The Benghazi Haggadah: How the Jews of Libya Celebrated Victory Over the Nazis

This is how the Jewish Legion soldiers of the British army set up a Seder in Benghazi, Libya in 1943.

Before the break out of the Second World War, Mussolini’s Italy was in control of Libya. In an effort to establish stricter colonial policies as well as to ingratiate themselves to Nazi Germany, the Italian fascist authorities adopted many of the racial laws Germany had enacted upon its Jews. It is no surprise that when war broke out and the anti-Semitic persecution intensified, Libya’s Jews were very much in favor of an Ally victory over the Axis powers.

The city of Benghazi had been conquered and re-conquered by the Axis and the Allies multiple times over the course of the war. It was finally recaptured by the British army under the command of General Montgomery in December, 1942. The meeting of the Benghazi Jews who had survived the hell of the war and the concentration camps and the soldiers of the Jewish Legion, most of them volunteers from the Hebrew Yishuv in the Land of Israel, was given symbolic expression during the Passover Seder of 1943.

Two fascinating historical sources enable us to reconstruct this emotional encounter: a Haggadah put together by the soldiers of the 403rd Transport Unit and the 53rd Logistics Unit, along with the military journal of Rabbi Ephraim Elimelech Urbach, who led the Seder on behalf of the British Army. Urbach would later become the president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Ela sheb’chol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu – “But that in each generation there are those who rise up against us to destroy us.”: The Benghazi Haggadah
The Four Sons: The Benghazi Haggadah

Many of the 600 participants of the Seder came from far away. During the battles, the Germans banished the Jews of Benghazi to Tripoli and they only began to trickle back after the British had completely conquered Libya. Jewish Legion soldiers as well as Canadian, American, British, and Australian soldiers serving in the area also came to celebrate along with the Jewish community.

There were major logistical issues that arose during the preparations for a war time Seder with the biggest among them being printing enough Haggadot for all the participants. To resolve this issue, the writers and editors confiscated telegrams and other letterheads from the offices of the Libyan authorities. On the backs of these scraps of paper they printed the Haggadot with a typewriter and copied them with a mimeograph machine.

On the left – A springtime hymn. On the right – an official document of the fascist Libyan government. The Benghazi Haggadah

Rabbi Urbach tells the story in his journal:

“At exactly a quarter past eight we entered the hall. It was a wonderful sight to see all the soldiers, from every service, and from all the armies fighting for the Allies, sitting at the tables. At the officers table sat 45 people, 12 of them American. When I stood and gave the signal to begin, a great quiet descended in the hall. I started in English and finished in Hebrew. I blessed the guests and thanked the hosts. I spoke of celebrating liberty, the destruction of the people of Israel in the Diaspora, and the hope this holiday holds, especially the fact that we had the privilege of celebrating it in a place from which Jews had been banished only a year ago. I finished with a blessing: ‘As we have the privilege of celebrating Passover on the ruins of a grand and boastful empire, so too, next year we will celebrate Passover on the ruins of an evil and malicious kingdom as we come together in the land of our ancestors, redeemed and rebuilt.'”

Rabbi Ephraim Elimelech Urbach in a British Army uniform, the picture was taken from “War Journals: Diary of a Jewish Chaplain from Eretz Israel in the British Army, 1942-1944” by E. E. Urbach

Like the unique ritual that Rabbi Urbach performed, the Benghazi Haggadah was not written in the traditional manner. It was designed and compiled to mark a specific event – a Seder in liberated Benghazi in 1943. It opens with the verse: “Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:3) and continues with the Aramaic verse: Ha Lachma Anya, “This is the poor man’s bread.”

Ha lachma anya, the Benghazi Haggadah

Following this, a forward to the Haggadah links the biblical Exodus out of Egypt and the Holocaust that was taking place at the time in Europe, ending in a Zionist declaration. These passages are included in the forward:

“Many are the troubles and tortures of the nation of Israel and great is its heroism. In the furnace of Egyptian slavery the Children of Israel were forged and formed into a people, and they tread a treacherous path full of obstacles to this day. In each generation there are those who rise up against us to destroy us and this generation’s enemy has surpassed all others with its evil.

We take a small comfort in these dark days at the sight of the rescued Jews of Libya. We hope that we will soon be among the rescuers of Europe’s oppressed Jews.

We will stubbornly and determinately move towards our goal, and we are certain that just as the People of Israel willingly sacrificed that which they hold most dear for the good of the nation – and succeeded, so we Hebrew soldiers will see the successful end of our holy mission, and witness the return of the People of Israel to their promised land. Amen.”

The Forward put together by the Hebrew soldiers for Seder night, 1943. The Benghazi Haggadah

Another unique aspect of the Haggadah, in addition to the forward written by the Jewish soldiers, were the illustrations they added to it. Under the well-known line, “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You”, the soldiers added an illustration of a fighter plane dropping bombs on an unknown target. No doubt this was symbolic of the future defeat of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

“Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You”. The Benghazi Haggadah

The Haggadah ends with two prophecies and hope for the future: “Your children will return from the land of the enemy” and “Next year in Jerusalem”.

“Your children will return from the land of the enemy” – the Benghazi Haggdah


If you liked this article, try these:

Celebrating the Exodus from Egypt Behind the Lines of World War I

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A Plea for Assistance in Buying Poor Man’s Bread from 1908

Rare: A Remnant of One of the Oldest Yom Kippur Prayer Books in the World

A glimpse at a remnant from an 11th century prayer book discovered in the Cairo Genizah

Yom Kippur prayer book fragment, the National Library of Israel collections

The Cairo Genizah is one of the most important sources for understanding Jewish culture, religion, economy and literature in the Middle Ages and in the modern era. It contains hundreds of thousands of Jewish documents and parts of documents discovered in a synagogue in Fustat (the ancient city of Cairo). Some of these are holy books; others are letters, and a few business and legal documents can also be found in the collection.

Among the documents found in the Genizah is part of a page preserved from an early Yom Kippur prayer book.

Among the treasures in the Genizah, is a fragment of a page from an ancient Yom Kippur mahzor.

The prayer book was written in the late 11th or early 12th century by a scribe named Hillel ben Eli, a cantor from Baghdad who immigrated to Egypt and worked as the official scribe of the Cairo rabbinical court. Many examples of certificates in his handwriting can be found in the Cairo Genizah, due to the communal position he held between 1066 and 1108. He is one of the most important scribes whose writings are found in the Genizah. The prayer book which this fragment comes from is the oldest in the Library’s collections and one of the oldest in the entire world. The Library is also in possession of more complete manuscripts of festival prayer books, but they were only written hundreds of years later.

“Please answer my whisper”

On one side of the page is a paragraph from the piyut (liturgical hymn or poem) of Rabbi Eliezer Kalir (one of the greatest poets in Jewish history) named Et Lachashi Aneh Na (“Please Answer My Whisper”). In the third line, one can make out the Hebrew words [Honi] hamulat kodesh, umehallelim behadarat [kodesh] (“[My riches] are holy noise, and they praise in [holy] splendor”). On the other side are prayers connected to the Yom Kippur service in the Temple.

It is fascinating to discover that nearly a thousand years ago, Jews gathered in synagogues and recited prayers so similar to the ones we recite today, with piyutim from poets we are familiar with from our own prayers.


This item is featured in “A Look at the Jewish Year,” a series presented by the National Library of Israel in collaboration with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which provides insights into the Jewish calendar and holidays through the lens of the National Library of Israel’s world-leading collection of Jewish manuscripts, books, printed materials and more.

The project also includes source sheets with questions and links to additional materials that can be used to help lead group discussions and activities or enriched personal reflection.

A Receipt for Funds to Redeem Captives Signed by Maimonides

Did you know that Maimonides' first public activity in Egypt was a large-scale mission to get Jews out of Crusader captivity?

The Cairo Geniza is a famous collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments, which for many centuries rested in the dusty storeroom of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old. The collection was only discovered by European scholars in the 1750s, and it has since been dispersed among different intitutions around the world, including the National Library of Israel.

In a letter found in the Geniza (which has since disappeared) the great Jewish rabbi and philosopher Maimonides, who spent much of his life in Egypt, makes an appeal to various Jewish communities “regarding the captives, may our God release their bonds”, and asks them to donate as much as they are able.

Maimonides describes how he and his colleagues “all the Dayanim [Rabbinical court judges] and the elders and the Torah scholars have all been going day and night and encouraging the people in Alexandria, in the synagogues and the marketplaces and at the gates of the houses” in order to raise the hefty sums of money required to redeem the captives. The letter mentions that the funds are being stockpiled by the emissary of Maimonides, Rabbi Aharon Halevi.


A receipt for sale of the maidservant

Several other documents dealing with this redemption of captives were also preserved in the Geniza. It is important to remember that at the time, Maimonides was not yet the renowned Rabbi he would become, but simply Moshe son of Maimon, a young 30-something year old scholar, a newly-arrived luminary who had fled from the terror of the Almohad Caliphate in Morocco. The actions he took to redeem captives were dynamic and effective and they may have been one of the reasons for his rapid ascent in becoming a leader of the Egyptian Jewish community.

One of the documents preserved in the Geniza is an order of payment, with a receipt on the back of it for an amount donated for the redemption of captives in the city of El Mahalla on the Nile Delta, signed by Maimonides himself. The sum was donated by Hiba (Arabic for gift, the equivalent of the Hebrew name Natan or Netanel), who raised the money by selling a maidservant named Nassrin.

The receipt documents the sale of “the maidservant…whose name is Nasrin”. In the payment order the seller of the maidservant testifies that “I authorized our Rabbi Moshe” to receive the sum, “and these nine dinars and when our Rabbi will receive them, he will spend them in order to redeem captives.” The payment order was signed by the same ‘Aharon Halevi’ mentioned above as Maimonides’s emissary and the date of confirmation of the order is “the middle ten days of the month of Elul” in the year 1170.


“I authorized our Rabbi Moshe…”

On the back side of the page is the ‘receipt’, in the handwriting of Maimonides himself (which we are familiar with from other documents): “I, Moshe son of Maimon, received it from Hiba son of Elazar may he rest in peace who is mentioned on the front of this document… and I wrote to him about this in the last ten days” most likely during the month of Elul. In other words, several days after the payment order.

(The payment order and the receipt can be found in the Cambridge University Library, TSNS309.12, and were published, together with other documents on the topic, by S.D. Goitein in an article in his book ‘The Settlement in the Land of Israel at the Beginning of Islam and During the Crusader Period’ (Hebrew) page 312 onward)

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Moshe Yagur’s Facebook page, Cairo Geniza Micro-history.

The Esther Scroll of Amsterdam That Damned the Enemies of the Jews

This was what happened when the Purim merriment of the Jews of Amsterdam mixed with a desire for revenge against the Spanish.

One of the things the Jewish people are good at is storytelling. Every year on every holiday we tell the stories of persecution, courage, and consequence that happened to every generation of Jews wherever they were.

And that includes tying events described in the Scroll of Esther and the holiday of Purim itself to more contemporary events. For our purposes, the turn of the 18th century will count as “contemporary”.

How do you make a story that is thousands of years old relevant to the Dutch Golden Age?

Why, with art of course.

It is through the illustrations found in a Scroll of Esther manuscript drawn and copied around 1700 that we see this direct tie between the ancient telling of the persecution of Jews in Persia and the more recent persecution of Jews by Catholic Portugal and Spain.

The drawings are graphic and contemporary for their time, and as the saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words.

“It happened in the days of Ahasuerus” – Ahasuerus in modern clothes

The Jewish quarter of Amsterdam was established in the 17th century by Ashkenazi and Portuguese communities. This particular matter focuses on the Portuguese community.

The descendants’ of the Jewish conversos who emigrated en masse from Portugal to Amsterdam throughout the 17th century had not been permitted to keep and practice their ancient religion. In their new Dutch home they wished to return to their Jewish faith.

One way back was through the holidays. Purim was a good start considering joy and merriment are the main aspects of the festival, along with the commandments of drinking and eating, and the celebration of surviving near extermination; it is a story of Jewish continuity while in the diaspora.

“So he set a royal diadem on [Esther’s] head and made her queen”

And so the Jewish community of Amsterdam commissioned an artist to illustrate a contemporary Scroll of Esther – telling the story of surviving the evil Persian Haman, as well as exacting revenge upon the more recent Portuguese ‘Hamans’.

The unknown artist illustrated unforgettable scenes. The opening page features two semi-nude women, hinting to the readers that they are going to be reading a theatrical play.

The title page of the scroll

The artist also illustrated the more violent and gory scenes of the story.

“So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had put up for Mordecai”

“So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying”

There are also additional scenes, which the artist took from the Talmud: We see Haman leading a horse as his own daughter throws wastewater onto his head.

“So Haman took the garb and the horse and arrayed Mordecai and paraded him through the city square; and he proclaimed before him”

There is also an illustration of the Midrashic scene of Vashti’s beheading.

Vashti’s beheading

And of course, the more explicit scenes of violence that are described in the scroll: “In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of five hundred men.”

So the Jews struck at their enemies
Slaying their enemies

But one scene truly surpasses the rest. In order to emphasize the fate of those who persecute the Jews, as well as to kiss up to the Dutch who defeated Spain in their War of Independence (and not forgetting that the Spanish had expelled the Jews 150 years earlier) – the artist decided to draw what can only be described as a circumcision assembly line.

On this assembly line are three Gentile men suffering the pain of circumcision while the mohels seem quite at ease.

The scene accompanies the verse: “And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”

“And many of the people of the land professed to be Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them”

The Scroll of Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible in which God’s name is not mentioned even once. This fact did not stop the artist from again linking elements of the story to his own time period. In one of the illustrations, we see Jews kneeling and thanking God in a synagogue, the style of which was typical of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam.

“Mordecai gathered all the Jews to fast”

And the victorious 18th-century Jews of Amsterdam could finally make time for merriment, joy, and a good meal.

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor”

The Scroll of Esther
Holland, 17th century
Handwritten in ink on parchment
H 30.8 cm; L 309 cm
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Gift of Michael G. Jesselson, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum

Click here to see the entire scroll