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.”
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!
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.
Who ‘Fixed’ the Jewish Calendar?
A glimpse at the Jewish year across time and space
New months were only declared by the rabbinic court after witnesses came to testify that they had seen the new moon.
In this way, each month essentially reflected a partnership between the Jewish people who declared the moon and God who mandated that certain days be sacred, dedicated to sacrifices and celebration.
Using astronomical calculations instead of witnesses, a sage by the name of Hillel the Second boldly established the set Jewish calendar in the 4th century, a few centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
This is the calendar still used by Jews across the world until today!
Check out the clip below for a glimpse at a 900 year-old Jewish calendar and other rare treasures from the National Library of Israel’s world-leading collection, as well as some insights into how the Jewish year was recorded and remembered across the world over the centuries.
The film is part of “A Look at the Jewish Year,” a series presented by the National Library of Israel in collaboration with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which provides insights into the Jewish calendar and holidays through the lens of the National Library of Israel’s world-leading collection of Jewish manuscripts, books, printed materials and more.
The project also includes source sheets with questions and links to additional materials that can be used to help lead group discussions and activities or enriched personal reflection.
Rosh Hashanah Pilgrimage Under Fire
Border smuggling, dancing, and prayer - What did Breslov Hasidim do when war made their annual trip to Uman a true matter of life and death?
The structure that once covered the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Uman. Seated in the doorway is the Hasid Rabbi Alter Teplicker who was murdered by an anti-Semitic mob during the Russian civil war in 1919. The photo was taken before 1910.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, some young Jewish men in Poland discovered the figure and writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. All but unknown in Poland at that time, there were small circles of Breslov Hasidim living in a number of towns in Ukraine and in the Land of Israel, but they had little influence. The journey of these young Jewish men to Uman in Ukraine, where they participated in the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) prayers together with other Breslov adherents proved to be a constitutive event for them. On their return to Poland, the young men began to spread the word and induce others to join their “new” discovery; and so began the Polish Breslov movement. Breslov followers in Poland became famous for their annual pilgrimage to Uman, and in the press and on the street they were referred to as the “Uman Hasidim” and the “Dancing Hasidim traveling to Uman.”
The Uman pilgrimage focused around Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Nachman’s disciple, Rabbi Natan, who interpreted his teacher’s remark uttered at the end of his life, “my Rosh Hashanah,” to mean the period after his death, was responsible for instigating the gathering around Rabbi Nachman’s gravesite. “That people might then receive tikkunim [spiritual rectification], which all year long it was not possible for them to receive in any way […] the main thing is to be with me.”
In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution swept through Russia, followed by a civil war. The “Red,” “White” and “Green” armies battled each other, but the Jews were often a target for all of them. This made the journey to Uman much more dangerous than usual.
In a Rosh Hashanah announcement from 1955 (courtesy of Rabbi Shmuel Tefilinski), Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Korman (one of the leaders of the Hasidim in Poland who immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in the mid-1930s and worked at the Schocken Institute in the late 1940s) recalls this period:
The many dangers of gathering on Rosh Hashanah at Uman began from then  – even from Ukraine – because of the gangs of murderers (may their memories be erased). And our brethren [Breslov Hasidim] from Poland, out of longing for Uman, endangered themselves, but many were imprisoned and disappeared, God have mercy, and two were killed on the border near the town of Ostra, as is known. And since then the road had become very difficult and visitors from Poland stopped coming to Uman…
Some of the movement’s leaders vociferously opposed the dangerous border smuggling. For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Breiter wrote in a 1923 letter to a young Hasid who was considering traveling from the Land of Israel to Uman:
“And our opinion is that it is unwarranted to travel to Uman at present, when [heavenly] protection shows it does not agree … Furthermore, he is not permitted this nonsense that might endanger himself along the way. And this folly might endanger him over days and rivers and borders and he does so out of fastidiousness, which our Master z”l [of blessed memory] was most emphatically against…”
[She’erit Yitzhak, pp. 42–43]
Instead, the movement’s leaders offered new prayers and rituals as a way to fill the void. With the cessation of visits to Uman, they decided to hold a “kibbutz” (gathering) in the city of Lublin, known as the “Jerusalem of Poland” on Rosh Hashanah. Beginning in 1930, they prayed at the Hakhmei Lublin Yeshiva, at the invitation and with the participation of the head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Meir Shapira, who also famously initiated the “Daf Yomi” daily Talmud study regimen.
In addition to the hundreds of letters from among his broad correspondence with Breslov followers in Poland and Ukraine, Korman preserved several documents and leaflets of Polish Breslov Hasidim, which he left to the Shocken Institute, including: Kol Kore BaMidbar [A Voice in the Wildnerness] from 1932 (pictured below). According to the handwritten announcement, copied in stencil (for duplication and distribution to the public), when
“the path to Uman to prostrate on the tomb of the late Rabbi on the eve of Rosh Hashanah was blocked and to determine a place for the continuation of the Rebbe of blessed memory’s tikkunim [rectifications] in his synagogue there — then our brethren in Poland decided to gather and determine the place in the city of Lublin where our late Rebbe of blessed memory’s spiritual Rosh Hashanah rectifications [tikunei] could continue.”
The authors of the declaration understood the essence of the gathering in Uman was “to determine a place for the continuation of the Rosh Hashanah rectifications of the late Rebbe.” “Determining the place” worked to sanctify the place, and prepare it as a tool for the appearance of the “light of our late rabbi of blessed memory” in a barren world. Participation in the kibbutz — even just arriving to it and breaking through the obstacles and barriers involved in reaching it — leads to a noticeable spiritual renewal, and to the “longing for a true simple faith … which is the true tikkun olam [repair of the world].”
The rectification that happens in this gathering is not only for the Hasidim — and not only for the Jewish people — but for the whole world: “For his soul and for the whole world”; “And all the judgements shall be sweetened above us, for all Israel and for all of the world.”
Additional documents from the Korman Collection at the Schocken Institute shed light on Breslov “kibbutzim” in Poland during the Holocaust.
In a unique letter from the beginning of the war, in 1940, the Hasid Rabbi Zvi Lasker, a student of Breiter’s, writes to Korman, from Vilnius (where he fled, ahead of the city’s conquest by the Germans):
“Was there a Rosh Hashanah kibbutz this year? Although there was a kibbutz in Warsaw, woe to the kibbutz that prays under a flood of bombs, shooting, fires and strange deaths from the ‘demons of the world’ [מזיקי עלמא]. Let me try to give you on cold paper — which can withstand everything — a brief summary of the battles of our Rebbe’s people.”
With great literary flair, Lasker describes the Rosh Hashanah prayers of Breslov followers during the German bombing of Warsaw, about two weeks after the outbreak of the war (the bombings had come after three days of quiet, which gave the city’s Jews hope that there would be a peaceful holiday, a hope which quickly proved false).
The Hasid Rabbi Beirech Rubensohn (Robinson), who lost his family in the Holocaust, survived Auschwitz and moved to America and later to Israel, wrote in 1947 to Korman about Rosh Hashanah in the middle of the war:
“And in the year 1941, on Rosh Hashanah with God’s help there was a gathering in the city of Apt (Opatów), where they [the Hasidim] prayed together, and also danced.”
I conclude with more recent history. On a trip around Rosh Hashanah (in the pre-Covid era), on a flight from Ukraine to the Czech Republic that was filled to brim with Hasidim and their guitars, I stood in the aisle at the back of the plane to do some yoga. A young Czech flight attendant approached me (perhaps the yoga made him feel like we could communicate), and shared with me his bewilderment at the unconventional pilgrims. He had heard of the pilgrimage (all of Eastern Europe is abuzz because of it), but he wanted to understand what it was all about.
I said to him:
“Buried in Uman is a man who said there is no reason at all for despair. The devotees believe that by traveling to his grave, they project encouragement and hope to all who are in need of it, to all the broken and depressed, all over the whole world, just by their being there.”
He was touched by this thought.
May “all the judgements of the Jewish people and of the world be sweetened,” Amen.
The Worm That Built Solomon’s Temple
Did a mysterious little creature, the enigmatic "Shamir", really help build the First Temple?
The Book of Kings contains a precise description of the building of the First Temple: its dimensions, the cedar and cypress beams that covered the walls, the gilded ornaments and carvings, and the two cherubim that stood wing to wing above the Ark of the Covenant. It also includes this puzzling verse: “And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone finished at the quarry, and there was neither hammer nor axe (nor) any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.” (1 Kings 6:7)
How could it be that no hammers, chisels or iron tools were used to carve the stones of the Temple, while the Bible also states that the stones were hewn? The Jewish sages offer a simple answer: the stones were prepared in another location and transported from there to the construction site at the Temple Mount. The Book of Kings even brings support for this explanation: “And the king commanded, and they quarried great stones, heavy stones, to lay the foundation of the house (with) hewn stone.” (1 Kings 5:31).
But our interest here is the alternative explanation, appearing in Rabbinic literature, according to which the stones were hewn with the help of something called Shamir. The obscure Shamir appears in the Bible itself, though not in the Book of Kings. In Ezekiel (3:9) it is written that Shamir is “stronger than flint.” The Hebrew text of Jeremiah 17:1 also makes mention of Shamir, though English versions have translated the word as “flint” or “diamond”: “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, with a diamond [Shamir] point, engraved on the tablet of their heart and on the horns of your altars.” These passages clearly suggest that Shamir is a hard material of some kind.
The Talmud provides additional information about the mysterious Shamir. For example, in Tractate Avot, Shamir is mentioned as one of the ten things created on the “Sabbath eve,” before the completion of the act of Creation. The substances created in that moment were somewhat enigmatic in nature, including the Shamir which had the power to hew stones. Tractate Sotah (48b) explains that the Shamir was used to engrave the stones inserted into the Priestly breastplate (Hoshen), which were cut “like a fig which splits open in summer.” It also says there that because nothing could withstand the Shamir’s strength, it is stored in tufts of wool in a lead box filled with barley bran.
The Talmud, Tractate Gittin (68a) contains the most detailed legend surrounding the Shamir. According to the story, King Solomon asked his advisors how the stones for the Temple could be prepared without the use of an axe or chisel, as it was inappropriate to use tools of bloodshed and war to construct such a building. They told him of the miraculous Shamir but did not know where to find it. The king then summoned forth spirits and demons, but these were also unable to say where it might be found. They did, however, suggest that Solomon consult their lord, Asmodeus, king of demons, who might know the answer. King Solomon sent his general, Benayahu son of Yehoyada, who subdued Asmodeus and brought him to the king’s palace. Asmodeus (or Ashmedai) revealed to Solomon that the Shamir was in the possession of the Lord of the Sea, guarded by a certain bird, a woodcock according to most English versions of the story. Solomon quickly sent off another of his servants who prevailed over the woodcock and managed to steal the Shamir away. From here the story continues, with further twists and turns. You can read a version of the legend in Louis Ginzberg’s classic, “The Legends of the Jews”, as well as a Hebrew version which is available online here (in Kol Agadot Yisrael, ed. Israel Benjamin Levner, Tushiya Publishing).
In Rashi’s commentary to the legend, he deduced that the woodcock was in fact a hoopoe (duchifat in Hebrew, דוכיפת), which became a popular fixture in the legends of King Solomon. But more to the point, he suggested that the Shamir was not a stone or other inanimate object at all, as can be assumed from some of the versions of the legend, but was in fact a living creature—a worm. The source of Rashi’s explanation is unclear, but the phrase “Shamir worm” was born and even made its way into the writings of Mendele Mocher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovic, 1836–1917), who mentions the Shamir as one of the wondrous creatures that Benjamin the Third sets out to find in his travels.
The religious commentators do not agree on whether the Shamir was a living creature or a kind of stone with miraculous powers. On the other hand, based on the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 48b), they determined that after the Temple was destroyed, the Shamir was obliterated from the world. However, about two years ago, a team of researchers in the Philippines discovered a worm capable of eating through limestone. While limestone is a relatively soft form of rock, nevertheless, the existence of a stone-carving worm might not be such an unrealistic notion after all…