Meet Emilia Morpurgo: A Female Ritual Slaughterer from Italy

Even though many authorities of Jewish law permit women to perform ritual slaughter, there are very few testimonies of female ritual slaughterers in Jewish history.

In recent years, the search for women’s equality in various areas of Jewish life has flooded the Religious Zionist sector. Women demand that their right to study Torah be recognized, they are acknowledged as qualified and capable of ruling on matters of Jewish marital law, and there are those who believe it will not be long before women will be serving as community rabbis.

At the same time, we see a certain level of radicalization in some groups within Religious Zionism. For many years there has been no mixed dancing at celebrations (many places a partition between the circles of men and women, and many families even segregate between the tables of women and men), and religious male soldiers refuse to be trained by women or participate in events in which may include a woman singing. This context gives added significance to the certification granted on the 8th day of the Jewish month of Iyar in the Hebrew year of 5693 (1933), by Rabbi Gustavo Castelbolognes, Chief Rabbi of Padua in Italy, to Emilia Morpurgo which authorized her to slaughter chickens.

The certificate permitting Emilia Morpurgo to perform ritual slaughter

Rabbi Castelbolognes, like the vast majority of Italian rabbis, was stringent in his observance of the Torah commandments and was even removed from his position as rabbi of Tripoli by the authorities due to his war against Jews opening their stores on the Sabbath. The Rabbi wrote on the certificate that Mrs. Morpurgo had undergone sufficient training in checking the slaughtering knife and was well versed in the correct ritual slaughter of chickens from both the halachic (Jewish law) and practical aspects.

In his certification, the rabbi declared that Emilia is authorized to slaughter chickens due to her expertise in the laws of Kosher slaughter, because she is Godfearing and, in part, due to her promise to review all the laws of ritual slaughter every two months.

A Tradition of Female Ritual Slaughterers

Jewish law does not forbid women from performing ritual slaughter. The Mishna in tractate Chulin determines, “Everyone may slaughter and their slaughter is Kosher, apart from a deaf-mute and a minor, lest they ruin the slaughter (Chulin 1:1).”

In the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 1:1) Rabbi Yosef Karo also ruled that meat slaughtered by a woman may be eaten. The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles), the foremost authority of Jewish law in the Ashkenazi world, noted that it was not customary for women to slaughter, but he too did not forbid it. Rabbi Yosef Teomim – the 18th-century rabbi of Frankfurt and author of the work of Jewish law named “Pri Megadim,” only permitted women to perform ritual slaughter if their knives were well checked, and on the condition that they did not have a tendency to faint at the sight of blood.

In his book on the laws of ritual slaughter, Eldad Hadani, the famous ninth-century traveler, forbade women from slaughtering, making waves in the literature dealing with Jewish law in the Middle Ages – perhaps serving as testimony that women did indeed perform ritual slaughter at that time. In any event, there are several historical testimonies of female ritual slaughterers, which have already been discussed by Reuven Bonfil in his book “In a Silver Mirror: Jewish Life in Italy During the Renaissance,” by Bezalel Roth in his book “The Jews in Renaissance Culture in Italy,” and Shlomo Simonson in his book “The History of the Jews in the Duchy of Mantua.”

A City of Innovations

The first Jews came to Padua in the Middle Ages but its Jewish ghetto was only established in 1601. The congregation was known for the relatively large number of Jewish doctors it produced and was known as a center of Torah study and dissemination due to its printing press – one of the first in the western world. The most renowned of the famous Torah scholars who lived there was Rabbi Meir son of Yitzchak Katzenellenbogen, the Maharam of Padua (1473-1565), a cousin of the Rema who served as head of the Yeshiva and rabbi of the city’s Ashkenazi community.

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A rabbinical college was established in Padua in the 19th century and was the first institution in Europe to combine secular and religious studies. The college was established by Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Reggio (known as the Yashar), and the rabbi and commentator Rabbi David Luzzatto (Shadal) was also one of its directors. The college had a significant impact on the spiritual life of Italian Jewry. The college was transferred to Rome in 1870, where it continues to operate to this very day.

The Morpurgo family of Padua was a Godfearing, religiously observant, Zionist family. Emilia was the wife of Renzo Chaim Morpurgo, a scion of the well-known Morpurgo family who came to Italy from Marburg in Austria, and whose descendants lived in various communities throughout Italy including Padua in the north. Tirtza, Renzo Chaim’s mother, was known for her righteousness and support for rabbis and institutions in the Land of Israel. Underneath the family house in Padua was a Mikva, a ritual bath.

In the Morpurgo family archive, there is a file which contains certificates of ordination as ritual slaughterers which were given to Mordechai son of Meir – an ancestor of Renzo Chaim, to his father to Renzo Chaim himself, and of course, as discussed above, to his wife Emilia. There seems to have been a family tradition which encouraged the study of the laws of ritual slaughter, perhaps due to religious outlook and perhaps in order to guarantee a supply of kosher meat even in the absence of a professional slaughterer.

The three children of the Morpurgo family immigrated to Israel. The first to immigrate was the youngest son, Edgardo Uriel. He was born in 1923 and immigrated to Israel with the Youth Aliyah movement in 1940 where he studied in Mikveh Yisrael. During the Second World War, Edgardo Uriel served in the Jewish Brigade in Italy and enabled a Holocaust survivor to immigrate to Israel with his certificates. He returned to Israel in 1947 and began his studies in the Technion in Haifa. He enlisted to the Haganah in January 1948 and was killed in April 1948 in one of the battles to capture Haifa.

The oldest Morpurgo son, Marco Mordechai, was born in 1920. He left university to join an agricultural training settlement in Italy and immigrated to Israel in 1945 to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. He was killed in August 1948 in the region of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, leaving behind a wife and two daughters. The middle chile, Tirzah, also settled in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, where she started her own family. Emilia and Renzo Chaim Morpurgo immigrated to Israel after their sons were killed and settled in Sde Eliyahu where they lived until the end of their lives near their daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Emilia died in 1963, and her husband passed just a few months later.

Emilia Morpurgo’s ordination certificate signed by the Chief Rabbi of Padua, Italy

The certificate permitting Emilia Morpurgo to perform ritual slaughter attests to the diversity of Jewish life through the ages and proves that customs and traditions which seem to date back countless generations – such as the accepted practice that women don’t perform ritual slaughter – do not always accurately reflect historical reality.

This article was originally published in the 22nd issue of Segula magazine.

The Holocaust-Era Hero Who Became the Mayor of Hell

Miksa Domonkos, a Hungarian war hero who saved countless lives in the Budapest Ghetto during the Holocaust, was tortured to death under false pretenses.

Miksa Domonkos at the Italian front, Trento, Italy, 1916. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

The following story was collected by Centropa in an interview with István Domonkos, the son of Miksa Domonkos. István’s full oral history interview can be read here. 

For more than 40 years Miksa Domonkos unknowingly trained for the moment when he was needed most.  He became a hero, a genuine Hungarian hero, and like so many heroes in Hungary’s history, he paid a steep price for his sacrifice.

A road in Budapest, Hungary. This postcard is from the early 20th-century. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Domonkos was born in 1890 in Zsambek. Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time, and Miksa spoke perfect German. He studied in Berlin and in 1910 when the first commercial tractors were being sold in Europe, he went to work for Caterpillar.

When the First World War began, he took his ability to work with trucks and tractors and went to serve the nation. He quickly rose through the ranks, from private to ensign to first lieutenant. He was wounded several times, after recovering from the injury, he would always return to the war front.

Miksa Domonkos at a tractor show in Budapest, Hungary, 1930. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

In 1918, Miksa married Gabriella Rozsa and they had three children, Peter, Istvan, and Anna. But the marriage didn’t last, and a few years later, Miksa married Stefania Szabo. He went back to work for tractor companies and was extremely successful.

When the world economic crisis started in America in 1929 and spread its way to Europe, Hungary was hit hard. As new governments were elected they seemed to move ever more to the right. The situation worsened in 1938, as one anti-Jewish law after another was passed. Miksa lost his job and became a traveling salesman.

Istvan and Peter, the sons of Miksa Domonkos, 1932. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

When Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he expected the Italians, the Romanians, and the Hungarians to join him in his fight. Jews went too, in unarmed labor brigades. In 1942, Miksa’s son Peter was sent to a labor brigade in Ukraine where he died at the early age of 22. Istvan also went into forced labor in the mountains, working through the summer heat and raging winters.

Map of Budapest, 1942 from the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel.

In 1944, Miksa was unemployed. As a Jew, he was unemployable. One day, he met with the leader of the Jewish community, Sandor Eppler. Eppler knew about Miksa Domonkos—the decorated soldier of the First World War. He knew that in 1935, he had become a Captain in the Reserves. Miksa Domonkos was hired and began arranging supplies to be sent to young Jews in forced labor brigades. He had soon turned the Jewish Museum into a warehouse for blankets, canned food, and medicine.

On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary. Throughout the country, Jews were soon forced to wear the yellow star. Adolf Eichmann, with the help of the Hungarian government, the Hungarian gendarme and police very quickly arranged the deportation of 437,000 Jews from all provinces and outer districts of Pest directly to the death camps in German-occupied Poland.

Captain Miksa Domonkos, 1938. Photo by Color Photo Salon, VI, courtesy of Centropa.

In July 1944, a Swedish diplomat by the name of Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest and he soon began to save Jews by issuing them Swedish protective passes and later setting up safe houses.

Tens of thousands of Jews were sent out on death marches, and 75,000 people were forced into a very crowded ghetto in the center of Budapest as the Soviet Army began to surround the city.

This is when Miksa Domonkos became the man everyone depended on—he became the de-facto mayor of the ghetto—the mayor of hell.

Every day, even while soldiers guarded the ghetto, Miksa donned his uniform, polished his buttons and went to work. He was among those with permission not to wear the yellow star meaning he was able to move freely throughout the city. He used his army contacts to the best of his ability, reaching out to those who still respected the army that he had so faithfully served. They answered his calls, and when they could, they helped.

The Raoul Wallenberg Memorial in Budapest, Hungary 1988. Photo from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He ordered the workers of the community to distribute what little food he could find. They set up medical offices so doctors could care for the sick. They arranged for their own ghetto police, to keep order. And then arranged to bury the dead. All the while Raoul Wallenberg distributed forged documents to say Jews were under Swedish protection.

The Soviet Army entered Budapest, and on January 18, 1945, the ghetto was liberated. The great and grand city of Budapest was a war-ravaged wreck. It was then that Raoul Wallenberg went out to meet the Soviet Army—and vanished, never to be seen again.

From 1945 to 1948, things began to look up. Miksa went to work for the Jewish community and was highly decorated for all he had done during the war, but he had seen too much and in 1950, Miksa stepped down from his duties, exhausted.

Hungary—once an integral part of Europe—had now become a hardline Stalinist state. And the Russians were feeling the heat as the search for Wallenberg intensified. In April of 1953, Miksa was arrested and falsely accused of killing Raul Wallenberg. Miksa Domonkos, a decorated soldier of the First World War and hero of the Budapest ghetto, was tortured for six months by the communists to confess to murdering Wallenberg until there was nothing left of him.

Miksa Domonkos at his decoration ceremony in the Budapest Parliament in 1947. Photo by Photopress, Karoly Falus, VIII. Kisfaludy Street 4, courtesy of Centropa.

In November 1953, when it was clear he was dying, they dumped him in a hospital and Miksa passed away shortly after. Miksa Domonkos was quietly buried in the Jewish cemetery and, two years later, when the Hungarians rose up against the Soviets, the heroes of that failed revolution were buried just over the wall from Miksa.

Miksa Domonkos spent his whole life in service. He was a man of conviction who was always determined to do the right thing—and when he walked into the Budapest Ghetto every day, armed only with his elegant uniform and those glittering medals, he went to do the job he was hired to do—the job he had been born to do.

Watch this video produced by Centropa for the full testimonial as told by Istvan Domonkos, the son of Miksa Domonkos. 

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

When Life Gives You Lemons: Sukkot Preparations in the Town of Halberstadt

Living in a cold climate in Central Europe sometimes meant going to great lengths to get the citrus fruit required to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the town of Halberstadt (then in Prussia, now in Germany), had one of the largest Jewish communities in Central Europe. The community Pinkas (registry), now housed in the Manuscript Department of the National Library, details the activities of the town’s Jewish residents from 1773-1808. This community register was written in chronological order and in several languages including Yiddish, Hebrew, and German. The Pinkas served as a centralized record of rules and regulations, criteria for acceptance into the community, diplomatic initiatives, and interactions with other communities.

In European countries with colder climates like Prussia, it was historically difficult to find fresh citrus fruit. While this may not seem like a critical issue for most, for the Jewish people citrus fruit play a fundamental role in the celebration of one of the central Jewish holidays – Sukkot.

An elderly man holding an Etrog used to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, illustration by Alphonse Levy from the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University

During the weeklong holiday, Jews celebrate by living and eating in huts constructed especially for the occasion in accordance with precise traditional instructions.

The citrus fruit known as the etrog, or citron in English,  plays a key part in the in the prayer services performed on Sukkot, which marks the end of the harvest season in the Hebrew month of Tishrei.

The Jewish communities in Central Europe were typically dependent on imported etrogim, a reality that served as a source of great apprehension for many given the dangers of sea travel.  As the high holidays approached, if the shipment of etrogim had yet to arrive, concern would grow within the community and the local Jews would find themselves feeling a bit frantic. In fact, there are recorded incidents where local merchants successfully tricked the despairing Jewish community into purchasing lemons in place of etrogim for want of a better option.

The concern over the timely arrival of etrogim was a familiar feeling for the community of Halberstadt. The community Pinkas includes an entry that tells of the great lengths the community leaders went through to ensure the town would be able to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot in its entirety.

Pages 101- 102 of the Halberstadt Community Pinkas, from the Manuscript Department of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge the image.

Written in Yiddish on the 28th day of the Jewish month of Elul, just a few days before the start of the High Holy Days of 1796, an entry describes how the Jewish leaders of the town were working their personal connections in other Jewish communities to try and procure enough etrogim for the town to use in the upcoming holiday services.

“Reb Moshe said in the name of Reb Gissel, who wrote to the community leaders of Frankfurt to inquire about etrogim a while ago but until now we have yet received an answer,” reads page 201 of the Pinkas.

The entry even recorded suggestions by community leaders that another letter be written in the hopes of increasing pressure on potential suppliers of etrogim. They also included a contingency plan, in case the additional pressures were insufficient.

Etrog trees, photograph from the Dan Hadani Archive at the National Library of Israel

The entry reads, “Reb Gissel will continue to wait for an answer and in the case that his contact will not bring forth etrogim, we will instead buy a few etrogim at the fair in Leipzig before Rosh Chodesh Tishre (the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishre), as many as are needed for the community.”

This entry and the decision of the community council gives the impression that there were other locations with accessible etrogim but perhaps they were pricier or of a lesser quality, and therefore it was preferred to have them brought in from Frankfurt.

While the Pinkas does not mention the outcome of the community’s conundrum, this entry gives us an interesting insight into life for the religious Jewish community in the 19th century and provides a closer look at the difficulties faced when trying to uphold the laws of the holiday of Sukkot.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The 13th Century Manuscript That Was Saved From the Nazis

The Worms Mahzor, written in the late 13th century, was spared the destruction of the Holocaust after it was smuggled away from the Gestapo and hidden in one of the city’s cathedral towers.

November 10, 1938, the morning after Kristallnacht.

Shattered glass glittered in the streets and the smoking remains of Jewish businesses and synagogues stood as witness to the violence and rampant destruction instigated by the Nazi mobs the previous evening. An eerie quiet fell on the streets of Germany that morning following the arrest and deportation of 30,000 Jews from their homes to the concentration camps where they would await their fate. Fear gripped the hearts of the Jewish community as its members surveyed the damage and questioned their safety and what the future held in store.

Dr. Freidrich M. Illert, the director of the local cultural institutions and the archivist of the city of Worms, immediately recognized that the extent of the damage was far beyond what most could perceive. It wasn’t just the physical businesses and places of worship that had been lost in the fires; the historical documents and archives of the Jewish community may very well have been included among the victims. The Great Synagogue of Worms had gone up in flames and he feared that, along with the building, the community’s archive which contained irreplaceable historical documents and books may have also been lost.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

Included in the archive was the Worms Mahzor, a set of manuscripts consisting of two volumes, one that was written in 1272 and a second that was written in 1280. The two-volume set was used by the cantors of the community to lead the congregation of the Great Synagogue of Worms in the traditional holiday prayer services for centuries.

The two volumes were written by different scribes and it is not absolutely clear where they were written. The first volume was written by the scribe Simcha ben Yehuda and in the prayers for the seventh day of Passover, a marginal note reads: “This is said aloud on that day, such is the rite of Würzburg.” Based on this notation as well as the illustrations included in the manuscript which bare resemblance to other documents originating from that region, it is believed the volume originated from the area of Würzburg.


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Written on parchment in decorative Ashkenazic calligraphy, the Mahzor features illustrations and embellishments drawn in colorful inks. Over the years, different cantors as late as the 14th century had added their own notations to the first volume showing that the Mahzor had been used in prayer services for centuries.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

The 13th-century manuscript also contains the oldest known sample of written Yiddish. The scribe of the Mahzor wrote a blessing for the man who carried the weighty book to the synagogue for prayer services. Hidden in the letters of the prayer for dew traditionally recited on Passover, the blessing reads, “Let a good day shine for him, who will carry this Mahzor to the synagogue.”

The blessing for the carrier of the Mahzor hidden inside the letters, “B’daato.” From the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

During his desperate search for information, Dr. Illert discovered that the community archive had been spared the inferno that destroyed the Great Synagogue but the whereabouts of the archive and how it had survived remained a mystery. He sought the help of the Worms municipality and the Hesse State government in tracking down the archive but, despite his greatest efforts, his search proved futile.

Years later, in the summer of 1943, Dr. Illert was invited to the palace in Darmstadt by the local Gestapo officials to help decipher foreign manuscripts. He was led down the stairs of the palace to the basement to view the books. After just a cursory glance at what lay in front of him, Dr. Illert realized he was looking at the archives of the Jewish community of Worms. After a quick search, he discovered that buried deep in the pile of books and documents lay the two volumes of the precious Worms Mahzor.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

Dr. Illert was determined to rescue the archives and the historical documents from likely destruction at the hands of the Nazis. At great personal risk, he began slowly and methodically removing items from the basement, transferring the archive to the towers of one of the city’s cathedrals for safekeeping, a decision that also spared the documents from destruction when the allied forces bombed the city.

A page from the Worms Mahzor, from the NLI Collections. Click image to enlarge.

The archive, along with the Mahzor, survived the horrors of the war and in 1956, legal negotiations began in the hopes of transferring the Worms archive to Israel. In June of 1957, the two-volume Mahzor was brought to the National Library of Israel for preservation and safekeeping and the rest of the archive of the Jewish community of Worms was transferred to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.