The Hebrew Manuscript That Dared to Depict God

We decided to examine the manuscript that boldly violated the explicit commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness”

Genesis 2:23 “she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man”. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama

The second of the Ten Commandments states “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness” (Exodus 20:2-3). The conventional understanding of the second part of this commandment concerns first and foremost the image of God. Was this not what set the chosen people apart from other peoples? Was this not what set monotheism apart from polytheistic religions?  According to tradition, the God of Israel has no face and no form, except in a metaphorical sense.

Of course, some would disagree with this blanket claim and say that already in ancient times the Children of Israel sculpted their gods, but that their tools were words. The Bible opens with the personification of God when it speaks of Man created in God’s image, and is replete with other images of God personified, such as Moses seeing the back of God, descriptions of God’s wrath using metaphors referring to his nose (חרון אפו – charon apo), and much more. True, one can argue, as did the great Jewish sages and thinkers including Maimonides, that this is a classic case of “the Torah speaking in human language.” But of course there are other examples of the physical image of God in Jewish tradition and literature that would be hard to argue with: for example, the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, esoteric writings that likely stemmed from the Talmudic period, and which describe God as standing behind the curtain in the center of the seventh heavenly palace. The purpose of the Ma’aseh Merkava, (“Account of the Chariot”) is to observe the king in his palaces, that is, to see God sitting on the throne of honor.

However, the boldest text by far is the Shiur Koma (lit. dimensions of the body), a work dedicated to the description of God’s enormous physical stature. According to this book, the pupil of God’s right eye measures thousands of parsot (an ancient measurement of distance), and “each and every parsa is three miles, and each and every mile is ten thousand amah (cubits) and each amah is three zeratot (spans, though the singular zeret also means ‘little finger’) […] and his zeret is the breadth of the entire world.” In other words, the measure and form of God’s body cannot be grasped in human terms.

But if this is how God is represented in words, how did illustrated Hebrew manuscripts deal with the biblical prohibition relating to making images of God? And were there some that nevertheless disregarded the strict prohibition? Let’s begin by looking at some of the ways the prohibition was circumvented.


Image for illustrative purposes only


In the context of Hebrew manuscripts, there are a number of conventional methods of representing God, and the first of these is depicting an image of God’s hand. The hand of God commonly appears in medieval Hebrew manuscripts in scenes of Abraham’s rescue from the fiery furnace. There are also earlier examples which appear in synagogue art, for example in the third-century CE synagogue of Dura Europos (south-eastern Syria) and the 6th-century CE synagogue of Beit Alpha, near Bet She’an in northern Israel.

Leipzig Mahzor | Library of University of Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany, 14th century


Detail, the hand of God appearing from the clouds to deliver Abraham from the fiery furnace


While Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, is indeed a biblical figure, the story of his rescue from the fiery furnace into which he was thrown by order of King Nimrod appears in the Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, but not in the Bible. Nevertheless, the story captured the imaginations of illustrators, and we can find several versions of it in Hebrew manuscripts.

Sometimes, however, even this image was too bold a choice, and angels were brought in to replace the divine hand, as in this example from the Barcelona Haggadah. In this case, the illustrator chose to emphasize another aspect of the midrash about Abraham and the furnace, which recounts that when Abraham was thrown into the fire, he not only remained unscathed, but was even quite able to sit and converse with the angels.

Barcelona Haggadah | the British Library, London, England, 14th century


Another way to depict God is to closely follow the biblical text and represent “the voice of God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day,” as in the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was written and illuminated in the same century as the two manuscripts we have already mentioned. Despite its name, this spectacular Haggadah was probably written in Barcelona, ​​Spain in approximately 1350. The Haggadah is displayed in the city of Sarajevo at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Sarajevo Haggadah depicts Adam and Eve in a series of illustrations somewhat reminiscent of a comic strip. First, in the upper-right corner, Eve is created from Adam’s rib, a scene immediately followed by Adam eating from the forbidden tree as Eve and the serpent watch. At bottom right Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves after realizing they are naked. And in the final illustration below on the left, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden: Eve is fully clothed, and Adam tills the soil by the sweat of his brow.


In the lower right image, where Adam and Eve cover themselves after realizing they are naked, the sharp-eyed viewer will notice rays of light emanating from above the tree at left. The artist has found an interesting compromise for depicting God through a close reading of the biblical verse: “And they heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” “Where art thou?” God asks Adam, who immediately explains: “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself.” The unknown illustrator of the Sarajevo Haggadah visualizes the voice of God as heavenly light.


Some 30 years before the appearance of the Sarajevo Haggadah, around the year 1320, another Passover Haggadah was written and illustrated, also in Catalonia. This Haggadah is known as the “Golden Haggadah” for the gold backgrounds that adorn the 128 illustrated pages out of its 322 pages in total. This manuscript also opens with illustrations of biblical scenes.

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah depicts two scenes that we encountered previously in the Sarajevo Haggadah: the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and the eating of the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Above the illustration is written “Adam and his wife naked.” Here, however, is a truly astonishing innovation in the depiction of the figure emerging from a cloud to admonish the three sinners—Adam, Eve and the serpent. We can assume that this is not the figure of God himself, but an angel, an acceptable and even reasonable choice. It reminds us of yet another biblical story—that of Jacob wrestling with an angel of God, who is presented as God himself.

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah: a heavenly figure rebukes Adam and Eve

Yet the clearest and most baffling example of the personification of God comes from a Hebrew illuminated manuscript written in Corfu in the 18th century. The manuscript, titled Piyutim Le’Hatan (“Liturgical Hymns for the Bridegroom”), is preserved in the Braginsky Collection in Zurich, and includes, besides the many piyutim and poems, 60 illustrations in gouache of various scenes from the book of Genesis, by the hand of a talented artist who likely was trained in Venice.

At the bottom of the illustration it is written, “Creation of the heaven and earth, the sun and moon.” The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click on the image to enlarge


At first glance, the figure with the crown could be mistaken for King David standing in front of the wonders of creation, as in Psalm 8:4: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the star, which you have made.” If not David, it could also be interpreted as a depiction of the long-awaited Messiah, traditionally a descendant of King David.

However, by the third illustration in the manuscript, there is no longer any mistaking this figure for David. While the Jewish sages and biblical commentators had much to say about the early chapters of Genesis, they certainly never suggested that it was King David or the Messiah who created Eve from Adam’s rib.

“And He took one of his ribs” (Gen 2:21). The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click on the image to enlarge


The fifth illustration leaves no doubt about the identity of this figure as God, who is portrayed admonishing Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

“And the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8), image on the left. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, manuscript photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama. Click to enlarge

How could practicing Jews rationalize such a blatant violation of the second commandment? Contrary to the example we will examine next, the owner of this manuscript made no attempt to delete or cover up the problematic illustrations—three in all—alongside the other 57 illustrations of scenes from Genesis, most of them incidentally depicting the life of Joseph. On the contrary, below each illustration, a corresponding biblical verse was inserted.

Another interesting detail related to the manuscript is that the order of the illustrations runs counter to the text. In other words, the first illustration—God creating the heavens and the earth (and the sun and the moon)—appears at the end of the manuscript rather than at the beginning. This may very well be the clue we were looking for: The images are intended to be displayed in the book from left to right, suggesting that the illustrator was a Christian who obviously did not work closely with the Jewish author of the text. It is also possible that the Christian artist illustrated the manuscript independently, before it was subsequently bought by a Jew who had the texts added later. This would explain the captions in Hebrew under the illustrations and the fact that the texts do not relate to the illustrations, all of which are from the Bible, while the texts are liturgical hymns meant for a bridegroom.

We now turn to the opposite example, in which the violation of the biblical prohibition was not overlooked. In 1984, while studying the biblical illustrations in a manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in the David Kaufmann Collection at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, researcher Evelyn Cohen noticed a puzzling detail. In the scene showing Moses giving the Tablets of the Covenant to the people of Israel, she spotted the remains of a figure that had been erased and covered up by a later correction.

Click to enlarge


The first illustrated manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, written 90 years after the death of its author who was one of the Jewish people’s greatest thinkers, indeed shows the image of God giving Moses the Tablets of the Law. It is difficult to distinguish the image as it was erased and all that remains of it is a single hand at the right holding the Tablets along with Moses at left. This hand apparently originally belonged to an image of God in all his glory, which was covered up and turned into a mountain. Here too, as was the case with the manuscript from Corfu, the artist was likely a Christian who was not aware of the prohibition against making any graven image or likeness. Or, what is more likely, since the prohibition also exists in Christianity, the artist may have simply interpreted its meaning differently

Can you spot the hand holding onto the Tablets of the Law along with Moses?


One can always make excuses: It is possible to claim Christian influence, or as the Jewish philosopher Rabbi Saadia Gaon argued, that at stake is God’s glory and not his body, as God does not and cannot have tangible form. Be that as it may, we have now seen several examples in which an image of God was certainly created.

In fact, so long as the illustrations were related to Kabbalistic theory, various loopholes have enabled artistic representation of the figure of God for centuries. Visualization of the Sefirot has always been permitted in Jewish tradition, even when it includes the figure of Adam Kadmon (lit. primordial man), who according to the Kabbalah is the first of the Four Worlds (spiritual realms in the descending chain of existence) created by God, who extracted them from Ein-Sof (infinity). Essentially, this means that the figure of Adam Kadmon is not a separate entity from God but rather part of the Godhead itself. At the risk of oversimplification, this is therefore an image of the one true God. No?

Amulet for exorcising a dybbuk, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. Click on the image to enlarge



Thank you to Daniel Frank and Sara Offenberg for their help in preparing this article


Two Scholarly Giants: Prof. David Halivni & Prof. Gershom Scholem

Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Collection, shares some personal memories of his own Rabbi and mentor, Prof. David Halivni, who recently passed away and whose path crossed with that of the legendary Kabbalah scholar…

The Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Prof. David Halivni (1927-2022), who recently passed away in Jerusalem and who was a near-permanent presence at the National Library of Israel for many years, had a friendship of sorts with the scholar of Kabbalah, Prof. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982).

Scholem was 30 years older than Halivni, so it wasn’t an “even” friendship. I suspect that it was initially established via Prof. Shaul Lieberman, Halivni’s mentor and a very close friend of Scholem. I once asked Prof. Halivni what Scholem and Lieberman had in common, as they seemed to have come from such different backgrounds, lived different lifestyles and had different scholarly pursuits (there is an urban legend that the Lieberman was once in Scholem’s apartment, with a library of some 30,000 volumes, and quipped, “But there is nothing here to read!”). Prof. Halivni answered, “They were both lovers of Torah”.

When R. Halivni left the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1980s over the issue of women’s ordination, Scholem reacted incredulously, remarking, “but you are the Wellhausen of the Talmud!”, a reference to Julius Wellhausen, the father of Higher Biblical Criticism, and seemingly comparing the German scholar’s work to Halivni’s own Source Critical approach to Talmudic analysis. Apparently Scholem was incapable of understanding how one could be simultaneously a critical text scholar as well as a conservative halachasist.

In the Scholem Collection there is one offprint of a Halivni article and a photocopy of another. The offprint is of “Contemporary Methods of the Study of the Talmud” (Journal of Jewish Studies 30:2, Autumn 1979), and is annotated with Scholem’s marginalia. It is possible that Scholem also possessed some of Halivni’s books as well. Not everything from his home collection came to the Library, but that deserves a separate discussion.

From a copy of “Contemporary Methods of the Study of the Talmud” (Journal of Jewish Studies 30:2, Autumn 1979) – Scholem’s notes in Hebrew and English (“He was right!”, “He should have elaborated”, “So what?”…) can be seen in the margins, the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel (click to enlarge)

Since we mentioned R. Lieberman, I will close with a little-known anecdote that Prof. Halivni once shared with me. The first time he visited Israel (early 60s I believe) was to lecture at the World Congress of Jewish Studies. When he entered the lecture hall he saw the Israeli author S.Y. Agnon (whom he recognized from pictures) sitting in the front row. He couldn’t figure out what he was doing there. When he returned to New York he mentioned this to R. Lieberman who chuckled and said, “Agnon is always telling me that I probably don’t have any good students in the Diaspora, so I told him he should go listen to you”.

On that note, in 1963, the American Hebrew newspaper, HaDoar, printed a special edition in honor of Lieberman’s 65th birthday. In his “ad” which appeared in the edition, Agnon reflected sadly upon R. Lieberman living outside of Israel (though Lieberman did also own an apartment in Jerusalem, close to that of Scholem, were he spent a good deal of time during his later years), concluding, “As long as most of Am Yisrael is in exile it is good that this scholar, a true Gaon, is in your midst, for surely HaShem sent him as a salvation for you, to raise up a great remnant”.

“As long as most of Am Yisrael is in exile it is good that this scholar, a true Gaon, is in your midst, for surely HaShem sent him as a salvation for you, to raise up a great remnant.” –  S.Y. Agnon on Prof. Shaul Lieberman in a special 1963 edition of HaDoar. Lieberman was Halivni’s mentor, and the protégé also published an article in the same edition. The Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Prof. Halivni also had an article in the same edition of HaDoar, titled – “לפרושה של סוגיה בירושלמי”.

Both Professors, Scholem and Halivni, participated in a program in 1973 called “The Religious Dimension of Judaism”, hosted by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. In it, Scholem read a paper and Halivni was one of the responders. You can listen to a recording of the event here.

May the memory of all of these great scholars be for a blessing.


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.