Flogging as Atonement? An Often-Overlooked Yom Kippur Custom

How a little-known Yom Kippur ritual became a weapon in the hands of antisemites

“Malkot” – Flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah postcard published by the “Yehudiyah” publishing house in Warsaw, 1912-1918

It’s a ritual that catches a lot of people by surprise.

Many of those we told of the custom of flogging synagogue congregants on Yom Kippur, to the extent they’d even heard of it, immediately connected the practice to the Muslim day of Ashura. Ashura is marked every year on the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, marking the day in 680 CE when Hussein Ibn Ali fell at the battle of Karbala in Iraq, fighting to gain control of the Muslim Caliphate. This was the turning point of the new religion established by Hussein’s grandfather, the prophet Mohammad, which subsequently split into Sunni and Shi’ite factions. In our modern era, Ashura is marked by millions of Shi’ite Muslims around the world, and one of the day’s most prominent customs is self-flagellation.

One could easily err in thinking that the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur originated with Eastern or Mizrachi Jews, and that this custom was influenced by Shi’ite Muslims. And indeed, many of the leather whips used for this purpose, which can be seen today in Israeli museums, originate in the East.

Whip from Afghanistan – Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

But as we already hinted, this would be a mistake. One of the first mentions of the custom of flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur is found in Medieval Ashkenaz or Europe – beginning with the prayer book or siddur of Rashi, and later on in the collected religious rulings of the Rosh (Rabbenu Asher Ben Yechiel) on the Babylonian Tractate of Yoma (14th century). This important Rabbi and religious jurist wrote of the Yom Kippur customs in Ashkenaz: “And it was customary in Ashkenaz that after the [afternoon] Minchah prayer [before Yom Kippur], [congregants] are flogged in the synagogue” (ch. 8, siman 25).

So how does it work?

On the face of it, this would seem a purely Jewish custom, a remnant of a biblical form of punishment. It went like this: On the eve of Yom Kippur, the synagogue shamash (beadle) or one of the community rabbis would flog congregants 39 times on their back with a leather whip.

Yom Kippur flogging ceremony at a synagogue in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo: Ze Redwan, 2000. Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University

Deuteronomy 25:2 states that “then it shall be, if the wicked man deserve to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to the measure of his wickedness, by number.” And the number of floggings? 39. Precisely the number that is still in use today, among those who partake.

Some of the communities which observed this custom followed the description which appears in the Mishnah (Makkot 3.12-13), some continue to observe it to this day:

How do they flog him? He ties the two hands of the person being flogged on this side and that side of a post, and the attendant of the congregation takes hold of his garments to remove them. If they were ripped in the process, they were ripped, and if they were unraveled, they were unraveled, and he continues until he bares his chest. And the stone upon which the attendant stands when flogging is situated behind the person being flogged. The attendant of the congregation stands on it with a strap in his hand. It is a strap of calf hide, and is doubled, one into two, and two into four, and two straps of donkey hide go up and down the doubled strap of calf hide.

And the attendant flogs him with one-third of the lashes from the front of him, on his chest, and two one-third portions from behind him, on his back. And he does not flog him when the one receiving lashes is standing, nor when he is sitting; rather, he flogs him when he is hunched, as it is stated: “that the judge shall cause him to lie down and to be beaten” (Deuteronomy 25:2), which indicates that the one receiving lashes must be in a position that approximates lying down. And the attendant flogging the one receiving lashes flogs [makeh] him with one hand with all his strength.

“But despite the similarity to the Mishnah,” writes Professor Shalom Tzabar in his article on illustrated Jewish rituals in the Diaspora from the early 20th century, “this is not a custom from the time of the Bible or the Talmud, and the description in the Mishnah is unrelated to Yom Kippur, as it refers to the physical punishment imposed on one who intentionally violates a Torah prohibition.”

So it seems that in the diaspora, in an era when there were no longer Jewish courts or Batei Din with the authority to impose flogging, this biblical punishment for violating negative commandments was transformed into a symbolic (though still somewhat painful) custom in which the congregant atones for his actions. So why have most of us never heard of it?

The custom of flogging, unlike another Yom Kippur custom – Kapparot (the swinging of a chicken or money above the head as an act of atonement) – did not take root in every community. Today, the custom is primarily observed in some Hasidic sects and among some Mizrahi Jews. We can only speculate why this is, but the answer may lie in how the custom was portrayed outside the Jewish community in the diaspora.

There are hardly any illustrations of the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur in Jewish manuscripts. But they are common in another genre: books describing Jewish customs written by Jewish apostates, religious converts to Christianity, which were intended for Christian audiences.

Second edition of Paul Christian Kirchner’s Jüdisches Ceremoniel (“Jewish Customs”, German). This edition includes engravings by artist Johann Georg Puschner

We don’t know much about the life of Paul Christian Kirchner. His Jewish name was Mordechai Gumprecht ben Shlomo, and he was originally from the city of Frankfurt. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Shabbtai Zvi, and after the Muslim conversion of this false messiah, the Rabbi from Frankfurt abandoned his Judaism for good, converting to Christianity on November 6, 1713. After becoming a Christian, he barely eked out a living teaching Hebrew, until he was offered to publicize the story of his conversion so that other Jews would follow. The idea appealed to Kirchner, and in 1717, he published his book Jüdisches Ceremoniel, or “Jewish Ceremonies,” in the city of Erfurt.

Throughout his book, Kirchner the apostate Rabbi provides his Christian readers with a great deal of material, an extended peek into all the central Jewish rituals and holidays. Although most of the information in the book is accurate, Kirchner often exaggerated his description of Jewish customs in a way that would flatter his Christian readers and mock the prejudices and superstitions of his former brethren.

Yom Kippur, for instance, is correctly presented as a central holiday in Judaism, focused on repentance and atonement for the sins of the past year. But what Kirchner chooses to emphasize is the ritual of physical atonement. He presents the ceremony literally: in order to atone for his sins, the Jew must lie on his belly like an animal and receive a series of purifying blows. Thus, a custom which is primarily symbolic becomes (in the hands of an auto-antisemite and apostate) a perfect example of how the Jews refuse to accept the Christian gospel in order to preserve their degrading and absurd customs.

Yom Kippur customs, including flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur

Kirchner was not the only or even the first apostate Jew to use the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur to mock Jews. He was preceded by Friederich Albert Christiani (born Baruch), who in 1700 published his book Der Juden Glaube und Aberglaube or “Jewish Beliefs and Superstitions,” which included an illustration of the flogging custom. It’s interesting that it also includes a description of Kapparot – a custom which a number of important Rabbis also opposed.

Kapparot (top) and flogging (bottom) rituals on the eve of Yom Kippur. Bronze engraving in F. A. Christiani, Der Juden Glaube und Aberglaube, Leipzig, 1705, pl. VII. Source: JTS Library, New York

More than a century before these two apostates, the book Der Gantze Jüdisch Glaub or “The Whole Jewish Faith” was published in 1530. The book was the work of Antonius Margarita, an apostate born into a well-known rabbinical family – his father was Shmuel Margaliyot, the Rabbi of Regensburg. In his book, Margarita claimed to reveal the lie on which the Jewish religion was based, while warning innocent Christians from maintaining any contact with their Jewish neighbors. He also used the flogging custom on Yom Kippur as a way of bashing the people he abandoned. The illustration added to his book manages to mock the flogging custom even further – this time, the faithful are whipped on their exposed behinds.

Der Ganz Jüdisch Glaub by Antonius Margaritha, 1530. Bill Gross Collection, Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University

We obviously can’t stop here, ending with these exaggerated and grotesque images. In the aforementioned article by Professor Tzabar, we found a number of Jewish visual images of the flogging custom. These are postcards which came out during the golden age of illustrated postcards – the early twentieth century – produced in Poland by Jews and for Jews. And indeed, they more authentically represent this unique ritual as it was marked at the time.

Malkot” – Flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah postcard published by Yehudiyah in Warsaw, 1912-1918

Let us end with a thorough description of the ritual in Eastern Europe, quoted by Tzabar in his article. The quote is taken from the writings of Zionist leader Shmaryahu Levin (1867-1935), born in the town of Svislach, Belarus, who recalled experiences from his childhood:

After the Minchah prayer that day [the eve of Yom Kippur] […] I saw with my own eyes, how elderly Jews prostrated themselves on the floor of the Beit Midrash and Elazar the Psalms-sayer or, as he was called publicly for his craft, Elazar the bathhouse attendant, stood over them with a strap and whipped them without mercy. Of course I knew, that this whipping was the flogging, but memories of the cheder [a religious school for children] unconsciously arose in my heart. And the whippings came in perfect order: one below, on the section of the body that was prepared for the worst, and which was the common target of the rabbi and his strap in the cheder, and two above, on the back. And so he would repeat and count: one, one and one, one and two – sometimes fifteen times. And my confusion grew sevenfold, in seeing how the whipped person would get up and throw a few bronze coins into the bowl, which Elazar the bathhouse attendant would serve. It is indeed a wonder and will be a wonder: They are whipped and pay the fee for whipping!


Further Reading

שלום צבר, בין פולין לגרמניה: טקסים יהודיים בגלויות מאוירות מראשית המאה העשרים, מחקרי ירושלים בפולקלור יהודי (כרך כז), הוצאת מאגנס, 2011

When Judaism and Buddhism Meet

Why does the National Library of Israel have a collection of more than 100 pieces of Buddhist art? Why are so many Jews drawn to Buddhism? Why did the Dalai Lama attend a Passover Seder? The answer to all these questions can be found by exploring the fascinating connections between the two religions.

Shaka Nyorai, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

In the process of researching a project about the lunar calendar, I typed the word “moon” into the National Library of Israel’s online catalog search bar. Alongside the many other images, to my surprise, I saw a beautiful picture titled The Kami and the Buddhas of Todaiji. I bookmarked the page on my computer, but soon forgot about it. A couple of weeks later, while looking through some of the NLI’s posters for a social media project, one image that I stumbled upon suddenly stood out to me: the Buddhist Shaka Triad.

The Kami and Buddhas of Todaiji, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel
Buddha Shakyamuni Triad, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

I promptly emailed the NLI’s curator of the Humanities Collection to ask him how we came to possess these two lovely Buddhist pieces of art, and his reply shocked me!

In 1891, an upper-class and well-educated Englishwoman named Elizabeth Anna Gordon visited Japan for the first time at the age of 40, as part of a world tour she undertook with her husband, John. The visit left a strong impression on the couple, and Elizabeth actually ended up moving to Kyoto, Japan, where she lived until her death. During her years in Kyoto, she spent her time researching Japanese Buddhism and expanding her impressive collection of Buddhist art.

Elizabeth had an insatiable interest in many of the world’s religions, and despite the fact that she enthusiastically studied Buddhism in Japan and collected numerous Buddhist books and artworks, she was also a deeply devout Christian, as well as a stout supporter of the early Zionist movement. Elizabeth Anne Gordon’s name is listed in the annals of Zionist history due to the fact that she funded the Zionist Labor Histadrut mission in 1903 to the Lake Victoria region of Africa. They had come to scout out the area for what would later be known as the “Uganda Plan” – the failed proposal to create a Jewish state in Uganda.

As she grew older, Elizabeth made a decision in honor of her commitment to Zionism, to bequeath part of her Buddhist art collection to the National Library of Israel – then still known as the Jewish National and University Library. Once donated, these images sat largely unexplored in the Library’s vast collections until 1938. When a promising young researcher of Japanese art from the Hebrew University requested to borrow some Buddhist paintings from the collections, staff at the Library were alerted to Elizabeth’s bountiful artworks which had been, by now, almost completely forgotten. Some years after the exciting rediscovery of this collection, the NLI decided to create an online exhibition of 139 of these Buddhist paintings, which is of course what I had accidentally stumbled upon.

Nembutsu Prayer Devotional Diagram with Amida Triad, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

But my original question remained: What does Buddhism have to do with us, the Library of the Jewish people? As it turns out, a lot!

In September 1893, in Chicago, Illinois, a Buddhist priest from Sri Lanka named Anagarika Dharmapala met with the young Jewish businessman Charles T. Strauss. Reciting an oath in Sanskrit, Dharmapala converted Strauss to Buddhism marking the first non-Asian person to be ordained into the Buddhist Sangha (monastic order). Following this monumental event, Buddhist leaders started to seriously explore the potential for an American Jewish interest in Buddhism. Buddhist teachers began to travel to the United States, giving lectures to large audiences disproportionately made up of Jews, about the similarities between the two faith systems, and a significant trend of new emergent literature from Jews who had adopted Buddhist belief systems can be traced to those years.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the Jewish Buddhist movement really took off. With the hippy ‘peace and love’ mentality on the rise, and many modern Jews seeking a more spiritual path, lots of young American Jews turned to Buddhism. Jewish friends Michael Fagan and Sam Bercholz established the Shambhala Buddhist festival; Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz founded the famous Insight Meditation center and movement; and even David Ben-Gurion espoused Buddhist meditation!

Ben-Gurion’s visit to Burma (now Myanmar), 1961, this item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN), made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben-Gurion House Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Buddhism is non-theistic, which is to say that Buddhists do not believe in a G-d, rather a set of values to live by. Judaism, however, is monotheistic and encourages belief in one G-d as well as a strict set of rules, both in the form of practices and prohibitions. It is therefore possible, according to some opinions, to follow both religions simultaneously: to believe in a Jewish G-d, keep the Sabbath and laws of kashrut, and also subscribe to Buddhist mysticism, traditions, and values.

For Jews in the 1960s who felt that their Judaism lacked the guidance or spirituality that they craved, one option was to turn to Kabbalah, the Ethics of the Fathers, or the philosophy of the Kuzari. Alternatively, they could look further afield and adopt meditation, Karma, and the Zen beliefs of Buddhism. Many Jews chose the latter.

The Bodhisattva Kannon, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Later in the 20th century, the term “JUBU” emerged, used to refer to the growing sect of Buddhist Jews. Chogyam Trunpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, actually said that most of his students were Jewish, and the Dalai Lama even attended a Passover Seder in 1997! Vipassana Buddhism retreats are extremely popular with Israelis who travel to India, many of the western visitors to the Dalai Lama are Jewish, and it has been estimated by the writer of the famous JUBU book, The Jew in the Lotus that “a third of all Western Buddhist leaders come from Jewish roots.” According to certain estimates Jews count for as many as a third of all non-Asian Buddhists in North America today.

The Dalai Lama (Tensin Gyatso) arrived in Israel on March 20th, 1994 for a four-day visit as the guest of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Gideon Markowiz, 1994, Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel (1, 2, 3)

So why do so many Jews feel at home in the embrace of Buddhism?

According to Emily Sigalow, author of American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change, it was “the practice of meditation really drew them [the Jews] in.” With meditation being one of the core tenants of Buddhism, it is easy to see why some people strongly feel that these meditative practices are what attract Jews to Buddhism. Meditation is encouraged in Judaism and was practiced in the days of the Bible by prophets and priests. The mind-body duality of meditation is echoed in the Jewish belief that our bodily practices affect our spiritual growth, and that through elevating the body we can elevate the soul. Hasidic Jews often practice meditation, and for many Jews, the chanting ritual of prayer three times a day is a strongly meditative exercise. With that in mind, it is clear to see why Jews seeking to connect to a higher force may pick the meditation-focused path of Buddhism. In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, he relates how Buddhist meditation “illuminated” his unconscious and allowed him to “grow spiritually” as he related “how Jewish so much of this unconscious material was.”

Shaka Nyorai, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

However, mediation is not the only practice common to both Judaism and Buddhism. Many of the 253 monastic vows taken by committed Buddhists share similarities with Jewish mitzvot, such as tzniut (modesty) and yichud (the idea that men and women should not be alone in private). Moreover, four of the five Buddhist precepts are bans on murder, adultery, theft and lying. If these sound familiar to Jewish ears, it may be because these are some of our own Ten Commandments. Both Buddhism and Judaism encourage long hours of textural study and a high level of both spiritual and worldly education. Both religions are averse to materialism, especially in the form of modern technology. Both schools of thought believe that humans are not in true possession of the world and thus are taught (via abstinence from greed in Buddhism and via charity in Judaism) to let go of some of what we consider to be ‘our own’.

It doesn’t end there! Both Buddhism and Judaism state that improper or frivolous sexual encounters are immoral, while tantric or muttar (permitted) sexual interactions, conducted in certain settings with certain limitations, are indeed a spiritual practice. Both religions encourage self-growth as totally central to their faith, with Buddhists believing that being a better person will lead them on an enlightened path, and Jews believing that the world was created in order for humans to sanctify it with holy acts. As such, both religions believe in mussar, or guidance from others, and share a desire to tame and refine one’s character. Both groups also have a strong focus on meticulously daily activities, prescribed in order to make sure that each moment of the day contains a measure of spirituality.

Hoshi Mandara, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

But perhaps the most comparable of these similarities is the shared focus on suffering. Judaism is a religion which has endured far more than its fair share of suffering in the course of Jewish history. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a core tenant of the world: it is the cause of evil, and only through liberating ourselves from worldly suffering can salvation be reached. Ruth Sonam, a Jew who has been practicing Buddhism for over 25 years in Dharamsala, Tibet says “It’s so Jewish, you see, to always talk about suffering, as Buddhists do.”

However, while certain practices of Judaism and Buddhism may appear similar, perhaps more significant are the spiritual similarities between the two. Buddhists seek an elevated understanding of the world, and go through a similar process to what in Judaism we call chochma (a spark of understanding), binah (a deeper exploration of that understanding) and da’at (an elevated consciousness as a response to that understanding, or what Buddhists would call samadhi). Understanding the oneness of the world is a mutual goal in both religions. In Judaism we do this through kavannah (divine awareness) which is used to connect our actions to G-d. In Buddhism, spiritual consciousness is a constant goal imbued in every practice, too.

The Buddhist belief in Karma (what you do will be done back to you) is comparable to the Jewish principle of middah k’neged middah, which embodies a similar idea that the good or bad you put into the world will be returned to you in kind. Furthermore, both Jews and Buddhists say that the difficulties that one may face in life are simply tests, sent to trial our strength and help us overcome something within ourselves.

Mandala of White Path Crossing Two Rivers, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Jews and Buddhists also share spiritual beliefs about death. In Buddhism, the tradition is that a person will be reincarnated repeatedly until they attain Nirvana, the highest form of consciousness. Some adherents of Jewish mysticism believe that a soul will be reincarnated eight times until it has grown to the highest spiritual level that it can achieve, and only then will it be at eternal rest in heaven.

Brenda Shoshanna says in her book Jewish Dharma, that the spiritual practices of Judaism and Buddhism are “two wings of a bird… Buddhism helps one understand what authentic Jewish spiritual practice is”.

All this being said, there is one primary reason that I think Buddhism holds a strong draw for Jews. Up until now I have been calling Buddhism a religion, but many Buddhists actually do not consider Buddhism to be a religion but more of a practice or philosophy. “Buddhism is ontologically not a religion. ‘Buddhism’ does not exist: it is a Western designation for the path and philo-praxis offered by Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni… to solve the existential problem of suffering through self-directed meditation” says Mira Niculescu in I THE JEW, I THE BUDDHIST: Multi-Religious Belonging as Inner Dialogue. The Buddha never mentioned G-d in his teachings and Buddhism is non-theistic in its beliefs. It can therefore be argued, that following Buddhism is no more Judaically forbidden than learning philosophy or dedicating one’s life to a pursuit such as sports.

Image of the Buddha Shakyamuni Statue in Seiryōji, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Despite Jews having a history of conflict with most other religions, this is not the case with Buddhism, and importantly, one need not ‘convert’ to Buddhism in order to meditate, or follow the teachings of the Buddha. One can spend their entire life in Buddhist practice without ever taking a formal oath or covenant to become a Buddhist. So those who wish to remain Jewish and dislike the idea of converting to a different religion, need not do so to practice Buddhism. There is, moreover, no genetic lineage to Buddhism, so a Jew may practice Buddhism while still recognizing their Jewish ethnicity and even seeking to pass their native Jewish lineage to their children.

Rakan, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

So, maybe on balance, it really is appropriate for the National Library of Israel, as the Library of the Jewish people, to have so much Buddhist art in its collections. After all, it seems that Buddhism is as Jewish a religion as you can get!

The Kabbalistic Tree: The Map of God

The second commandment states that “You shall not make for yourself a statue or any image”. The Jewish Kabbalists found a rather unique and complicated way to circumvent this prohibition…

From the 12th century, clandestine groups of Jewish scholars began to speak of the “Kabbalah” – a new code name for secret teachings, which, despite being new – emphasized that these were actually a transmission or reception of esoteric ancient knowledge, and not a groundbreaking innovation (the word kabbalah literally means “reception”). As part of this new-old interpretation of Jewish tradition, Kabbalists began proposing a new, unprecedented system to refer to aspects of the Divine: the Kabbalistic Sefirot.

The Kabbalists found the word sefirot in an ancient esoteric book known as the Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Creation,” which dates back to the first centuries of the Common Era. In the book, there is no mention of prayer, life after death, the End of Days or messianic redemption, or even of the Jewish people.

But, what it does contain, and in abundance, is reference to creation. Just not the creation we know from Genesis. It propounds a completely different kind of creation.  How, then, according to the Book of Creation was the world created? By the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten Sefirot (probably a reference to the first ten numbers). These are seen as the building blocks of the world. Hence Creation, according to the Book of Creation, is based on the laws of language.

Taking the unique word sefirah (plural: sefirot) from that mysterious work, the Kabbalists changed its meaning. For them, God had two distinct aspects: one is the Ein Sof – The Infinite – about whom nothing can be known, this is the hidden God; the other is the Divine Presence in the world, which emanates from the Ein Sof through the ten Sefirot – divine categories that represent the powers, qualities, attributes (and so much more) of the revealed God.

The Ein Sof in “The Magnificent Parchment”, the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

From the fourteenth century, the Kabbalists began to formulate a visual representation to encode their ideas about the formation of this divine system, the names of the Sefirot and their attributes and qualities. They viewed it is a graphic representation of God and of the world, a visual and conceptual image of the manifestation of the Godhead. This was a glimpse of the order that governs the universe.

The Kabbalists often referred to the structure of the Sefirot as a system of pipes through which the divine emanation – the concealed Ein Sof – flows down to us humans here on earth. Of course, as anyone familiar with the Kabbalah will tell you, people also have a role in this system. Every person has the ability to influence, repair and preserve the entire divine system. Because what happens in the lower spheres affects the upper ones and vice versa. The Kabbalists called this tikkun. The repair happens through intention – through prayer directed at the qualities and powers of a particular aspect of the Divine (one of the Sefirot)– in order to achieve that repair in the world.


Click here for the University of Haifa’s Ilanot project


One must understand, as Prof. J.H. Chajes explains in his new (and highly recommended) monumental book, The Kabbalistic Tree, that the graphic representation of the Sefirot is not a mnemonic tool, but a religious device, one that is comparable to a tree of many branches. The Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, for example, recommended using one’s imagination to envision the tree of Sefirot during prayer in order to better concentrate on a particular Sefirah in each and every prayer. Hence the tree is a body on which the Kabbalists drape the spiritual reality.

Eventually, the Kabbalah spread throughout the entire the Jewish world, and this technique spread along with it. We find representations of the tree of Sefirot in Jewish communities all over the world. The earliest “tree” to come down to us was created in Spain, the birthplace of Kabbalah, in 1284, in the shape of a wheel.

Earliest known Sefirot tree, Spain, 1284


But as noted, the tree of Sefirot is common throughout the Jewish world – in Europe, North Africa, Israel and the Middle East. A unique tree discovered in Kurdistan helped researchers to uncover a Kabbalist community about which they knew nothing before.

Researchers distinguish between two types of Kabbalistic trees (Ilanot in Hebrew): the tree of the early Kabbalistic period and the tree that developed in light of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), known as the “Ari”. The “classic” tree presents the Divine according to the Sefirot diagram. The Lurianic tree preserves the Sefirot format but offers an enriched and more intricate  structure and visualization of the divine system. At the end of this article, we include a complete Lurianic tree from Morocco to give you an idea of its complexity.

This does not mean that the older trees did not include additional details, and even illustrations supplementing the text. In fact, every tree – whether of the classic or Lurianic model– “required” the student to read a non-continuous text, and to jump from detail to detail in order to try to grasp the whole picture.

A classic Sefirot tree – from the Kabbalistic manuscript Sha’arei Ora shel R. Yosef Gikatilla


Ahead of the move to its new home, the National Library of Israel has acquired a rare and important collection of Kabbalistic trees, which join the existing material in the field of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in the Library’s Gershom Scholem Collection, the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The new collection, which includes 36 parchment and paper scrolls – some of them the longest of their kind in the world (up to 36 feet long!) – joins the 25 scrolls already in the Library’s collection. With the addition of the new manuscripts, the National Library of Israel is now the world’s largest repository of Ilanot, with over sixty scrolls dating from 1660 to 1920, originating from Jewish communities around the world: from Western and Eastern Europe, Yemen, Kurdistan, Morocco, Iraq and more.

And finally, as promised, we present here a Lurianic Kabbalistic tree created in Morocco in 1800. Click on this link to see them item in our online catalog.

Photos: Ardon Bar-Hama.


Further Reading

J. H. Chajes, The Kabbalistic Tree (Pennsylvania University Press, 2022)

The Ilanot project at Haifa University

The First, Last, and Only Female Hasidic Rebbe

Would you break all the traditions of your society, turn against the will of your family, and shatter all the boundaries that you have known to be true in order to follow your destiny? Chana Rochel Verbermacher did just that – breaking out of all the known gender stereotypes to make her own way in a world dominated by men, Chana decided to become the first, and only, Hasidic female Rebbe.

Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah, Batsheva Goldman Ida, Boston: BRILL, 2017, Brill's Series in Jewish Studies, the National Library of Israel. Front cover image: Jan Piotr Norblin (1745-1830) - A Jew studying (1781-1784), Ablakok, Wikimedia Commons and Eulogy of Chana Rochel, the Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion, October 5, 1988, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Would you break all the traditions of your society, turn against the will of your family, and shatter all the boundaries that you have known to be true in order to follow your destiny? Chana Rochel Verbermacher did just that – breaking out of all the known gender stereotypes to make her own way in a world dominated by men, Chana decided to become the first, and only, Hasidic female Rebbe.

Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah, Batsheva Goldman Ida, Boston: BRILL, 2017, Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies, the National Library of Israel. Front cover image: Jan Piotr Norblin (1745-1830) – A Jew studying (1781-1784), Ablakok, Wikimedia Commons

Traditionally speaking, a Hasidic Rebbe was a spiritual leader of a sect or area of Jews in pre-war Ashkenazi Europe. The Rebbe served as a teacher, mentor, and guide to their followers. Often seen as a conduit between his followers and G-d, the Rebbe’s teachings were considered authoritative and binding. Hasidic Rebbes were highly revered in their communities, and their guidance and support were sought for nearly every important decision, including halakhic rulings, what to name one’s baby, who to marry and what moral decision to take in a particular situation. One thing was as certain as the beards on their face and the hats on their heads: they were all men.

This was the world that Chana Rochel Verbermacher was born into in 1805. In the religious shtetl village of Ludmir (then in Russia, now in Ukraine,) Chana was the daughter of deeply religious Hasidic parents. Her mother was the image of modesty in the way she dressed, spoke (or more likely didn’t speak) and dutifully ran her household. Her father, Monesh Verbermacher was a scholar and businessman. He was wealthy and well-liked, and privileged to study under the famous Rabbi Mordechai Twersky, also known as the Maggid of Chernobyl. Chana Rochel had all the ingredients to grow up into a perfect Hasidic young lady – pious parents, a good dowry, and an honorable family name – what more could she have wanted, right?

Rabbi Mordekhai Twersky, Avraham Shabadron Portrait Collection, 1839-1903, the National Library of Israel

Perhapse it was due to this financial and social security that her father felt empowered to make a very odd decision for his daughter – to give her an education! Any education would have been bizarre for a girl in those days, but even more strange was that he decided to teach her Torah as well! She was his only daughter and he was adamant that she should be knowledgeable in both Jewish and worldly matters. Chana Rochel studied Talmud, Tanach, Halakhah and Midrash and could also read and write in Hebrew – which all made for a very impressive shidduch resume indeed! She was also beautiful, a not unsignificant fact in those days, and she was soon engaged to a young scholar from her village – a good match for a good girl.

Map of the shtetl of Ludmir, Center for Jewish Art Collection, CJA Jewish Architecture, Ukraine, Volynska obl., Volodymyr Volynskyi Włodzimierz Wołyński, Ludmir, Photographer: Vitalii Rogozov, the National Library of Israel
Map of the shtetl of Ludmir, Center for Jewish Art Collection, CJA Jewish Architecture, Ukraine, Volynska obl., Volodymyr Volynskyi Włodzimierz Wołyński, Ludmir, Photographer: Vitalii Rogozov, , the National Library of Israel
Descriptions of the shtetl of Ludmir, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, CJA Jewish Architecture, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

This could have been the end of our story – Chana could have married, popped out a bunch of children and died unknown from smallpox or shock, or some other such medieval ailment. But no, for that was certainly not in her nature. Instead, her engagement left her distraught and withdrawn. She didn’t want to go through with the marriage but couldn’t find a way out of the betrothal without disgracing her family name. In the midst of her turmoil, her beloved mother passed away. Shaken and in grief, the groom’s family agreed to delay the wedding while Chana mourned.

Ludmir Shtetl, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, Center for Jewish Art Collection CJA Jewish Architecture, the National Library of Israel
Ludmir Shtetl, Photographer: Yulii Lifshitz, Center for Jewish Art Collection CJA Jewish Architecture, the National Library of Israel

Chana’s complexion clouded with sorrow and eventually she stopped leaving her bedroom, except to visit her mother’s grave. One day on an excursion to the cemetery, she tripped and knocked her head, leaving her unconscious. She was taken home to recover in the care of her father but when she regained her strength, she made a statement that no one would forget, claiming to have been given a new soul which had been promoted to a higher spiritual level by G-d Himself. Promising that she would never again belong to another man, she broke off her engagement and claimed that she no longer belonged to the material world and had instead entered a spiritual plain.

Chana Rochel Verbermacher subsequently made a decision to accept the full range of mitzvot and Jewish laws upon herself, which were usually only performed by males, especially in the 19th century. She would wear male religious garb, read from the Torah, and obligate herself in the positive timebound mitzvot reserved for men. She also continued with her Jewish education, immersing herself in religious study and devotedly praying three times a day.

She soon gained fame, both from those who revered her and those who decidedly disapproved of her lifestyle. But as the shtetl watched on with open mouths, the wonder she garnered was mainly favorable! She took on a new title, as friends and family started referring to her either as the Maiden of Ludmir, or the Holy Virgin. Being that the latter is usually associated with Mary mother of Jesus, the Maiden of Ludmir was the title that stuck!

Chana Rochel Verbermacher built up a following. People of all genders started attending her Jewish study hall, funded by her family inheritance, to learn from her. She would lead prayer services, give religious classes and teach on important matters of Torah. Just as men would flock to the study halls of other Hasidic Rebbes, they would also queue up outsider her beit midrash to hear her teach and grant answers to halakhic questions, as well as give rulings over Jewish and moral dilemmas. Scholars and Rabbis would also come to hear her, giving Chana an additional layer of legitimacy. According to Nathaniel Deutsch’s book, The Maiden of Ludmir, most of her followers were impoverished but pious men and women. While more grand religious courts were the trend for the rich and honored men of the community, these courts were sometimes exclusionary or simply intimidating, so when Chana Rochel set up her own religious court within her study hall, it became popular with the poor and marginalized religious folk of the shtetl.

Synagogue of Lublin with a woman (possibly Chana Rochel) sitting at its entrance, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection,  the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Whether from shock over his daughter’s new-found fame, or simply from old age, Monesh Verbermacher passed away, giving his daughter even more leeway to practice her role as a Hasidic leader. She holed herself up in her study hall, making religious rulings in her court, teaching the community and greeting those who came to pray and learn. During this time, she gained a further reputation for possessing supernatural powers. Sick individuals would approach her to be healed, single youngsters would come to her for blessings of marriage, and those in distress would bequest her to ease their suffering. Whether or not she was actually able to help these people, her reputation spread and her steady stream of visitors never ceased, so it’s clear that at the very least, she was recognized by many as a person truly capable of working miracles.

What is even more surprising (yes, even more surprising than being a miracle-worker) was that many in the old, traditional shtetl seemed to accept her as a Hasidic Rebbe! She took on the roles of the Rebbe wholeheartedly: Giving blessings and permits to her community members; receiving audiences; presiding over the weekly shabbat tisch (the third meal of the shabbat, led by the Rebbe in accompaniment of his scholars and fellow Hasidic followers); and delivering teachings and lectures both at the tisch meal and in synagogue on the Sabbath (even though many sources suggest that she did this from behind a veil or screen in order to sustain her modesty).

She even took on the more kabbalistic practices of Hasidic Rebbes, including receiving kvitlach (prayer request notes from members of the community), and giving out shirayim from her plate (leftovers from her meal, eaten by followers in great reverence of her every act).

Years passed in this manner, but they say that good things can never last, and that’s a great shame. As Chana Rochel gained more influence and prestige, the more powerful men of the town started to revolt. Maybe they were afraid of a woman stealing their limelight, or maybe they simply couldn’t handle the crush to their ego when they saw that a mere woman could do their job better than them, but either way they started to rebel, almost inevitably. Chana gained a strong opposition group who claimed that her seeming piety was actually a manifestation of Satan and the evil eye, and rendered her impure.

The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World, Nathaniel Deutsch, London: University of California Press, 2003, the S. Mark Taper Foundation Imprint in Jewish studies, the National Library of Israel

As Chana continued to shatter the boundaries of femininity, her very being put the shtetl system itself at risk. Women were meant to wed and have children, not teach! Women could not remain unmarried virgins, and there was a deep fear that other women would follow her lead and the whole community structure would come crashing down – of course this was a system dominated by men, so their fear of the establishment’s downfall was understandable. Chana Rochel found herself under immense pressure to abandon her controversial practices and change her lifestyle. As she continuously batted off these attacks, many of the townsmen were determined to do whatever they could to get rid of this female leader, an unmarried female leader no less! And one who practiced mysticism! It was beyond belief! In their efforts to ruin her reputation, anything and everything was used against her: it was even claimed that a malevolent spirit possessed Chana. But mere hate speech wasn’t going to ruin Chana Rochel’s career – no – for that they needed something more powerful, like marriage.

One of her father’s dying wishes was for Chana to sit down and talk to his Rebbe, the prominent Maggid of Chernobyl, to discuss her illicit actions. She declined his pleas at that time, but as the pressure from her community grew, she finally agreed to at least meet with him, for he was, after all, the most eminent and highly respected Rabbi in the entire area. The Maggid of Chernobyl wasn’t accustomed to many private intercessions into the lives of his followers, and certainly not for a woman, but for 40-year-old Chana he made an exception. We will never know what he said during this private meeting, but by the end of the consultation the Maiden of Ludmir had agreed to marry and thus assume her ‘rightful’ role as a woman. He convinced her to stop teaching and settle down as a traditional Hasidic house wife, and to the public he issued a statement that her body had been temporarily possessed by the soul of a Tzaddik who he had exorcised and would thus no longer bother the town with his tomfoolery.

Rabbi Mordekhai Twersky’s religious teachings from his private notebook, Avraham Shabadron Portrait Collection, 1839-1903, the National Library of Israel

Ada Rapoport-Albert explains in her article On Women in Hasidism: S.A. Horodecky and the Maid of Ludmir Tradition, that by agreeing to the Maggid’s mandate for her marriage, she was essentially invalidated as a religious leader and pushed into a traditional female role that undermined her as a teacher and Rebbe. Perhapse it was because of this that the marriage was not consummated, and ended very soon after it began. After the annulment of her second marriage, Chana was seen as a total outcast and suffered greatly. She was no longer serving as a Rebbe and her followers abandoned her, believing that Chana was no longer spiritually pure and that the spirit which had possessed her to become a Tzaddik was no longer with her. To make matters worse, no one in this community would marry a woman who was essentially divorced not once but twice, and she was labelled as an outcast and a maiden until her final days. The townsmen had ruined her life.

No longer being able to live in her small shtetl, Chana Rochel Verbermacher left Europe and traveled to the Land of Israel to settle in Jerusalem in 1859. Hasidism was not as strong in the Holy Land as it was in Eastern Europe, but her name proceeded her wherever she went, and a small group of loyal followers awaited her arrival eagerly. She started teaching Torah again, this time to smaller groups, and became a sort-of undercover community leader. Aware of how her previous fame had nearly destroyed her, she kept her classes small and her religious rulings quiet, but she once again began to lead those around her in moral, halakhic and scholarly matters. In the 1860s and 1870s there is documentation suggesting that Chana Rochel belonged to the Volhynian Kolel, a Hasidic learning institute of Ashkenazi Jews who received funds from their home countries, while dedicating their lives to the study of Torah. This was an institution designed for male scholars, but archives have been found confirming that Chana Rochel did in fact both learn and teach at the kolel.

Chana also resumed her Sabbath classes, and groups of students would come on Saturday afternoons to hear her recite words of Torah. Every Rosh Chodesh, the Jewish new month, she would lead students and scholars to the Tomb of Rachel to pray, and she would also perform Kabbalistic rituals intended to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, but these were done with small private audiences and groups of holy men and women, so unfortunately the exact details of these rituals are not something we have record of today.

Tomb of Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, findagrave.com, memorial, Jared 47964612, Mount of Olives Cemetery, Jerusalem

An unmarried, childless woman, Chana Rochel Verbermacher spent her final year in Jerusalem, before passing away on the 22nd of Tammuz, when she was buried on the Mount of Olives (there is some disagreement on the year of her death, some sources note 1888, others 1892). Chana Rochel Verbermacher – the Maiden of Ludmir, did something never done before, and never done since – she was and remains the only female Hasidic Rebbe to ever have lived. Driven underground, this did not change the fact that she was a true Tzaddik, teacher and leader, trailblazing the way in a world that tried to repress her every move.

Eulogy of Chana Rochel, the Indiana Jewish Post and Opinion, October 5, 1988, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The Maggid of Chernobyl was correct in saying that she possessed the soul of a righteous person, but where he was mistaken was that her achievements should be credited to a man. She never drew on men for her authority, or relied on a husband or father to speak on her behalf – she was a woman through and through and it was in spite of all the barriers that this created for her that she excelled. She was considered a failure by her community – unmarried and expelled from the shtetl, but she was far from a failure. She broke all the glass ceilings, as well as the ceilings which were far more opaque too.

Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, The Australian Jewish Herald, September 5, 1947, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel
Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, The Sentinel, May 12, 1966, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel
Chana Rochel’s legacy – article about the Maiden of Lublin, J. The Jewish News of Northern California, January 26, 1951, the Historical Jewish Press Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Chana Rochel was an anomaly within her community, and even today would be considered on the margins of religious society, but it is because of this unique and brilliant life that we can look up to her courage and see how she managed to walk alone with her head held high to fulfil what she knew was her purpose in life. Filled with awe and reverence, we can say with certainty that her life was exceptional: the only female Hasidic Rebbe to ever have lived.