Automated Food Distribution and Hi-Tech Plumbing: Noah’s Ark Re-Envisioned

A 10th-century Karaite scholar was somehow able to conceive a vision of Noah’s Ark that made use of advanced technology that was unknown in his time

The fictional submarine Nautilus, featured in a Hebrew poster advertising the film 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, based on the book by Jules Verne

Take a moment and imagine Noah’s Ark. Chances are, you are probably picturing a wooden ship of some sort, perhaps with an elephant or a giraffe peeking out of one of the portholes.

But according to the view of a 10th-century Karaite scholar who composed a commentary on the Torah in Judeo-Arabic, Noah’s Ark was much more than a simple wooden vessel filled with animals.

The Book of Genesis devotes only a brief description to the Ark’s construction, consisting of only three short verses (Genesis 6: 14–16). Yet Ya’qub (Jacob) al-Qirqisani, the Karaite scholar in question, goes much further than that. In his lengthy Judeo-Arabic commentary on the Torah, titled Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq, he devoted page after page, in manuscript, to what he imagined was the complex and sophisticated structure of Noah’s Ark.

According to Qirqisani’s interpretation, the Ark incorporated extremely advanced technological innovations, even for his time, including a motorized food distribution system that was able to rotate autonomously (remember, this was the tenth century CE, electricity was nowhere on the horizon!). This system was , in his conception, used to automatically fill the animal troughs. Qirqisani’s Ark was also installed with a sophisticated plumbing system of pipes and waterworks that managed to satisfy the diverse needs of all the various occupants in all three of the Ark’s levels. The commentator also claims that the Ark featured unique methods for allowing in light, but also for preventing water from entering the craft, by means of hundreds of specially glazed windows and doors, some of which even allowed air to enter while still keeping water out.

A copy of Qirqisani’s work, Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq, is preserved at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. A digitally scanned version of it can be accessed online via the National Library of Israel website, here.

Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq (Parashat Noah) by Ya’qub al-Qirqisani, the National Library of Russia
Image: RNL Evr.-Arab. I:4529, folio 1v – 2r


This is just one example of the new, revolutionary approaches to traditional Jewish texts that we find in Judeo-Arabic works of the tenth century. From around the ninth to the twelfth century CE, most of the Jewish population in the world spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. These Jews, lived in the heart of one of the greatest civilizations of the time, which was a center for innovation in philosophy, theology, science, linguistics, and more. Living in the midst of a rapidly developing scientific world dramatically influenced how they saw and wrote about the Bible. The treasures preserved in Judeo-Arabic Bible exegesis, as well as the fields of exegesis that sprang from this Judeo-Arabic font in later centuries, in places like Iberia, stand witness to this fascinating revolution.

Revealed: The Renowned Kabbalist’s ‘Hidden’ Letter

Message sent to 'The Holy Ari' reflects his influence at the time, outside the mystical realm

The influence of renowned 16th century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria continues to be felt to this day. Also known as “The Ari”, “The Holy Ari” or “The Arizal”, Rabbi Luria promulgated new Kabbalistic concepts, and many customs adopted by his students, such as the “Kabbalat Shabbat” service, have since become staples of Jewish tradition worldwide. Rabbi Luria (1534-1572) was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Egypt and famously lived in the Galilean city of Safed. He is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of Kabbalah, yet no physical manuscripts on mystical topics that he himself wrote are known to have survived. Practically all that we know about him has come down through the students who surrounded him in Safed, first and foremost Rabbi Chaim Vital.

Nonetheless, some tangible evidence of Rabbi Luria’s life has survived, including this fragment of a letter that was sent to him during a period in which he lived in Egypt.

Letter sent to Rabbi Isaac Luria in Egypt. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

The letter, now preserved at the National Library of Israel, was written by someone named David, who asked the Ari to support the efforts of a fundraiser sent from Safed. The content of the letter clearly indicates that the Ari was an internationally respected figure even during his own lifetime, and it reflects his prominence and influence not just in the realm of Kabbalah, but also more broadly in the eyes of his 16th century contemporaries in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

A few other original documents relating to the life of the Ari have been found in the Cairo Geniza, but this singular letter was preserved in a unique way: discovered in the binding of a book. Long before the invention of cardboard, bookmakers would glue together scraps of paper and parchment in order to make bookbindings. For decades, legendary American-born Jerusalemite Ezra P. Gorodesky would painstakingly disassemble antique bookbindings, in many cases discovering treasures like this one and donating them to the National Library of Israel, which he saw as their rightful home.

Ezra passed away in 2020, though his many discoveries will continue to enrich the academic world and the broader Jewish story for generations to come.

Pamphlets on Reincarnation: A Unique Set of Articles in the Scholem Collection

One particular set of booklets compiled by Gershom Scholem in his famous library raises a series of interesting questions...

A young Gershom Scholem alongside the emblem of the Theosophical Society

One of Gershom Scholem’s collection habits, which is a boon for researchers, but a nightmare for cataloguers, was to bind together various pamphlets or articles, either by subject or by author. There are probably several hundred bound volumes of this type in the Scholem Collection.

One such item is a hefty red-bound volume, upon which Scholem embossed in gold letters the title “Pamphlets Reincarnation”.

The collection includes eight pamphlets and booklets, seven in English and one in German, published between 1894 and 1928 in New York, San Francisco, London and Leipzig. Among the publishing houses, we find the “Theosophical Society”, the “Metaphysical Publishing Company”, and the “Lotus Publishing Company”.

The titles are in and of themselves a delight to prevue. They include,

“Reincarnation: The Hope of the World” by Irving S. Cooper and “The Doctrine of Rebirth Scientifically Examined” by W. Y. Evens-Wentz, which came out as part of the “Reincarnation Series”.


Note the symbols that appear on the cover of the lower pamphlet seen in the image above. These in fact form the emblem of the Theosophical Society, which features a Star of David, an Egyptian Ankh, an Ouroborous (a serpent swallowing its tail), a Hindu Aum and even a swastika, which of course was an ancient Hindu religious symbol long before the Nazis expropriated it. Below the emblem is the society’s motto: “There is no religion higher than truth”.

The emblem of the Theosophical Society


We have in addition, the German “Die Irrlehre der Theosophie über Re-Inkarnation” (“The Mistaken Teachings Regarding the Theosophy of Reincarnation”), by the famous spiritualist Madame Blavatsky and the “medium” Prof. Dr. Petersilea.


One shocking item to our eyes is Jerome A. Anderson’s 1894 tract “Reincarnation: A Study of the Human Soul”, which, again, prominently features a swastika on the cover.


Other interesting titles include “The Memory of Past Births” by Charles Johnston,


“When a Man Dies, Shall He Live Again?” and “The Necessity for Re-Incarnation”, both by Annie Besant.

In recent years, the topic of reincarnation has garnered much attention, and numerous works, both scholarly and popular, have been composed about it. However, these early tracts, which Scholem collected and bound together, but did not annotate, await further research regarding the surge of interest in the doctrine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Gershom Scholem himself did address the issue of reincarnation in Jewish mysticism in several publications. He penned the entries on “Gilgul-Neshamot” in the Encyclopedia Hebraica (1964) as well as the entry on “Gilgul” (not “reincarnation”) in the Encyclopedia Judaica (1971). He also published “An Investigation of the Doctrine of Gilgul in 13th Century Kabbalah” (1945), and “Gilgul: The Transmigration of Souls” in his book “On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah” (1991, Hebrew original 1976).

Revealed: 90 “New” Pages from One of the Oldest Printed Hebrew Books

Pages come from the only existing copy of a ca. 1492 edition of "Arba'ah Turim", one of history's most important codes of Jewish law

The National Library of Israel (NLI) has acquired 90 singular pages from the earliest period of Hebrew printing. The pages come from the only known copy of a late 15th century edition of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher’s “Arba’ah Turim”, a seminal codification of Jewish law. Yehoshua Soncino, a leading figure in the early Hebrew printing industry, published the edition in Italy around 1492. No complete copies of it have survived, and the pages acquired by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem are not found in any other collection in the world, public or private. Prior to the acquisition, the NLI already held 59 pages from the book.

Works published prior to 1500 are known as “incunabula”. During this period, less than 200 total Hebrew titles were printed, of which around 150 have survived until today. The NLI has copies of more than 80 of them.

“Arba’ah Turim”, meaning “Four Columns” in Hebrew, was written by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (approx. 1269-1343 CE), a leading medieval rabbinical authority also known as “Rabbeinu Asher” and “Ba’al ha-Turim” (“Master of the Columns”). Its name refers to the four sections into which the work is divided, each of them covering different areas of Jewish law: “Orakh Khayim”, “Yoreh De’ah”, “Even Ha’ezer”, and “Khoshen Mishpat”. The pages just acquired by the NLI come from the first two of these sections. The four-part division of the “Arba’ah Turim”, and the work more generally, have served as a foundation for countless commentaries and later attempts to codify Jewish law, including Rabbi Joseph Caro’s 16th century “Shulkhan Arukh,” which is widely considered to be the most important code of Jewish law until today.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, “Incunabula like these provide a rich and unique resources for the research of Jewish textual culture, and they have additional aesthetic and bibliographic value. These pages in particular provide exceedingly rare tangible evidence of one of the very first religious Jewish texts to be printed. Even though the complete edition has not survived, it is exciting that these pages – part of an exceedingly important Jewish text – have come down to us and will now be preserved and made accessible to scholars and the general public by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.”

The Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel includes the vast majority of Hebrew and Jewish books, journals and magazines ever published; thousands of Hebrew-letter manuscripts, as well as digital and microfilm copies of some 80,000 such manuscripts from collections across the globe; the world’s largest collection of Jewish music; and hundreds of personal archives of leading figures. Cherished treasures in the Collection include Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishna in his own handwriting; some of the earliest Talmudic manuscripts and printed Hebrew books; the world’s largest collections of ketubot and haggadot; archival collections of leading rabbinic figures; and the Gershom Scholem Collection – the world’s foremost resource for the study of Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism.