Unveiling the Connection: Why We Read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot

Each Shavuot Jews gather to read the Book of Ruth… but why? The Book of Ruth doesn’t seem to have any connection to this joyous festival! Dig a little deeper however, and we can find many intricate hidden harmonies and surprising ties between the timeless tale of Ruth and the cherished holiday of Shavuot

Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze'ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The Book of Ruth, read on the festival of Shavuot, documents the story of a young Moabite woman named Ruth and her journey of faith and devotion. The book is set during the time of the Shoftim (judges), a period of instability and moral decline in ancient Israel. The story begins with Naomi, an Israelite woman, and her husband Elimelech leaving their home in Bethlehem due to famine, and settling in the land of Moab. There, their two sons, Machlon and Chilion, marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. However, tragedy strikes when Elimelech and both of his sons die, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab and find new husbands. Orpah agrees, but Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, asserting her loyalty by famously declaring, “Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your G-d, my G-d.”

Ruth und Boaz, Henri-Frédéric Schopin, 1804-1880, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Upon their arrival in Bethlehem, Ruth goes to work in a field to provide for Naomi and herself. There, she catches the eye of Boaz, the wealthy landowner and Israelite, and Boaz shows kindness to Ruth, providing her with extra food and protection. Naomi recognizes the spark between Ruth and Boaz, and encourages Ruth to make her intentions known to him. Following Naomi’s advice, Ruth approaches Boaz and sets a feminist precedent by proposing marriage to him! Boaz agrees to marry her and look after both Ruth and Naomi, and a little while later the couple gives birth to a son named Oved, who unbeknownst to them will become the grandfather of King David.

Noémie et Ruth, Hector le Roux, 1908, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Book of Ruth is a beautiful and inspiring story of loyalty, faith, and the strength of women. It teaches us about the power of redemption and kindness, and how even in the darkest of times, G-d’s plan can unfold in ways we could never have imagined. That being said, it is incredibly unclear why this story is read on the holiday of Shavuot.

Shavuot is a festive Jewish holiday that occurs 50 days after Pesach (Passover). It is a dual celebration to commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and also the spring harvest season in Israel. This gives way to a number of traditions: participating in all-night Torah study sessions to mark the giving of the Torah, eating dairy foods like the ancient Israelites did in the desert in the days leading up to the giving of the Torah, feasting on seasonal and exotic fruits to mark the annual yield, and decorating synagogues with flowers to symbolize the harvest. In synagogue, processions take place as community members dance and sing while parading with their Torah scrolls, while children brandish fruits on sticks and eat sweets. As Jews mark the giving of the Torah and the end of the harvest season, these traditions make sense and fit in perfectly with the symbolism of the day.

Meggilat Rut, a gift for Shavuot, the Likkud party religious division, the National Library of Israel

What doesn’t make sense is how the Book of Ruth relates to this festival at all! But as it happens, the answer lies just beneath the surface.

A kibbutz member carries a milk can, 1941, Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection, the National Library of Israel
Shavuot celebrations, 1970, IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the National Library of Israel

One simple link between the festival of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth is that the story actually takes place around the time of Shavuot. We learn that – out of desperation – Naomi traveled to Bethlehem on Pesach despite the prohibition of traveling during the festival, and from this we can calculate that her reunion with Boaz took place on or around the time of Shavuot. This is further backed up by the fact that when Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem, they work in the field harvesting grain. This points us to the fact that the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season. Shavuot celebrates the end of the wheat and barley harvest (the bikkurim), so this holiday is an appropriate time to read from a story that took place on Shavuot, centuries ago.

Book of Ruth, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

In the Torah portion of Vayikra (23:16-21) the verses deal with the laws of harvest, and explain that one corner of every field should not be gathered, so that the needy may take from those crops. Because the Book of Ruth takes place during harvest season, Boaz was actively practicing this Jewish law, and the Book of Ruth actually recalls his performance of the mitzvah as he leaves a corner of his field for the needy women, Naomi and Ruth, as well as instructing the other workers to treat these poor women kindly. Thus, during the harvest season of Shavuot, we read this story to be reminded of this charitable act that must be completed while gathering crops.

Ruth and Naomi, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Another possible connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot is that both have central themes of kindness. The purpose of the Torah is to guide Jews to become better people and through the Book of Ruth we are introduced to two role models: Naomi, who is compassionate, charitable and brave, and Ruth, who is loyal and a woman of faith. Therefore, reading a story which helps Jews hone these skills on the very day that the Torah was given is suitably apt. The people of Moab were actually ostracized from Israel due to their bad character traits according to the biblical narrative, but Ruth is a perfect example of how there is always room for growth and that no matter one’s background, there is always an opportunity to become an exemplary person, which is also a central message in the Torah.

The Book of Ruth, photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

There is possibly no other Jewish story which so adeptly demonstrates the power of compassion and generosity as Ruth, in which we see characters breaking all expectations and going above and beyond the expected norm with their kindness: Ruth herself is so virtuous that she not only has an entire book in the Bible named after her, but also brings redemption to her nation of Moab and is merited with being the great-grandmother of King David. Naomi is also one such praise-worthy woman, who suffered immense shame and disgrace, yet picked herself back up, stood with pride even when she knew that she would be shunned by her community, and took control of a difficult situation in order to look after her family. She is the ultimate example of self-sacrifice and a strong female character. And finally Boaz, who is described (Ruth, 3:9) as a “redeeming kinsman” – a charitable and honorable man who protects even those who are below his own stature.

Boaz and the notables of the town, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As the Jewish belief goes, their collective kindnesses brought together a broken family to create a child whose lineage is prophesied to bring forth the Messiah and end all hatred and evil in the world. Both the Torah and the story of Ruth are based on the Jewish value of chesed (loving-kindness) and thus it is appropriate to read this book on the day on which the Torah was given.

We’ve mentioned King David a few times now, and he really can’t be forgotten in connecting the Book of Ruth with the festival of Shavuot. The Book of Ruth actually ends with a list of King David’s genealogy, with Ruth of course being his great-grandmother. Moreover, King David was both born and died on Shavuot (Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah, 2:3) as the Gemara says that the holiest people die on the same day that they were born (Rosh Hashanah 11a.) Therefore, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot to recall King David and read the story of his ancestry in his honor. Just as we often use the anniversary of one’s death to recount their life story, so to do we do this on Shavuot with King David.

A Shavuot celebration, Kibbutz Kinneret, 1970-80, this item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Kvutzat Kinneret Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.
Shavuot celebrations at Pika school – “The land has given a harvest”, this item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archives of Petach Tikva, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Interestingly, conversion also plays a role in the joining together of Shavuot and the Book of Ruth. Of course, conversion is a strong theme in the Book of Ruth, as Ruth tells Naomi that she wants to become part of the Israelite nation and abandon her own Moabite roots. The Sefat Emet says that Shavuot is an appropriate time to recall Ruth’s conversion to Judaism for a few reasons: Firstly, because it was only upon the Jews receiving the Torah that they became ready to teach it to all those who wanted to be part of the faith, like Ruth; and seeing Naomi accept Ruth should teach us to accept all people who wish to take on the mitzvot for themselves. Secondly, in receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the People of Israel were essentially converting to Judaism, as they were deciding to take on the Jewish laws for the first time. Because Ruth chose to convert to Judaism, she merited to become the ancestor of the Messiah, and similarly upon accepting the Torah, the Jewish people merited to become the Children of G-d. Ruth was already 40 years old when she became Jewish (Midrash Rabbah, Ruth 4:4) and this shows us that Judaism is not limited to those of a specific background, and in fact any person of faith can take the Torah laws upon themselves with due dedication.

Ruth and Boaz, work photographed by Ze’ev Raban, 1950, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

We are taught that when the Jewish people went to Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, they immersed in the mikve and the males were circumcised, just as any convert to Judaism must do, so of course on the anniversary of this event, we should read about the first ever convert to Judaism!

We actually learn from the Book of Ruth how to conduct a Jewish conversion: The Rambam says that we follow Naomi’s instruction: we tell a potential convert about the basics of the religion, we make sure that they have no undesirable motives for converting, and then warn the convert that Judaism can often be difficult. If they still want to join the religion, we must allow them to do so and then teach them the more intimate laws. This is how Naomi addresses Ruth, and Ruth tells Naomi that she will not be deterred – whatever she is signing up for, she is in! Just as during the original festival of Shavuot on Mount Sinai the Jewish people said – “We will do and then we will listen” – so too did Ruth.

Ruth, Henry Ryland, 1910-1914, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

We mentioned previously that the Jewish people took on all the mitzvot at Mount Sinai, but actually they only accepted 606 commandments at that time. Maybe this seems strange considering the fact that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. However, gentiles are also required to observe 7 of the 613 laws (the 7 Noachide Laws,) which the People of Israel were keeping even before receiving the Torah. Thus, only 606 new laws were introduced on the festival of Shavuot. This was comparable to Ruth. Her acceptance of the additional 606 laws of Judaism was analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of these laws, emphasized in the story by the fact that her name רות has the numerical value of 606!

Many of the main tenets of the Torah are also taught in the Book of Ruth. Through her story (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Yevamot 47B) we learn the laws of the Sabbath, preparation for the Sabbath, laws of family purity, and idol worship, rules of punishment, how to greet one another, and the laws of Jewish burial! As Ruth decides to take on these important tenets of the Jewish faith, so too do Jews reaffirm their commitment to these mitzvot on Shavuot. Moreover, reading a story which includes so many of the fundamental elements of the Torah seems more than appropriate on the festival of receiving the Torah!

Ruth, Tanach, 1971, Ephemera Collection, the National Library of Israel

Perhapse even more significantly, we are taught the importance of mitzvot in general in the story of Ruth, which, as the essence of Torah, makes it the optimal story to read in order to mark the giving of the Torah. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz was a man of stature within his community. He was 300 years old and had amassed a big family and great wealth in those years (I Chronicles 2:11Rashi, Bava Batra 91a) so he really had no reason to take in the needy Ruth and Naomi. That being said, he was also a man of faith who believed in doing good deeds. His moral actions were rewarded with the prophecy that his offspring would include the Messiah. The Sefat Emet teaches that a holy life is made up not only by observance of religious laws, but also of good deeds, and Boaz was the perfect example of that.

Ruth, Alexandre Cabanel, 1823-1889, the Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ruth experienced many hardships in her simple pursuit of observing the Torah. Jews believe that this can inspire them to be more appreciative of the Torah that they were given on the festival of Shavuot, and thus the reading of the Book of Ruth during the morning prayer service on Shavuot is a custom which dates back to the Talmudic era (Soferim 14:16). The connection between the Book of Ruth and Shavuot hasn’t always seemed clear perhaps, but upon deeper inspection, it is unquestionably no coincidence. This brilliantly crafted story that can’t help but inspire loyalty, faith, and above all, kindness.

Why Did Moroccan Jews Bring Moses Into the Passover Haggadah?

Moroccan Jews (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) to this day begin the Passover Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic at the center of which is the figure of Moses…

MS Bill Gross 168. Long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors,” Tafilalt, 20th century

As we all know, the Passover Haggadah deals entirely with story of the Exodus from Egypt, followed by the crossing of the Red Sea, all the while praising the Creator and expressing gratitude for the many miracles and wonders He performed to liberate and bring the Israelites from slavery to freedom.

According to the story told in detail in the first chapters of the Book of Exodus, Moses was a major player in all the events of the Exodus from Egypt, from the moment God spoke to him before the Burning Bush and entrusted him with the mission to go and speak with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea as though crossing dry land, and then across the desert for forty years until his death before entering the land of Canaan. And yet, throughout all the pages of the Haggadah, the dominant biblical figure of Moses is not mentioned even once. Furthermore, in the Haggadah we read: “And God brought us out of Egypt not by the hand of an angel, nor by the hand of a fiery being, nor by a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be He, and He Himself in His glory.”

Why was the figure of Moses erased so completely from the Passover Haggadah? The Haggadah text we know today was formulated in the fourth century CE. It was around this time that the figure of Jesus was enshrined as a central divine figure of the Christian faith which was rapidly spreading across the known world. Some believe that the Jewish sages, fearing the rise of a similar popular movement among the Jewish people that would counter Jesus with the figure of Moses as the true divine figure, attempted to expunge the figure of Moses even from the memory of the constitutive events associated with him. These events are of course recounted in detail in the Haggadah, the central text of the Passover Seder, which shaped Jewish consciousness for generations.

Yet, to this very day, the Jews of Morocco (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) begin the Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic, in which the central figure is none other than Moses. The text is recited at the beginning of the fourth stage of the Seder – yahatz – before the reading of the Haggadah, when the person conducting the Seder picks up the three matzot, takes out the middle matza and breaks it in half (reserving one half to be eaten later during the Tsafun ritual).

The Judeo-Arabic text is recited while the broken piece of matza is held up for all to see. According to this short text, God parted the Red Sea for our Ancestors into twelve paths through Moses, our rabbi and prophet. This is followed by a prayer that asks God to save the members of the communities from exile and bring them to the Holy Land just as He delivered our ancestors out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The Judeo-Arabic text eventually crystallized into two different but closely related main versions, one used in the Tafilalt and adjacent communities in the southeast and northeast of Morocco, and another, shorter version, customary in other communities. The wording of the text varied slightly from one community to another, as often occurs with a text that is primarily transmitted orally.

MS Paul Dahan, Brussels, 4464, from Tafilalt, early 19th century. First part of the long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors,” courtesy of the manuscript’s owners


Why did Moroccan Jews see a need to bring Moses to the Seder and return him to the story of the Exodus? And when did it happen? As can be discerned from the Arabic language of the two versions discussed here, the text about Moses was formulated at the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. During this period, the last incarnations of medieval literary Judeo-Arabic, called Middle Judeo-Arabic, were still in use. Despite losses to the text over the generations because of its oral transmission, many traces of this ancient language can still be found in it.

What is the connection between the language and the consolidation of this special text? It seems that the return of the figure of Moses and his role in the Exodus story came at a time when the Jewish communities in Morocco and other lands of North Africa and Andalusia, that is, Muslim Spain, were allowed to return to open practice of their Judaism at the end of the thirteenth century under the rulers of the first Marinid Sultanate. The connection is a dramatic and even tragic event of long duration that nearly destroyed all the North African and Andalusian communities at the beginning of the reign of the fundamentalist Muslim Almohad Caliphate.

The first rulers of this dynasty coerced all the Jews under its rule to convert, to become anusim by forcing them to hide their Jewish observance for more than one hundred and twenty years; those who refused to convert to Islam were immediately sentenced to death. The period of the forced conversion began in approximately 1140, at the beginning of the Almohad sect’s takeover of Morocco and North Africa, including Libya and Andalusia, and ended after the empire’s disintegration in 1269, when Marrakesh was conquered by the Marinid tribes, who gradually regained most of Morocco’s regions.

At the beginning of the period of forced conversions, when Maimonides and his family lived in Fez (1160–1165), conditions had at least permitted Jews to live as Jews inside their homes if they wished, while behaving as Muslims in public. Praying in synagogues and the performing of Jewish ceremonies in public were strictly forbidden. In 1167 or 1168, during the period that has been termed the “gentle apostasy” ((השמד הרך, Maimonides wrote what has become known as the “Letter of Apostasy” (איגרת השמד) – a letter of encouragement to the Jews of Fez who were secretly holding onto their Judaism: “And the works of His hands will be done in secret because never has there been anything heard like this marvelous apostasy [author’s emphasis, JC] in which there is no objection except for speech alone.”

However, conditions worsened immeasurably afterwards under the rule of Sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (ruled from 1184 to 1199) and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser (ruled from 1199 to 1214). The two rulers imposed even harsher regulations on the Jews of North Africa and Andalusia, in their communal and religious life and economically, but the memory of the persecutions is recorded only among the Jews of Morocco. The religious commentator and physician Rabbi Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin (1150?-1220?), who lived through the difficult events in Fez before he was able to leave Morocco, wrote a personal account of the persecutions and humiliations imposed on the Jews of Morocco. His testimony also included a harsh rebuke of those Moroccan Jews who did not leave Morocco to save themselves from the ruin. His story appears in the sixth chapter of his treatise Tibb al-Nufūs (“The Hygiene of the Souls”). In it he describes first-hand the persecutions that were the lot of the Jews of Morocco: the contempt and daily humiliations suffered at the hands of the Muslims; the constant fear of being reported to the authorities for not keeping the laws of Islam, which would lead to loss of their property, wives and even their lives as punishment; the prohibition against any sign of Jewish life even inside the homes, and the prohibition against educating children in the Jewish religion and the Torah; the forgetting of the Torah and the Hebrew language that resulted; the humiliating clothing they were forced to wear; the removal of children from Jewish homes to educate them in the religion of Islam; and finally, the prohibition against practicing commerce, the trade which put food on their tables.

MS Bar Ilan 122, from Tafilalt, 19th century, long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”


This second period of the great apostasy dealt a fatal blow to the remnants of the “gentle apostasy.” Accounts of this period are almost entirely absent from historical research due to the lack of documentation. Only Maimonides’ temperate description of the “marvelous apostasy” remains in the historical consciousness, though it barely captured the severity of the decrees subsequently imposed on the Jews of Morocco in particular, as the seat of the rulers Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansour and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser was in Fez. For about eighty years, the anusim were forced to live as Muslims in every sense, to participate in prayers in mosques and to abolish all Jewish symbols. It is true that in these strict conditions came some relief with the disintegration of the Almohad Empire, but even then, the prohibition against practicing Judaism continued. With the Marinid tribes’ eventual takeover of Morocco and other large parts of the Almohad Empire, Jews were allowed to return to their Judaism, but they did not do so demonstratively for fear of antagonizing the Muslim populations whose hatred of the Jews had grown under the Almohad caliphate. The hidden Jews saw their return to Judaism as a second exodus from Egypt.

Moreover, because of the forced Muslim education they received, and the Muslim sermons they were forced to hear in the mosques, the central figure etched in the minds of the converted Jews was the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, who has always been at the center of Islamic worship and belief. The community leaders who sought to restore Jewish life and Jewish consciousness among the survivors of the apostasy needed to obliviate the image of the Prophet of Islam and counter it with a central Jewish figure that would overshadow it. Hence their need for the image of Moses, which Maimonides had already established as one of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, as described later in the piyut – Yigdal Elohim Hai [Acclaim and Praise the Living God] composed at the beginning of the fourteenth century by Rabbi Daniel ben Yehuda Hadayan: “In Israel there never arose another prophet like Moses, able to see God’s likeness.”

MS Paul Dahan, Brussels, 3363, from Tafilalt, 20th century. This manuscript contains the long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”]

From the end of the thirteenth century and through the fourteenth century, the image of Moses appeared in other Judeo-Arabic poems and texts that were at the core of the Judeo-Arabic culture and poetry that developed from that time among Moroccan Jewry and until the community’s dispersal in the third quarter of the twentieth century. These poems, most of which were written in late Medieval Judeo-Arabic, include poems recited in the home of a new mother on the eve of the circumcision of her newborn; poems about the Exodus from Egypt and its wonders according to the Midrash; poems in praise of Moses; the repertoire of Passover texts known as Dhir, which are unique to the Jews of Morocco; and the long text of the Ten Commandments read on Shavuot. In the fourteenth century, the biblical texts and other para-liturgical texts were also translated into late Medieval Judeo-Arabic – the translations of the Shar – i.e. the traditional calque translations familiar today. In these Judeo-Arabic texts, Muslim terms used to describe the supreme qualities of Muhammad were used to describe Moses, to emphasize him as the true messenger of God (Rasul Allah) and chief of the prophets, who spoke directly with God (Kalim Allah).

MS National Library 38=2618, from Taflilat, 19th century, with the long and full version of the text, “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”

In the manuscript seen above, the long text of “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors” appears twice, on the right in square script and on the left in cursive:

“Thus did God part the sea for our ancestors into twelve paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace be upon him; He rescued them and delivered them from hard work to rest and from slavery to freedom. He sent him, may His name be exalted, so that He may lead us today also in the same way; May He gather our communities to His destroyed holy house, and save our captives from this exile for the sake of His great and holy name.”  The forcibly converted Jews referred to themselves in these various poems as “captives.”

You can listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:


MS Bill Gross MO.11.009_005. From one of the communities in southeast Morocco, 20th century. Courtesy of the manuscript’s owners

The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the long text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea into twelve separate paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him.  He rescued them and delivered them from hard labor to rest and from slavery to freedom. God, may His name be exalted, sent him. Thus shall He do to us now and save us for the sake of His great and holy name; Amen.”

Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:

MS Michael Krupp 3288, 20th century, from one of the communities in southeast Morocco

The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea when our ancestors were brought out from the land of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him. Just as He saved them and delivered them from hard labor to freedom, so God will save us from this exile. May it be His will and let us say Amen.”

Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text below:


This article is a preview of a forthcoming comprehensive essay I am preparing on the beginning of the development of Judeo-Arabic poetry and culture in Morocco in which I will expand on much of the material that has been described here in brief. This large essay is now in advanced preparation for publication under the title: Destruction and Restoration: The Destruction of Jewish Life in Morocco under Forced Conversions of the Almohads and its Restoration, Joseph Chitrit, Haifa: Pardes Publishing House, 2023 (three volumes, in Hebrew).

Pigs in a Shtrayml

An image of a pig wearing a shtrayml, a fur hat often associated with hasidic Jews, understandably raises some eyebrows. One could be forgiven for thinking such images are part of an antisemitic propaganda effort, but in fact, the concept of animals wearing shtraymls has commonly been featured in works of Jewish satire…

There is a saying: "You can't make a shtrayml out of a pig's tail". Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.

On December 19, 2016, a rally was held in Jerusalem attended by girls in grades five and six studying in Bais Yaakov seminaries in Israel. The Thursday evening rally was held at the Jerusalem Arena, a multipurpose sports center and one of the largest indoor spaces in Israel’s capital city. With eleven thousand seats, the arena is the home of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club. But the girls had not gathered for a sporting event. The goal of the gathering was to discourage and deter girls from pursuing academia – meaning degree- or diploma-granting higher education – even in institutions or programs that seek to cater to the Haredi population or that operate under Haredi auspices.

One of the speakers, Rabbi Pinhas Erlanger, summed up proceedings by declaring, “Academia is a stumbling block for the House of Israel, and the entire content stands in contradiction to it, and therefore one should not study in these places…not even online.”

The first speaker was Rabbi Baruch Shapira, a high school teacher in Kol Torah – a renowned non-hasidic Haredi educational institution in Jerusalem that includes a high school and a rabbinical academy. Rabbi Shapira related a conversation he had earlier that day with Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman (1914–2017). At the time of the rally, Rabbi Steinman was widely regarded as the foremost religious authority of the non-hasidic Ashkenazic world. Besides being a renowned Torah scholar, Steinman was also the head of the Degel HaTorah faction of the Agudat Yisrael political party in Israel’s Knesset. Consequently, a message from the respected and influential centenarian carried significant weight.

According to the message delivered by Rabbi Shapira as reported by news outlets, Rabbi Steinman supported the rally, summing up his distaste for Haredi academic programs with a pithy remark: “Haredi academics?! That is a pig with a shtrayml.”

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.

In Jewish imagination, the pig is the paradigm of something non-kosher and the very antithesis of holiness. Hence, when a Jew refers to something or someone as a pig it is nasty and can be particularly hurtful. The flip side of a bellicose statement like “a pig with a shtrayml” is that it conjures up an incongruous image with a powerful message.

Rabbi Steinman’s crisp – though offensive – quip may have been drawing on a Yiddish expression. For example: ‘From a pig’s tail, you cannot make a shtrayml.’ The expression is often taken to mean that from something bad you cannot make something good. Alternatively, the expression may mean that something holy, like a shtrayml, cannot or should not be made from something that is impure. Another possibility was that Rabbi Steinman was thinking about a different Yiddish expression: ‘If you put a shtrayml on a pig, does that make him into a rabbi?’ If these Yiddish expressions were Rabbi Steinman’s points of reference, then he was suggesting that holy Haredi society cannot include non-kosher academia.

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.

A shtrayml would not be found among the clothing of the primary school girls in attendance, nor in the wardrobe of the women who were the target of the rally’s larger message decrying academia. Why then did Rabbi Steinman mention the shtrayml? He himself did not wear a shtrayml, so he was not talking about his own headwear. Moreover, most of his followers were kneitsch wearers, that is, non-hasidic Ashkenazim who wore fedoras rather than fur hats. The shtrayml, however is a symbol. In the image that Rabbi Steinman conjured up, the traditional fur hat represents the Haredi community, while the pig represents academia. Putting a shtrayml on a pig is absurd; so too is Haredi academia. The two just do not go together.

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.

Animals wearing shtraymls are not a common image in Jewish consciousness, though the Yiddish expressions indicate that Jews have toyed with the notion of shtrayml-wearing livestock. The truth is that other farm animals have also been topped with the furry headwear.

In 2011, an American Yiddish magazine that caters to hasidic communities advertised a shtrayml sale before Passover. The full-page advertisement showed a lamb wearing a shtrayml, tied to a bed in the desert with pyramids in the background.

The image evoked the biblical Exodus where lambs were procured four days before the children of Israel left slavery (Ex. 12:3-6 – “let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household…”). According to the sages, the lamb was tied to the corner of the bed before Passover evening when it was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten.

The shtrayml-wearing lamb is a bizarre sales pitch: Which shtrayml-wearing Hasid would want to be tethered to a bed in the desert for four days before being slaughtered? Presumably the peculiar image was designed to capture the attention of the magazine’s readers. Furthermore, the image relayed a message: a new shtrayml – just like securing a lamb in Egypt – was an essential, perhaps even divinely mandated, element of Passover preparations.

Indeed, as Passover approaches, many shtrayml sellers advertise their wares. For those who cannot treat themselves to a new fur hat, specialized cleaning services are offered.

“Beauty and perfection at the top” – an ad for “Shem Tov Shtraymlach”, appearing in ⁨⁨Ha-Maḥaneh Ha-Haredi⁩, May 26, 2016, from the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

It is possible that the earliest source for an animal donning a shtrayml comes from Lubavitch lore – an interesting fact in itself given that Lubavitch Hasidim no longer wear fur hats. The story which I will presently recount, harks back to the dawn of Hasidism.

The tale – as so often happens with this fabulous literary genre – appears in different versions. The earliest recorded version appears to be an 1879 discourse delivered by Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Maharash, 1834–1882). The discourse would have been delivered in Yiddish, though a Hebrew transcription is what has reached us. The exact term shtrayml does not appear; rather, a more general term is used: kova shel shabbat, a Shabbat hat. Maharash’s son and successor, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn (Rashab, 1860–1920) also recounted the tale, as did his son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz, 1880–1950).

Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz), source: Jewish Educational Media

When retelling the story in 1941, Rayatz specifically referred to the shtrayml. So too did Rayatz’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), when he recalled the tale in 1984. The numerous retellings suggest an abiding lesson which transcends a specific context.

According to this story, the Besht (Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, ca.1700–1760) instructed his disciples to close their eyes, and they suddenly perceived an ox wearing a shtrayml. The Besht explained that this was a Jew who sits and eats ox meat in honor of Shabbat. Alas, instead of savoring Shabbat, he relishes the ox meat.

The power of this colorful image lies in its ability to evoke a response in the audience – which in this case was the followers of the Lubavitch hasidic masters. Pondering the odd scene, the hasidic audience would be able to imagine themselves as shtrayml-wearing oxen. The shtrayml in the tale is what indicates that the figures are not real oxen; rather, they are Hasidim who are acting like oxen. The moral of the tale is compelling. You may be decked out in hasidic garb, but you are behaving like an animal. 

Of course, the enduring lesson is not limited to the shtrayml wearers. No type of respectable clothing can justify behavior that is unbecoming of a human being. Whether that timeless message has anything to do people studying in academic institutions is another matter.

A Hasid with a young student, both wearing shtraymls. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel


The shtrayml and other elements of the hasidic wardrobe are discussed in Levi Cooper’s forthcoming book Hasidic Relics: Cultural Encounters, to be published later this year by Maggid Books.

This Book Also Goes Up to Scholem: On Gershom Scholem and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

The fascinating correspondence between these two giants in the field of Judaic Studies reveals much about both men, including their impressions of a young Leon Wieseltier…

Gershom Scholem (left) and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (right). Photo credits: the Aliza Auerbach Archive at the National Library of Israel; Monozigote

As is well known, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was always happy to receive gifts of books for his collection. According to one interpretation, that is the reason that he maintained an empty shelf in his home library, so that his guests wouldn’t get the impression that there was no room for him to receive more books! Interestingly, on the 23rd of Tamuz in the Hebrew year of 5737 (July 9, 1977), Scholem received not one, but two books, with dedications from the same author.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was an American scholar of Jewish History who taught initially at Harvard and from 1980 at Columbia University, where he served as the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society. Baron had been Yerushalmi’s PhD advisor at Columbia and it must have been satisfying for both men when Yerushalmi “returned home” after his long sojourn at Harvard. I myself left Columbia with a degree in history in 1979, missing the opportunity to study with Yerushalmi by one year. He is widely remembered for his 1982 work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.

The first of the books that Yerushalmi presented to Scholem was his own historical work, published the previous year, The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the ‘Shebet Yehudah’ (Cincinnati 1976).

Jerusalem. 23 Tamuz 5737. Jerusalem
To Gershom and Fania Scholem
In friendship

The second, more intriguing book, was a slim volume (29 pages) published in Bombay India in 1916, Guide: The Secret Doctrine of the Soul and Body With Miscellaneous Information Useful in Daily Life, by one “Judah Shallum Kasooker, Jerusalemist”.


Jerusalem. 23 Tamus 5737
And thus, this book also goes up to Scholem!
-To Gershom Scholem  
In friendship
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

I was unable to find any information regarding the author, Judah Shallum Kasooker, or why he refers to himself as a “Jerusalemist”. This volume is the only title of his in the National Library of Israel, which holds three copies. His picture is also somewhat intriguing:

As you can see, he distributed his book for free (only additional copies were charged), and each of the copies at the NLI has a different name written in the blank space. The Yerushalmi – Scholem copy had been given to Joseph David Gadkee.

The work was dedicated to the author’s “brethren who are lovers of the Jewish religion”. Gershom Scholem of course stamped his own copy, as was his custom.

It is beyond the scope of this post to properly review this guide, but among the topics discussed are levels of the soul, reincarnation, prayer, the Sabbath, charity, death and “separation of the sexes”.  Of course, one has to finance one’s publications, especially when they are distributed for free. Our author ran an advertisement on the last page for “Vegetable Pain Drops”, which were good for more or less whatever ails you!


Perhaps it should not surprise us that the author himself was an alternative healer, who did not charge the poor for his services.

Returning to Yerushalmi’s dedication, including the phrase “This book also goes up to Scholem”, Yerushalmi was obviously alluding to Scholem’s infamous “negative catalogue” of 1937 –“קונטרס עלו לשלום : רשימת ספרי קבלה וחסידות המבוקשים לאוסף ספריו של גרשם שלום” -This was a six-page list of 111 works that Scholem hoped to purchase for his library. He would later lament in his autobiography,  From Berlin to Jerusalem, that the main result of this folly was that book dealers subsequently raised the prices of works they knew Scholem was after!

At this point let us zoom out and take a look at the Scholem – Yerushalmi relationship. Firstly, it’s important to realize that Scholem was Yerushalmi’s senior by 35 years, so the relationship was hardly equal. By the time that Yerushalmi began his academic career Scholem was already a world-renowned scholar, amongst the most important academics in the field of Judaic Studies.

Gershom Scholem in his study, 1974, photo by Aliza Auerbach, the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

In the NLI’s Gershom Scholem archives, there is preserved a fairly extensive correspondence (about 15 letters) between the two, which took place between 1973, when Yerushalmi was a young lecturer at Harvard, until 1980, when he was transitioning to his new position at Columbia, and only two years before Scholem’s demise. Initially Scholem wrote to Yerushalmi in English and Yerushalmi responded in beautiful Hebrew. Later they would both write in both languages.

Their letters display a great degree of mutual admiration and as time went on and the two visited each other (along with their spouses), a close personal friendship as well. Amongst the topics they discussed were publications and translations of some of Scholem’s books as well as the upcoming (1979) book by David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History. Their mutual fascinations with Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were also discussed as well as young scholars-in-training at the time, especially Leon Wieseltier. The file also contains two letters written after Scholem’s death. They are a letter from Yerushalmi to historian Prof. Jacob Katz in 1984, in which he sent Katz his correspondence with Scholem for possible publication, and a letter from Fania Scholem (his widow) to Yerushalmi in 1987.

We will take a look at a few of the highlights from their correspondence, which began after Yerushalmi sent a copy of his 1971 work, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto: Isaac Cordoso: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics. Scholem (30.1.73) praised the work and encouraged Yerushalmi to also publish the letters of Cardoso’s brother, the Sabbatian theorist Avraham.

“I consider your work an excellent contribution” – click to enlarge

Yerushalmi for his part was ecstatic at Scholem’s positive evaluation of his work and responded (2.3.73) with superlative praise for Scholem and his status in the world of Jewish scholarship. Among his comments, “I merited to receive praise and encouragement from the generation’s greatest scholar in Judaic Studies…since beginning to compose my book I couldn’t restrain myself from one recurring thought, which is – what will ‘he’ say?”

“Praise and encouragement from the Gadol HaDor” – click to enlarge

In a very interesting letter from Yerushalmi ( 11.1.76), which may not have actually been sent to Scholem, Yerushalmi spoke glowingly of Scholem’s book, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, which he would have read in the original German edition (1975), as the English translation was published only in 1981.  He confessed that in addition to finding the book enlightening on the subject of Benjamin, it was so as well on the subject of Scholem himself. He chose however not to go into detail, as “I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself”. Last but not least he shares with Scholem his “obsession” regarding Franz Kafka, “one of the very few writers who ‘speak’ to me in a particularly intimate way”.

“I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself” – click to enlarge

In a wide-ranging letter from 3.4.76 Yerushalmi opened with thanks to Scholem for sending him a copy of his book Devarim B’Go, and closes with a request to Fania Scholem to assist them in finding an apartment to rent (or swap) on their upcoming trip to Jerusalem. In the body of the letter, Yerushalmi laments having to serve as head of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. The up side to his undesired administrative tasks is the opportunity to interact with scholars from the Arab world, though he assumes that, “the majority return home to Tripoli or Damascus, and point to me as proof of the authenticity of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion'”!

“…me as proof of the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – click to enlarge

On the eleventh of January, 1978, Yerushalmi informed Scholem that he was sending to him, together with the letter, three “segulot” (amulets), two that had been written in the United States and a third from Tunisia.

“I’m enclosing three segulot…” – click to enlarge

This letter also contains the beginning of what would become extensive correspondence regarding David Biale’s proposed book Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter Culture, which would be published the following year by Harvard Press. The book, based upon Biale’s prior PhD dissertation, was the first work regarding Scholem himself, and thus all involved wished to proceed with caution.

“Do you know this man [Biale] and his work? If so, please give me your opinion about him.”- click to enlarge

Lastly, Yerushalmi mentions that he does have satisfaction from a few excellent students, one being [Leon] Wieseltier, who would go on to a successful career as a literary critic and as the literary editor of the “New Republic”. Scholem would also comment about him in later correspondence.

On February 12, 1978 Scholem responded with a four-page handwritten letter on a variety of topics. The great majority dedicated to a response to Yerushalmi’s question regarding David Biale and his proposed book regarding Scholem. Scholem responds at great length (also enclosing one page of comments that he had previously sent to Biale himself), and among other things, writes that, “My general opinion is that it is a serious and interesting book…I would be positive about its publication”. On the other hand, “I disagree on certain things which on the one hand suffer from ‘overinterpretation’, while on the other, many sources he is unaware of are ignored”. Scholem goes on to provide a list of books and articles that in his opinion Biale should incorporate into his research. He closes this part of his letter with one specific criticism and writes, “regarding the influence of Hermann Cohen’s ideas on my perspective, this is a brash hypothesis that seems unfounded to me…I have never dreamed of such a connection and even now that Biale has revealed it, his words are not at all convincing”.

Scholem returns at the end of his letter to the topic of Yerushalmi’s promising student and writes, “I consider Wieseltier to be a very talented young man. He, however, is at risk of spreading his talents too thin. It would be appropriate for someone like you to invest in bringing him close”.

Click on any page of the letter to enlarge

Yerushalmi responded on April 24, 1978, attempting to allay Scholem’s concerns regarding Biale’s forthcoming book. “I would certainly have authored a different book about you, but I think this book is serious enough that it deserves to be published. It is the first attempt to understand your oeuvre, and others will come to correct and to add… Biale is a flexible young man, and he wants to please you. Even though some points could easily be refuted, let’s not forget that at the end of the day, this is his book, and he is fully responsible for it”.

Click to enlarge

The final letter that we have is from over two years later (10.6.80), when Yerushalmi informs Scholem that he will soon be moving from Boston to New York and returning to Columbia University. With that, it appears that their intensive spurt of correspondence came to a close. Scholem died two years later in early 1982, Yerushalmi in 2008, not before achieving, somewhat like Scholem, status as one of the preeminent scholars in the field of academic Judaic Studies.

“We are moving to New York in late July or early August…” – click to enlarge