Embracing the Light of Hanukkah

Jewish pride is exemplified annually in the tradition of lighting the hanukkiah candles, but the Hanukkah story itself is actually full of themes of concealment and hiddenness. So why is Hanukkah celebrated with this self-confident display of our Judaism and why is this practice so very important, especially in dark times like these, when Hanukkah will be celebrated amidst a backdrop of Jewish suffering and war.

The Shohat Family celebrating Hanukkah, 1977, Dan Hadani, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Donuts, dreidels, golden coins and gifts. Memories of Hanukkah are set on a backdrop of cozy winter nights, permeated by the smells of oily foods, laughter from silly games and lots of time spent with family. As presents are exchanged and songs are sung, Hanukkah holds a special warmth and innocence in many of our minds. But, when asked to sum up Hanukkah in just one image, almost all of us would recall the hanukkiah lights, set in front of foggy windows, as the bright candles burn for all to see.

Young girls lighting the hanukkiah after immigrating to Israel, 1948, Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection, the National Library of Israel

A source of pride in Jewish culture is the concept of showing off our light in the midst of nightfall’s darkness. But while the theme of Hanukkah is usually perceived to be this pride and openness, when it comes to the Hanukkah story itself, it is hard to deny that concealment and hiddenness are also very apparent themes. There is a fascinating tension here between these two contrasting ideas. In this article we will explore how we have come to equate Hanukkah with a Jewish sense of pride and why is it such an important message to share, especially during times like these, in which it seems that many Jews will be celebrating Hanukkah amidst a backdrop of distress and war.

The Shohat Family celebrating Hanukkah, 1977, Dan Hadani, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The story of Hanukkah begins around 168 BCE, when the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes began persecuting the Jews in his kingdom, which included the territory of Judea, and forced them to either renounce their Judaism or face certain death. Due to his horrific threats, this point in history marked the start of an era of hiddenness which descended upon the Jewish people. Many Jews living during this time made the difficult decision to outwardly adopt Greek religious practices and culture in public to avoid punishment, but continued to practice their Judaism in private – praying, studying, and practicing the Jewish laws as best they could.

Lighting the hanukkiah at Rambam Hospital, 1981, IPPA Staff Photographer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

This history is symbolized by a story that is often told about the origins of the dreidel – a spinning top traditionally played with on Hanukkah. During Antiochus’ reign, Jewish children were of course banned from learning any Torah. Not wanting the legacy of Jewish learning to die out, the tale recounts that their parents would hide the children away and teach them Torah in secret. As a backup measure, they set out dreidels in the hiding spots, too. If a Greek official were to walk past and happen to spy them, the children would immediately begin to play with their innocent spinning tops! Though the story is not based on historical fact, and originates in a much later tradition, today, Jewish children continue to play dreidel each Hanukkah to commemorate this dark period in history, when living openly as a Jew was not a possibility.

Lighting the hanukkiah, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

At the same time, an even bigger concealment was taking place. The story of Hanukkah concludes with a great war between the Greek army and the Jewish army, led by members of the Hasmonean family, who later came to be known as the Maccabees. When we think of the Maccabees, we picture brave strong fighters, and this is not incorrect. However, before the final days of battle commenced in earnest, the Maccabees were in fact best described as a hidden group of insurgent guerilla fighters.

Lighting the hanukkiah for wounded IDF soldiers at Tel Hashomer Hospital, 1969, IPPA Staff Photographer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Setting up their bases in the caves and hideouts of the Judean countryside under the leadership of Judah Maccabee in 166 BCE, the story is told of how these Jewish soldiers formed clandestine groups of fighters and dissidents who would set out on underground missions while their forces grew in size and skill. For much of the war, the Maccabees would wait just beyond eyesight, hiding in the wilderness and using the element of surprise to attack effectively. It was only with the conclusion of the Hanukkah story, as the great large-scale battles of the Greek-Jewish war broke out, that the Maccabees rose up to fight in the open.

Young boy lights a hanukkiah at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1949, Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Hanukkah is also a festival of hidden miracles. The famous story of that one last jug of oil which lit the ritual menorah in the ruins of the Jewish temple was found after being hidden amongst the rubble, not presented in plain sight. Similarly, a hidden miracle occurred after it seemed that the Maccabees might not survive the war. Only one Maccabee named Simon survived past the Hanukkah story. Yet it was Simon who would go on to officially found the great Hasmonaean dynasty, the first instance of full Jewish sovereignty since the fall of the Kingdom of Judah more than 400 years earlier. This was something that few could have dreamed of at the time, which allowed the Jewish people to once again rise up in strength.

Blessings for lighting the hanukkiah, Amsterdam, 1750, the National Library of Israel 

Hence, one might think that moving forward from the story of Hanukkah, this annual holiday would be celebrated with references to hiddenness, the way that we commemorate the hidden miracles of Purim or Shemini Atzeret. But this is not the moral of the Hanukkah story. The story of Hanukkah ends with a menorah, lit bright for all to see, standing unscathed amongst the wreckage of Jerusalem. This image conveys a clear message that despite being repeatedly knocked down, the Jewish people are not afraid of their identity. In fact, it reminds us that we will never again allow ourselves to be hidden away with shame. We are here. We are bright. We continue to burn. That is the message of Hanukkah.

Young boy lights a hanukkiah at the Western Wall, 1969, IPPA Staff Photographer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

And over the years, this is what we have seen from the Jewish people time and time again.

Hanukkah in Fuerstenfeldbruck DP Camp, Germany, 1945, Yad Vashem Archive 1486/582

One of the most famous images associated with the Holocaust is of course the image of a hanukkiah, one of the most enduring symbols of Judaism, standing proud in the window of a house while across the street we see a Nazi flag draped on a building. This image is so famous because it shows exactly how far the Jewish people will go in order to protect their identity, and stand firm in the face of oppression.

Rachel and Rabbi Akiva Posner’s hanukkiah in Kiel, Germany, (still lit each year by their grandchildren), photo by Rachel Posner, Hanukkah 1931, Yad Vashem

But this is not the only hanukkiah that remains from the Holocaust. A hanukkiah was found, wrapped in newspapers dating back to 1941, hidden under the flooring of the synagogue building in Alphen aan den Rijn, Holland, which was used each year during Hanukkah until the deportation of the family to whom it belonged. Similarly, the French Moroccan Cohen family, fleeing persecution with not much more than a suitcase, chose to take their hanukkiah with them when they were forcibly evicted from Casablanca, so that they could continue to light the Hanukkah candles wherever they might end up. Another tale from within the ghetto walls of Lodz, Poland, recounts that the chairman of the Judenrat, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, was known for proudly lighting the hanukkiah each year despite the dangers of doing so, right up until the liquidation of the ghetto. Many Jewish families keep such Holocaust-era hanukkiot as heirlooms and stories continue to abound of Jews refusing to hide their light, despite their tormentors attempting to stamp it out.

A Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony in the Westerbork transit camp, Netherlands, 1943, photo: Yad Vashem

The origin of the word “Hanukkah” is debated, but it is clear that it contains the Hebrew root חנכ which means “to dedicate”. As the Jews dedicated themselves to their identity through the story of Hanukkah, so too do we see that continued dedication right up until today. Israel is beautiful at Hanukkah time. Traditionally, many Israeli Jews light their hanukkiah in a box outside of their house, not on their windowsill, and walking the streets of Israel seeing families gathering to light their candles is a truly special experience. It is also continuous. Despite the many wars that have ravaged Israel since its conception, each year, whether during war or peace, these special candelabras can be seen glowing bright.

IDF unit lights hanukkiah made out of exploded rockets, 1970, IPPA Staff Photographer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

During times of global conflict, Jews typically come under even more frequent attack when proudly expressing their identity. When Ukrainian Jews, recently caught in conflict, lacked light to see, fuel to cook, and lived under constant curfew, hanukkiot were still seen shining proudly from homes and town squares throughout the country. When the public lighting of the hanukkiah in London was cancelled just a few days ago, British Jews banded together and pledged to hold their own candle lighting ceremony, unafraid of expressing who they are. And the examples can go on and on and on.

Ruling from the Chief Rabbinate of the IDF allowing soldiers to light candles with any available oil including gun oil, say the blessings over flashlights, and light candles in a private place, Ma’ariv, December 26, 1978, the National Library of Israel Historical Jewish Press Collection

In times of war, this sense of collective identity is even more important than ever, and perhaps that is why, despite the challenges that face Israel during moments of conflict such as these, each year the hanukkiot continue to shine bright from Jewish homes across the country.

IDF soldiers lighting the hanukkiah in the Negev Desert, 1949, Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Many wonder what will happen this year. While some of our brave soldiers will be allowed home to celebrate the holiday with their families and friends, many others will have to commemorate Hanukkah in the Gaza Strip, or on army bases around the country. But fear not, the light cannot be dimmed, no matter how burdened or tormented our people become. Many individuals have already began collecting donations to deliver candles and Hanukkah treats to our IDF soldiers, and there are organizations who have pledged to deliver Hanukkiot to each and every army base, so that no Jew will be left out, and all the soldiers will get to light their candles and help put an end to our darkness.

Chabad delivering donuts to IDF soldiers, 1985, Yossi Aloni, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

As Jewish history continues through the good times and the bad, this year once again we will witness the heart-wrenching sight of hanukkiot shining bright from the battlefields of Israel. While this image is not an easy one to process, it’s a reminder that our nation and our pride can never be wiped out. The haftarah reading which is recited on the Shabbat of Hanukkah comes from Zechariah 4:6 and proclaims that the Jews will succeed “not by might, not by power, but by spirit”. No matter where we are spending Hanukkah this year, remember that ultimately it is our spirit which will keep us strong, and our Hanukkah lights will remind us never to dim our shine for anyone.

The Mysterious Case of Joseph G. Weiss’s Hasidic Library

Prof. Joseph G. Weiss was one of the 20th century's leading scholars of Hasidism. Following Weiss's tragic death in 1969, his mentor Gershom Scholem selected 250 books from his former student's personal collection to be brought to the National Library in Jerusalem. Yet something happened along the way. To this day it's not clear what became of many of these books...

Joseph G. Weiss, photo from the Joseph George Weiss Archive at the National Library of Israel

Prof. Joseph G. Weiss (1918-1969), was one of the foremost students of Prof. Gershom Scholem. He would go  on to direct the Institute of Jewish Studies at University College London and edit its “Journal of Jewish Studies”. Weiss left behind a scholarly oeuvre which, although sometimes debated and criticized, is without a doubt the forerunner of modern Hasidic studies. He was ahead of his time, and that perhaps explains the current reawakening of fascination with his work.

Weiss’s untimely and tragic death and the publication of his correspondence with Gershom Scholem a decade ago have also contributed to the great interest both in Weiss the scholar, and in Weiss the man.

I would like to offer some brief observations regarding the Hasidic books that were held in Weiss’s personal library, and their mysterious fate. After Weiss’s death in 1969, his widow Erna decided to sell his Judaica collection through the agencies of Weiss’s friend and colleague at University College London, Prof. Chimen Abramsky, who also worked as a book dealer. Prof. Jacob Taubes of the Judaica Institute of the Berlin Free University, Scholem’s student (and later nemesis), and an early friend of Weiss, purchased the collection for his institute. However, when the books arrived in Berlin, he noticed that many of the most important volumes were missing. It seems that Weiss, in his will, had given permission to his mentor Scholem to have first choice of the books that he wanted for the collection of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, and needless to say, Scholem had selected the best. Taubes in response angrily cancelled the agreement and returned the remainder of the collection to London, where they were subsequently auctioned.

Extensive correspondence exists in the archives of the National Library of Israel regarding the transfer of “250 books” (“mostly on Hasidism”) from Weiss’s library, that arrived in Jerusalem in February 1970. Some of the correspondence is in the Joseph Weiss archives, and some in non-catalogued folders of donor information. Some of the letters, mostly between Erna Weiss and Dr. I. Adler, who was then the Library’s Director, mention a list of the 250 books, which I have sadly not been able to locate.

“Two hundred and fifty volumes pertaining to…Chassidut”


Here we see correspondence between Erna Weiss and the Dr. Adler, then Director of the JNUL, regarding the shipping of 250 books (mostly on Hasidism) from Weiss’s estate to the Library. In Erna’s response she refers to a list of the books which was needed for legal purposes. This is the list that I am still searching for.

“I have had to draw up a list of the books”


“The valuable library of your late husband…has arrived safely”


Shortly after their arrival, the reception of the volumes was noted in the Library’s inventory, which specifically lists Noam Elimelech and Ohr HaMeir, apparently as the only two which the Library did not previously hold. I am still searching for these two volumes.

Noam Elimelech and Ohr HaMair in the Library inventory


Approximately one hundred of the volumes were in Hebrew and some 150 in other languages. Some of them contained marginalia in Weiss’s handwriting. By February 1970, the Library reported to Erna Weiss that the volumes had all arrived and in May wrote explicitly that the three special volumes that she had handpicked for Scholem’s personal collection had all been located. The three are Sipurei Maasiot, Yosher Divrei Emet and Ketonet Pasim. In Sipurei Maasiot, the most heavily annotated of the three, Weiss had the book rebound with a blank page for notes next to each page of text, a method that he probably learned from Scholem.

Sipurei Maasiot


The other two volumes that Erna Weiss had sent for Scholem himself, were two upon which Weiss had published articles, Yosher Divrei Emet and Ketonet Pasim.

Yosher Divrei Emet


Ketonet Pasim


Strangely, these books are not located in the Scholem Collection, but rather in the Rare Book Division. All were copied onto one microfilm and later scanned, and are available here.

The microfilm of the three volumes


 In total there are currently some eight Hasidic books with Weiss’s annotations in the Rare Book Division, and others in the Scholem Collection.

Eight books with Weiss marginalia


Some, such as Ketonet Passim, and Haim V’Hesed of R. Haim of Amdor, Weiss had previously published articles on. The other volumes with (less extensive) notes that have been located are, Noam Elimelech,

Meor V’Shamesh,

Lekutei Maharil,

Ahavat Dudim,

and Hayim V’Hesed by R. Haim of Amdor.


A handwritten English note dated 21.12.75 and preserved at the National Library, describes a visit by “Mrs. Erna Weiss, accompanied by Prof Y. [Isaiah] Tishby…and her son [the poet Amos Weisz], came in to inquire what had become of her husband’s collection – mainly ‘Hassidut’ – sent 1970 via London…. apparently, the collection was to be kept intact… (Prof. G. Scholem also took an active role)”. In a second note from a few days later we learn that “Prof. P. [Peretz] Tishby, Chief librarian…telephoned to inform me that most of the collection, as well as relevant correspondence and inventory of the collection is in the Dept. of Manuscripts and Archives – no need to search further”.

“No need to search further”


On the other hand, Jonatan Meir has written that, “Due to Scholem’s intervention some 250 volumes arrived in Jerusalem, yet a large portion of them mysteriously disappeared”. Sadly, this indeed seems to be the case. In retrospect, it is well known that Scholem’s desperate attempts to preserve the life of his beloved student, ultimately failed. More surprising is that the preservation of Weiss’s library also fell short of Scholem’s usual efficiency. For the world of Hasidic research, this is a double tragedy.


This article is dedicated to the memory of Weiss’s student, Prof. Ada Rapoport-Albert, z”l, who first encouraged me to look into the fate of Weiss’s books at the National Library of Israel.


For Further Reading:


Works of Weiss

Joseph Weiss, unpublished Hebrew dissertation on Dialectical Torah and Faith in R. Nahman of Breslov, can be viewed here

Joseph Weiss, Circles of Discussion: A Collection of Discourses and Customs of R. Nahman of Breslov, Tel-Aviv 1947.

Joseph Weiss, Studies in Braslav Hassidism (Hebrew, Mendel Piekarz, ed.), Jerusalem 1974.

Joseph Weiss, Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, London and Portland (David Goldstein, ed.), 1985, 1997.

Joseph Weiss, Likutim, (Hebrew, Avinoam Stillman and Yosef Sweig, eds.), Jerusalem 2019.


Works on Weiss 

Daniel Abrams, “The Becoming of the Hasidic Book”: An Unpublished Article by Joseph Weiss, Study, Edition and English Translation, in Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts vol. 28 (2012), pp. 7-34.

Joseph Dan, Joseph Weiss Today, in Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, pp. ix-xx.

Jacob Katz, Joseph G. Weiss: A Personal Appraisal, in (Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed.), Hasidism Reappraised, London and Portland 1996, pp. 3-9.

Esther Liebes, On Joseph Weiss [Hebrew], in (David Assaf and Esther Liebes, ed.), The Latest Phase: Essays on Hasidism by Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem 2008, pp. 313-315.

Shaul Magid, The Correspondence of Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss, Between Zionism and Friendship, in The Jewish Quarterly Review (summer 2017) 423-440.

Jonatan Meir, Tiqqun ha-Paradox: Josegh G. Weiss, Gershom Scholem, and the Lost Dissertation on R. Nahman of Bratslav [Hebrew], in Mahshevet Yisrael 4 (2023), pp. 151-206.

Jerry Z. Muller, Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes, Princeton and London, 2022, pp. 322-323.

Muki Tzur, Introduction, in (Muki Tzur, ed.), Joseph Weiss: Love Letters to Channa Senesh [Hebrew], Tel-Aviv 1996, pp. 5-19.

Sara Ora Heller Wilensky, A Portrait of Friendship: The Correspondence of Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss 1949-1957 [Hebrew], in Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, 3:2 (Jewish Thought and Literature), Jerusalem 1990, pp. 57-64.

Sara Ora Heller Wilensky, Joseph Weiss: Letters to Ora, in (Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed.), Hasidism Reappraised, London and Portland 1996, pp 10-41,

Noam Zadoff, On Joseph Weiss and Gershom Scholem: Introductory Words, in (Noam Zadoff, ed.), Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss: Correspondence 1948-1964, Jerusalem 2012, [Hebrew], pp. 10-32.

What a Load of Kreplach!

Kreplach are small dumplings made with minced meat, chopped vegetables, and often a layer of cabbage leaf… and no one likes them! So why do we eat these little dumplings each Sukkot? Where did the tradition come from? And is it really important enough to ruin our chicken soup for?

Kreplach in chicken soup, DMCA, Pxfuel

I remember standing in the kitchen as the smell of boiled cabbage made me gag into the chullent pot, watching my mother roll minced meat in her hands and chop vegetables until she cried. She said it was the onions, but I think it was the long hours of ordering around her 8 children, trying in vain to organize us into teams to either peel potatoes, or help our father build the sukkah.

Since the raising of our stubborn wooden sukkah would come with copious swear words and much cursing, and I was the youngest of the children, my job was always safely tucked away from the violence of the tent poles and into the relatively safe home of the sharp knives and boiling pots of the kitchen. This is why I have such strong memories of the kreplach-making process. While Passover was welcomed with smells of cinnamon from the sweet charoset, and Purim was filled with poppy-seeded hamantaschen biscuits, the ceremonial food of Sukkot was always the kreplach dumplings.

In case your ancestors don’t hail from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, I will enlighten you: kreplach are small dumplings made with minced meat, chopped vegetables, and often a layer of cabbage leaf. Each Jewish mother swears that her way is the only real way to make kreplach – less meat, more meat, cabbage on the inside, cabbage on the outside – but the truth is, even prepared according to meticulous tradition, they never taste all that great. Many people will cook them in the chicken soup broth, whereby they inevitably fall apart and make the soup lumpy and strange. But tradition is tradition!

Woman serving kreplach on Sukkot, 1904, Karte aus dem Tomor – Kalender der Sana-Gesellschaft, Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Mendel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University, the National Library of Israel

So why is this a Sukkot tradition? Sukkot is the Jewish festival which arrives less than a week after the High Holy Days, and celebrates the Jews’ faith in G-d. For the week-long festival, Jews build walled huts with roofs made from natural materials, and dwell in these temporary living places. Most practicing Jews eat all of their meals in this hut, and many sleep inside them too. During Sukkot, it is also customary to buy a citron, a palm frond, some myrtle, and willow branches and shake them together in a prescribed manner. The tent symbolizes how Jews are willing to leave their comfortable homes and place their faith in the sustenance of G-d alone, while the shaken salad represents the bringing together of all different types of peoples. Each custom of this holiday is dripping with meaning, and Sukkot comes with many mystical practices and traditions which are carried out with care and joy.

But why the kreplach?! As with most things in Judaism, the answer depends on who you ask.

Kreplach in chicken soup, DMCA, Pxfuel

One reason is a particularly kabbalistic reason. In Kabbalah, it is often believed that the food we eat has a direct impact on our mindset. Instead of the idiom “you are what you eat,” Kabbalah subscribes to the more prophetic “you will be what you eat”. As such, we must eat food which manifests our desired outcomes at appropriate points in the year. On Hoshana Raba, the final day of Sukkot, our fate for the next year is said to be sealed and closed by G-d. Sukkot is part of a triad of festivals known by the terror-evoking name “the Days of Judgement”, and kreplach represent the type of judgement that we would like to receive: full of meat and onions.

In all seriousness, according to Jewish mystical tradition, meat is a food which is said to evoke G-d’s might and power. As a food source, it gives life by energizing us, but it also takes away life (namely the life of poor Curly the Cow), thus meat represents this strong and powerful hand of G-d. Bread, on the other hand, is the most innocent of foods, so long as you don’t have a particular affinity with the plight of wheat. Bread sustains life even in the most desperate of situations, and was a lifeline for the biblical Jews in the desert, hence it represents G-d’s kind and forgiving nature.

The first known instance of “creplech” in an American recipe book, 1901 (p. 70/108), The Settlement Cook Book, compiled by Mrs. Simon Kander, assisted by Mrs. Nathan Hamburger, Mrs. Henry Schoenfeld, Mrs. I. D. Adler, Settlement Cook Book Company, Milwaukee, the National Library of Israel

Taking these ideas together, we eat kreplach on Sukkot to symbolize that G-d’s harsh judgements of us (the meat) should be shrouded in His kindness (the dough). We wish for G-d’s mercy to cover His might and therefore judge us favorably. Moreover, we eat the kreplach in the hope that when we go before G-d’s judgement, He overlooks our most human trait of containing both good and bad like the meat, and sees only our purity and goodness, as characterized by the bread. In fact, a special prayer is even added on Sukkot to ask that G-d’s mercy should overcome His wrath and that He should see our purity, not our tainted personalities.

Children eating kreplach with chicken soup, 1990, Photographer: Danny Lev, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

There is, however, another deep idea about kreplach, because even dumplings have meaning in Judaism. Kreplach look like little buns, and it’s only when they are bitten into by an unsuspecting bread-seeker that the hidden meat is revealed. Kreplach are secretive little foods, which makes them apt to eat on what is sometimes called the “hidden holiday” of Hoshana Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot.

Jewish children at camp eating in the sukkah, 1969, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The last day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, is a bit of a mystery. The day’s meaning is not stated in the Torah, and its practices which range from the slightly abnormal (the congregation paving seven circles around the synagogue while chanting and singing) to the outright bizarre (headless shadows and the bashing of willow branches against the ground until the synagogue looks more like a jungle than a place of prayer) are not explained at all in the Torah. If Hoshana Rabbah isn’t a big enough enigma already, it is certainly made more so by the fact that it’s official culinary sponsor is kreplach.

Triangular kreplach, Slovenčina: Gazdovské pirohy, Peter Zelizňák, Wikimedia Commons

Some attribute kreplach’s significance at Sukkot to their shape. Kreplach are usually formed into three-sided parcels, which are said to represent the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. I can already hear you asking “but then why do we only eat them on only one of these pilgrimage festivals if they’re meant to represent all three?” The reason is mainly a practical one. On Passover, when any leavened bread will get you hastily kicked out of the kosher kitchen, it is not the time for a dough-based appetizer. And Shavuot, the other of the three pilgrimage festivals, is a holiday that marks the very start of the wheat harvest. Back in the day, it was fairly difficult to prepare kreplach when your main ingredient was still in the ground! So, of all the three festivals, Sukkot, which marks the end of the wheat harvest, was the only one on which it was both practical and appropriate to make wheat-based foods. After all, wheat is now in abundance! Thus, Jews make the food of the three pilgrimage festivals on this date.

All that being said, many dispute that we eat kreplach due to any of these mystical or traditional reasons. Of course, these meanings add significance to the practice, but they simply may not lend the food it’s true origin story. So, if it’s not due to the holiness of the dumpling, why do we spend so many hours folding the parcels and ruining our chicken soup?

Kreplach marketed by Osem as meat-filled ravioli,   Otto Wallish, Eri Wallish Collection, the National Library of Israel

Well, one reason is that in the Middle Ages, dumplings were an especially popular food all over Eastern Europe. In Polish they’re called pierogi, in Ukrainian they’re called Varenyky, and in Russian they’re called Pelmeni. In many Eastern European cultures, these dumplings were eaten as a festive food on holidays such as Christmas. In fact the very word pierogi, used in much of medieval Europe, comes from the word “pir” which is proto-Slavic for “festivity”.

Because it was common practice to eat dumplings on holy days, the local Jews did it too! The Ashkenazim simply called them kreplach, from the Yiddish words krepp (rounded dough) and lach (little). It was not due to some esoteric teaching that the Jews ate these dumplings, but simply because common practice at the time was to eat dumplings at festivities.

In a time when meat was a rarity and much more prized than today, families would have to make meat stretch to many hungry mouths during big festive meals. And portioning it out into dough parcels was a great way of doing that! Never was this truer than at Sukkot! After a full season of High Holidays, the Jews of old, much like the Jews of today, looked at their wallets with despair. In lieu of buying new ingredients, they had to use what was left over from the previous Tishrei festive meals. Namely, challah dough and scraps of meat. And what can you make with challah dough and scraps of meat? Yes, that’s right! Kreplach!

Men eating kreplach in the sukkah, Photographer: Lev Utevzkiy in the court yard of the Leningrad synagogue, 1988, the Leonid Nevzlin Center for Russian and East European Jewry, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Institute of Jewish Studies St. Petersburg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Even the custom of boiling them in the chicken soup rather than cooking them in oil was a novel way to save money on cooking supplies. So the tradition caught on – Jews would take wheat, which was abundant at this point in the agricultural year, and grind up the last of their leftover meat, and stick it in their bubbling pots.

This is not to say that kreplach have no meaning. Firstly, the great Rabbis teach that “minhag Yisrael Torah hi” – which means that tradition and custom are no less the word of Torah than biblical laws are. Further, significance is brought to traditional Jewish foods from the fact that our culture has been making kreplach for centuries – this in and of itself is a lineage to pass down. As with most things in life, it’s the thought that counts. If you eat the kreplach with the ideas of compassionate judgement in your mind, or commemorate the hidden nature of the festival through this food, who can tell you that you’re wrong? Meaning is man-made, after all!

The first known written mention of “creplich” outside of Eastern Europe, London, 1892, Children of the Ghetto A Study of a Peculiar People, Israel Zangwill p. 116/61, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, the National Library of Israel

Now I’m all grown up and no longer living with my mother, or her huge cooking pots. In fact, with my own daughter on the way, I must decide which Jewish traditions I wish to pass down to her like my mother before me. I had always thought that maybe I would spare her the cabbage-rich stench of the kreplach tradition, but after all this contemplation, I don’t think I will!

Singing to Napoleon’s Tune on Yom Kippur

As Yom Kippur draws to a close, a nostalgic tune is sung in Ashkenazi synagogues around the world. While many Jews recognize this tune, most do not know that it was actually composed for Napoleon Bonaparte himself. So how did a Napoleonic marching tune make its way into our neilah prayer service?

Napoleon aiding the Jewish people, William L.Gross, 1806, the National Library of Israel


You’re standing there with your mahzor close to your chest, constantly checking your watch – time doesn’t seem to be moving forwards. Your stomach is continuously grumbling and your mouth is dry. The room feels cold and you look around at the somber faces in the rows of seats surrounding you. Your fingers count the pages of the mahzor in your hands, and you try to figure out how many prayers you still need to get through. Then, the cantor opens his mouth and a tune fills your ears that shakes you to your very core. This is a tune that you’ve been hearing since you were a little child, hanging onto the strings of your father’s tallit. It evokes memories of your childhood synagogue, that particular smell of the final hours of Yom Kippur, the bitter-sweet prayers so filled with longing and tears. And suddenly time starts passing again, perhaps even too fast, as you immerse yourself in the emotional neilah service.

Neilah prayer service, 1987, the National Library of Israel
Yom Kippur Mahzor containing neilah, 1350, Italy, Ktiv Project, the National Library of Israel

Neilah is the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year. The word neilah means “locking” in Hebrew. Coming in at hour 23 of the 25 hour-long fast day, this set of prayers is the last time to repent, ask for forgiveness for your sins from the previous year, and make requests for the upcoming year. Known also as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is traditionally seen as a serious day, full of rituals and prayer, on which we are judged by G-d, but in fact it is more than that: it is a chance to start afresh and a day on which, in Jewish belief, one can be incredibly close to G-d. It is also a day full of rules: no eating, drinking, wearing leather or gold, bathing, or touching the opposite sex. For many, it is a day in which the majority of the time is spent in synagogue, and some even take an oath of silence to honor the holiness of the day.

By the time neilah comes around, most people are hungry, thirsty, and emotional. There’s a mixed feeling in the room of wanting the day to be over so that everyone can return to normal tasks, but also of hanging onto the coattails of this holy time and desperately using each moment to atone before the heavenly book of judgement is sealed for the year. This is why it is such an evocative service for so many people, and why the tunes are filled with a significance reserved only for this service.

One of these tunes is well-known by most Ashkenazim, especially those whose ancestors hail from the Soviet Union. It is the tune that is heard in the Youtube video at the start of this article. In Chabad synagogues, the tune is not accompanied by words, and instead is chanted as a stand-alone melody at the end of the service. In other Ashkenazi synagogues, the melody is usually attached to one of the many piyutim of the service. It’s an iconic, upbeat, tune which really stands alone amongst the generally mournful melodies of the festival. This is because it was never written for the Yom Kippur service, it wasn’t written by a rabbi or scholar, indeed it wasn’t intended for prayer at all!

Yom Kippur by Jacob Weinles, Publisher: Levanon, Warsaw, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Napoleon Bonaparte had dreams of world domination and would stop at nothing to fulfil this quest. He was an astute and brilliant military commander who did succeed in colonializing many countries, expanding the French empire by magnitudes. He was known for his ability to motivate his troops by filling them with high spirits and confidence before going into war. One way that he raised group morale was by singing. He believed that if the troops sang upbeat and patriotic marching tunes as they rode into their next conquest, they would be more impassioned to fight for their country.

So it was, in 1812, that Napoleon was leading his army on horseback towards Russia. This would be one of his most ambitious campaigns, and little did Napoleon know that it would also be one of his worst defeats. We can assume that his soldiers were at least a little apprehensive, and Napoleon decided to use his tried and tested method for calming their nerves: singing. The tune he chose was an unknown battle march, written specifically for Napoleon and his conquests, and within a short time, his army was belting out this unnamed song with vigor.

At the same time, the Jewish people were playing out their own story across Europe. Mainly living in small villages and shtetls, Jewish life in the early 1800s could be incredibly difficult. Discriminatory laws and overt antisemitism plagued many of their communities, and common legislation entrenched prejudice against them. However, Napoleon was generally seen as a friend to the Jews. As he conquered different territories, local Jews were placed under the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which were a liberating set of laws that amongst other things, promoted religious freedom. As well as endorsing the right to practice Judaism openly, these laws would also allow Jews to work in many various fields rather than the few that they had previously been limited to – they would be able to trade, open legal firms and even become doctors under this new set of regulations! In addition, crippling taxes which were typically levied on Jewish people were abolished, greatly improving their economic status. Finally, Napoleon sought to outlaw Jewish ghettos and allow Jews to live in freedom amongst their fellow countrymen. In effect, Napoleon was promoting equal rights for Jews, and generally providing them a better life.

Napoleon aiding the Jewish people, William L.Gross, 1806, the National Library of Israel

Because of this, the Jews would often aid Napoleon in his conquests, housing and feeding troops, acting as messengers or guides for his incoming armies, and helping out where they could. But the Alter Rebbe had other plans. Rabbi Scheur Zalman of Liadi, more commonly known as the Alter Rebbe, was the founder of the Chabad movement and wrote some of the most significant Jewish books of his time, including the Tanya and an updated version of the Shulchan Aruch. He was widely praised as one of the most important and respected rabbis of his era, and was often known as simply “The Rav” or “Rebbe” due to his preeminence. To put it in a nutshell, he was a man that people listened to.

On this occasion, he was also a man who sought to impact the political tide of Europe. The Alter Rebbe claimed that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, as he was praying the Musaf prayers in the morning, G-d came to him to let him know that Napoleon wasn’t going to win this war against Russia. Whether or not this divine intervention actually took place, it is possible that the Rebbe was simply politically attuned and understood that the Russian army and terrain were a formidable match for Napoleon’s troops. Either way, he knew that the fate of the Jews was hanging in the balance, and if they ended up supporting the winning side, their lives would be far easier in the future.

The Alter Rebbe, ca. 1880-1910, Avraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Alter Rebbe predicted that Alexander I, the Czar of Russia, would win this war, and if the Jewish community backed him up and helped hasten his victory, the Czar would remember their loyalty and treat them kindly in the future. He thought that as thanks, the Czar might lift some of the taxes imposed on the Jews, and rescind some of the rules entrenching the antisemitism of the region.

Thus, he instructed his large group of followers to support the Czar and be, as it were, on the right side of history, even as many other Jews continued to support Napoleon.

Against this backdrop, Napoleon’s army crossed the Prussian border, and the Alter Rebbe watched on as the troops marched confidently forward. They were still singing their morale-boosting song, and this uplifting tune stuck in the Rebbe’s head, becoming a core memory that he associated with the ensuing battle.

Jewish prayer written by Yisrael Gedaliah ben Moses Kazis for the military success of Napoleon and his armies, 1797, Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel

Sorry to ruin the ending, but the Alter Rebbe was largely correct in his predictions. The Czar won the war, with Napoleon’s forces suffering irreplaceable losses at the Battle of Borodino, just two days before Yom Kippur. In thanks, the Czar made the Rebbe an Honorary Citizen for all Generations – a very high award – and when the Rebbe passed away, his son (who took over as the next Rebbe) was given some land by the Czar in Cherson to build new Jewish villages.

In the year of Napoleon’s great Russian defeat, Yom Kippur was a celebratory festival for the Altar Rebbe and his followers. As the Rebbe stepped up to recite the neilah service, he wanted to mark this victory, and manifest its continued blessings for the year ahead. He quickly called upon one of his disciples and asked the student to remind him of Napoleon’s marching tune, which had become, in his head, the tune associated with the victorious battle. As he once again heard the rousing melody, he began to sing it loud and clear before his congregation.

Handwritten document by a Bonapartist to ascertain the allegiance of the Jews in Paris, 1815, the National Library of Israel

Soon, all of his students and followers were joyously singing along, jumping up and down to the victory march, completely rejuvenating the somber service of Yom Kippur, and forgetting all about breaking their fast. It was a moment to behold, and took root in the hearts and minds of all the people in attendance. The next year, the tune was incorporated into even more neilah services across the country, and in the years that followed, communities all across Eastern Europe began rejoicing in Napoleon’s marching tune during the closing moments of their neilah services.

Today, this well-known tune is ultimately thought of as a victory song, marking the belief that G-d looks over the Jewish people and will protect us both in times of war and peace. We sing this melody in the hope that our prayers have been heard and accepted, and that G-d is writing our names in the book of good life – we have been victorious.

Cantor leading neilah prayers, 2014, photographer: Dancho Arnon, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Once again, let me bring you back to the smell of polished wood and old books as we stand in the synagogue finishing up the neilah service. It has been a long day and you’re emotionally and physically tired. But as you turn the next page, your ears perk up as the congregation collectively breaks out into this joyous victory song and within seconds you know that your atonement has surely been accepted, that G-d is with you, and that all will be okay. The shofar is blown and a cheer breaks out as everyone lets out a sigh that they’ve been holding in for 25 hours. You take a moment to rejoice in the song “Next Year in Jerusalem” and you bask in the beauty of this long and historic religion.