Ben-Gurion: Prayer is Self-Deception

Israel's first Prime Minister reveals: I do not envy soldiers who pray. A unique glimpse into David Ben-Gurion's inner philosophy

Not one thing about the journey undertaken by the members of the early Zionist movement was clear-cut, simple or predictable. To create a reality that exceeded imagination, Zionism needed creative minds; the young movement found what it sought in figures of the stature of Pinsker, Herzl and Ahad Ha’am. Even after these individuals had passed on, the movement’s members continued to grow and establish Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state that could serve as a spiritual center and “a light unto the nations”, as described by Ahad Ha’am.

After the state was established and the vision that was conceived through words and actions became a reality, manifested in everyday life, the leaders of this movement which evolved into a state continued to challenge the philosophers and theorists. Now they turned to the intellectuals who gathered in the newly-established universities and presented them with problems and questions raised by this rebirth of Jewish sovereign life.

David Ben-Gurion, a statesman with an avid interest in philosophy, made a point of constantly engaging in dialogue with academics and specialists from different areas of expertise. He conducted comprehensive correspondences with inventors, scholars and scientists, observed their opinions on various issues and clarified his own views on those same topics. The National Library collections include many letters sent and received by Ben-Gurion; among them is a letter he sent to the Israeli philosopher and academic Professor Samuel Hugo Bergman, as well as Bergman’s reply.


 The first page of Ben-Gurion’s letter (Hebrew). Click on the image to enlarge

In 1960, Israel’s first Prime Minister contacted Professor Bergman to share his thoughts about a recent personal experience. Ben-Gurion opened his letter to Bergman with a philosophical-theological analysis of the biblical verse: “In the image of God He created him” (Genesis 1:27). Was man truly created in the image of God? Ben-Gurion thought otherwise. Though he rejected atheism and denied the assumption that “the world consists of materials and atoms blindly put together, and that there is no logic, reason or rule to the cosmos,” he also regarded any personification of God as “different forms of idolatry.”

The inability to understand the universe and how it works brings man to “compare the ‘mysterious infinity’ (an expression from the Kabbalah that perhaps describes best the unknowable divine essence) to man – this is but naive haughtiness, an arrogant pretense of a small creature towards its ‘creator.'” Ben-Gurion wrote the word ‘creator’ in quotation marks, a way of pronouncing man’s inability to articulate the meaning of infinity or capture it through logic.

At the end of his letter, Ben-Gurion describes the experience that brought about the thoughts he shared with Bergman: “And it may seem strange that I write this immediately following Yom Kippur, after joining a company of paratroopers holding the Yom Kippur prayer service in one of the shacks here [in Sde Boker, Ben-Gurion’s desert home]. All evening yesterday and nearly the entire day today, until ma’ariv [the evening prayer]. I listened to the prayers and contemplated them. I could feel the devotion of the few people who believed in what they were saying; I felt respect and fondness for them – but I did not envy them.” Ben-Gurion argued that prayer is not a dialogue between man and his creator, claiming that “it may feel pleasant – yet it is not reality, but self-deception.”

One month later, on November 11th, Bergman sent his reply, apologizing for the delay. He addressed the Prime Minister by his name (“Mr. Ben-Gurion”) omitting his title but adding “the highly respected.” Bergman responded dismissively to the idea that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai: “Although I must say my view of the Torah is closer to that of those who have pure faith than to those who see the Torah as no more than a purely secular book and do not see the fundamental, vast difference between the Torah and secular literature.”


Bergman’s full reply to Ben-Gurion. Click on the image to enlarge

Bergman claimed, “it is a fundamental fact that there are holy texts; texts that were written with inspiration from above.” According to Bergman, these holy texts also include the New Testament, the Quran and the Indian Vedas. The fact that these texts are holy does not eliminate the necessity to “examine the books applying historical-scientific means of criticism”. At the same time, Bergman acknowledged the existence of higher worlds, “and these holy texts are the most important channels through which the higher worlds impact man’s development.”

The creation of the world, according to Bergman, just like the creation of man in God’s image, is one of those facts that are true “in a divine, metaphysical or symbolic manner, if you will.” Bergman agreed with Ben-Gurion that God cannot be comprehended through logic, and therefore one must “stand before Him in reverence and awe.”

At the end of his letter, Bergman addressed the question that had been troubling the ‘Old Man’ (as the Prime Minister was commonly known) – the question of the essence of prayer. He wrote as follows: “The question whether or not prayer is a dialogue is not one that can be answered, in my opinion, through theoretical arguments. Theoretically, to all appearances, you are of course right that the person praying is speaking to themselves. Yet whether that is the whole picture, an onlooker cannot say. It is a matter of experience. I am an empiricist and therefore believe the reports of the greatest prayers of all religions and nations. He who says it is but ‘self-deception’ is like someone who observes two lovers, and insists that there love is but self-deception. ‘Objectively’, outwardly, he is right. And yet, ‘love is strong as death.'”

The full transcript of Ben-Gurion’s letter prepared by S.H. Bergman. Click the image to enlarge it.


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A Great Miracle Happened Where? The Origin of the Dreidel

Four Hebrew letters – Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Pei – tell the story of our people. But did you know that the dreidel was not originally a Jewish custom?

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra'anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

Four letters – נ Nun,  ג Gimel,  ה Hei and פ Pei – tell the story of the Jewish people, or at least one of our most famous stories. This would be the tale of the Greek villain Antiochus who decided he was going to, once and for all, deal with that unruly lot who continually insisted on publicly boasting about how chosen, wonderful and one of a kind they were. Antiochus proceeded to spite the Jews and place idols in the very heart of their cherished Temple.

With the help of some handy divine intervention and a bit of ingenuity on the part of the Jewish military, the Maccabees managed to prevail over their enemy who had besieged Jerusalem, thus proving to the Hellenized Jewish elite that trust should be placed only in God and His Torah. To top it all off, a small cruse of oil was found in the Temple that would miraculously last for eight days of light – seven more than expected. This was the miracle referenced by the letters Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Pei, which stand for Nes Gadol Haya Poh – “a Great Miracle Happened Here”. These are the letters imprinted on the dreidel, the game most commonly associated with the festival of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra’anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

But do you know where the dreidel bearing these four letters originated? Here’s a hint – it is not an ancient Jewish custom.

Many Jewish holiday customs and traditions are rooted in the distant, oftentimes forgotten, past: Why do we fry latkes on Hanukkah and what were they made of before potatoes were imported from America in the 16th century? Why is it that we wave flags on Simchat Torah? How can we be expected to remember this stuff?

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra’anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

On occasion, as in the case of the dreidel, Rabbis and Halachic scholars are presented with a simple, undeniable fact they must contend with: On Hanukkah, we play dreidel. This raises the need to find (or invent) a Halachic explanation or story relating to what was, up until then, a slightly vague tradition of unclear origin.

In the 19th century, a certain group of rabbis who were faced with this question, came up with a creative answer: The dreidel, they explained, is a game Jews used to play whenever a Greek person was nearby. The idea was to fool the Greek into thinking the Jews were playing a harmless game, while hiding the fact that they were actually engaged in the forbidden study of Torah. The truth is a bit more surprising.

The origin of the dreidel is not entirely clear, yet most scholars agree it evolved from an English toy known as a ‘Teetotum’. It may be that the game was first brought to England by Roman soldiers.

Whether or not that was the case, this version of the spinning top had spread all over England and Ireland by the 16th century. During the 19th century, four letters were imprinted on the dreidel’s four sides, each representing an action in a gambling game:

N for Nothing

T for Take all

H for Half

P for Put in

When the game reached Germany, two of the letters were replaced:  T (Take All) became G (Gant), while S was the German letter used for Put In. H and N remained the same.

One theory links the acceptance of the dreidel as a favored gambling game to the fact that Jews in Germany were forbidden leave their homes on Christmas. With the synagogue off limits, more secular pursuits would occasionally replace Torah study during this time of the year. The Latin-German letters, however, were eventually substituted with Hebrew letters: Nun (נ), Gimel (ג), Hei (ה)and Shin (ש). For the purposes of the game, the meaning of each letter remained the same as in German.

A dreidel from the Dreidel Collection at the Center for Jewish Art, the National Library of Israel

So, when did the dreidel become a Hanukkah game?

Because of the common overlap between Christmas and Hanukkah, as the years went by the gambling game taken up by Jews in Germany became an innocent children’s game played on the Festival of Lights. The symbols were also given a different historical religious meaning – they became an acronym for the Hebrew words: Nes Gadol Haya Sham (“A great miracle happened there”) –the miracle of the victory over Antiochus and the cruse of oil.

In Israel, the Shin (ש) on the dreidel was replaced with a Pei (פ), signifying that a great miracle happened Here (poh), in the Land of Israel, which was no longer the distant There (sham).

Dreidels from the Dreidel Collection at the Center for Jewish Art, the National Library of Israel

The Composer Who Angered the President of Israel

Andre Hajdu, one of the greatest and most groundbreaking composers in Israeli history, a recipient of the Israel Prize, was not popular with everyone…


Andre Hajdu in his home in Jerusalem. Photo: Dana Shimoni

Silence filled the hall as the piece known as Ludus Paschalis, written by the composer and future recipient of the Israel Prize, Andre Hajdu, reached its climax. Suddenly, a single, brave voice uttered the words, “Mr. President, forgive us”. They were meant for Mr. Zalman Shazar, the President of the State of Israel, who had sponsored the special concert held at the Hebrew University in January, 1971. It was merely the second time the piece had been performed in front of an audience, following the concert premiere which was held in Tel Aviv the previous evening.


The festive concert was part of the Jerusalem Testimonium Festival, a special event being held for the second time, for which a number of pieces, dedicated to Jewish and biblical themses, had been specially composed. That year, the participating composers were asked by the concert’s organizer, Recha Freier, to create pieces relating to the Middle Ages. Who could be better-suited for such a task than Andre Hajdu? Though Hajdu, one of the most highly-regarded ethnomusicologists in Israeli history, was not a fan of mixing biographical and musical elements – we will use this opportunity to take a closer look at the extraordinary life of this fascinating figure.

Andre Hajdu was born in 1932 to a Jewish family in Budapest. He survived the Holocaust and later studied music under the greatest Hungarian musicians of his day, including Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, who were composers as well as ethnomusicologists. Following in their footsteps, Hajdu began studying ethnomusicology and folklore. He spent much time with the local Romani people (previously known as Gypsies), learning their language and studying their musical culture.

Hajdu later moved to Paris following the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, yet he did not find his place there and struggled to make a living. He later spent time in Tunisia, where he “rediscovered” his own Judaism amidst the unique Jewish community of Djerba. Upon his return to France, he began studying Gemara and observing mitzvot. What followed was only natural: With the encouragement of Dr. Israel Adler, founder of the National Sound Archives and the Jewish Music Research Centre, Hajdu made Aliyah and turned his attention to the study of another type of folk music – Hassidic music and the traditional melodies sung in the Beit Midrash.

Considering all this, when Hajdu was asked to compose a piece for the Testimonium, it was only natural that he created a piece of musical theatre dealing with the relationship between Jews and Christians, with the scourge of antisemitism and its place in the world – this was was the infamous Ludus Paschalis. The piece depicts a group of Christian children murdering their friend who poses as a Jew as part of a game.

The Hebrew words – “Mr. President, forgive us”, can be heard at the beginning of this recording from the performance:


In an interview he gave a few years later, Hajdu said the piece was “intentionally provocative”: “It was a sort of psychoanalysis of Christianity… (antisemitism) will be gone from the world only when the world itself is gone.” The entire piece, as recorded on that fateful night, can be heard here.


A segment of Ludus Paschalis in Hajdu’s handwriting. Courtesy of the Hajdu archive, the National Library of Israel


Yamim VeLeylot supplement, Maariv, January 29th, 1971

President Shazar was upset; the Jewish characters in the musical did not react to the murder which took place on the steps of the Beit Midrash, and this passivity was not to his liking. He left the event and did not attend the celebratory reception held in his honor after the performance ended. Sometime later, a meeting was arranged in an attempt to settle matters between the composer and the President. The meeting was not very successful, but over time, raw emotions were calmed. During the 1990s, the controversial composition was even played on Israeli public radio. Hajdu himself continued developing his career as a researcher, lecturer and composer, writing music to accompany various Mishnayot (verses of Jewish biblical commentary), composing sections of the Book of Ecclesiastes and more.

“The President Left the Premiere of “Testimonium” in Anger, Removing His Patronage”, Davar, January 6th, 1971

Hajdu’s unique personality and teaching methods encouraged improvisation and attracted the attention of students who wished to study with him. Well-known Israeli composers and artists admired the composer who passed away in 2016, including Gil Shohat, Yoni Rechter, Yonatan and Aharon Razel, among many others.



Andre Hajdu’s archives are kept at the National Library of Israel.


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The Life of Abraham: Scenes from Hebrew Manuscripts

The trials and tests of Abraham the Patriarch have been explored time and again in Western art and literature

Abraham reaches for the boy, from Yehiel Ben Moshe David's Pinkas HaMohel, 1844, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, USA, 18th and 19th centuries

Since the completion of the ‘Book of Books’, its countless readers have derived inspiration from the great struggles, tests and challenges its heroes faced. It is therefore no surprise that the numerous challenges experienced by one of the Bible’s most renowned and beloved heroes – Abraham the Patriarch – are explored again and again in Western art and literature.

One of the themes most commonly adapted by medieval illuminators of Jewish manuscripts was the sentencing of Abraham to death by Nimrod, King of Ur of the Chaldees, by having him cast into a burning furnace. This story does not appear anywhere in the Bible but in Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, an ancient midrash comprised by Jewish sages to complete the missing pieces of the story of Abraham.

In the famous story, Abraham is cast into a burning furnace for rejecting idolatry and miraculously survives at the hand of divine intervention. In three manuscripts written during the 14th century, the heavenly intervention is illustrated in different ways: The Carpentras Passover Mahzor, held in the British Library, shows Abraham surrounded by flames, as two angels (distinguishable by their wings) enter the furnace to rescue him.

The Carpentras Passover Mahzor | The British Library, London, England, 14th century

The second depiction of Abraham being thrown into the burning furnace is found in the Leipzig Mahzor which was composed sometime around the year 1320. The Mahzor, located at the Leipzig University Library, shows the hand of God himself rescuing Abraham from the burning furnace.

The Leipzig Mahzor | Leipzig University Library, Leipzig, Germany, 14th century

The third depiction appears in the Barcelona Hagaddah, a Passover Haggadah composed in Barcelona around the year 1320: King Nimrod is again shown ordering his subjects to throw Abraham into the burning furnace. Once more, winged angels intervene to ensure Abraham is not consumed by the flames.

A Passover Hagaddah, Nusach Sefard | The British Library, London, England, 14th century

Abraham’s rescue from the burning furnace is not the only scene to be illustrated by these medieval artists. A few hundred years later we find an even more notable scene, perhaps the most famous episode in the the Hebrew Bible – the Binding of Isaac.

The Italian mohel, Matsliah Yehiel Ben Moshe David, maintained a register of his work for over fifty years. The first entry in this register, known as a Pinkas HaMohel, was logged during the Hebrew calendar year 5552 (corresponding to the year 1792 in the Gregorian calendar) and the last is dated 5604 (1844). Most of the register is dedicated to recordings of the circumcision ceremonies he conducted over this period lasting more than fifty years.

The register entries are consistent and contain the dates on which the mohel circumcised the eight-day-old infants; the names of their fathers; each child’s place of birth (e.g. ‘Parme’ – the Italian city Parma); who held the baby on his lap during the circumcision (the godfather or sandak); and who served as kvatter (the person appointed to carry the child to be circumcised). The mohel then recorded the baby’s name, add the blessing: “May he enter into Torah, into marriage, and into good deeds, and so may it be Your will, let us say, Amen.”

Aside from these records of his work, referred to by the register’s owner as Peratim (particulars), the register also consists of a few songs and prayers for the circumcision ceremony, pictures of scenes from the Bible and an “Introduction to the particulars”. The first picture in the register is of the Binding of Isaac. The association here is a curious one: In the Book of Genesis, the Binding of Isaac appears after the covenant between God and Abraham had already been made. Isaac should have already been circumcised by that time.

A register of circumcision | The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, USA, 18th and 19th centuries

This mohel illuminator wasn’t the only one to confuse the Binding of Isaac with the circumcisions of Abraham and Isaac which took place during the covenant between God and Abraham in the earlier Torah portion ‘Lech-Lecha‘ (Genesis 12:1–17:27). In another illustration, which appears in a copy of Sefer Evronot, an even clearer allusion to circumcision is made in the depiction of drops of Isaac’s blood. This work was written and illustrated in Prussia in the Hebrew year of 5476 (1716). Staff members from the National Library’s manuscripts department hypothesized that the illustrations were mainly influenced by what the illustrator may have seen in his own environment, and likely also by various illustrated plaques which would have been common in nearby Christian communities.

Sefer Evronot | The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel, 18th century


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