Saving a 400 Year-Old Manuscript

A 16th-century Yemeni manuscript containing a wonderful illustration of a menorah is being restored in our Conservation and Restoration Department. Come have a look behind the scenes

They are considered “the surgeons” of the National Library, true masters of their craft. Every day, the workers of our Department of Conservation and Restoration literally put the past back together again, piece by piece. The rare items you see in the National Library’s various exhibits and archival displays are impressive and beautiful, but we do not usually receive them in that condition. Most of these items sustain severe damage over the centuries, often reaching our archives in poor condition; torn, broken, rumpled, their pieces stuck to one another, and dirty.

Recently, the department received a Yemeni manuscript, written in the year 1595, of a work known as Al-Wajiz al-Mughni (The Brief and the Sufficient”). The manuscript, written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, contains a comprehensive midrash on the Torah portions as well as a series of beautiful illustrations, including an impressive menorah, a family tree displaying the sons of Jacob and even a sketch of the ephod and the choshen (the ceremonial breastplate worn by the High Priest). The manuscript arrived in a fragile state: Its cover and pages were torn. Its seam had been poorly sewn, resulting in damage to the pages, with holes and cracks appearing in the parchment. The ink had begun to decay and to eat away at the paper.

Marcela Szekely, the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, described the challenges the staff was faced with: “The manuscript was very dirty when it reached the department. The seam was sewn very close to the text, the proximity causing some of the pages to tear over time. We had to take the seam apart to understand that we weren’t dealing with double-page leaves but rather with a pile of single pages sewn together, page-to-page.”

And so, the staff set to work: Haim Shushan, a book conservator at the department, documented the state of the item before it was treated, as is common practice with all the items that are handled. First, he disassembled the book’s cover from its body. Then he cleaned the pages and removed the layers of dirt which had accumulated over the centuries, composed mostly of dust, various materials that had stuck to the pages over time, hair and wax stains, along with different types of leaves and grains. We asked Haim what the worst kind of dirt he encountered in his work was; he immediately answered, “Human DNA – beard hair”.

Haim then began to restore the pages. He decided to get rid of the old seam which had damaged the item, and employed a technique for creating new leaves (double-page sheets) using Japanese paper (washi): The single pages were rearranged as leaves, with two pages for each leaf. A thick layer of Japanese paper was glued between the pages, fastening them firmly together while allowing flexibility when viewing the manuscript. Haim placed the leaves on top of each other until he could finally sew them all together into a single mass, a whole book.

Two pages form a leaf, glued together with Japanese paper produced from different plants

On closer inspection of the manuscript, one notices additional, irritating cases of damage. Sections of pages were torn out and replaced with patches of newspaper fragments or notebook paper, with the text being rewritten; the ink had begun to decay, with holes appearing in some of the pages, which could threaten the state of the item as a whole. Haim had to handle all these issues.

It was decided that the old patches would also be preserved, as they served to complete the text and represented evidence of historical techniques. To fix the newer holes, Haim created new patches himself. “The type of ink used in this manuscript is extremely difficult to work with,” he said, explaining the production process: “When wasps lay eggs in a tree, it causes the tree to produce a black liquid which covers the eggs. In the past, these black beads were collected and ground into ink, its chemical composition high in acid.” That is why certain parts of the book were consumed.

The holes were also covered with Japanese paper in an extremely delicate process. First, Haim sketched the outline of each hole on the back side of the page, enabling him to produce a piece of Japanese paper identical to the missing piece. After making sure the size was right, he applied special glue to the paper and flattened the two layers into one. This process prevents further decay and damage to the pages and their content.

Preparing a new patch. The ink damage (the dark spots) can be seen clearly


Fitting the new patch to the page:


Gluing the new patch to the page:


Flattening the patch onto the leaf, creating a single layer:

And there you have it. Once the book is rebound, the new cover will safeguard the item and preserve it, so that you – the general public and the many researchers who visit the National Library – can study it and familiarize yourself with the customs of the ancient Yemenite-Jewish community. The art of conserving such manuscripts is highly complex and delicate, requiring skill and expertise. The workers at the National Library’s Department of Conservation and Restoration are responsible for saving these extremely rare items – for us and for generations to come – because the future begins with the preservation of the past.


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Ben-Gurion: Prayer is Self-Deception

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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Latkes, Hanukkah Donuts and the Head of Holofernes

What did Jews eat on Hanukkah throughout the generations? When did the sufgania come along? And what were latkes made of before potatoes reached Europe in the 16th century?

A few years after Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucid dynasty, the Maccabean Revolt began. It was a struggle between Jews who were zealously protective of their religion and culture and the Hellenized Jewish elite who were supportive of the Hellenistic reforms introduced by the new king.

Three years of tenacious fighting ended with a Maccabean triumph. While the coveted victory was obtained, the Temple remained in a state of neglect and chaos, forcing the victors to rededicate the altar and celebrate – though rather late – the eight-day-long festival of Sukkot. A few hundred years after the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty, the Talmud recited the story from a slightly different angle; completely ignoring all military-related matters, the Talmudic story tells of the Temple’s priests who found a small cruse of olive oil that hadn’t been desecrated; though the amount of oil it contained should only have been enough to light the Temple Menorah for a single day, it miraculously lasted a full eight.

It is hard to think of a more appropriate story to establish a holiday filled with a wonderful assortment of oily, fatty foods – the kind that make you immediately want to scrap all those failed diet plans and new year’s resolutions, as well as any semblance of proper eating manners as you gobble away (no worries, we’ve all been there). But it turns out that was not the case. Comfort food dunked in rivers of olive oil was an invention born much later in history.

A small cruse of natural ‘Tnuva’ honey for Hanukkah, the National Library Ephemera Collection

Judith and Holofernes – A Hanukkah Story?

The mention of the oil cruse is one of the very few references to the Maccabean Revolt made in Talmudic literature. As a result, the question “What are we eating?” – perhaps the most important Jewish question imaginable when it comes to the holidays – was not fully answered, at least according to historical research, until the 14th century.

So, what did they eat during Hanukkah in the 14th century?

Around this time, the Sephardic Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girona (known as the RaN) instructed that one must eat dairy foods on Hanukkah. To substantiate this custom, the RaN told an interesting story about ‘The daughter of Yohanan’, who, deeply concerned for the fate of her people, fed cheese to the commander of an enemy army so that he would grow thirsty – and then proceeded to decapitate him. Following the death of their commander, his soldiers fled.

This story is conspicuously reminiscent of the well-known story of Judith and Holofernes. The RaN, followed by other Jewish rabbis of those days, began to falsely associate the story of Judith (who was not always mentioned by name) with Hanukkah – even though according to the Book of Judith itself, its heroine lived hundreds of years before the days of Antiochus. Who was Judith and how did she make her way into the story of Hanukkah?

The Book of Judith is part of the Jewish Apocrypha, a non-canonical text which survived over the ages thanks in large part to Christian traditions which adopted it. The story tells of Judith, a Jewish widow who snuck into the camp of an enemy force camped outside Jerusalem and loyal to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. The beautiful Judith seduced the enemy’s general Holofernes, feeding him dairy foods (according to certain versions) which caused him to become thirsty and drink large quantities of wine. When the drunk commander fell asleep, she decapitated him, spreading panic through the Babylonian intruders’ camp and causing the enemy soldiers to disperse in confusion. The RaN found justification in the medieval folktale versions of the story of Judith for what was apparently a popular custom of the time – eating cheese on Hanukkah. This is albeit the fact that Judith’s name does not actually appear in the story told by the RaN.

“Judith with the Head of Helofernes” by Giuseppe Cesari. The story became a common theme in European art

Latkes With No Potatoes? What is That?

More familiar Hanukkah foods began to appear in the 14th century. It was then that Hanukkah levivot (latkes in Yiddish) were mentioned for the first time in the satiric poem Even Bohan, composed by the rabbi and poet Ḳalonymus ben Ḳalonymus in Provence. But what were these pancakes made of, especially when potatoes were to reach Europe only well after America was discovered in the second half of the 16th century?


The first print of Even Bohan, Naples, 1489, one of the first books printed in Hebrew.

The folktale versions of the story of Judith provided an answer to this pressing question. According to some versions of the story, when Judith wished Holofernes to become thirsty, she fed him levivot, in addition to the aforementioned dairy foods. After beheading Holofernes, Judith commanded that a festive meal be prepared, including levivot or latkes, made from a mixture of dough and honey. Judith also encouraged the consumption of wine, to help bring about the joy of the holiday, much like in the story of Purim which appears in the Book of Esther.

And what about that marvelous oil? When did that come in? As it turns out, it all started with the sufganin – the ancestor of the sufgania (Hanukkah donut) we so adore. As early as in the Mishna, the word sufganin (סופגנין) appears in a complex Halachic discussion relating to the ancient custom of Hafrashat Challah – the setting aside of a portion of bread dough for the Temple’s priests – a practice which  was forced to evolve after the destruction of the Temple.

New immigrants to Israel celebrate Hanukkah with IDF soldiers and sufganyot, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

The authors of the Tosafot, who added to Rashi’s commentary on the Torah and Talmudic literature between the 12th and 14th centuries, were the first to associate the sufganin with Hanukkah. Over time, the link between doughy pastries, the sufganin and Hanukkah grew stronger; by the 14th century, oily foods were a proud Hanukkah tradition. Here below is a translated segment from Even Bohan, Rabbi Ḳalonymus’ 14th century poem  which makes reference to levivot and sufganin:

In the ninth month, in Kislev,
(his voice raised)
in order to honour Mattityah ben Yoḥanan the renowned
and the Ḥasmoneans,
the important women should gather
knowledgeable about making food [biryah] and cooking levivot,
large and round, the whole size of the frying pan,
and their appearance good [tovyani] and ruddy [argamani],
like the appearance of the Rainbow.
They bake the dough and make different kinds of tasty food from the mixture,
Ḥavitz in the pot, and porridge;
and above all they should take fine wheat flour
and make sufganin and isqaritin from it.
And the drinking should be what is proper to festivals,
with joy over every single cup


Even Bohan translation courtesy of the Open Siddur Project

A Great Miracle Happened Where? The Origin of the Dreidel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

N for Nothing

T for Take all

H for Half

P for Put in

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

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

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

So, when did the dreidel become a Hanukkah game?

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

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

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