A Peek into Paradise: What Can Medieval Manuscripts Teach Us about Adam and Eve?

Was the serpent originally a form of ape? What fruit did the first sinners eat? And how does Lilith figure into the story? These intriguing questions have stirred the imaginations of illustrators of Hebrew manuscripts throughout history

The Temptation of Adam and Eve, an illustration from the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6–7)

The year was 1296. Maimonides had been dead for nearly a century, but his groundbreaking writings were still making waves, his unique voice echoing across the Jewish world. In northern France, one of the greatest works in the history of Hebrew manuscript illumination was being copied and illustrated: a manuscript of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ great halakhic work, also known as Sefer Yad ha-Hazaka (“Book of the Strong Hand”). In the 19th century, Prof. David Kaufmann, the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest, purchased the manuscript, which is today preserved, together with his entire library, at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

The title pages of each of the manuscript’s 14 sections are adorned with delicate floral ornaments as well as a rectangular cartouche featuring the opening word of the text in large letters. Some of the pages’ lower margins are decorated with drawings related to the text. Most of the illustrations in the manuscript depict familiar biblical scenes. For example, Samson killing the lion, David and Goliath, the binding of Isaac and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Aside from these, there are also illustrations of medieval knights and hunters. The prevailing hypothesis is that the illustrator was Christian.

A knight, decorated with gold leaf, the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

The manuscript’s final illustration (Book 13, vol. IV, fol. 70) shows Adam and Eve standing on either side of the Tree of Knowledge. Most intriguing is the shape of the snake, which has arms! What’s more, the snake bears more than a passing resemblance to… a monkey.

The final illustration in the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah, featuring Adam and Eve

Another question with regard to the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah illustration is why Adam and Eve are already depicted covering themselves with fig leaves if they are only now eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. How are they already aware of their nakedness?

Detail, the Temptation of Adam and Eve, the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

The four chapters of the Bible dedicated to the story of Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden left future generations with much material for thought and creative expression. While the Jewish sages and later commentators repeatedly discussed various and bizarre questions related to humanity’s original ancestors, the illustrators of Hebrew manuscripts over the generations concentrated almost exclusively on a particular dramatic moment in the story: the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and the destructive consequences of violating the divine proscription.


The Comic Strip in the Sarajevo Haggadah

Several decades after the decoration of the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah, Adam and Eve appear again, this time in the work known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Today, this Haggadah is displayed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, hence its name. However, it is thought that the magnificent Haggadah was actually written and decorated in Barcelona, around the year 1350.

Unlike the usual focus on the scene of the Temptation, the Sarajevo Haggadah actually shows Adam and Eve in a variety of scenes. After two pages of illustrations depicting the creation of the world, we are introduced to the couple. The panels are reminiscent of a comic strip that reads from right to left and top to bottom. We first see Eve being formed from Adam’s side (or rib) and immediately after, Adam and Eve are seen eating from the forbidden tree while the snake watches them. In the bottom illustration on the right, the couple realize they are naked and cover themselves with fig leaves, and at the left, we see them banished from Paradise. Both are now clothed and Eve is spinning wool while Adam works the land by the sweat of his brow.

Four scenes featuring Adam and Eve in the Sarajevo Haggadah

Now let us return to one of the most intriguing details in any illustration of Adam and Eve – the shape of the serpent. In the Sarajevo Haggadah, the serpent appears in its familiar form, according to the biblical curse: “Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:14). In the illustration at the top, the limbless snake coils around the Tree of Knowledge, and in the illustration below it is slithering on its stomach. Eve, apparently having learned to be wary of it, looks as if she might use her spindle to rap the snake on its head.

In the bottom right scene, rays of light appear over the tree on the left. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve “heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day.”  “Where art thou?” God asks Adam, who immediately justifies himself and explains: “I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Why? “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” (Genesis 3:7–12). The anonymous illustrator of the Sarajevo Haggadah imagined God as rays of celestial light, a familiar visual tactic for representing the image of God, and especially the divine voice.

“The voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day,” the Sarajevo Haggadah

The Image of God in the Golden Haggadah

Some 30 years before the writing of the Sarajevo Haggadah, around 1320, another Passover Haggadah was written and illustrated in Barcelona. Named the “Golden Haggadah” for the gilded backgrounds adorning the 128 illustrated pages out of the 322 pages in total in the manuscript, this Haggadah also opens with illustrations of biblical scenes. However, the first illustration does not present the creation of the world. Instead, it shows Adam naming all the animals in Paradise, according to a nearby inscription.

Illustration from the Golden Haggadah: Adam naming the animals

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah contains two scenes familiar from the Sarajevo Haggadah: the creation of Eve from Adam’s side and the pair eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The startling innovation here concerns the portrayal of the image of God, who appears from a cloud to scold the three sinners—Adam, Eve and the serpent. Though the artist may have intended to portray an angel and not God himself, many might consider this illustration a violation of the second commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness” (Exodus 20:2–3). The inscription above the illustration reads simply: “Adam and his wife naked.”

Second illustration in the Golden Haggadah: the image of the watchful God appearing from a cloud

Similar to the Sarajevo Haggadah, the illustrations in the Golden Haggadah are separated into four panels. On the opening page, below the illustrations of Adam and Eve, we see the murder of Abel by Cain and next to this, Noah and his wife and sons leaving the ark. Here, too, the figure of the watchful God appears above.

The four panels in the Golden Haggadah

Between Judaism and Christianity

The story of Adam and Eve was naturally embraced by Christian tradition. The Western Church even preserved one of the apocryphal books, “The Life of Adam and Eve”, which recounts their story after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Influences in the opposite direction also exist – Hebrew manuscripts from Europe often show the adoption of Christian motifs, methods of copying and illustration styles. The Frankish knights from the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah are but one of many examples.

Another example of the inter-religious influence associated with Adam and Eve can be found in the Schocken Bible. This manuscript, originating in southern Germany, is preserved at the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem, and dates to around 1300. The beautiful title page features 46 miniatures in medallions, each depicting a scene from Genesis. The blue and red color scheme was common in stained glass windows in Gothic churches as well as Christian manuscripts from the period.

The first two medallions are dedicated to Adam and Eve. The first shows the Temptation, and the second, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Note that in the Schocken Bible, the couple is depicted naked even after the expulsion. Clearly, even after the sin, “man … shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Title page of the Schocken Bible


Detail of the two medallions showing Adam and Eve, the Schocken Bible

Romantic Icons

Indeed, Adam and Eve’s devotion to each other did not go unnoticed in the Jewish artistic community over the ages. We find a hint of this in many Jewish marriage contracts (Ketubbot) adorned with the figures of the first couple. For example in a Ketubbah dating back to 1629 from Mantua, Italy, Adam and Eve are depicted reaching out their hands and holding what appear to be golden apples. The illustration raises another question that challenged the Jewish sages: What kind of fruit grew on the Tree of Knowledge? The most popular candidate is the apple of course, but the biblical text offers no evidence to support this claim.

Adam and Eve, from a Ketubbah. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

We also found a unique manuscript that contains illustrations of Adam and Eve without mention of the Temptation or the Fall. A manuscript picture bible from Warsaw features illustrations of the major events in the Bible, with the relevant quotations from the biblical text written above each scene. The first illustrations show the creation of the world and the creation of the flora and fauna.

Creation of the World, the Warsaw Bible. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art, in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

Two illustrations are devoted to the story of Adam and Eve. The first, on the right, shows Adam naming the animals. Next to it, on the left, is the creation of Eve. Notice how in both illustrations, the artist took care to preserve Adam’s modesty by adding a large-leafed plant to cover his loins.

Adam and Eve, the Warsaw Bible. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art, in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

Illustrations of the first couple can be found in bibles,  halakhic books, Haggadot and Ketubbot. The purpose of the illustrations varied according to the type of text. In Ketubbot, their appearance was meant as a living example of romantic love; in Haggadot and illustrated bibles, their story was intended as a landmark in the historical continuum from Creation to the giving of the Torah and the birth of the Jewish people; and in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah they are a purely decorative ornament.


In the World of Demons and Spirits

We conclude with a more modern illustration of Adam and Eve—taken from a Jewish mystical amulet. Apparently, the most common Jewish amulets were intended for the protection of new mothers. These amulets cited the names of Adam and Eve, as well as three angels who were called to protect the mother and her newborn.

An entire tapestry of Jewish legends has been woven into the origin story of this particular type of amulet. Some of these legends describe the Jewish mythological figure of Lilith as Adam’s first wife, who was banished before she could bear him sons. In a desperate attempt to take revenge on Adam and all his offspring, the demonic Lilith devotes herself to harassing newborns and their mothers. She strangles babies in their sleep, seduces men and becomes pregnant with the wasted sperm, giving birth to demonic stepchildren.

According to Jewish folklore, three angels—Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof—were sent to stop Lilith and return her to Adam. But she claimed that she was now the partner of the great demon Samael and could no longer return to her former husband. The angels managed to extort a promise from her that she would not harm the descendants of Adam from his second wife Eve, which would explain the appearance of their names next to Adam and Eve on the amulets.

The earliest known printed Jewish amulet is a birthing amulet of this sort, featuring a depiction of Adam and Eve and published in Amsterdam around 1700. Suffice it to say, the scene is a familiar one, featuring a notoriously untrustworthy serpent…

A birthing amulet featuring an illustration of Adam and Eve. The names of the angels Senoy, Sansenoy and Samengelof also appear, as do the names Lilith and Satan. This is the earliest Jewish amulet to appear in print. Source: Angels and Demons: Jewish Magic Through the Ages, edited by Filip Vukosavovitch

Did a Woman Really Read from the Torah in the 15th century?

Leifheit bat Asher owned a copy of the oldest printed Jewish prayer book. Was she also called to the Torah?

A copy of the world's oldest printed Jewish prayer book is held by the National Library of Israel. Leifheit bat Asher is just one of the women central to its story (Image: Portrait of a woman by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1480 / Public domain)

A name scratched into the back of an old book can sometimes lead down a historical rabbit hole. In this case, it has introduced me to a woman about whom we know very little, other than that she was a member of a prominent Italian Jewish family in the 15th century and that she saw herself as worthy of being called to the Torah for the prestigious reading of the first Chapter of Genesis.

Our story begins with the first ever Hebrew prayer book printed with movable type and the women linked to it.

Most of the earliest printed Hebrew books – which appeared in the last third of the 15th century – were texts for study. One pioneering printer, Rabbi Meshulam Kuzi, decided to go a different route and print a prayer book. He opened a printing press in the small Italian town of Piove di Sacco, outside of Padua. Having created stunning Ashkenazi-style typesets, he planned to print many books, but ultimately succeeded in producing only two: a work of Jewish law entitled Arba’ah Turim, and a book of Selihos, special penitential prayers recited prior to and during the High Holiday period.

Published around 1475, this second book is the first known Hebrew prayer book ever printed. One copy is safeguarded as part of the National Library of Israel’s collection.

Women of the Book

At least three women are linked to this copy.

Rabbi Meshulam passed away while working on Arba’ah Turim and his wife Devorah completed the project. In rhymed poems appearing at the end of the last two volumes, she describes her role in the printing. Though the Selihot prayer book was probably completed prior to Arba’ah Turim, if she was able to take over the printing business after her husband’s death, it is almost certain that she was working in the shop alongside her husband while he was still alive.

Two other women were counted among the owners of the copy of the Selihot book currently held at the National Library. From an inscription on the very first page, we know that one “Mrs. Esther daughter of Rabbi Asher” owned it.

Was she literate enough to pen the calligraphic signature on the front page of the book, which includes a warning to potential thieves? Or did she pay someone to add the note?

At the end of the book another inscription appears indicating that the book had also belonged to one “Leifheit daughter of Rabbi Asher”. The signature of a third owner, a man named Yaakov Hacohen Rafa, also appears.

Who are these three owners and is there any connection between them?

It turns out that there is.  After some information about the book was published on the National Library of Israel’s Hebrew blog and in the Israeli media, I received a call from a collector and dealer in rare Jewish books and manuscripts.

First, he informed me that one of the owners, Yaakov Rafa, was the father of the better known rabbi, scientist, doctor and renaissance man, Avraham Menahem ben Yaakov Hakohen Rappaport, who had extended the shorter last name, and authored the Biblical commentary Minhah Belullah.

More importantly, he said, he knew Leifheit bat Asher and her connection with Yaakov Rafa.


Connection, surprises and questions

We met at the Library and he showed me a small but beautiful parchment manuscript Mahzor from late 15th or early 16th century Italy (along with a detailed description by renowned scholar Shlomo Zucker), which he graciously allowed the National Library to scan.

The Mahzor contains the special blessings for those called to the Torah on the holiday of Simhat Torah.

Rather than leave blank the name of the person called to the Torah as “Hatan Torah“, a distinguised honor bestowed upon a prominent community member, the scribe had included the name of the person who had clearly commissioned the manuscript: Yaakov ben Yekutiel Hakohen, otherwise known as Yaakov Hakohen Rafa, who once owned the Selihot prayer book.

15th century Italian Mahzor honoring Yaakov ben Yekutiel Hakohen as “Hatan Torah” (Courtesy: Private collection)

The very next page of the Mahzor includes the special blessings for the “Hatan Bereishit“, the other main honor of the holiday – the person called up to begin the new Torah reading cycle. There, the name had originally been left blank. Yet in slightly smaller script someone had filled in a name: Leifheit bat Asher.

15th century Italian Mahzor honoring Leifheit bat Asher as “Hatan Bereshit” (Courtesy: Private collection)

It is not hard to speculate about how her name got there.

It seems likely that Yaakov ben Yekutiel Rafa and Leifheit bat Asher were married to one another. The family was well off enough to commission a beautiful manuscript on parchment, and Yaakov had included his name in the first blessing, perhaps because he actually was regularly called up for that honor. Either he or she decided that her name would make a good addition to the second blessing, and her name was added later in slightly smaller script.

Was this merely a kind of owners mark or a sign of honor?

Did Leifheit ask or insist that her name be placed there?

Was she actually called up to the Torah?

Today, there are many communities – including some Orthodox ones – that allow women to be called to the Torah, but in 15th century Italy I know of no evidence that such a thing actually occurred – though women were certainly honored as part of community Simhat Torah celebrations. It seems more likely that her name was added to the blessing as a combination of ownership mark and respect.

Regardless, it seems reasonable to speculate that Esther bat Asher, signed on the first page of the Selihot book, is Leifheit’s sister and Yaakov’s sister-in-law.

Moreover, in some way the story comes full circle after discovering a connection between the Rafa family and that of Meshulam Kuzi, the owner of the printing house.

The Vatican library houses an early 13th century Hebrew manuscript Bible, carefully illuminated and copied. This Bible was bought and sold a few times, and the first page of the manuscript includes a handwritten contract sealing the sale of the volume on the 7th of  the Hebrew month of Heshvan 5227 (1467) in Venice, from one Moshe ben Tanhum to none other than “Meshulam who is known as Kuzi.” One of the witnesses to the sale is a Menahem Cohen Rafa, certainly a relative of Yaakov.

It turns out, however, that the Kuzi and Rafa families were not only friends; they were relatives. A Meshulam Kuzi is also mentioned in a 15th -16th century Halakhic work, the responsa of Mahari Mintz, who was active in Italy.  The responsum discusses the upcoming bar mitzvah of Meshulam Kuzi, the deaf grandson of Meshulam Kuzi the printer. Meshulam the younger is referred to by a longer name – Meshulam Kuzi Rafa Katz.

Did one branch of a larger family take the family name Kuzi and the other branch the name Rafa? Or did the families marry together at some point in the late 15th or early 16th century?

Could it be that a member of the Rafa-bat-Asher family bought the copy of the Selihot prayer book directly from the printer, their family friends Meshulam and Devorah Kuzi?

We do not know much more about these men and women, or the Selihot book’s other owners. Yet the book’s wear – as well as the numerous handwritten notes throughout it that re-assert words erased by Christian censors – emphasize the importance the book had for countless cantors and lay readers – including women – who used it following its publication at the very dawn of Hebrew printing some 550 years ago.

A Mobile Feast: Sukkot on Wheels During the Yom Kippur War

Rare photos reveal how IDF soldiers managed to fulfill the commandment to “sit in the sukkah”, even as war raged in the north and south

A sukkah on an IDF vehicle, October 1973. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Yom Kippur War took its name from the sacred fast day on which the deadly conflict broke out and surprised the State of Israel. The sirens wailed on Saturday, October 6, at 1:55 pm. However, it is worth remembering that the war was still underway during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot which took place soon after. Thus, enlisted and reserve soldiers found themselves “celebrating” the harvest festival on the frontlines in both the Sinai Desert in the south and the Golan Heights in the north.

An improvised sukkah on an armored personnel carrier. October 17, 1973. Photo: Eli Landau, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“IDF soldiers are exempt from the sukkah commandment,” the chief military rabbi, Brigadier-General Mordechai Piron stated in a special proclamation on Sukkot in the midst of the Yom Kippur War. “Their duty at this time is to completely defeat and destroy the enemy,” the rabbi stated, “and whoever is unable to perform the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah is exempt from it.”

Despite this unequivocal declaration, there were soldiers who nevertheless tried to observe the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah, even at the front. What probably drove the battle-weary soldiers was their desire for even a little of the holiday atmosphere, a brief respite.

A reporter for the Al HaMishmar newspaper who accompanied the soldiers in the difficult battles along the Suez Canal in the south reported in Hebrew: “Despite the bitter fighting, there is no forgetting that civilian life goes on. On the frontline we discovered an improvised sukkah: a half-track vehicle decorated with branches, completely kosher.”

In the collections of the National Library of Israel we found several rare photographs documenting soldiers erecting improvised sukkot on jeeps and other military vehicles. It’s unclear if all of these creative sukkah booths fulfill the  requirements according to Jewish law, but it is very possible that for the soldiers at the front, they provided some joy and a sense of home during difficult days.

A sukkah on an army vehicle in the Golan, 1973. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Among the photos that stand out in particular are those taken by the photographer Nathan Fendrich. The 39-year-old Jewish-American tourist had come to Israel to document historical and archaeological sites. Finding himself “stuck” in Israel at the outbreak of the war, he decided to travel between the various fronts armed with his camera. Among hundreds of fascinating photographs, we found a handful documenting some improvised sukkot.

A sukkah on an army vehicle in the Golan Heights. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
A sukkah on an army vehicle. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Sukkot holiday of 1973 began under the shadow of desperate battles on both fronts, with real concern for the survival of the Jewish state, but by the end of Sukkot the turning point had come, and IDF forces moved from defense to offense. A journalist for Maariv reported on October 17 from deep in Syrian territory:

“On the main road approaching Hushniya—in between two damaged tanks, a yellowing thatch blows in the wind covering an improvised sukkah. A soldier from the Combat Engineering Corps tells us: ‘The guys from the armored division set up the sukkah. Yes, they managed to fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in it, before they were called to destroy the last enemy pocket at the Hushniya junction.’”


The Nathan Fendrich Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

Sukkah Scuffles: Surprising Testimony From the 12th Century

The only mentions of a sukkah in the Cairo Genizah refer to communal sukkot in synagogue courtyards. A fact that caused quite a bit of trouble.

False accusations and brawls on Sukkot

The Cairo Genizah is a famous collection of Jewish manuscript fragments, originally stored in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contains around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old. It does not, however, contain any documentation of private sukkot erected in building courtyards or on balconies.

In the overcrowded neighborhoods of Fustat, the medieval capital of Egypt, now Old Cairo, Jewish residents shared common courtyards in multi-story apartment buildings, which was why on Sukkot, the sukkah was built in the courtyard of the synagogue. It should be remembered that for long periods, the synagogue was the center of communal life, the place where the community’s children learned, as well as a hostel for weary travelers, a soup kitchen for the needy and more.

The two synagogues in Fustat—the Iraqi synagogue of the Babylonians, and the “Shami” synagogue of the Syrian Jews, (who worshipped according to the custom of the Land of Israel, which was considered part of Greater Syria or “Sham”)—each had its own sukkah. As communal property, the sukkah was the responsibility of the community leaders, who also were in charge of the day-to-day upkeep of all the communal property. The first document we see here, from 1165, is an account in Judeo-Arabic of the “kodesh” (lit. sacred), meaning the communal assets, in this case of the Shami community. One of the expenses was “cleaning out the pipe in the entry hall, behind the Shami synagogue sukkah, in the presence of the rabbi—31 drahma.”

“….cleaning out the pipe in the entry hall, behind the Shami synagogue sukkah, in the presence of the rabbi—31 drahma.”

There was also a sukkah in the courtyard of the Iraqi synagogue, which followed the Babylonian rite. We learn this from an interesting testimony recorded in the middle of the 12th century, about an altercation between two respected members of the community:

“So say I, slave and servant of our rabbi, Abu Alkhir, that on Thursday evening, after the evening prayer, I was about to leave the Iraqi synagogue after the congregation left. And when I left the sukkah in the direction of the synagogue gate, I saw the honorable gentleman Abu Albaha, may God protect him, quarreling with Abu Alufa, and I don’t know how the quarrel began, but I saw Abu Alufa raise his hand to the gentleman Abu Albaha over and over, and expose his head [i.e., knock his head covering off] and level false accusations at him.”

Another testimony which appears later also confirms the details of the incident described above. The page was sent to the Nagid, the head of the Egyptian Jewish community, but alas, we still do not know the true reasons for the brawl or how the conflict was resolved.

So this year, while it can occasionally get hot and crowded in the sukkah, let’s try to be respectful and avoid any kerfuffles!

Happy Sukkot!


The “kodesh” expenditures can be found at Cambridge University Library, TSAr18 (1) .155, and were published by Moshe Gil in his book Documents of the Jewish Pious foundations from the Cairo Geniza, document 67. The testimony, also in Cambridge University Library, TS10J14.30, has not yet been published in full, and is mentioned in Shlomo Dov Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society, Vol. II.