Why Does Elijah Visit Us on the Eve of Passover?

The story of how the most zealous of the biblical prophets ended up becoming everyone’s most anticipated Passover dinner guest

Elijah ascends to the heavens, in a chariot of fire. From a copy of Sefer Evronot, 1716, the National Library of Israel collections

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD,

Malachi 3:23


We know him as the secret guest of the Seder feast…

Some say that he celebrates alongside the rest of the festive meal’s participants – present, yet unseen. Others swear that he arrives in the dead of night and tastes from the remaining cup of wine when everyone is already fast asleep, after having drunk their four cups. Truly, there is none better suited for the role of guest than the prophet Elijah. The biblical book of Malachi describes the prophet as the herald of redemption. He is also one of the only biblical figures whose death is not related in the Bible. Like Enoch, he ascends to heaven before death.

Elijah’s debut on the biblical stage is as dramatic as his departure: He first appears while prophesying a drought that will cease only when he himself calls for the rains to fall. His prophesy immediately follows a listing of the sins of King Ahab. The severe drought that Elijah inflicts on Israel lasts for three years. When King Ahab attempts to undo it, Elijah challenges him, defeating and even killing the prophets of Baal, causing King Ahab at last to repent and abandon idolatry. When Ahab’s son Ahaziah succeeds him to the throne, the new king is quick to restore idol worship. Ahaziah sends two groups of soldiers to kill the aged Elijah, one after another, yet both missions end in disaster – Elijah summons fire from the heavens to consume the soldiers. The third time, the soldiers kneel before the prophet, begging him to spare them. The king dies as a result and his brother Yoram succeeds him.

After the death of the sinful king comes the denouement in the story of the prophet—his ascension to heaven in the presence of his disciple Elisha:

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11)

The Prophet Elijah in the Yahuda Haggadah, the Israel Museum

Among the Hebrew prophets, Elijah stands out as a strict and stubborn figure who is not afraid to confront the kings of Israel or its God. He is also the only prophet who seeks a tangible and severe punishment for the sinful people of Israel. All of which makes it puzzling that this is the very same kindly old man who comes to visit us on the night of the Seder, and whose chair is reserved in the synagogue for use during the Brit Milah or Bris (circumcision) ceremony.

So why did Elijah, specifically, inherit these roles in Jewish tradition? It seems that his religious zeal for the strict adherence to God’s laws was what secured him the role of guardian and guest. Moreover, his Passover role is predicated on the special chair in the synagogue bearing his name.


The first manuscript illustration of Elijah’s chair, from a 16th century prayer book, Germanic National Museum Library, Nuremberg, Germany, Nuremberg

The tradition of Elijah’s chair being used during the circumcision ceremony began in the Middle Ages, when a tale developed of an agreement made between God and the zealous Elijah, that a Jewish baby’s circumcision could not be held without the prophet’s presence. In Pirkei Derabi Dliezer, it is written – “By thy life! They shall not observe the covenant of circumcision until thou seest it (done) with thine eyes. Hence the sages instituted the custom that people should have a seat of honor for the Messenger of the Covenant” (chap. 29, 213-214).[1]

The most zealous of God’s prophets, who asks that the sinful people of Israel be stricken (usually, it’s the other way round, with God signaling his wrath against his sinning people through one of his prophets), is naturally also considered the strictest when it comes to following rules. That is why he was also given this role, to oversee the circumcision, to ensure that it be carried out to the letter of the law.

Chair of Elijah the Prophet, Genoa, Italy, photo: Yad Ben Zvi

We’ve already mentioned that Elijah is considered the herald of redemption—who wouldn’t want a guest bearing such good tidings? Elijah, having already proved himself in his Brit Milah ceremony role, was recruited to serve as the guest of honor at the Seder feast, one of the holiest nights of the Jewish year.  Passover is also called the Festival of Redemption, and who better than the herald of redemption to be the special guest at our Seders?

Elijah is also the bringer of peace. With redemption not quite upon us yet, the peace that Elijah brings on the eve of the Seder is first and foremost for the celebrants, and is directly related to the terrible persecution experienced by the Jews of Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages. The figure of Elijah served as a shield from antisemitic persecutions which would tend to escalate before Passover due to false claims about Jews murdering Christian children and using their blood to bake matzah bread.

It’s worth noting that, despite his obvious zeal and enthusiasm, the figure of Elijah is quite separate from that of the Messiah – Elijah serves to herald redemption, he does not bring it himself. If Elijah the prophet does visit our home, this is not evidence that heaven on earth has been declared, only that we have again been granted a measure of peace and security for this year. A lower bar, certainly, but still one we are happy to accept.

Elijah ascends to the heavens, in a chariot of fire. From a copy of Sefer Evronot, 1716, the National Library of Israel collections

Over time and with the growing sense of security among the world’s Jews, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel, the peace that Elijah brings is understood in more narrow terms; that is – between parents and children. Already in the Talmudic literature and within the framework of his role as the messenger of peace, Elijah is considered Judaism’s supreme arbiter. Hence, he was recruited to settle the great Seder controversy: the fifth cup. A heated debate took place among the sages over how many cups of wine to drink at the Seder meal. The generally agreed-upon answer is four, but some argued for five. Therefore, a compromise was reached: We pour five cups of wine, but drink only four.  And when Elijah returns he will solve the problem, once and for all!

Eventually, Elijah was called upon to settle more serious disputes, and in case you didn’t know, dear readers, there is a belief that our Elijah is the deciding vote even in soccer matches. The Hebrew term teiku (the equivalent of “tie” or “draw”), appears in Talmudic literature as a term that indicates a discussion among the sages that ends in indecision. The word is interpreted as an acronym for: Tishbi yitaretz kushiyot uba’ayot (literally, “[Elijah of] Tishbi will decide questions and problems”), meaning, the question will stand until such time when the prophet Elijah of Tishbi will arrive and decide it.

Elijah’s cup belonging to the Bender Rebbe, the Bill Gross Collection, photo: Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Jewish tradition loves innovations, but only those that are rooted in the Jewish sources. The prophet Elijah is the herald of redemption, bringer of peace, the prophet who escaped death, and also – and this explains his miraculous visiting abilities – a teleporter of the highest order. The term kfitzat haderekh (lit. “contraction of the road”) appears in the Talmud as a journey that is miraculously shortened. After all, Elijah of the book of Kings is already unique in his ability to launch himself from one location to another. Before ascending to heaven, he was known for his sudden appearances. One moment he is in Tsarfat, (no, not the Hebrew name for France, but the ancient Phoenician city Sarepta, Sarafan in modern-day Lebanon) and the next he is standing in front of Obadiah, a court official in charge of King Ahab’s household in the Kingdom of Israel. Even those to whom Elijah suddenly appears are not too shaken, as Obadiah says to the prophet, “And it will come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the spirit of the LORD will carry thee whither I know not” (1 Kings 18:12)

The traditions of the prophet Elijah that began in Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages are preserved to this day among all the Jewish communities of the world. Most of us still leave an empty chair and a full cup of wine for the prophet Elijah, just in case. And, if and when the time comes to announce the redemption and peace on earth, who are we to argue?


Thanks to Dr. Chana Shaham-Rozby for her help with this article.


[1] Pirkei de rabbi eliezer (“The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great, According to the Text of the Manuscript Belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna”), translated and annotated by Gerald Friedlander (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1916)

A Haggadic Sister: New Acquisition Illuminates Artist’s Journey

In 2012, artist Maty Grünberg decided to revisit his 1984 work, The Bezalel Haggadah – ranked among the finest modern illustrated Haggadot. The resulting volume, The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah, reveals the artist's creative process, from concept to final print.

From "The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah": Grünberg's visual language derived from various sources, including Egyptian art

The National Library of Israel’s collection of Haggadot is considered the most comprehensive in the world, containing more than 15,000 examples from different periods and from across the globe. The collection was recently enriched by a singular new addition: an artist’s proof of The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah by Israeli artist and sculptor Maty Grünberg, renowned for his limited edition artist books, produced using techniques such as etching, silk screen, and woodcut.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel views The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah with artist Maty Grünberg.

The volume is a companion piece, a “sister”, due to its close relationship to Grünberg’s 1984 Bezalel Haggadah. Considered one of the finest modern illustrated Haggadot, the Bezalel Haggadah has been in displayed exhibitions together with Haggadot by Marc Chagall and Ben Shahn. Copies have been collected by museums, libraries and private collectors.

The “sister” story, however, is about the artistic process. In 2012, Grünberg reviewed his preparatory sketches, and placed them alongside their final versions. The resulting Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah, documents the transformation from early sketch to final print. In this sense, it is also the work of the artist as an older man looking across the bridge of time, revisiting the work of his younger self.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: preliminary sketch for “Tam”, the innocent of the Four Brothers contrasted with the final woodcut print

Grünberg is still a working artist whose latest creations – monumental bronze and stone sundials situated in locations like Ascot, UK, the New York Hall of Science, and Teddy Kollek Park in Jerusalem – express a fascination with the passage of time. His most recent was inaugurated on April 7th, 2022, at the Madatech – Israel National Museum of Science, Technology and Space in Haifa. Speaking from his car on the drive up to the ceremony, Grünberg says his motivation for revisiting the Bezalel Haggadah stemmed from an interest in how the process developed.

The story begins following the 1978 exhibition of Grünberg’s Megillat Esther, a boldly colorful volume of silkscreens that drew controversy at the time due to its modern approach. The Jewish Theological Seminary then expressed interest in having Grünberg create a Haggadah, “but they didn’t want a contemporary one,” he says. In the end, the Haggadah was commissioned in 1979 by the Friends of Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design, Grünberg’s alma mater.

The Bezalel Haggadah itself took five years to create. According to Grünberg, the bulk of that time was spent searching for the visual language that would express his view about the creation of the Jewish nation through the story of Exodus from Egypt. His initial sketches for the project were colorful drawings in mixed media. Then something happened.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: initial color sketches for the Four Questions, as compared with the pared-down final woodcut

It was the high point of his search – though perhaps, for the artist, the lowest – a day locked in a heavily guarded room in the British Library in London with the Golden Haggadah (c. 1320-1330). This small but richly illustrated and gilded volume from Catalonia, Spain, is considered among the world’s most famous illuminated manuscripts. Even today, Grünberg says of that encounter, “My hands were trembling. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I was taken to a private room and given white cotton gloves, the librarian came in, rolled a cart in front of her with the ancient book on it, and handed it to me with extreme caution. I was shivering at the beauty of this ancient book. I realized I could not compete with this glorious Haggadah.”

That day, Grünberg decided to change direction, abandon vibrant color, and find another language for creating his Bezalel Haggadah. “I discovered the Prague Haggadah and I switched to woodcuts.”

The Prague Haggadah, 1556, the Valmadonna Trust Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Prague Haggadah (c. 1526), the earliest printed Haggadah, featured woodcut illustrations and large, elaborate fonts – now standard elements for Haggadot. The National Library of Israel holds one of the two earliest existing copies of the Prague Haggadah, as part of its Valmadonna Trust Collection; the other copy resides at the British Library.

Now inspired, Grünberg began exploring 19th century woodcut techniques in creating a unique visual language for his Haggadah. “What I like about woodcuts is that it’s very concise,” he says. “Unlike other media, you have to eliminate what is irrelevant.” The inspiration for the images in the Bezalel Haggadah derives from motifs found in synagogues and other sites in Jerusalem, as well as additional ancient Jewish scripts and early Egyptian art.

From The Sister of the Bezalel Haggadah: Grünberg’s visual language derived from various sources, including Egyptian art

The resulting volume consisted of 75 pages of original woodcuts printed on handmade acid-free paper, and pulled by the artist on an 1860 Albion printing press. Published in 1984 in a signed, limited edition of 150 copies, the Bezalel Haggadah immediately sold out, acquired by leading institutions such as the libraries at Harvard and Yale, the Jewish Museum, as well as private collectors.

In 2012, twenty eight years after the Bezalel Haggadah was published, Grünberg reopened his files, selected several drawings, placed them alongside the final versions of the woodcuts prints, and began the work on what would become The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah. The resulting volume contrasts the freehanded concept sketches with their final woodcut print versions – sometimes similar, other times wildly different – to surprising and moving effect.

A decade later, Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, was invited to visit Grünberg’s studio to view the work. For Finkelman, the companion volume represented an exciting opportunity for researchers to understand and track the artist’s creative process: exploration, absorption, interpretation, and expression.

Maty Grünberg presents The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah to Library staff

On February 22, 2022, Grünberg presented his work at a modest ceremony held at the National Library of Israel. Finkelman stated “The selection of this volume will enable research on Grünberg’s work, which takes its place in the long tradition of Haggadot, along with the great inspiration and respect for the ancient Haggadot that he examined.”


The Sister of The Bezalel Haggadah was acquired on behalf of the Library through the generosity of Lord Simon Marks of Broughton.

The Last Will and Testament of Rabbi David Friesenhausen

Published in 1820, the work contains some surprising, candid views on science, faith, women, and more...

"My children and your descendants through the last generation! Place the book of the Will in the bookcase..." (Image: Moritz Daniel Oppenheim's "The Examination". From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

In Vienna 1820, Rabbi David HaKohen Friesenhausen (ca. 1756-1828) published a work in Hebrew entitled Mosdot Tevel (Foundations of the Universe). Friesenhausen procured rabbinic letters of recommendation which he printed in Mosdot Tevel, including such a letter from the illustrious Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the “Ḥatam Sofer”, 1762-1839), who, together with other rabbinic personalities in Hungary and Moravia, was even a prepaid subscriber to the book.

Title page of Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

On its title page, Friesenhausen tells us that his work contains three sections that heretofore had not appeared in Hebrew. The first section deals with the heliocentric cosmology as formulated by the Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and the second section is a discourse with the geometry of the Alexandrian Greek, Euclid (ca. 300 BCE). In addition to the rabbinic recommendations, Friesenhausen mentions that his mathematical work could also be vouched for, though not by rabbinic personalities.

The third section of the work, entitled “The Book of the Will: Instructions of the Author to his Children after Him,” contains Friesenhausen’s own Ethical Will.


The Book of the Will: Instructions of the Author to his Children after Him
Friesenhausen’s Ethical Will is lengthy, containing 43 detailed instructions spread over 74 pages. Though it would be rightly classified as an Ethical Will, most of the instructions do not focus explicitly on ethical behavior – the ethical guidelines in Mosdot Tevel are often subtle. Thus, Mosdot Tevel begins with matters of a theological nature, including detailed principles of faith, his understanding of central themes in Jewish thought, and fidelity to Torah. He even included a harsh critique of maskilim (followers of the Haskalah movement, sometimes called the “Jewish Enlightenment”) who he saw as having forsaken tradition, as well as an honest appraisal of the failings of traditional rabbinic Judaism in his day.


The Intended Readership
At the beginning of his Ethical Will, Friesenhausen turns to God, stating the purpose of his writing:

“My entire salvation and my desire in this written will is to instruct my descendants in Your good ways which they should follow, and to help them cleave to You so that they will be in awe of You out of love, and so that they will keep Your statutes and Your commandments that You have bequeathed to our forebears… and in order that they will straighten out their deeds in Your eyes and they will attain happiness and true success for all time and for eternity.”

Throughout the treatise, Friesenhausen specifically turns to his descendants whenever he wants to emphasize a particular point. The final page of the Ethical Will is adorned with a poem and here too Friesenhausen implores his descendants to preserve the document for posterity:

Poem at the end of David Friesenhausen’s Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

“My children and your descendants through the last generation!
Place the book of the Will in the bookcase
Guard it, please, more than the treasure of kings
For it will renew its youth for lengthy days to come
[I] authored it so that you will serve your God
David the son of Meir the Kohen, your father.”

Yet printing an Ethical Will in a book with prepaid subscribers indicates that the author believed the message to be relevant to a wider readership. Indeed, in some passages, Friesenhausen addresses both audiences:

“And now, you my children! And every reader besides you! Know…”

Perhaps Friesenhausen’s decision to publish his Ethical Will addressed primarily to his children can be understood in light of his view on the success of others:

“And since for every person who truly loves people, he does not suffice with his own success and that of his children and generations who come after him, rather, he will seek and greatly desire the success of everyone else.”

The dual nature of Friesenhausen’s audience remains apparent throughout the work.


Pursuit of Knowledge
Another aspect of Friesenhausen’s legacy is the importance he places on the need to pursue both Torah study and “Ḥokhmah“, literally wisdom, a reference to scientific inquiry. In one place, he talks of his unparalleled achievement in attaining mastery in both fields:

“And you, my descendants, know that I myself, your father, studied much Torah, more than most of those who know science in our day. Neither did I neglect science, more than most and almost more than all the masters of Torah in our time.”

Aware that these words may sound a bit arrogant, he offers a parenthetical explanation reminding the reader of his primary intended audience:

“I cannot protest the dear reader who will consider me haughty, but he should consider that I address [primarily] my children and not strangers, who may or may not believe.”

He nonetheless goes on reinforcing his self-appraisal, adding that his wide travels justifiably led to such bold assertions:

“And apart from this, what can I do if I have traversed almost all of Germany, Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary, and I have not found a person who knows sciences yet has studied Torah properly, nor someone who has studied Torah properly and has also sufficiently delved into science.”

When Friesenhausen discussed Haskalah and those maskilim whose scientific pursuits led them away from Torah, he insisted that the two – Torah and science – are complementary, and those who make a claim to the contrary are merely revealing their own inadequacy in one of the disciplines.

Though studying natural sciences was important to him, time was not to be divided equally between the two topics. Friesenhausen felt that minimal time investment was sufficient for an understanding of science, while the bulk of one’s time should be dedicated to studying classic Jewish texts, explaining:

“There is no need to study the aforementioned works of sciences for great amounts of time of the days of his life, for even if he will delve into them for only an hour or two a day, he will reach his goal. To recognize the greatness, wisdom and exaltedness of the Creator, may He be blessed, it is not necessary to know the aforementioned sciences in their entirety, rather it is sufficient to know the main ideas of each.”

Friesenhausen was aware that the study of the natural sciences could not be done effectively from books written in Hebrew, and so he offered a form of annotated bibliography of the few recommended books in Hebrew and supplemented this list with recommended books in German.


A further aspect of the intended audience, is the choice of language – not so much the language of the Ethical Will but more so the language of the scientific portions of the book. Friesenhausen was well aware that a scientific work in Hebrew would not appeal to all. It was in this vein that Friesenhausen offers an insightful comment on the book’s sales potential to the list of prepaid subscribers, and later laments the lack of available scientific literature in Hebrew:

“Indeed most lovers of science seek it not in the Hebrew tongue, and most lovers of the Hebrew tongue, seek not science.

For indeed they will not find the sciences written in a book in the Hebrew language, save for a miniscule amount. Moreover those that are to be found, the majority are unsatisfactory for what is needed.”

Further on Friesenhausen suggests that if he had the requisite funds he would start a biennial competition for family members to author beneficial books – either in the field of Torah or in the field of science – in the Hebrew language. Alas, Friesenhausen’s financial situation did not allow him to realize this vision, but he did instruct his descendants to carry out his plan should one of them merit sufficient wealth.

The first two stanzas of the poem printed at the end of Mosdot Tevel passionately describe the tribulations and tenacity of the Hebrew language, yet for Friesenhausen learning Hebrew was a functional necessity, not an ideological priority. This is apparent when he talks about education, emphasizing the importance of teaching the Hebrew language at an early age:

“And since it is necessary for the Israelite Nation to know the Hebrew language, not only for the boys to study Torah but also for girls to at least understand the prayers and supplications which we pray and beseech as prescribed for each day, it is, therefore, appropriate to train the children in verbs and nouns of the Hebrew language, and to explain to them all the prayers so that they have the ability to understand them.”

The same utilitarian outlook led Friesenhausen to encourage parents to instruct their children in the local vernacular, as well as a third language that could grant them access to scientific texts:

“Do not be negligent to teach your sons or your daughters the language of the local nation in which you dwell, for as long as the Israelite Nation will not dwell in its own land, and as long as God will not ingather His banished ones, there is an extremely great need that one should understand the language of each nation amongst whom he dwells.

Since I have already let it be known that knowledge of sciences is beneficial for perfection of the soul, yet you will not find the sciences well explained except in one of the following three languages, namely German, French and English, therefore the person with a broad spirit should know at least one of these languages.”


Friesenhausen dedicates one lengthy section of his Ethical Will to the topic of raising children, beginning by explaining the centrality of this pursuit:

“Training the children and accustoming them to the path of Torah and uprightness, and to be diligent in their work and pleasant to human company, is a supreme principle in human success, all the days of his life on this earth, and to inherit the eternal world after his soul separates from his body.”

He warned that available literature on child rearing was inappropriate, since Jewish education was distinctly different from the education offered by non-Jews. Nonetheless, Friesenhausen granted that one can consult these works, but only if his own advice takes precedence. Some of the directives he offers for taking care of babies includes: being extra careful to ensure that the baby does not catch a cold during the first three days after birth; emphasizing that the baby is in danger of being suffocated if it sleeps in the mother’s bed; promoting vaccination as opposed to variolation (an older practice of inoculating someone with the virus of smallpox to produce immunity), along with support for this position rooted in Jewish law; encouraging mothers to breastfeed; and warning against goading children to overeat.

Friesenhausen moves on to early childhood education, stressing instruction in the Hebrew language from a young age and continuing with a detailed educational program. He touches on a gamut of pedagogic issues, including reviewing material studied and rote learning; details regarding different forms of Bible study; the study of Hebrew grammar; prudence in Talmud instruction along with an acknowledgment that not every student will succeed in Talmud study; the need to teach a trade aside from Torah; and women’s education. The section on women’s education notably includes a warning to fathers not to hastily and inconsiderately marry off their daughters:

“Also be careful, my sons, not to give your daughters to a man whom she desires not. Therefore do not hasten to give her to a man while she is still without knowledge to choose for herself according to her will. And do not focus on money, rather on qualities and level of perfection of the soul and the body, according to which a person is called by the title ‘human’.”

Friesenhausen also includes an impassioned plea to his descendants, should they be conscripted to the army. He emphasizes that they remain loyal to the commandments of the Almighty so that the merit of good deeds will stand by them in battle, yet he also stresses both practical and spiritual matters should they find themselves on the battlefield:

“Furthermore, do this and live: Learn well the rules and tactics of battle, perhaps they will be to the help of God against mighty warriors.

And you should know that you are priests of God your Lord, who has distinguished you for the army of [holy] service, to go out and come forth before the nation of God to be scouts for them.”


One of the most interesting aspects of the Ethical Will is how Friesenhausen portrays Hasidism, and specifically the portrait of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841). Rabbi Teitelbaum, commonly known by the title of his posthumous work Yismaḥ Moshe, served as Rabbi and Hasidic master in Sátoraljaújhely, the Hungarian town where Friesenhausen served as a Dayan from early in the nineteenth century.

Document confirming that following its publication and after he completes payment, one Rabbi Zalman is entitled to receive a copy of Mosdot Tevel; the document was signed by Friesenhausen while he was a judge in Sátoraljaújhely. From the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection, National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Without mentioning Rabbi Teitelbaum by name, Friesenhausen includes a scathing attack against him in his Ethical Will. The facts detailed by Friesenhausen – the origins of the anonymous protagonist, his fame before reaching Hungary, his use of amulets to cure ailments, his popularity, as well as other historical tidbits mentioned – fit the biography of Rabbi Teitelbaum perfectly. The assault was similar, though not as harsh, as the critique of many other opponents of Hasidism, with one significant difference: Friesenhausen’s attack was personal.

Friesenhausen begins by describing the contemporary Hasidic milieu and then instructing his children not join the ranks of the Hasidim without being certain of the righteousness of the particular Hasidic leader they were about to follow. Friesenhausen’s instruction was a result of his own encounter with the anonymous protagonist:

“When he arrived, I too was amongst those who respectfully greeted him, and I immediately recognized from his words and his actions that he was a conceited person who exceedingly sought honor: All the greats of our time were considered by him to be as naught and nothingness.”

This first impression, however, did not deter Friesenhausen, for he saw other qualities in the anonymous Hasidic leader:

“And since many a time I heard from his mouth halakhah [Jewish law] and aggadah [Jewish lore], deep matters that were pleasant to the listener, and also in fear of God and love of peers, I considered him to be a wholesome person, also in worldly matters and human conduct I saw him to be knowledgeable and erudite: Because of all these qualities he was esteemed and exceedingly worthy in my eyes, and I did not avoid coming to him twice or three times a week.”

Alas, as time passed Friesenhausen became disenchanted with the behavior of the local leader, seeing him as unethical:

“And after doing thus for many days, his actions proved themselves that he was not wholesome in fear of God and love of peers. And his inner self is outward appearance. For I recognized him to be a bad-tempered person, who reaps honor from the degradation of his friend: He boasts before the masses about his piety and asceticism and his great wisdom, and is not afraid to denigrate and embarrass others in public. He shows himself to be disdainful of profit, yet in truth he loves silver and gold in order to amass them for himself, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

Friesenhausen had no doubt in his mind: The more he observed the Hasidic leader’s behavior, the more he became convinced of his unethical conduct and his corrupt character. Friesenhausen chose to distance himself, though his local rabbinic duties sometimes required almost daily contact. These interactions led Friesenhausen to the conclusion that the Hasidic leader did not have an impressive command of Torah – not Talmud and halakhah, nor Kabbalah – though Friesenhausen did acknowledge that he had unrealized potential.

He ends this portion of the book with a clear instruction to his readership:

“And this matter has brought me to instruct you not to join people like this, unless you clearly know by repeated observation that he is [indeed] holy.”

Given the identification of the anonymous protagonist, this attack has a surprising twist: Rabbi Teitelbaum headed the list of prepaid subscribers at the beginning of the work. Moreover, in 1816, when Friesenhausen embarked upon a journey to raise funds for publishing his work, Rabbi Teitelbaum issued him with a letter of recommendation filled with praise!

Subscribers’ page at the beginning of Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. Moshe Teitelbaum is the first one listed. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

It appears that Rabbi Teitelbaum increased his activities in the latter part of 1815, following the death of influential Hasidic masters in Poland and Galicia. According to one scholar, this was too much for Friesenhausen, who consequently decided to embark upon a journey.

While Friesenhausen was traveling, Rabbi Teitelbaum ruled in absentia to his disadvantage when he awarded Friesenhausen’s wife a higher weekly stipend from the capital Friesenhausen had left behind. When Friesenhausen returned to Sátoraljaújhely and saw his dwindled funds, he was angered by Rabbi Teitelbaum’s ruling. This ruling was certainly not the main source of contention between the two, as Friesenhausen’s distaste for the city’s rabbi centered on the latter’s Hasidic activity and his comments focused on his personal conduct. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder how much the ruling in his absence affected Friesenhausen’s general attitude not only towards the “anonymous” Hasidic leader, but regarding Hasidism in general.


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.

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.