borrowed the idea from the classical Greek tradition that masculinity symbolizes wisdom, while femininity symbolizes nature; man is philosophy and woman is the physical world. The illustration below, which appears in an 18th century alchemical text, shows a man holding a lantern as he follows a woman holding a hexagram –  wisdom being the key that reveals the secrets of existence.

“The philosopher examining nature” – an illustration appearing in an alchemical text from 1749, the Sidney Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

In Islam, the hexagram is referred to as the “Seal of Solomon,” and it adorns many mosques around the world. Until 1945, the emblem was also found on the Moroccan flag. It was changed to the five-pointed star (pentagram), when the six-pointed star became the emblem of the Zionist movement. The use of this symbol has diminished throughout the Islamic world for the same reason. The hexagram can also be found in medieval and early modern churches—although not as a Christian symbol, but as a decorative motif.

The hexagram in Islam, photo: Vikramjit Singh Rooprai

Despite its use in other cultures, the Star of David is emblazoned on the Israeli flag, and thus it is considered the undisputed symbol of the State of Israel, regardless of its origin. A symbol’s power ,after all,  is in the meaning we give to it.

 

[Sources for this article are courtesy of Chaya Meier Herr, director of the Edelstein Collection for the History of Science, and Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel]

Drawing Moses… From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

A glimpse into how artists across the ages have tried to depict the undepictable events at Mt. Sinai...

Moses and Mt. Sinai on a 17th century Dutch map. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“And they saw the sounds…”

What does that mean? How can sounds be seen? What do they look like?

Though every word in the Torah has been scrutinized and analyzed for generations, this description – provided in the context of the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai – seems particularly enigmatic.

The answer is certainly not obvious nor clear, and like any good Jewish question, it has been asked and answered in some very interesting ways across the ages.

Many understood it quite literally – the letters comprising the Ten Commandments themselves appeared in the air, for all to see.

Jewish National Fund poster, ca. 1960. From the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Some took a bit of a more mind-bending approach, explaining – in various ways – how at that critical moment in the Jewish story, the Israelites were on a different physical and spiritual plain… All their senses merged together.

Still, other commentators rejected both of those explanations, instead opting for a more rational approach: the description was not to be understood literally. Just as someone who understands something might say, “I see,” so, too, did the Israelites “see” the commandments they were receiving.

Given the ambiguous nature of these particular words, it seems no wonder that artists over the centuries who wanted to draw the scene largely focused on concepts and imagery that would be a bit easier to convey.

Here are a few depictions from the National Library of Israel collections, ranging from the sublime to the (all but) ridiculous…

Let’s start with the sublime…

This gorgeous 15th century Italian prayer book shows Moses atop Mt. Sinai receiving a Torah scroll from Heaven. You have to give the artist credit for making efforts to show the sounds and shofar blasts referenced in the original text… those shofars are clearly blasting right down to Moses and all of the Israelites below!

Prayer book according to the Roman rite, ca. 1450. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

Less colorful (and less Jewish) – though no less detailed – our next depiction comes from one of the first printed books to integrate images and text. Liber chronicarum, published in Nuremberg in 1493, is an historical encyclopedia printed in Latin and shortly thereafter in German.

Though depicting God is generally a “no-no” in Jewish sources, it was okay for the Christian artists who created this work, showing God Himself giving a horned Moses the Ten Commandments!

In a seeming contradiction to the Biblical text, Israelites are shown waiting for the Law rather patiently.

Page 114 of Liber chronicarum, Nuremberg, 1493. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

This one, which appeared in a work edited by an 18th century Jesuit missionary, features a crucified Jesus right next to Moses on Mt. Sinai! Also, check out the stairs going up the mountain. Eighty-year-old Moses surely would have appreciated those, even if they do kind of look like an MC Escher creation…

Engraving by Christian Dietell appearing in Joseph Stoecklein’s Der Neue Welt-Bott, Augsburg and Graz, 1732. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel collection.

A similar one, printed in Russia in 1821, shows Moses literally being handed the Ten Commandments:

“A view representing Mount Sinai, all the wonderful and ancient places lying in Jerusalem and in the vicinity of Onago…”, St. Petersburg, 1821. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

No hands of God in the next one, printed in 16th century Venice, though Moses does get horns (as opposed to rays of lights protruding from his head), and a nice cottage!

Moses receiving the Law on a Latin map printed in Venice, 1569. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Moses on Mt. Sinai features in countless Christian maps, sometimes appearing as a geographical location within the map and sometimes as more of an artistic accent somewhere outside the boundaries of the map itself.

Here are a few examples, many of them featuring identical or very similar images alongside texts that have been translated into different languages.

Click on the link in each caption to see the full map and see if you can find Moses in the original!

Map appearing in a Dutch Bible, ca. 1600. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

Images of Moses and Mt. Sinai on a map printed in Amsterdam, 1677. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click images to enlarge
Moses receiving the Law on a French map printed in Amsterdam, 1704. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Moses receiving the Law on a German map printed in The Netherlands, 1716. From the Amir Cahanovitc Collection, National Library of Israel Digital Collection

And now for some Jewish renditions…

Here are the Ten Commandments appearing on Mt. Sinai. Notice that Moses doesn’t appear, perhaps due to the religious sentiments of the Jewish cartographer or his intended clientele.

“Map of the Holy Land and its boundaries” by Joseph Schwarz, Wuerzburg, 1829. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

Though there are some Jewish maps, such as the one by Joseph Schwarz appearing above, Haggadot are, of course, a much more common place to find Jewish art, and – in our case – depictions of Moses on Mt. Sinai.

This depiction, which includes a fence around Mt. Sinai as mentioned in the text, has an almost shtetl-like vibe to it, no?

Depiction of the scene by renowned scribe and illuminator Meshullam Zimmel ben Moshe of Polna (Bohemia) appearing in a Haggadah produced in Vienna, 1719. From the National Library of Israel Collection. Click image to enlarge

A similar scene, with Moses apparently engulfed by clouds, appears in a different illustrated Haggadah produced a few years later by another renowned Jewish artist, Joseph ben David of Leipnik. It is likely that both of these images (as well as the last one featured in this article) were inspired by the 1695 printed Amsterdam Haggadah.

Depictions of Moses and Mt. Sinai by Joseph ben David of Leipnik, appearing in a Haggadah produced in Darmstadt, 1733. From the National Library of Israel Collection

And now the illustration of Moses you may or may not have been waiting for…

From afar it looks like a similar scene and a decent enough rendition of Moses and the Giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Haggadah, Amsterdam, 1769. From the National Library of Israel collection

Yet as you look closer… something seems a bit off…

With all due respect to children, this illustration appearing in a priceless centuries-old Hebrew manuscript looks like… well… a second grade arts-and-crafts project?

Maybe even a self-portrait of an enraged elementary school student tearing up his homework?

Could something have gone wrong along the way?

The artist’s own child stepped in when Dad wasn’t looking?

Paint was running low?

An attempt at “post-modern” before there was even “modern”?

A botched restoration attempt?

We will never know, though maybe – like the sounds at Mt. Sinai, any good work of art and every Jewish text – we are all meant to see and appreciate this particular “revelation” at Mt. Sinai in our own way.

Many thanks to friends and colleagues Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Dr. Stefan Litt and Ayelet Rubin for their assistance.

This article has been published 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.