Why Does Gaza Appear in This Antique Hebrew Scroll?

Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, the tombs of the righteous in the Galilee, and... Gaza? Jewish scrolls from the 16th and 17th centuries offer an interesting selection of holy places in the Land of Israel. How did the city of Gaza end up on this list?


Illustration of the city of Gaza in the 17th century Yichus Ha’avot Scroll, which is kept at the National Library of Israel

A complete road atlas for the holy sites in the Land of Israel, an advertisement brochure, or a travel book? From the Middle Ages to the 16th and 17th centuries, written and illustrated compositions were circulated in the Land of Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora, claiming to present those abroad with descriptions of the Jewish holy places found throughout the land. Three of these, which were copied as illustrated scrolls, are preserved at the National Library of Israel.

These items were copies of what’s known as the Yichus Ha’Avot scroll, or in its full name as it appears in the first part of the manuscript: “Lineage of the Forefathers and the Prophets and the Righteous and the Tana’aim and the Amora’im, May They Rest in Peace, in the Land of Israel and Outside the Land, May God Establish Their Merit for Us, Amen.” As its name indicates, this scroll is mainly focused on the burial places of our ancient ancestors – from those buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs (Ma’arat Ha’Machpela) to the later tombs of the Amorites which were spread throughout the Land of Israel, and sometimes even outside of it (such as the tombs of Mordechai and Esther, Daniel, and others).

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The Yichus Ha’Avot scroll, preserved at the National Library of Israel and on display in the permanent exhibition

But then, in one of the copies, above the illustration depicting a city surrounded by a wall, the following Hebrew inscription appears:

“Kfar Gaza, the city of Samson, a beautiful country”

This particular copy of Yichus Ha’Avot was copied and illustrated in Casale Monferrato in northern Italy, in 1598. As mentioned above, the illustration depicts a walled city with many towers covered with domes, some alluding to their status as mosques, some reminiscent of churches. The whole city is surrounded by a wall, and a (very) large domed gate with no doors symbolizes the entrance to the city.

Yichus Ha’Avot scroll 1598

Another illustration very similar in its characteristics – in which Gaza is referred to as “the land of Samson, a beautiful country” – appears in another Yichus Ha’Avot scroll from the National Library collection, this one dating to the 17th century. Here, the illustrator imagined Gaza as an even greener and more colorful city, with the mosques appearing more prominently. The city gate is still broad and impressive, lacking doors and wide open.

“Gaza is the land of Samson, a beautiful country” illustration of the city of Gaza in the Yichus Ha’Avot scroll, preserved by the National Library of Israel

Shlomo Zucker, a former member of the National Library’s manuscripts department, researched the composition and described it as follows:

“The drawings are spectacular; green and red for the trees and flowers, gold for the domes and some of the columns of the buildings […] However, the buildings – with vaults, gables, columns, and crowns in the classical style – are completely imaginary, and have nothing to do with the actual shape of the sites described in the text.” (S. Zucker, Yichus Ha’Avot or Elleh Massai, Ariel, 123-122, 5757, p. 206 [Hebrew])

Is this really how Gaza looked in those days?

Written testimony, archaeological findings, and descriptions in various travel books present a different picture of the city.

But the very fact that the descriptions and illustrations in the Yichus Ha’Avot scroll are imagined is not surprising or unusual. Scientific or geographical accuracy was not necessarily at the forefront of the minds of the writers and artists of the time. Maps and illustrations based on imagination or various graphic ideas disconnected from reality were quite common.

One of the interesting examples is the “Clover Leaf Map” by Heinrich Bünting, one original copy of which is preserved in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library.

The map depicts the old world in the form of a clover leaf on which three continents are represented: Asia, Europe, and Africa. Jerusalem, by the way, is located in the center of the world according to this map. On the map itself, Bunting explains the reason for his artistic choice: “The whole world is in the shape of a clover leaf, which is a symbol of the city of Hanover, my beloved birthplace.”

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The Clover Leaf Map. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

Like the famous Clover Leaf Map, the Yichus Ha’Avot scrolls also weren’t trying to be realistic or to reflect actual geography and topography. The scrolls and the illustrations inside them tried to express a visual-imagined space, emotional at its core, which made it possible to browse through them and feel like someone who was walking in the footsteps of our ancestors, as someone who is faithful and connected to the “lineage of the fathers”.

The much more surprising fact is that Gaza was added to the map of holy places at an unknown time.

In earlier and more ancient versions of the Yichus Ha’Avot scrolls, Gaza does not appear at all. Why suddenly in the 16th and 17th centuries was Gaza included on the map of holy places? Why is it described as a “beautiful country”, and why is the city where Samson the biblical hero met his death suddenly named after him – “Samson’s city”?

It should be noted that Gaza was not one of the four traditional Jewish holy cities in the Land of Israel. Moreover, various halachic discussions raised the question of whether Gaza is part of the Land of Israel, and whether the commandments that are dependent on the land must be observed there. According to most opinions, the answer is no.

So what suddenly changed at the end of the 16th century?

The fluctuations in Gaza’s status as an important or backwater city over the years stemmed from its location on the coastal road leading between the Land of Israel and Egypt. When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land, there were no trade relations between the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and Muslim Egypt, and Gaza was a ruined and largely abandoned city. But then the Mamluks conquered the region, and with the increased stability, the status of Gaza, which had been rejuvenated into an important roadside trading city, rose as well.

Towards the end of the Mamluk period, in 1481, Rabbi Meshullam of Volterra, a Jewish banker from Florence, visited Gaza, and his descriptions corroborate the literal description in the Yichus Ha’Avot scroll which states that Gaza is a “beautiful country”.

According to Rabbi Meshullam, Gaza was “a good and fat land”, with a small Jewish community that produced wine. But unlike the illustrations in the Yichus Ha’Avot scroll, Rabbi Meshullam described Gaza as so self-confident that it had no wall at all: “Aza is called Gaza by the Ishmaelites, and it is a good and fat land, and its fruits are very fine. And there is good bread and wine, although the wines are only made by the Jews. Its perimeter is 4 miles long and it has no walls […] it is surrounded by blue on the shore of the sea. And has about 60 Jewish homeowners […]”

Samson carries off the gates of Gaza, a mosaic from the synagogue in Hukok, Byzantine period / Photo: Jim Haberman, courtesy of Jodi Magness

Rabbi Meshullam also notes the fragment of Jewish history that is connected to the city of Gaza: It is the city where the biblical hero and judge Samson lived for part of his life, together with his wife Delilah, who ultimately brought on his demise out of greed. It is also the city where Samson was imprisoned and killed, and which he destroyed:

“And at the top of the Judaica [mound] was the house of Delilah, and Samson the hero lived in it. And near there […] I saw the great court which he overthrew with his strength and power” (Abraham Yaari, Masa Meshullam MeVolterra, Mossad Bialik, 599, p. 64 [Hebrew]).

About thirty years after Rabbi Meshullam’s visit, in 1517, an event occurred that further affected Gaza’s status in the following centuries: The war between the Mamluks and the Ottomans ended in an Ottoman victory. The Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered the entire region, including the Land of Israel, the shores of the Red Sea, Mecca, and Medina, as well as the southern connection to the African continent – Egypt. The victory of the Ottomans strengthened the position of Gaza. From a peripheral border city, it became a city perfectly situated in the center of a vast empire.

The Ottoman victory also had additional significance. All the holy places of Islam and Judaism and most of the holy places of Christianity now fell under the control of a single regime. The Ottoman Empire developed, improved the access routes, and ensured the safety of the Muslim pilgrims who set out for the Hajj to Mecca, while also offering safety to the Jewish and Christian pilgrims. The security resulted in economic growth and the improvement of roads, which contributed to a significant increase in the volume of pilgrimage.

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Samson bringing down the temple of Dagon on all the celebrants and calling out “Let me die with the Philistines!”, Gustave Doré 

As it turns out. even though Gaza was not one of the four Jewish holy cities in the Land of Israel, it became a popular place to visit when making the long journey to the Holy Land.


Those who embarked on a pilgrimage for religious reasons were specifically interested in the holy places, especially in the tombs of biblical figures and righteous sages, which Gaza could not claim to have. But Samson “came to her aid”.

This is perhaps the reason why Gaza is depicted in illustrations as a walled city with its mighty gates open. The illustrators of the scrolls didn’t illustrate Gaza, the prosperous trading city without a wall, but rather as a city whose doors Samson had uprooted, leaving it with wide open gates. That’s also why they call it the “Land of Samson.”

The illustrators of the Yichus Ha’Avot scrolls knew that many of the immigrants, especially those from Italy, would pass through Gaza anyway on their way to or from Egypt. As such, they indicated to the pilgrims that although there were no tombs of note in Gaza, there was indeed a history of Jewish heroism there.

This article is based on an article by Dr. Chaim Meir Neria, curator of the Haim and Hanna Solomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, published in Etmol, issue 286 February 2024

The Story of a Nation That Redeems Its Captives

From Abraham who saved his nephew from captivity, to IDF helicopters carrying Israeli hostages back from Gaza - for thousands of years, Jews have fought, paid any sum necessary, and even endangered their lives to redeem and save their brethren from captivity and imprisonment

"The Commandment of Redeeming Captives"

One of them was the father of the Jewish nation. The other was his nephew, who joined the biblical Patriarch in leaving their place of birth on an almost mad journey to a new land. It took some time, as well as a brief adventure in Egypt, before they finally settled in Canaan. But then, the nephew fell captive – he and all who were with him. It happened because of a war they had absolutely nothing to do with, between different groups of petty monarchs with outrageous names like Kedarlaomer and Amraphel.

When Abraham heard his nephew Lot had fallen captive, he did not hesitate, even for a moment. He got his family and entourage together – a mere 318 people, all told – and set out to pursue the four captor kings and their armies, who had just won a decisive victory in the Valley of Siddim (near the Dead Sea) against five other kings. The pursuit began nearby in Sodom and reached all the way to Damascus, but Abraham was finally able to save Lot: “And also Lot … he returned and also the women and also the people” (Genesis, 14:16).

Abraham meets with Melkitzedek. 15th century. St. Peter’s Cathedral in Leuven, Belgium

With the captives now freed, the King of Sodom and the King of Salem (Shalem, Jerusalem of today) received Abraham and his people with flowers and gifts (well, bread and wine, anyway). Abraham handed them the loot he was able to take in battle. He went to war not to get rich, but to save Lot and the others taken captive with him.

This is probably the first incident of captives being freed in the recorded history of the Jewish nation.

Judaism considers human captivity to be a grievous sin. One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou Shall Not Steal” – and this commandment in fact refers to kidnapping – stealing people, not inanimate property. The punishment for this is death – “And he who steals a man and sells him, and he is found in his hands, will be put to death” (Exodus, 21:16).

Consequently, and possibly also due to our past, as a nation redeemed from captivity and slavery in Egypt, freeing captives from their captors has become a supreme moral value in Judaism. Something that must be done.

Maimonides says this of the imperative to free captives:

“And you have no greater commandment than the redemption of captives, for the captive is to be classified among those who hunger as well as those who thirst, those who are naked and those who stand on the brink of death.”

 (Hilchot Matnot Aniyim, 8:10-11)

“Jew! Have you fulfilled your duty to save prisoners […] Raise up your donation quickly to redeem the hostages”, a pashkevil poster from the National Library’s Pashkevil Collection

According to Jewish law, redemption of captives comes prior to many other things, including even taking care of the non-captive poor. It is even permissible to sell a Torah scroll to redeem a captive with the proceeds.

When a man marries a woman, he makes ten commitments to her, one of which is an obligation to redeem her if she is taken captive.

We are told of how King David himself fulfilled such an obligation. While David was busy with a certain Philistine mess in another part of the country, two of his wives – Achinoam and Avigail – were staying in the city of Tziklag. The Amalekites living in the area exploited the absence of King David and his army to attack the city, burn it to the ground, and take all the women and children captive.

When King David returned to a burned and empty city, he made the decision to pursue the Amalekites, even though he could only take some 400 men with him for the purpose, of whom 200 soon deserted. Fortunately, they caught an Egyptian youth along the way, the slave of one of the captors. He directed them to the Amalekite camp, where David and his men found their enemies “drinking and reveling because of the great amount of plunder they had taken” (the women, we can reasonably assume, were considered part of this “plunder” – 1 Samuel 30:16).

David and his men had the advantage of surprise, and they slaughtered many looters and drove the rest to flight, leaving the property almost entirely intact and many women shaken, but still alive.

Slave market in Constantinople, 19th century. William Allen

But superhero style rescue missions, even if told of our fathers and kings, have not been the main method the Jewish people have used to redeem their captives over the centuries.

During the long years of exile from the Land of Israel, all the leaders of Jewish communities could do was collect money – ransom – to free captives from bondage, or convince other, richer communities to help them out.

The Cairo Genizah, for instance, contains correspondence between Maimonides and various Jewish communities dealing with the redemption of captives – how many and where, and how much it would cost to free them. Among the letters is a receipt signed by Maimonides’ hand, relating to a sum donated for the redemption of captives. The text of the receipt explains that the donation came from the donor’s sale of his property.

Receipt signed by Maimonides. Cambridge University, TSNS309.12

The captives redeemed by the communities in Egypt weren’t friends or relatives of the donors, they were Jews who usually came from distant lands such as Mesopotamia and Southern Europe. They were typically were taken captive by pirates or highway robbers and were brought to cities in North Africa to be sold into slavery.

The concept of being taken captive and the difficult experiences entailed were not foreign to the members of Jewish communities, no matter where they were based. Even if they didn’t experience it personally, these people had been raised on stories of exile – in Egypt, Babylon, and later the exiles of the Second Temple period and the horror stories of the captives taken to Rome.

The Jewish captives were their brothers, and it was a great mitzvah to redeem them, even at great expense. Even if they didn’t know them from Adam.

There were cases where the effort to redeem captives failed – where they died due to sickness or abuse. There were also times when freeing captives helped to create new communities or strengthen existing ones.

“Redemption of Captives” – Generations raised on the importance of the commandment to redeem captives have resulted in extensive literature on the topic

Such was the case with the legendary “Four Captives.” According to the story, these were four sages who left Babylon, or the city of Bari in Italy, depending on who you ask. Their ship was ambushed by pirates on the Mediterranean, and they were taken captive. In that time, the late 10th century, about 150 years before Maimonides was born, Babylon was the spiritual center of the Jewish People. Jews in communities in North Africa, Italy, and Spain were almost entirely religiously dependent on the sages in Babylon and their religious rulings, which could only reach them after months of travel, in the best-case scenarios.

The pirates did not offload all the captives at once, instead offering their human cargo at the various ports they visited on their voyage. Thus were the four sages spread out across a very broad geographic expanse – from Egypt in the east through Morocco to Spain in the west. At each of the locations where one of the sages was redeemed, that sage eventually helped to establish a new independent spiritual Jewish center.

Rabbi Moses Ben Hanoch and his son, also called Hanoch, reached Spain. They were redeemed with a princely sum by the community of Cordoba, which was then a small, developing community. No-one in the community knew the ragged individuals they saved, yet they did not hesitate to pay more than the community could afford to rescue them. Their adherence to the commandment of redeeming captives paid off in spades: They eventually understood who Rabbi Moses was, and he was appointed as head of the city’s Jewish school. Over time, Cordoba became an important and significant Torah center, and its flourishing alongside other communities helped form the basis of Spanish Jewry’s Golden Age.

Letter from the Rabbis of Sefrou to the Rabbis of Meknes (both cities in Morocco) regarding the redemption of Jewish captives in the hands of Berber tribes

But things weren’t always so simple. Jewish efforts to free their captives at any price created a problem, and it was clear to the sages that this might actually encourage the kidnapping of Jews specifically. This is why the sages of the Mishna enacted the following regulation:

“We do not redeem the captives for more than their worth, because of Tikkun Olam (repair of the world).”

This regulation, which decrees that captives should not be redeemed for more than their market value, required people to put their feelings aside, and prefer the rational strategy that considered the long term good of the nation over the desire to ease the pain of a suffering mother or daughter.

But this regulation was not always strictly adhered to. The Gemara tells of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hananiah, who redeemed a child from the Romans (the Gemara does not tell us if the child was captured alone or with his family). When the effort to redeem the child ran into trouble, he said “I will not move from here until I have ransomed this boy for whatever money may be asked.” And indeed, the Gemara says that he paid a very large sum of money for the child, much more than he was worth. Was it because of mortal danger that he ignored the regulation, or because he knew this child could become a great leader? It is not clear. In any event, per the story, the freed child grew to become the famous Rabbi Ishmael.

One leader who did demand that the regulation be applied – to himself – was Meir of Rothenburg, “The Maharam”, who was born Meir Ben Baruch in 1220 CE in the city of Worms, Germany. Worms is a beautiful town with a rich Jewish history. A number of great Torah sages emerged from Worms whose teachings formed a solid foundation for Ashkenazic Jewry for generations, but the city was also the sight of a terrible massacre of Jews, and the Jewish quarter itself was destroyed a century after the Maharam’s death.

In his youth, the Maharam studied with the great sages of France. Upon returning to Germany, he very quickly became the main Rabbinic authority of Ashkenazic Jewry. Towards the end of his life, the Jews of Germany were increasingly persecuted and he, who believed every Jew must do everything they can to reach the Land of Israel – set out on the difficult journey. But the law of that time forbade the Jews from leaving Germany’s borders. He was caught in Italy and handed over to the German authorities.

The Maharam of Rothenburg was imprisoned in a fortress in the city of Ensisheim, to the dismay of his students and family. The community obviously wanted to redeem him – he was their undisputed leader – and apparently, they even began to collect the necessary funds. But the German ruler demanded an exorbitant sum, and the Maharam – perhaps with the hope of being freed for a more reasonable sum later on – commanded them not to pay the ransom. He died a few years later in prison, leaving behind the commentaries he wrote in his cell, after being provided, reluctantly, with a parchment and quill to write with.

Even after his death, the German authorities would not release his body to be buried. It was only 14 years later that a rich Jew named Alexander Ziskind Wimpen came forward and paid a fortune for the body’s release. He himself was buried alongside the Maharam in the Worms cemetery, where the adjacent graves of the two can still be found, with the gravestones telling part of this story.

Gravesites of the Maharam of Rothenburg and Alexander Ziskin Wimpen at the Worms cemetery

The story of the Maharam of Rothenburg is but one of many. In Christian Europe, Jews were perhaps not sold into slavery or used as props in cruel gladiator fights, but they continued to be taken captive and imprisoned in terrifying fortresses and prisons, oftentimes without a fair trial or even a trial at all.

Jewish community pinkasim (ledgers) from all over Europe are filled with side notes on diplomatic efforts to redeem captives, documentation of prayers to free prisoners, or lines in the accounts mentioning sums allocated for such purposes. Success in this field, so it seems, was hard to come by.

Many years later, during the era of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, redemption of captives took a sharp turn. No longer a question of paying ransom (or bribes to Ottoman officials), the prisoners in British jails now often had a military background – these were members of the underground forces seeking to liberate the country. Alongside (largely failed) diplomatic efforts, the members of the Jewish community or Yishuv and the underground fighters returned to the ways of their forefathers from the Bible – the way of armed struggle.

On May 4, 1947, the Irgun (Etzel) raided Acre Prison to free the underground prisoners held there. This was a complex operation which included coordination among a number of teams, including the prisoners themselves. The Irgun members disguised themselves as members of a British engineering unit and maintenance crew, and a firefight broke out with a British paratrooper force guarding the jail.

The Jewish Yishuv was in tumult. Forty-one Jewish prisoners managed to escape, six of whom were killed and another eight recaptured. Three members of the attacking force were also killed and another three were captured and later executed. In addition, more than 180 Arab prisoners also broke out of jail that day. Most of them were caught, but some – including dangerous criminals with significant potential for killing Jews later on – managed to stay on the outside.

Was this a heroic action redeeming captives, or a needless suicide mission that endangered the Yishuv? In a speech that Menachem Begin, the head of the Irgun, gave on the radio three days later, he said the following:

“Once again, our blood has been spilled and has saturated the hills of Galilee. But it is not the blood of the butchered, but rather the blood of fighters and heroes, giving birth to new heroes, cultivating a new heroism, bringing freedom to the homeland and a life of honor to the people.”

In his eyes, at least, this was a glorious return to the days when the Jewish People could defend itself, even at the cost of blood.

Since the State of Israel was established and to this day, we have been dealing with different and complex aspects of redeeming captives – from soldiers taken in battle to citizens taken as hostages by murderous terrorist organizations.

May it be that all those who have not yet returned from captivity merit us the chance to fulfill the commandment of redemption of captives, and may they return home, all of them.

Prayer’s Light in Wartime’s Darkness

Since the horrific events of October 7 and the subsequent war, a large chorus of voices have turned to the heavens, hoping to deal with their pain and confusion by praying to a higher power. This has been a typical Jewish response to war since biblical times, and continues into the modern age. Let’s explore some of these powerful wartime prayers, and find out where they truly come from.

Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren in Sinai reciting prayers for the IDF soldiers, 1970, Eitan Haber, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Israel is at war. How does that sentence make you feel? What is your response?

Some people feel anger at this, an anger that spurs them forward as they spend time volunteering, sharing content online about the conflict, and donating money to various Israeli causes.

Military rabbi (Feldrabbiner) Dr. Balaban with a group of Jewish soldiers in Lublin, 1914-17, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Conversely, some people feel helpless or mournful, not knowing quite what to do with the difficult emotions that this war raises for them.

And at the same time, many people, when trying to deal with this turmoil, simply turn to a higher power – asking “why”, begging “please”, saying “help”.

Soldiers being blessed by a rabbi before going off to war, 1914-18, Germany, the National Library of Israel

During this time, there is of course not just one valid response, but the response that is perhaps often left unacknowledged, and sometimes seemingly adverse to outside commentary, comes from that last group of people – those who are, right now, grappling with, or turning to, their faith.

The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar urge Jews to say a specially composed prayer on Passover 2007 for Israeli soldiers held captive since the Lebanon War, The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), April 6, 2007, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

This war, unfortunately, does not mark the first time in history that so many Jews have been massacred, and with each tragic slaughter of the Jewish people, a large chorus of voices turns to the heavens. Often the words which leave the mouths of these Jews during times of distress such as these are pre-prescribed: they come from a prayer book, are read in order and adhere to rituals which were determined long before our lifetime.

Poster advertising an emergency day of fasting and prayer to end the Holocaust, called by the Chief Rabbinate of Palestine and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of American and Canada, 1945, the National Library of Israel

But these are not the only prayers that count. Spontaneous words from the heart have almost always had a place in Judaism, a fact that is somewhat surprising given the ostensible rigidity of the religion, and the structures upon which it relies.

But nonetheless, we can see that this is undeniably the case. Once upon a time, as told in the Book of Samuel, a biblical woman named Hannah stood at the entrance to the Tabernacle at Shiloh, rocking silently back and forth and muttering to herself, as tears welled in her eyes. The Jews around her assumed that she was a drunkard and looked unkindly upon her. However, what was really occurring was a silent but supremely powerful turning-point within the Jewish religion. Hannah was saying a silent prayer – without a prayer book, without a quorum of men, without prescribed words. Just a woman praying silently from the heart.

Group of soldiers and rabbi at Passover service 5678 (28 March 1918) in Italy, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Since then, the idea of making up and reciting personal prayers has gained legitimacy, but while Hannah’s prayers focused on her childlessness, the concept of personal prayer really took off and became common within Judaism in the context of war.

King David is famous in Jewish tradition for having been an astute warrior and conqueror. Many of the Psalms that appear in the Bible are traditionally attributed to King David, and there is even a belief that he composed some of these hymns for his troops to use in prayer during war. For example, Psalms 20: 8-10 reads:

“These trust in chariots and these in horses, but we-we mention the name of the Lord our G-d. They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength. O Lord, save [us]; may the King answer us on the day we call.”

The Chief Rabbi of the British Empire composed a prayer for the protection of Jewish soldiers to be read in synagogues every Sabbath during the Boer War in South Africa, 1899, the National Library of Israel

Another famous and even earlier biblical example of prayer entering Jewish liturgy during times of war is the story of how the biblical forefather Jacob prepared for his reunification with his estranged brother Esau. Jacob is warned that his brother is approaching, accompanied by 400 men. Fearing for his life, he decides to compose a prayer for salvation. Jacob’s prayer (Genesis 32: 10-13) echoes the words of the prayer we know today as Ha-Gomel, which is recited whenever a soldier returns from war, to this very day.

This practice of authoring prayers in response to war exists in the modern age as well, such as prayers composed for Jewish soldiers during World War I.

Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren in Sinai reciting prayers for the IDF soldiers, 1970, Eitan Haber, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

We have many famous examples from the Holocaust of prayers being written to suit the spiritual needs of the suffering congregations and individuals during that time of great trauma. Jewish author and poet Alexander Kimel, for example, created a set of prayers for the victims of the Holocaust after surviving the ordeal himself. These prayers are now usually read as part of the Yahrzeit service on the High Holy Days, but many of the Jews reading his words do not know just quite how recently these prayers were actually composed.

Group of Jewish soldiers and their rabbi in Purgstall, 1917, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Similarly, most synagogues around the world recite the Mi Sheberach prayer for the safety of Jewish soldiers each week on the Sabbath. To the casual listener, this classic prose might sound hundreds of years old, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! While the original Mi Sheberach blessing for the recovery of sick Jews dates back to the 12th century, it was only adapted for use when praying for Jewish soldiers by the former Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, in 1956, while Israeli troops were fighting in the Sinai Campaign.

Military rabbi blesses and gives sermon to Jewish soldiers in Austria, 1914-18, Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, the eminent Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok wrote a prayer for the welfare of the state of Israel, using sources from Sefer Shoreshei HaShemot. Again, these prayers were adopted by the nation, and synagogues were soon full of people fervently repeating Ariel Bar Tzadok’s words in the hope that they would bring success in battle.

Then, in 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo was compelled to write the “Prayer on Behalf of the Jewish Soldiers Going into Battle” whose profound meaning touched many Jewish hearts around the world and became a constant daily chant for lots of Jews in various global congregations.

Newspaper article explaining new High Holy Day prayers written for Israeli soldiers fighting in the War of Independence, the Sydney Jewish News, 25 November 1949, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

And even now, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and a man steeped in tradition, has requested that all Jewish congregations say his newly-written “Prayer for the Success of Am Yisrael” every day until the end of this current dreadful war. This novel prayer has become the new-normal in many synagogues around Israel, who pledge to read it aloud each day until the end of the war in Gaza.

President Chaim Herzog, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis and others at a service in Jerusalem to offer prayers for the well-being of Jewish troops fighting in the Gulf, 1991, David Mizrachi, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

So, while some people think of Jewish prayer as something stagnant or pre-prescribed, it is clear to see that this is very much not the case, especially during times of war. In fact, much of the war-time liturgy that so many Jews rely on for comfort, was composed in the recent past by modern Jews who felt just as much longing for safety, success and peace as we do today.

The Abridged Prayer Book for Jews in the Army and Navy of the United States, 1917. In addition to the expected material, it includes specially composed prayers for war, a “Prayer for the Government,” national anthems, “America”, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hail, Columbia,” plus a calendar for 1917-1920, Jewish Welfare Board by Jewish Publication Society of America, the National Library of Israel

For those who utilize prayer to connect to the current war in Israel, it may come as some comfort to know that the words that many believe to hold so much power do not need to have been written over 2000 years ago. They can be as heartfelt as the inner feelings of parents missing their children, rabbis guiding their communities, and individuals standing on the precipice of uncertainty, unsure of how to look at the world around them, who instead look up to the sky and open their mouths to see what words fall out.

And who knows which of the prayers from today’s wars will end up etched on the pages of prayer books used by our great grandchildren for generations to come.

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.