Revealed: The Renowned Kabbalist’s ‘Hidden’ Letter

Message sent to 'The Holy Ari' reflects his influence at the time, outside the mystical realm

The influence of renowned 16th century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria continues to be felt to this day. Also known as “The Ari”, “The Holy Ari” or “The Arizal”, Rabbi Luria promulgated new Kabbalistic concepts, and many customs adopted by his students, such as the “Kabbalat Shabbat” service, have since become staples of Jewish tradition worldwide. Rabbi Luria (1534-1572) was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Egypt and famously lived in the Galilean city of Safed. He is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Kabbalah, yet no physical manuscripts on mystical topics that he himself wrote are known to have survived. Practically all that we know about him has come down through the students who surrounded him in Safed, first and foremost Rabbi Chaim Vital.

Nonetheless, some tangible evidence of Rabbi Luria’s life has survived, including this fragment of a letter that was sent to him during a period in which he lived in Egypt.

Letter sent to Rabbi Isaac Luria in Egypt. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

The letter, now preserved at the National Library of Israel, was written by someone named David, who asked the Ari to support the efforts of a fundraiser sent from Safed. The content of the letter clearly indicates that the Ari was an internationally respected figure even during his own lifetime, and it reflects his prominence and influence not just in the realm of Kabbalah, but also more broadly in the eyes of his 16th century contemporaries in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

A few other original documents relating to the life of the Ari have been found in the Cairo Geniza, but this singular letter was preserved in a unique way: discovered in the binding of a book. Long before the invention of cardboard, bookmakers would glue together scraps of paper and parchment in order to make bookbindings. For decades, legendary American-born Jerusalemite Ezra P. Gorodesky would painstakingly disassemble antique bookbindings, in many cases discovering treasures like this one and donating them to the National Library of Israel, which he saw as their rightful home.

Ezra passed away in 2020, though his many discoveries will continue to enrich the academic world and the broader Jewish story for generations to come.

Revealed: 90 “New” Pages from One of the Oldest Printed Hebrew Books

Pages come from the only existing copy of a ca. 1492 edition of "Arba'ah Turim", one of history's most important codes of Jewish law

The National Library of Israel (NLI) has acquired 90 singular pages from the earliest period of Hebrew printing. The pages come from the only known copy of a late 15th century edition of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher’s “Arba’ah Turim”, a seminal codification of Jewish law. Yehoshua Soncino, a leading figure in the early Hebrew printing industry, published the edition in Italy around 1492. No complete copies of it have survived, and the pages acquired by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem are not found in any other collection in the world, public or private. Prior to the acquisition, the NLI already held 59 pages from the book.

Works published prior to 1500 are known as “incunabula”. During this period, less than 200 total Hebrew titles were printed, of which around 150 have survived until today. The NLI has copies of more than 80 of them.

“Arba’ah Turim”, meaning “Four Columns” in Hebrew, was written by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (approx. 1269-1343 CE), a leading medieval rabbinical authority also known as “Rabbeinu Asher” and “Ba’al ha-Turim” (“Master of the Columns”). Its name refers to the four sections into which the work is divided, each of them covering different areas of Jewish law: “Orakh Khayim”, “Yoreh De’ah”, “Even Ha’ezer”, and “Khoshen Mishpat”. The pages just acquired by the NLI come from the first two of these sections. The four-part division of the “Arba’ah Turim”, and the work more generally, have served as a foundation for countless commentaries and later attempts to codify Jewish law, including Rabbi Joseph Caro’s 16th century “Shulkhan Arukh,” which is widely considered to be the most important code of Jewish law until today.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, “Incunabula like these provide a rich and unique resources for the research of Jewish textual culture, and they have additional aesthetic and bibliographic value. These pages in particular provide exceedingly rare tangible evidence of one of the very first religious Jewish texts to be printed. Even though the complete edition has not survived, it is exciting that these pages – part of an exceedingly important Jewish text – have come down to us and will now be preserved and made accessible to scholars and the general public by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.”

The Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel includes the vast majority of Hebrew and Jewish books, journals and magazines ever published; thousands of Hebrew-letter manuscripts, as well as digital and microfilm copies of some 80,000 such manuscripts from collections across the globe; the world’s largest collection of Jewish music; and hundreds of personal archives of leading figures. Cherished treasures in the Collection include Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishna in his own handwriting; some of the earliest Talmudic manuscripts and printed Hebrew books; the world’s largest collections of ketubot and haggadot; archival collections of leading rabbinic figures; and the Gershom Scholem Collection – the world’s foremost resource for the study of Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism.

Cracking the Tu B’Shvat – Shmita Conundrum

How does Israel honor Tu B'Shvat – the Jewish Arbor Day – in a year when planting is forbidden? Through celebration, education – and the occasional workaround.

Landscaping encompassing the new National Library of Israel construction zone – an unusual sight to see, as landscaping is usually the last stage before a building is completed. Photo: Albatross

The year 2022 marks a brand new beginning for the National Library of Israel as the new Library building and campus, nears completion. Over the past year, the structure, designed by noted architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, has emerged as a stunning addition to the Jerusalem cityscape.

Further to the magnificent building, the surrounding gardens and statuary will be an attraction in themselves. Specially selected plants and trees, native to this region, celebrate Israel’s rich, varied vegetation, while the landscaping and winding trails reflect the natural terracing characteristic of Jerusalem.

Yet, oddly enough for a construction site, although the building is still being finished, the surrounding gardens, including the Idan and Batia Ofer Park, have already been planted. Landscaping is usually the final stage, but in the Land of Israel, shmita, the Jewish agricultural sabbatical, must be taken into account.

During shmita, all agricultural activity is forbidden by Jewish law. Therefore, the landscape architects raced throughout the summer to prepare the gardens before the advent of the Jewish New Year. And so, passers-by are treated to the lovely if unusual sight of flourishing plants and budding trees encompassing a construction zone.

Landscapers worked throughout the summer on the gardens, including the Idan and Batia Ofer Park, to “beat the clock” before the advent of the shmita year. Photo: Albatross.

Shmita Workarounds

The Library found a solution to its specific planting challenge by beating the countdown to shmita. More generally, however, how does Israel honor Tu B’Shvat – the Jewish Arbor Day – in those years when planting is forbidden?

In 2008, the Knesset passed a law concerning the Sabbatical year, according to which a National Shmita Commission would refer questions concerning the laws of shmita to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate then issued shmita guidelines for KKL-JNF, which carries out handling and management of forests on behalf of the government. During shmita, according to these guidelines, there is no ceremonial tree planting (other than special exceptions at sites where planting has been preapproved by the Chief Rabbinate), no public tree plantings with schoolchildren or tourists, and no distribution of saplings.

These dismal directives are offset by positive and proactive actions to engage in continued preservation and upkeep of existent forests, including pest and disease control as well as the all-important business of fire prevention measures. In lieu of Tu B’Shvat tree-plantings, schoolchildren will be able to participate in activities ranging from forest clean-ups to preparing saplings that will be seeded, transplanted, and potted on special soil-free substrates, unconnected to Mother Earth, and therefore not planted.

Tu B’Shvat seders were held everywhere from Italy and North Africa to Oman and Persia. (Left) Frontispiece of Seder Tu B’Shvat “Pri Etz Hadar”, Venice, 1762. NLI Collections. (Right) Page from “Seder Limud Tu B’Shvat – the New Year for the Trees”. Ṣuḥār (Oman), 1805. The National Library of Israel collections

Celebrate with a Seder

The modern-day tree-planting festival of a “Jewish Arbor Day”, notes Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel, is a part of the Zionist enterprise. A Tu B’Shvat Seder was the more traditional –and mystical – way of celebration.

This tradition was started, perhaps sometime in the 18th century, by followers of the 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as “Ha’ARI Hakadosh”). These disciples created a festive meal with prayers, readings, and eating the seven species of grains and fruits native to the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, as well as drinking four cups of wine.

Leshem says, “A common misconception is that the Seder Tu B’Shvat originated with a little booklet from 1762, Pri Etz Hadar, which took the custom from the book Hemdat Yamim, which was published in 1731. But Hemdat Yamim was thought to be Sabbatean [of the followers of the false messiah Sabbatai Zvi] and therefore suspect. However, in my research, I discovered an earlier source, Birkat Eliyahu, from 1728, which is pre-Hemdat Yamim and also mentions Ha’ARI, and so there’s an ante-Sabbatean version, too.”

The ceremony spread throughout the Jewish world with Seders held everywhere from Italy and North Africa to Oman and Persia. Its popularity, however, was superseded in the 19th century with tree-planting in the Land of Israel, and – because you can’t keep a good mystic tradition down – it was revived in the latter 20th century.

Leshem says, “I truly think I participated in the first Seder Tu B’Shvat that the vegetarian Jews in the upper west side of New York started in the mid-70s. Within a short time it spread like wildfire and became super-popular among all the denominations.”

In Israel, the non-kabbalistic Seder Tu B’Shvat was revived by Israel Prize-winner Nogah Hareuveni, founder of the biblical nature reserve known as Neot Kedumim. Leshem notes that in recent years the Israeli versions “have become more elaborate, often including the Pri Etz Hadar list of 30 fruits with Zoharic readings.”

The National Library of Israel website offers educational resources, from lesson plans and photos to puzzles to posters, to learn from and enjoy.

Plant Educational Seeds

Like the JNF-KKL, other organizations are also focusing their Tu B’Shvat activities and educational efforts this year on ecology, sustainability, and community.

The Library is no exception. NLI’s Education Department has a pack of educational resources to help expose students to different aspects of Tu B’Shvat, including lesson plans, posters, newspaper articles, photos, activities, puzzles – plus, the thing kids love most: a Kahoot quiz.

NLI’s website, too, has a special page dedicated to all things Tu B’Shvat, from historic photographs to musical recordings piyyutim (liturgical hymns), Hebrew melodies, and ethnographic recordings of a Hasidic Tu B’Shvat tish, and of a Seder Tu B’Shvat.

While circumstances of shmita may prevent tree-planting activities this year, they have conspired to create a happy accident whereby, by the time the Library opens in fall 2022, the trees, plants and flowers will be in full bloom. These will be fully accessible to Library visitors who will be able to enjoy the gardens, enter the building, view galleries, sit and study in the reading halls, listen to recordings and songs, examine original documents, participate in educational programs, and – after a year of lying fallow – celebrate new beginnings.

The new National Library of Israel building and campus will open to the public this autumn. Photo: Albatross.

The Forgotten Legacy of a Cantor Who Lost His Voice

Years after Zalman Pollack was a star of the Jewish world, his life's work was rediscovered...

Zalman Pollack and some of his invaluable notes, now part of the National Sound Archive and Music Department at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem

A couple of regular folks are walking down a Jerusalem street one balmy evening in the 1990s, when they notice a number of abandoned cartons on the sidewalk, undoubtedly on their way to the municipal garbage dump. Their interest piqued, they look inside and to their great surprise find hundreds of original handwritten sheets of musical notes, each signed, “Rights reserved by Zalman Pollack.”

Pollack’s notes on a traditional High Holiday prayer. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

There are also old photographs, as well as other memorabilia. Understanding that these documents may have great value, they take them to the National Library of Israel. These kindly folks may not understand the full extent of their actions, but they have just saved a unique musical jewel from destruction.

Zalman Pollack was an unusual man who lived a somewhat tragic life. He was born in 1901 in Ptrovo Selo, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), a city that was well known for its abundance of competent cantors. His early years were characterized by the roaming of a Jewish nomad. In 1919 he made aliyah, immigrating to the Land of Israel with his mother. Shortly thereafter he was injured in the Arab riots of 1921. In 1922, despite being offered a cantorial position in the synagogue of Rishon LeZion, he returned to Europe. There he continued his studies and then served as cantor in Sarajevo and Vienna from 1926, finally returning to the Land of Israel in 1934, where he lived until he passed away in 1985, aged 84.

Zalman Pollack’s High Holiday service performance was billed as a “traditional, authentic prayer” from the “former chief cantor of Sarajevo and Vienna”. Published in Ha’aretz on September 4, 1942; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

From 1934 to the end of the 1940s, Pollack flourished as a well-known cantor in the Land of Israel, appearing in synagogues around the country. Unfortunately there are no known recordings of Pollack at the height of his cantorial career.

He was among the founders of Israel’s Cantors’ Association in 1937, remaining active in the organization for many years. At the age of 47 he married Margalit Agassi. The couple remained childless.

Then quite tragically, around 1949, his voice inexplicably cracked and he could no longer sing, except in an indistinct high pitched voice. Zalman Pollack had lost the tool of his art – his voice, permanently.

For the rest of his life, he devoted his energies to notating music, both traditional modes and his own compositions, and educating budding cantors and prayer leaders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Zalman Pollack. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge
Pollack’s notes on the traditional Ne’ilah service for the conclusion of Yom Kippur. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Using his manuscripts, as well as recordings of himself singing the entire traditional prayer service (in falsetto voice), he founded a one-man school, which he named after King David, the “sweet singer of Israel.” He operated classes for beginners as well as for advanced students, and wrote different versions of tunes, those appropriate for expert cantors and simpler ones for amateur practitioners. His graduates can be heard to this day, singing in houses of prayer around the Ashkenazi world. Amongst his noted pupils were cantors Dudu Fisher, Binyamin Muller, Asher Hainowitz and Yehoshua Lerrer.

One of his students, Gabi Lindenberg, describes lessons at Pollack’s home on Harlap Street in Jerusalem in the 1960s:

“He was an extremely modest man and charged a lowly fee for his services. His wife, who was a sickly woman, would serve tea and cookies. As he could not sing, he would play tapes that he had recorded, in his barely audible raspy voice and give me verbal instructions and comments. He demanded a high level from his students. He cared for them deeply and, being childless, saw in them a chain of continuity, the bearers of his legacy.”

Contemporary to Pollack’s teaching career, other cantorial schools led by Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, Shlomo Ravitz and Leibele Glantz were operating. These men had the big advantage of being active cantors and were better connected to specific synagogues and institutions. It is therefore poignant to read Pollack’s self-written “PR” notices, alongside many newspaper clippings he collected, attesting to his previous greatness as a cantor and prayer leader.

Zalman Pollack as a young cantor in the Land of Israel. Newspaper clipping from the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel
Newspaper clipping Pollack saved of an advertisement for one of his performances, which appeared in the December 21, 1934 edition of Ha’aretz. Click image to enlarge; the issue is also available online

And indeed, he succeeded in attracting many students, yet still lived in relative poverty, which probably explains why he desperately tried to prevent the pirated use of his precious materials without due remuneration. Pollack never fulfilled his aspiration of publishing his works.

Researching Pollack’s archive at the National Library, the late Binyamin Glickman, a cantor, choir master and educator, attempted to produce a volume of Pollack’s musical notations for Shabbat services. One of the challenges he faced was the fact that Pollack often wrote the notes but omitted the staves (the “sticks”), which indicate the length of each note. Any musician will tell you that without the staves, you cannot fathom the rhythm of the piece.

But, as it turned out, another small miracle had occurred.

As a youngster, Johannesburg native Rafi Barnett, a distinguished prayer leader in his own right, had first been invited to serve a community over the High Holidays in 1974. He asked the noted cantor Binyamin Muller of Antwerp, officiating at the time in Johannesburg, for his advice as to the appropriate melodies. Muller told Rafi that he had been a pupil of Zalman Pollack and had in his possession some extremely rare recordings.

Those precious recordings of that barely audible high pitched voice actualized the copious written notes that Pollack had transcribed by hand, and in fact at least 13 hours(!) of recordings were subsequently found.

To explore rare recordings of Pollack and his students, click the image above!

Years later, Barnett, now living in Jerusalem, chanced upon Gabi Lindenberg, who had recordings of himself singing under Pollack’s instruction. Together they approached Dr. Amalia Kedem, a musicologist and cataloger of the music archives at the National Library, who had already been deeply involved in sorting Pollack’s manuscripts and collecting his recordings. And so it was that the written notations found on the street and vocal renditions which emerged in South Africa were unified to complete the puzzle of Pollack’s music.

Pollack possessed a deep knowledge of the nuances of customs of various European communities, thus for example notating the similar but different tunes for the High Holidays of the “Eastern European” and “Hungarian” traditions. His archive is therefore an invaluable historical testimony of a tradition destroyed in the flames of the Holocaust.

Cantor Moshe Nordheim, featured in these clips singing tunes he learned from Zalman Pollack, donated a number of rare recordings of Pollack to the National Library of Israel:

Pollack also notated the prayer rites prevalent in Israel, providing important input regarding the scarcely documented oral tradition of Ashkenazi synagogue music in Mandatory Palestine and the early years of Israeli statehood.

His contribution to the rebuilding of the European cantorial traditions in Israel may have remained relatively anonymous, but thanks to the efforts of Amalia Kedem and the National Library of Israel, it is secure and his treasure trove is available on the Library’s website. He may not have left children, but Zalman Pollack’s students continue to give voice to his musical legacy.

Lindenberg remembers Pollack saying, “Classical music is pleasant to the ear, but chazzanut [cantorial singing] is pleasing to the soul.”

The Zalman Pollack Archive is part of the National Sound Archive and Music Department at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Dozens of recordings of Pollack and his students are available online, including this particularly moving recording of him and his student, Zelig Braverman.

The author thanks Amalia Kedem for her kindness.

A version of this article was previously published in The Times of Israel. 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.