Who Wrote These Magical Ancient Jewish Bowls?

Were they men or women, rabbis or sorcerers, legal experts or ignoramuses?

Ancient Babylonian incantation bowl from the National Library of Israel collection. This bowl was donated to NLI by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff.

Growing scholarly interest in late antique Jewish amulets and magic bowls has greatly advanced our understanding of Jewish magic, yet a fundamental question remains unanswered: who composed these magical Jewish artifacts?

Were they men or women, rabbis or sorcerers, experts in rabbinic law or ignoramuses?

The answer to this question remains elusive; the amulets and bowls do not contain a name of a scribe; nor do we generally possess any external accounts of their creation. This confusion is reflected in the many ways scholars of Jewish magic refer to amulet-writers: ‘scribes’, ‘practitioners’ or ‘professionals’, as well as ‘exorcists’, ‘magicians’ and ‘sorcerers’, are often employed interchangeably.


Exorcists, rabbis or women?

More than 600 Jewish Aramaic incantation bowls, created in Sasanian Babylonia roughly 1,500 years ago, have been researched and published, while at least three times that number remain unpublished. They contain numerous incantations, usually designated for the general protection of a named individual but also designated for other purposes such as medical cures, business prosperity, love charms, curses and more.

Other than a few dozen Jewish seals, the incantation bowls represent our only surviving material evidence from Jews in the Sasanian Empire in Late Antiquity. This was a crucial time in Jewish history, as this was the period in which the Babylonian Talmud was redacted and transmitted, a period that therefore shaped the course of Jewish religion for generations to come.  The bowls therefore provide us with first-hand and contemporary knowledge of Jewish practices at a formative time, knowledge that we would not gain from reading the Talmud alone. Although the incantation texts contain potentially invaluable historical information as well as biblical quotations and parallels to rabbinic texts, they remain primarily the subject of study of scholars of linguistics or of Jewish magic.

A number of scholars have proposed historical identifications of the bowl authors. In his pioneering volume of incantation bowls published in 1913, James Montgomery made an important distinction between, on the one hand, the majority of the bowls written by ‘exorcists’ with ‘professional possession of occult powers’ and, on the other, the poorly written bowls, especially in pseudo-script, which he suggested were written by laymen.

­­A Babylonian incantation bowl featuring relatively crude penmanship. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. Click image to enlarge

About a century later, Shaul Shaked also emphasized the wide range of writing skills of the authors of the bowls while noting the range of knowledge of scripture and other Jewish expressions. Shaked suggested that the authors who were learned in matters of Jewish formulae were connected to the ‘rabbinic tradition’.

קערה בעלת כיתוב בארמית בבלית יהודית להגנת היולדת וילדיה. מאוספי הספרייה הלאומית
This Jewish incantation bowl, created sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, was made to protect newborn babies. From the National Library of Israel collection

In recent years a few scholars have argued that women wrote incantation bowls, most notably Rebeca Lessees, Yaakov Elman and Dorit Kedar. The main argument for female authorship of the bowls is that a few of them are seemingly written in the female first-person singular. However, ascribing authorship of the bowls based on the use of the first-person is highly problematic, as it does not necessarily echo the voice of the scribe. Rather, as scholars have noted, the use of the first-person, male or female, and sometimes the first-person plural, to refer to a husband and wife, is simply a magical technique in which the client(s) of the bowl is listed.

For example, sometimes female and male clients are listed in the first-person as serving a divorce document to a demon, thus employing proper legal document formulae. Moreover, the vast majority of these bowls begin by listing the client in the first-person singular, but later in the same text switch back to the regular expected third-person ­singular, indicating that the first-person is not a reflection of the incantation bowl’s scribe, but rather a technique to distance malevolent forces from the client(s). This would also explain why we have different first-person formulae, with varying names, written by the same hand. It bears stressing that professional scribes were necessary in pre-modern societies in which many individuals, male and female, were illiterate.


Legal magic

Other prevalent features in bowl incantations point instead to a guild of scribal professionals. The texts appearing on some magic bowls bears a striking resemblance to the contemporary Jewish divorce document, and this is hardly coincidental. It is part of a much larger phenomenon of the use of legal formulae in the bowls, a phenomenon that should be linked to scribal professionals responsible for a range of legal documents. In fact, signs of professional scribal practices in the bowls have been identified by scholars, including Siam Bhayro, who has concluded that, “the same scribes who would be employed to write Jewish legal documents … were able to supplement their income by writing incantations”.

Writing exercises of a scribe, including the initial wording of a marriage contract, 1086. From the Cambridge University Library, available online via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Indeed, the most striking feature of knowledge of scribal practices is the use of precise Jewish legal formulae. For example, the use of time designations as part of the divorce formula, including specific dates according to the Seleucid era; presenting the clients with the additional words ‘and any name he/she has’, in line with the Tannaitic instruction; employing Jewish divorce formulae; uses of perpetuity clauses and closing formulae.

Together, there are at least twenty different Jewish legal formulations found in the bowls, phrased in line with Jewish legal formulations found in archeological findings of ancient documents, rabbinic instructions, and later legal documents from the Cairo Genizah This finding is best explained by attributing knowledge of scribal practices, and even particular Jewish legal writing, to the bowl authors.


Writers of books

Further evidence regarding the scribal profession of the bowl authors may be found in their designation for their opponents. In one carefully written bowl (known as “AMB6”), which was published and translated by Shaul Shaked and Joseph Naveh and is currently on display in the Israel Museum, there is an intriguing text designated for the protection of Berik Yehabya son of Mama. The bowl ends with a unique spell for protection:

“I adjure you in the name of He who is great and fearsome that you may silence for Berik Yehabya son of Mama the mouths of all people who write books, who sit in forts, who sit in market places, and in streets, who go out on the roads, so that their tongues should cleave to their mouths, and that they should not speak evil words against me. In the name of he who commanded and it came into being. Amen, Amen, Selah.”

The formula begins with an adjuration silencing the mouths of the people who ‘write books’ (‘sifrei’), who sit in various places and go out on the roads. In Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, the word ‘sifra’/’sefer’ can mean ‘scroll, scriptural book or document’.

This leads to the question: why would the client, Berik Yehabya, seek protection from writers of books?

Perhaps, because these writers are professional scribes who write documents and scrolls, but also curses and magical spells, such as bowls. Thus, this scribe is attempting to ‘silence the mouths’ of other scribes who write curses. From this it would seem that the way this magic bowl author referred to himself and to his competitors is not as professional magicians or sorcerers, but as scribes. Indeed, among the malevolent forces the bowl incantations regularly sought to ward off are other curses and spells aimed at the clients. This unique incantation would therefore target not only the opposing incantations, but the scribes responsible for them. Other contextual clues, including the names of the locations in which they sit, provide additional evidence for the professional scribal nature of these writers.

A traditional Jewish scribe. Image part of the Israel Archive Network project, 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 bowl also makes clear that these scribes were not confined to the marketplace, but in fact some went out on the roads, peddling their goods from door to door. This evidence, alongside the extensive use of legal formulae and the presence of self-designations from the legal sphere, substantiates the conclusion that many bowl writers were in fact professional scribes.

This would fit the material aspect of the bowls as well. Bowl scribes carefully used ink in order to write small square letters on the surface of a bowl. The penmanship of some bowls are particularly striking and my initial research demonstrates that there may be a correlation between the quality of the handwriting and learned content of the bowl texts.

Certainly, this conclusion does not contradict Montgomery’s and Shaked’s assertion that the bowls demonstrate a variety of expertise. On the contrary, in a recent article, Simcha Gross and I argue that the Jewish incantation bowls should not be viewed as a single corpus. Rather, the bowls were produced by different groups of scribes, some of whom were socialized according to rabbinic norms and some of whom were closer to the traditions of neighboring religions. Though the medium they employed – ceramic bowls – was the same, their producers were not necessarily part of the same scribal circles. We should instead think of a market of competing scribes with differing scribal expertise, where the same client could commission a bowl from a scribe who in turn wrote a bowl that would fend off the incantations of his scribal competitors.


If indeed some of the bowl writers were professional scribes, they may have engaged in other forms of penmanship such as biblical and liturgical writing. It is important to note that in Aramaic there is no lexical distinction between different kind of scribes; therefore there is seemingly no reason to limit some of the ‘writers of books’ to just bowls and legal documents. Indeed, the incantation bowls quote a wide variety of biblical passages, and Targum, as well as liturgical texts, which may attest to expert knowledge in these fields.

This incantation bowl written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic was commissioned by someone named Gia Bar Imma for the purposes of an exorcism. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. Click image to enlarge

While there are sometimes minor divergences from the Masoretic spellings, these may be due to scribal practices of the time and place of the bowl writers and do not necessarily contradict the possibility that scribes of bowls engaged in copying biblical texts.

Another important component of many bowls is liturgical quotations, such as blessings and prayers, including the Shema. This too may attest to the profession of the bowl scribes many of whom may certainly also have engaged in some sort of liturgical writing. Given the various scribal roles apparently performed by these authors, the terms ‘magician’ and ‘sorcerer’ may be too restrictive of the professional functions of these Jewish writers.


Babylonian rabbis and expert (amulet) writers

Focusing on the professional aspect of the bowl writers may shed light on attitudes towards these practitioners in the Babylonian Talmud. Some scholars have searched for rabbinic attitudes towards the bowl writers, in stories concerning witchcraft and/or female sorcery, but following the conclusion that bowls were produced by professional scribes, the conflation of bowl writers and sorcerers may lead us astray. Indeed, it would be more accurate to search for rabbinic passages dealing with amulets, since the bowls were considered amulets by their producers, as can be deduced from the common introductory formula: “this is an amulet”. The rabbis identified amulet writings with “experts” and amulets written by such experts are even permitted to be carried on the Sabbath (Mishnah Shabat 6:2). Moreover, in at least one story in the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis themselves engaged in amulet writing (Tractate Pesachim 111b).

This incantation bowl, written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, features a demon in the form of the cat, and the words “this cat is bound”. The bowl was donated to the National Library of Israel by Ms. Aliza Moussaieff. For more on the images, see here. Click image to enlarge

Rabbinic sympathetic attitudes toward amulets fits the proposed identification between the incantation bowls and expert writers. As with other professionals, the rabbis accept the fact that there are non-rabbinic experts in a variety of areas and rely on their expertise. The rabbinic views of amulet writers as experts, alongside the clear scribal nature of the incantation bowls, problematizes the common use of the generic term ‘Jewish magicians’. There is no rabbinic term to designate these ‘magicians’, and certainly no pejorative term. Once we appreciate these Talmudic passages alongside the conclusion that many bowl scribes emerge from a professional scribal context, the rigid binary between rabbis and magicians begins to unravel.

On a social level, the clear scribal nature of the incantation bowls challenges the common scholarly perception of the ancient Jewish “magicians”. The bowl writers may have even been viewed as a religious elite, consulted at times of need. Indeed, challenging the popular/ elite dichotomy is true not only on the social or professional level. We may even go one step further by challenging the categorical dichotomy between law and magic as forms of high/scholastic versus low/popular cultural expressions.

As we have seen, the magical texts themselves are replete with legal formulae, and it seems reasonable to assume that for the scribes of the Babylonian incantation bowls the lines between magic, law, and religion were not rigid, and perhaps nonexistent.

A version of this article, “Who were the Jewish ‘magicians’ behind the Aramaic incantation bowls” originally appeared in the Journal of Jewish Studies (

Did the Ben Ish Hai, Great Sage of Baghdad, Have an Alter Ego?

On a few occasions, the illustrious Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad cited a mysterious source whose name and work had never appeared anywhere else...

Many examples of Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad's handwriting and signature have survived, including manuscripts and letters in the National Library of Israel's collection

In 1973, a curious collection of answers to questions of Jewish law was published for the first time. The answers, known collectively as “responsa”, were attributed to the unknown Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, and the collection was titled Torah Lishmah, “law for its own sake.” It covered a gamut of subjects ranging from practical Jewish law to esoteric lore. According to the publisher, the volume was printed from a manuscript transcribed by the legendary Baghdadi scholar Rabbi Yosef Hayim, better known as the “Ben Ish Hai”, the name of his most famous book.

The Ben Ish Hai passed away in 1909, and the manuscript had come into the possession of his grandson, Rabbi David Hayim, who brought it with him when he immigrated to Israel from Baghdad in 1972. The original collection supposedly contained 622 responsa, of which only 524 questions and 523 answers survived. In his introduction, the author, Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, wrote that he began writing responsa in the year 1682 – almost three hundred years before the collection was published.

No other copy of this manuscript had ever been produced, and despite his apparent prolific output, no one had heard of “Yehezkel Kahali” before 1903, when his name first appeared in print.


First citings

Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad was one of the premier authorities on Jewish law in the 19th and very early 20th centuries, a popular public speaker, and an acclaimed mystic. In 1898 he published his Ben Ish Hai, which included ten references to an unknown work entitled “Torah Lishmah.” The references were all rather pale – the title of the book was mentioned without more detailed citation, the legal positions cited were not particularly controversial and there was little discussion about them. The author of Torah Lishmah was never mentioned. In one instance, Rabbi Yosef Hayim acknowledged that the work was in manuscript form.

Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, the “Ben Ish Hai” (Public domain)

Three years later, in 1901, Rabbi Yosef Hayim began to publish his responsa, which he titled Rav Pe‘alim. The second responsum printed in this collection included a passage from Torah Lishmah and identified the author as “Y. Kahali.” Two years later, Rabbi Yosef Hayim published the second volume of Rav Pe‘alim, this time referencing Torah Lishmah a further four times. One of those citations nonchalantly revealed the full name of the author of Torah Lishmah – “Yehezkel Kahali.” All told, Rabbi Yosef Hayim cited the unidentified Torah Lishmah seven times in his four-volume Rav Pe‘alim.

Prior to the 1973 edition, Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali and his Torah Lishma collection were known solely from the writings of Rabbi Yosef Hayim. No one before the great Baghdadi rabbi had ever cited this scholar or his responsa.


Gematria proof

After the second volume of Rav Pe‘alim was published in 1903, Rabbi Avraham Hayim Ades, a scholar from Aleppo who had moved to Jerusalem in 1896, was intrigued by the faceless Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali whose name had just appeared in print for the very first time. After pondering the matter, he suggested that “Yehezkel Kahali” was a pseudonym through which the real author had left a hint as to his identity.

Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value. In turn, the sum of the values of the letters in a word give that word its own numerical value. Connections are sometimes drawn between words with identical numerical values. These types of calculations are known as gematria. The Hebrew names “Yehezkel” and “Yosef” have the same numerical value of 156, and the surnames “Kahali” and “Hayim” have the same numerical value of 68.

Thus – argued Rabbi Ades – “Yehezkel Kahali” is none other than the great Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad!

To test his theory, Rabbi Ades sent a number of halakhic questions to Baghdad to Rabbi Yosef Hayim and appended an extra question: Who is the author of Torah Lishmah? Rabbi Yosef Hayim duly answered each inquiry… except for the last question!

Rabbi Ades saw this as proof that indeed the work was from the pen of Rabbi Yosef Hayim.

Can we identify authorship on the basis of such calculations? Was Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s silence sufficient supporting evidence of authorship? Alas, the trail linking Torah Lishmah to Rabbi Yosef Hayim went cold …


A lost manuscript

Over forty years later, as the British Mandate in Palestine waned, a student by the name of Yosef Kachuri asked the director of the Yeshivat Porat Yosef religious seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem to send a letter to Baghdad and ask Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s grandson to forward some of his grandfather’s writings.

The dome on the right is the roof of Yeshivat Porat Yosef shortly after its completion in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, ca. 1924. Part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN), 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

Porat Yosef’s director, Rabbi Ben Zion Mordekhai Hazan, had been a student of Rabbi Yosef Hayim, and was diligently publishing manuscripts of his esteemed teacher in addition to maintaining Porat Yosef. Rabbi Hazan acquiesced to Kachuri’s request and wrote a letter to his deceased teacher’s grandson. In reply, Rabbi David Hayim sent six notebooks which included 120 responsa. The responsa had been copied by Rabbi David Hayim from his grandfather’s Torah Lishmah manuscript.

Kachuri and his peers were overjoyed, and they began to make plans to publish the manuscript. Sadly, their joy was short lived. During the 1948 Battle for Jerusalem, the notebooks were destroyed by the Arab Legion – together with other books and manuscripts held in Porat Yosef’s valuable library.



In 1972, Rabbi David Hayim arrived in Israel. Perhaps following up on his prior relationship with Kachuri, Rabbi David Hayim gave the Torah Lishmah manuscript to Kachuri for publication. The work was printed a year later and in the foreword to the volume Rabbi David Hayim announced with no hesitation that there was no scholar by the name of “Yehezkel Kahali.” Rather, “Yehezkel Kahali” was a pseudonym for his grandfather. The proof – according to the grandson – was in the numerical calculation of the pseudo-author’s name.

But why did Rabbi Yosef Hayim use a pseudonym? The grandson seemed to be at a loss – undoubtedly his illustrious grandfather had reasons that he chose not to share. Nevertheless, the grandson speculated: In Jewish tradition there is a dispute regarding authors’ names. Some scholars advocated hiding authors’ names, while others encouraged authors to publish their names clearly. Rabbi Yosef Hayim published some works under his own name, and others without self-attribution – presumably trying to satisfy both opinions.

Many manuscripts by Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, like this one in the National Library of Israel collection, have survived, making it easy for scholars to identify the Ben Ish Hai’s handwriting

Immediately after the publication of Torah Lishmah, in December 1973, the rabbinic authority of Tunisian Jewry in Israel, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, jotted down notes about the authorship of Torah Lishmah. Rabbi Mazuz, it appears, was the first scholar to publish an article addressing the issue and his conclusion was decisive: Torah Lishmah was truly the work of Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad.

Three years after Torah Lishmah was first released, a second edition was printed in 1976. In his foreword to this edition, Rabbi David Hayim added a remark about the mystical valence of the number 622, as explained by Rabbi Yosef Hayim in one of his earliest writings. Since the original manuscript allegedly contained 622 responsa, it would appear that Rabbi David Hayim was trying to muster further evidence to link the manuscript to his illustrious grandfather.

New doubts

Rabbi Shalom Messas was the doyen of Moroccan Jewry. He came from an illustrious rabbinic family, and served in the Casablanca rabbinate and later as Chief Rabbi of Morocco. In 1978, he left Morocco to fill the position of Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Jerusalem. Four years later, Rabbi Messas responded to a question about Jewish purity laws. The question has not survived, but from the answer it is apparent that the questioner sent a detailed legal analysis for Rabbi Messas’ approval. Inter alia, the questioner asked Rabbi Messas whether Torah Lishmah was written by Rabbi Yosef Hayim.

In a succinct paragraph, Rabbi Messas responded by citing a few textual features of the collection and stating that Torah Lishmah could not be the work of the great Baghdadi scholar. Regarding the claim that Rabbi Yosef Hayim had piously hidden his name, Rabbi Messas pointed out that Rabbi Yosef Hayim had published numerous works under his own name, so why would he opt for a pseudonym in the case of Torah Lishmah.

Rabbi Messas’ analysis was brief and accurate, though misguided. Indeed, the paratext – or surrounding textual features – of Torah Lishmah speaks in no uncertain terms. The work is clearly presented as the writings of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, with a copyist serving as the intermediary. Though Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s name does not appear anywhere in the work, the handwriting of the copyist has been undisputedly identified as that of Rabbi Yosef Hayim, and by his own admission elsewhere in his published writings – the Torah Lishmah manuscript had been in his possession.

Rabbi Shalom Messas (CC BY 2.5)

The title page – written in rhyme by the copyist – refers to another person as the author of the work who named the collection Torah Lishmah. Following the title page there is an introduction signed by Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, where the author states that he began writing responsa in the Hebrew year 5442; that is, 1681/2. The author’s name and the year he began writing appear again as a heading before the first responsum of the collection.

When preparing the manuscript for print, Kachuri the publisher made two emendations in an attempt to link the work to Rabbi Yosef Hayim. First, he placed the year 1681/2 in parentheses and added an alternative in bold brackets – following a rabbinic printing practice of using parentheses to indicate unwanted text and brackets to indicate the desired text. The correction gave the Hebrew year as 5642 – that is 1881/2, when Rabbi Yosef Hayim was forty-eight years old. The second reference to the year was omitted. We might ponder the publisher’s decision to retain part of the original and honestly indicate to readers that he changed the text. While revealing the change reflects the publisher’s integrity, the basis for the emendation is unstated and the right to change what appears in the original manuscript is dubious. Subsequent editions of Torah Lishmah reverted to the original year with no emendation and did not excise the second reference to the year. Thus the original manuscript dates the work long before Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s era.

Kachuri also presided over a further attempt to broadcast that the responsa were written by Rabbi Yosef Hayim by dividing the collection into a five-part division that mirrored Rav Pe‘alim. This division was not present in the original manuscript.

Following the author’s forward, there are additional introductory remarks under the heading “The Words of the Copyist” – once again distinguishing between the role of Rabbi Yosef Hayim the copyist and that of the author:

“The Copyist said: Miraculously this work has reached me, in an old manuscript, and the writing was difficult to read, and I vowed to copy it in my handwriting in order to do kindness for the author, of blessed memory, for it is likely that there is no other copy in the world except for this one. … And certainly this worthy deed [mitzvah] of copying that I have done for this book will be considered like the positive commandment of returning a lost article.”

If the copyist was the pseudonymous author then he might have declared unequivocally that there was no other copy of the manuscript in the world. The copyist, however, only presumed that it was likely that there was no other copy, thus distancing himself from privileged information.

Some of the responsa in Torah Lishmah begin with words like “The copyist, may God guard him and save him, said …” There are thirteen such additions scattered throughout the volume. Once again, the copyist is clearly distinguished from the author.

Each one of the responsa in the volume is signed with the name Yehezkel Kahali, presented in a standard rabbinic form: “Thus the words of the insignificant one, Yehezkel Kahali, may the Merciful One guard him and save him.”

The sum of the manuscript’s paratext is clear, as Rabbi Shalom Messas had declared: Rabbi Yosef Hayim was not the author of the Torah Lishmah responsa.

The paratext is indeed an important source of information that should not be overlooked by scholars. Yet a pseudonymous or pseudepigraphous author would presumably expend every effort to mask his or her identity and the paratext would be the starting point for the ploy. This makes the paratext – so important in other contexts – a possible tool of deception.

It couldn’t be!

A number of leading scholars found a further reason to reach the conclusion that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was not the author of Torah Lishmah, including the great Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a responsum entitled: “Regarding the author of the book Torah Lishmah, is it the G[aon] R[abbi] Y[osef] H[ayim]?” The responsum is dated 1947, though the text was not published until over fifty years later, in 2002. In fact, the responsum contains information that indicates that at least part of it was written after 1947. The printed version therefore reflects the evolution of Rabbi Ovadia’s position over half a century.

Rabbi Ovadia flatly rejected the numerical correlation as evidence that the Ben Ish Hai was the true author of Torah Lishmah. This conclusion was buttressed by the paratext of the manuscript that clearly indicated that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was simply the copyist and not the author.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 1972 (Photo: IPPA Staff). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yet Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had a further reason to reject the identification. In his mind, it was incongruous that the great Rabbi Yosef Hayim could be behind such a ruse:

“It is extremely difficult to say – Heaven forefend – that [Rabbi Yosef Hayim] would lie in order to hide the name of the author.”

Alas, Rabbi Ovadia’s confidence unraveled when he heard from Rabbi Efrayim Zilka Hakohen about the Baghdadi tradition linking Torah Lishmah to Rabbi Yosef Hayim. In a postscript that may have been added as the volume was being prepared for print, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef noted two scholarly assessments of Torah Lishmah – one that accepted Rabbi Yosef Hayim as the author and the other that continued to deny his authorship. The case was not closed. 


A source that hadn’t yet been written

According to the author’s introduction, Torah Lishmah was written beginning in 1682, meaning that anything written after the lifetime of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali could not be cited.  Examining the sources cited in Torah Lishmah demonstrates that this logical rule was maintained with a three-pronged approach. First, no contemporaries are mentioned by name, ensuring that Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali would not be bound to an era, a location, or an intellectual community. Second, works that were written before 1682 but first published later were purportedly cited from manuscripts. Third, works written after the estimated lifetime of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali were cited in the copyist’s notes.

While this method of masking the author’s time period was theoretically sound, there were a few hiccups. For instance, in one responsum the author cited Kanfei Yonah by Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Fano. This work was first published in 1786, hence we would expect Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali to note that he had seen the work in manuscript. No such note exists. Alas a lone case of a few missing words could be chalked up to a scribal or copyist’s error, and is hardly conclusive evidence.

Manuscript of Kanfei Yonah, 17th century. From the National Library of Israel collection

Yet the “copyist” came unstuck with a citation of a manuscript that he could not possibly have seen in the late seventeenth century: a forgery from the second half of the eighteenth century.

Twice in Torah Lishmah, the author cites from a manuscript collection of responsa written by the medieval scholar Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel. These citations appear in a collection that was first published in 1793 and entitled Besamim Rosh.

Original publication of Besamim Rosh, 1793. From the National Library of Israel collection

It is now clear that the entire Besamim Rosh collection is a forgery perpetrated by Saul Berlin, an eighteenth century German Jewish polemicist. The theoretical seventeenth century author of Torah Lishmah could not possibly have known about responsa that had yet to be forged!

The citation of a famous forgery exposes Torah Lishmah as pseudepigraphy – a falsely attributed work. It does not, however, prove that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was the author. Perhaps the great Baghdadi scholar was indeed just the copyist? Perhaps he had been misled by an “ancient” manuscript? No scholar to date has suggested this possibility. Moreover, textual scrutiny has provided incontrovertible proof of Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s authorship.


Bringing the mystery to the lab

Rabbinic scholars who analyzed Torah Lishmah pointed to similar language and turns of phrase in the two collections of responsa – the puzzling Torah Lishmah and Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s Rav Pe‘alim. These unscientific remarks are hardly proof of authorship. It is possible that Rabbi Yosef Hayim used similar turns of phrase, intentionally or unintentionally, as those that appeared in the seventeenth century manuscript he was copying.

With the development of digital analysis tools, these anecdotal observations could be precisely tested.

In 2004, a team led by Professor Moshe Koppel from Bar Ilan University’s Computer Science Department, put Torah Lishmah to a digital test of text categorization based on computerized statistical analysis. Using machine learning techniques, the team compared the two collections of responsa – Rav Pe‘alim and Torah Lishmah – in an attempt to ascertain whether the second corpus was written by the same author as the first corpus. Furthermore, the team contrasted these works with other collections of responsa, to determine whether the similarities between Rav Pe‘alim and Torah Lishmah were standard for the corpus of responsa literature.

It is beyond the current scope to detail the team’s method for authorship verification. Suffice it to point out that they convincingly concluded that Torah Lishmah was indeed written by the author of Rav Pe‘alim. No one disputes Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s authorship of Rav Pe‘alim, so he must also be the author of Torah Lishmah.

The research demonstrated that stylistic differences between the two works are minimal and according to the researchers, they were “possibly deliberately inserted as a ruse or possibly a function of slightly differing purposes assigned to the works.”

Thus, this literary conundrum seems to have been laid to rest: Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad wrote Torah Lishmah.


Troubling questions

While identification of the author solves one problem, it opens up a host of other issues: What is the historical value of the collection? Do authors have a right to anonymity?

On the legal front there are also questions to be asked: What is the weight that should be accorded to Torah Lishmah responsa in Jewish law? Are they valid sources? To what extent is it ethically malfeasant to present one’s own work as a two-hundred-year-old manuscript? While Jewish law does not have a strict doctrine of binding precedent, a two-hundred-year-old responsum would presumably carry significant weight.

Perhaps the most perplexing question is that of motive: Why would a respected jurist and prolific writer publish his own ideas using a pseudonym?

While we know who wrote Torah Lishmah, we still do not know why it was written.

These questions continue to resound.

A version of this article was originally published in Jewish Educational Leadership. 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.

Ruth the Moabite: The Most Beautiful Woman You’ve Never Seen

The Book of Ruth is an extraordinary biblical story. At its center is the brave friendship between two women that leads to the founding of the Davidic dynasty, and a heroine whose character traits made her an everlasting symbol of beauty


Naomi and Ruth, reproduction of a work by French artist Louis Héctor Leroux, one of the first 100 postcards printed by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Among the hundreds of stories that appear in the Hebrew Bible, the tale that unfolds in the Book of Ruth is imbued with a unique, fresh spirit and unparalleled originality. It is a story devoid of heroic male figures or villains, no sin or punishment, war or peace. It is a story of life itself embodied in the figures of two female protagonists: Ruth and Naomi. The Bible devotes very little space to the stories of women, and few female figures receive an entire book. Some women in the Bible aren’t even mentioned by name, and those who are tend to have their outward appearance emphasized. Ruth is an exception.

Ruth is a heroine whose actions define her character—her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi, who can offer her nothing but companionship; her willingness to leave her familiar life behind and move to a foreign land, without money, property or security; her modesty, resourcefulness, and the brave,  underestimated, friendship between the young foreign widow and her mother-in-law. All of these factors make Ruth a beautiful figure, without us knowing anything about her physical appearance.

Ruth holding a sheaf of wheat, reproduction of a work by the French artist Alexandre Cabanel, 1886, one of the first 100 postcards printed by the Lebanon Company, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

These traits explain why Ruth captivated the imaginations of so many artists, and often served as a model of female beauty in paintings of biblical scenes, particularly during the Romantic era. It is therefore not surprising that a picture postcard series published by the “Lebanon” publishing house in the late 19th and early 20th centuries includes a number of wonderful reproductions of artworks depicting scenes from the Book of Ruth.


A Biblical Legend: Two Women against All Odds

Ruth is not a classic heroine. She is a figure on the margins of society: a foreigner, widowed and poor. But, like in a fairy tale, not only does her story end with a joyous marriage to a respectable man, a member of the chosen people, she is also rewarded: her lineage establishes the royal dynasty of King David. This success is not to be taken for granted in the patriarchal world of the Bible. In fact, such a positive story dealing with the relationship between two women -Ruth and Naomi – is unique in the literary landscape of the Bible.

The fields of Boaz, reproduction of a work by an unknown artist, postcard published by the Jüdisher Verlag, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

In just four chapters, the biblical author of the Book of Ruth manages to create the image of a complete world for the story’s heroines,  sketching a delicate and loving relationship, which, against all odds, changes destinies—and for the better. The brief dialogue in the first chapter between Naomi and her widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, sets the stage for a much larger plot.

Naomi virtuously asks her daughters-in-law to return to their community so that they might rebuild their lives. However, Ruth chooses to share her mother-in-law’s fate despite the many difficulties, offering a strong declaration of love:

“Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me” (Book of Ruth 1: 16–17).

Readers learn about their hardships only tacitly from the story. At their most vulnerable moment, Ruth and Naomi find a clever solution that relies on their respective talents. In an effort to save her mother-in-law from starving, Ruth goes to the fields to gather stalks of wheat dropped by the reapers. Meanwhile, Naomi, who does not join Ruth in the field, uses her practical sense to devise a plan to save her brave daughter-in-law. Their mutual caring and capacity to listen to each other are the keys to their alliance. Knowing that a young and impressive woman like Ruth attracts attention, Naomi creates the conditions for a solution to her daughter-in-law’s predicament, which in the biblical world is marriage and status.

Ruth in Boaz’s field, a reproduction of a work by Hungarian artist Lajos (Ludwig) Bruk, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the next part of the story, more is hidden than revealed. The biblical author leaves things seemingly innocent on the surface. Yet, in setting the scene on the threshing floor at night, and using language replete with verbs carrying a secondary sexual meaning, he constructs palpable sexual tension. We will never know what happened that night between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing room floor, but the story ends happily—Boaz redeems the poor foreigner Ruth and their marriage makes her a rich and respectable woman. With the birth of the couple’s son Obed, Naomi too is rewarded. She becomes a grandmother, a role that was almost denied her. The Davidic dynasty was established thanks to these two women and their story is enshrined in the Book of Books.

Ruth and Boaz, reproduction of a work by French artist Henri Frédéric Schopin, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

A Bold, Trailblazing Female Partnership

The Book of Ruth’s revolutionary feminism may not have shattered any glass ceilings, but it did make some dents. In the end, Ruth and Naomi’s fate was changed by the actions of men. Yet those actions were carefully shaped by thoughtful female instigation and guidance. One can also find in the story an ambivalence familiar from the modern era — women as the main driving force in private spaces, and men who dominate the public arena, while benefiting from greater privileges.

The first three chapters describe an enterprising and courageous sisterhood of two unique women. Ruth is assertive, independent and loyal to Naomi. She operates modestly and with complete trust in the wisdom of her elder. In reward for her loyalty and goodness, wise Naomi guides the young woman’s life to ensure her future welfare. Naomi and Ruth demonstrate an autonomy and feminine wisdom not described anywhere else in the Bible. Together they act towards their own benefit within the social conventions of the era and without compromising their reputations.

Ruth and Boaz, reproduction of a work by French artist Henri Frédéric Schopin, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

This cooperation and reciprocity gives power to the powerless. In a tough world with rigid boundaries, this partnership manages to change fates, not through physical beauty or cunning, but through courage, empathy and mutual support. Together they bring about an optimal result, which otherwise would not have materialized. This is an inspiring story about women in a man’s world and about how women’s character, friendship, and love have changed destinies over the ages, from biblical times to this very day.

Out of the Vault: Incredible Torah Scrolls Revealed

Check out these clips featuring four of the most stunning and interesting Torah scrolls from the National Library of Israel collection

This miniature Torah is just 6 centimeters (2 1/3 inches) in height! (Photo: Amit Dekel Productions)

For thousands of years, Jewish communities across the globe have treasured one object above all others: the Torah scroll – the five Books of Moses meticulously handwritten on parchment.

The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem safeguards numerous Torah scrolls among millions of other treasures. Their letters are largely identical, yet as historical objects some are certainly more interesting and significant than others.

Due to their invaluable nature and fragile state, these treasures are very rarely ever removed from the National Library vaults, but – with the approval and oversight of our experts – we managed to take a few of them out briefly in order to to give you a glimpse and share their stories!


Yemenite Torah Fragments from 1,000 Years Ago

These fragments from an approximately 1,000 year-old Yemenite Torah scroll were found in a bookbinding, for which they were used as raw material long after the scroll was originally written:


The Rhodes Torah

This Torah scroll was used at the Kahal Shalom Synagogue in Rhodes for centuries. The local mufti is said to have hidden it from the Nazis under the pulpit of a local mosque, where it subsequently survived the war, even though the vast majority of the Rhodes Jewish community did not:


The Saul Wahl Torah

Legend has it that in the late 16th century a Jewish merchant and adviser to royalty served as King of Poland for just one day. Some believe that this was his personal Torah scroll:


The Tiny Torah

This may not be the world’s smallest legible Torah scroll, but at just 6 centimeters (2 1/3 inches) in height, it’s certainly one of them:


These clips were created for the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, as part of A Look at the Jewish Year, a journey through the Hebrew calendar via the peerless collections of the National Library of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.

The project is 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.