This Book Also Goes Up to Scholem: On Gershom Scholem and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

The fascinating correspondence between these two giants in the field of Judaic Studies reveals much about both men, including their impressions of a young Leon Wieseltier…

Gershom Scholem (left) and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (right). Photo credits: the Aliza Auerbach Archive at the National Library of Israel; Monozigote

As is well known, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was always happy to receive gifts of books for his collection. According to one interpretation, that is the reason that he maintained an empty shelf in his home library, so that his guests wouldn’t get the impression that there was no room for him to receive more books! Interestingly, on the 23rd of Tamuz in the Hebrew year of 5737 (July 9, 1977), Scholem received not one, but two books, with dedications from the same author.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was an American scholar of Jewish History who taught initially at Harvard and from 1980 at Columbia University, where he served as the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society. Baron had been Yerushalmi’s PhD advisor at Columbia and it must have been satisfying for both men when Yerushalmi “returned home” after his long sojourn at Harvard. I myself left Columbia with a degree in history in 1979, missing the opportunity to study with Yerushalmi by one year. He is widely remembered for his 1982 work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.

The first of the books that Yerushalmi presented to Scholem was his own historical work, published the previous year, The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the ‘Shebet Yehudah’ (Cincinnati 1976).

Jerusalem. 23 Tamuz 5737. Jerusalem
To Gershom and Fania Scholem
In friendship

The second, more intriguing book, was a slim volume (29 pages) published in Bombay India in 1916, Guide: The Secret Doctrine of the Soul and Body With Miscellaneous Information Useful in Daily Life, by one “Judah Shallum Kasooker, Jerusalemist”.


Jerusalem. 23 Tamus 5737
And thus, this book also goes up to Scholem!
-To Gershom Scholem  
In friendship
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

I was unable to find any information regarding the author, Judah Shallum Kasooker, or why he refers to himself as a “Jerusalemist”. This volume is the only title of his in the National Library of Israel, which holds three copies. His picture is also somewhat intriguing:

As you can see, he distributed his book for free (only additional copies were charged), and each of the copies at the NLI has a different name written in the blank space. The Yerushalmi – Scholem copy had been given to Joseph David Gadkee.

The work was dedicated to the author’s “brethren who are lovers of the Jewish religion”. Gershom Scholem of course stamped his own copy, as was his custom.

It is beyond the scope of this post to properly review this guide, but among the topics discussed are levels of the soul, reincarnation, prayer, the Sabbath, charity, death and “separation of the sexes”.  Of course, one has to finance one’s publications, especially when they are distributed for free. Our author ran an advertisement on the last page for “Vegetable Pain Drops”, which were good for more or less whatever ails you!


Perhaps it should not surprise us that the author himself was an alternative healer, who did not charge the poor for his services.

Returning to Yerushalmi’s dedication, including the phrase “This book also goes up to Scholem”, Yerushalmi was obviously alluding to Scholem’s infamous “negative catalogue” of 1937 –“קונטרס עלו לשלום : רשימת ספרי קבלה וחסידות המבוקשים לאוסף ספריו של גרשם שלום” -This was a six-page list of 111 works that Scholem hoped to purchase for his library. He would later lament in his autobiography,  From Berlin to Jerusalem, that the main result of this folly was that book dealers subsequently raised the prices of works they knew Scholem was after!

At this point let us zoom out and take a look at the Scholem – Yerushalmi relationship. Firstly, it’s important to realize that Scholem was Yerushalmi’s senior by 35 years, so the relationship was hardly equal. By the time that Yerushalmi began his academic career Scholem was already a world-renowned scholar, amongst the most important academics in the field of Judaic Studies.

Gershom Scholem in his study, 1974, photo by Aliza Auerbach, the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

In the NLI’s Gershom Scholem archives, there is preserved a fairly extensive correspondence (about 15 letters) between the two, which took place between 1973, when Yerushalmi was a young lecturer at Harvard, until 1980, when he was transitioning to his new position at Columbia, and only two years before Scholem’s demise. Initially Scholem wrote to Yerushalmi in English and Yerushalmi responded in beautiful Hebrew. Later they would both write in both languages.

Their letters display a great degree of mutual admiration and as time went on and the two visited each other (along with their spouses), a close personal friendship as well. Amongst the topics they discussed were publications and translations of some of Scholem’s books as well as the upcoming (1979) book by David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History. Their mutual fascinations with Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were also discussed as well as young scholars-in-training at the time, especially Leon Wieseltier. The file also contains two letters written after Scholem’s death. They are a letter from Yerushalmi to historian Prof. Jacob Katz in 1984, in which he sent Katz his correspondence with Scholem for possible publication, and a letter from Fania Scholem (his widow) to Yerushalmi in 1987.

We will take a look at a few of the highlights from their correspondence, which began after Yerushalmi sent a copy of his 1971 work, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto: Isaac Cordoso: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics. Scholem (30.1.73) praised the work and encouraged Yerushalmi to also publish the letters of Cardoso’s brother, the Sabbatian theorist Avraham.

“I consider your work an excellent contribution” – click to enlarge

Yerushalmi for his part was ecstatic at Scholem’s positive evaluation of his work and responded (2.3.73) with superlative praise for Scholem and his status in the world of Jewish scholarship. Among his comments, “I merited to receive praise and encouragement from the generation’s greatest scholar in Judaic Studies…since beginning to compose my book I couldn’t restrain myself from one recurring thought, which is – what will ‘he’ say?”

“Praise and encouragement from the Gadol HaDor” – click to enlarge

In a very interesting letter from Yerushalmi ( 11.1.76), which may not have actually been sent to Scholem, Yerushalmi spoke glowingly of Scholem’s book, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, which he would have read in the original German edition (1975), as the English translation was published only in 1981.  He confessed that in addition to finding the book enlightening on the subject of Benjamin, it was so as well on the subject of Scholem himself. He chose however not to go into detail, as “I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself”. Last but not least he shares with Scholem his “obsession” regarding Franz Kafka, “one of the very few writers who ‘speak’ to me in a particularly intimate way”.

“I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself” – click to enlarge

In a wide-ranging letter from 3.4.76 Yerushalmi opened with thanks to Scholem for sending him a copy of his book Devarim B’Go, and closes with a request to Fania Scholem to assist them in finding an apartment to rent (or swap) on their upcoming trip to Jerusalem. In the body of the letter, Yerushalmi laments having to serve as head of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. The up side to his undesired administrative tasks is the opportunity to interact with scholars from the Arab world, though he assumes that, “the majority return home to Tripoli or Damascus, and point to me as proof of the authenticity of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion'”!

“…me as proof of the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – click to enlarge

On the eleventh of January, 1978, Yerushalmi informed Scholem that he was sending to him, together with the letter, three “segulot” (amulets), two that had been written in the United States and a third from Tunisia.

“I’m enclosing three segulot…” – click to enlarge

This letter also contains the beginning of what would become extensive correspondence regarding David Biale’s proposed book Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter Culture, which would be published the following year by Harvard Press. The book, based upon Biale’s prior PhD dissertation, was the first work regarding Scholem himself, and thus all involved wished to proceed with caution.

“Do you know this man [Biale] and his work? If so, please give me your opinion about him.”- click to enlarge

Lastly, Yerushalmi mentions that he does have satisfaction from a few excellent students, one being [Leon] Wieseltier, who would go on to a successful career as a literary critic and as the literary editor of the “New Republic”. Scholem would also comment about him in later correspondence.

On February 12, 1978 Scholem responded with a four-page handwritten letter on a variety of topics. The great majority dedicated to a response to Yerushalmi’s question regarding David Biale and his proposed book regarding Scholem. Scholem responds at great length (also enclosing one page of comments that he had previously sent to Biale himself), and among other things, writes that, “My general opinion is that it is a serious and interesting book…I would be positive about its publication”. On the other hand, “I disagree on certain things which on the one hand suffer from ‘overinterpretation’, while on the other, many sources he is unaware of are ignored”. Scholem goes on to provide a list of books and articles that in his opinion Biale should incorporate into his research. He closes this part of his letter with one specific criticism and writes, “regarding the influence of Hermann Cohen’s ideas on my perspective, this is a brash hypothesis that seems unfounded to me…I have never dreamed of such a connection and even now that Biale has revealed it, his words are not at all convincing”.

Scholem returns at the end of his letter to the topic of Yerushalmi’s promising student and writes, “I consider Wieseltier to be a very talented young man. He, however, is at risk of spreading his talents too thin. It would be appropriate for someone like you to invest in bringing him close”.

Click on any page of the letter to enlarge

Yerushalmi responded on April 24, 1978, attempting to allay Scholem’s concerns regarding Biale’s forthcoming book. “I would certainly have authored a different book about you, but I think this book is serious enough that it deserves to be published. It is the first attempt to understand your oeuvre, and others will come to correct and to add… Biale is a flexible young man, and he wants to please you. Even though some points could easily be refuted, let’s not forget that at the end of the day, this is his book, and he is fully responsible for it”.

Click to enlarge

The final letter that we have is from over two years later (10.6.80), when Yerushalmi informs Scholem that he will soon be moving from Boston to New York and returning to Columbia University. With that, it appears that their intensive spurt of correspondence came to a close. Scholem died two years later in early 1982, Yerushalmi in 2008, not before achieving, somewhat like Scholem, status as one of the preeminent scholars in the field of academic Judaic Studies.

“We are moving to New York in late July or early August…” – click to enlarge


How Jews Started Writing Letters To G-d

Did you know that the Israeli Postal Service has an entire department dedicated to letters addressed to G-d? Did you know that no one can accurately trace the tradition of leaving prayer notes in the Western Wall? Did you know that many prominent rabbis would like to abolish the tradition all together? We explore some of the heated debates and captivating accounts of leaving letters for G-d in the venerated cracks of the Western Wall and answer the rousing question of why people leave prayer notes at all

Postcard from 1920s Germany depicting Jews praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. This postcard is part of the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

A story is told of a young boy who visited the Western Wall for the first time. He was perhaps a tad skeptical of its significance and his father watched on nervously as the boy cautiously approached the wall and held out his hand. The young boy’s fingers traced the ancient stone, but the boy retreated and backed off quickly from the wall. A minute later he returned, dragging a chair from the plaza outside, to the surprise of his father. The boy pulled the chair up to the wall and clambered upon it. Standing on his tiptoes he reached up his hand and touched the very tallest stone he could manage, letting a small smile slowly spread across his face.

Photograph of a father and son at the Western Wall from 1973. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Image of children inserting notes into the Western Wall from 1978. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Walking away from the Western Wall, hand in hand, the boy’s father asked whether his son had found any significance or emotion in the experience. The boy replied: “father, I felt how smooth the stones were just above ground level, but how rough they were where no hands could reach to touch them. This wall is a place where people rest their heads, grasp the bricks with their hands and let their tears smooth the façade. This is a place of hope and beauty.”

Photograph of men praying at the Western Wall in 1972. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Amidst the cool stones, smoothed and softened by endless hands, little prayers lay curled up between yellowing pages of hopeful notes. From all over the world, people of all walks of life write down their innermost feelings and burry them in the gaps along the face of the Western Wall. Many have come to accept this tradition as standard, but it wasn’t always so, and in fact there are those who would rather that the practice come to a swift end. But let’s begin at the beginning.

Poster of women praying at the Western Wall from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

The Western Wall is a portion of ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem which forms part of the large retaining wall of the Temple Mount built by Herod the Great. It is often considered the holiest place in the world for Jews, as it is the closest place that they are permitted to pray outside the Temple Mount. The largest part of the wall is used for prayer and is sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall or the Kotel. It is here that we find thousands of crinkled notes stuffed into its cracks.

Rosh Hashanah greeting card from 1930 Germany, depicting the Western Wall, from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

There is a curious tradition amongst mankind to make our presence known in any place we visit. From the earliest times people were carving their identities into stone, and even today one needn’t look far to find an urban wall brightened by graffitied names: “John woz ‘ere”. Understandably then, during the British Mandate period, the authorities decreed that the Western Wall was too precious to be defaced, in a ruling that follows: “It shall be held… that the Western Wall should not be disfigured by having any engravings or inscriptions placed upon it…and that the Wall should be kept clean and be properly respected.”

Postcard from 1920s Germany depicting Jews praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. This postcard is part of the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

Along with this decree came the presumed end of people writing their heartfelt prayers and wishes on the face of the Western Wall, but it was not so.

Indeed, a new solution had to be found for people to leave behind a lasting memory of their spoken prayers, so the famous tradition of prayer notes was born (or perhaps reborn, as we shall soon see). Initially, those who travelled to the wall to pray would write out their meditations on the spot, placing them directly into the cracks. But as word spread of this venerable tradition, more and more people wanted to take part. Soon it became accepted that anyone travelling to the Western Wall would bring with them the pleas of all their friends and families. Notes would fill all the available spaces and begin to tumble out onto the plaza below.

Photographic image of the Western Wall Plaza from 2014, from the National Library of Israel collection. Photographer: Gabi Laron
A 1992 reproduction of a Morris Kats’ painting, depicting the Western Wall Plaza from the collection of A. Peri Esq. Jerusalem Israel at the National Library of Israel

Yet sources differ regarding the very first occurrence of placing notes in the Western Wall. Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited the Western Wall in 1699 and was supposedly the first one to record that letters were to be found in the crevices. Others say Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar was the one who first noted this phenomenon.

The Wailing Wall, written by Judith Weinshall Liberman, 2017, Dog Ear Publishing. This children’s book tells the story of a bar mitzvah boy and the magical note he leaves in the Western Wall
A 1978 photograph of a female soldier placing a letter into the Western Wall. Note all the other notes in the cracks of the wall. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Conversely, according to Rabbi Zalman Koren, a great expert of the Western Wall, the tradition dates back to the days of the Chassidim who would give their rebbe notes called kvitlech with names of those who he should bless during prayer. When the rebbe died, these notes would be placed on his grave instead. As Chassidim made their way to Jerusalem in the 1700s, this ritual spread to leaving notes in the Western Wall, a practice then adopted by others.

Photographs of notes left in the Western Wall, 1978, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Photographer: Boris Karmi
Photographs of notes left in the Western Wall, 1978, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Photographer: Boris Karmi

The Book of Remembrance for the late Rabbi Getz, who served as Rabbi of the Western Wall until 2005, disagrees. He tells the moving story of a man who wept over his dying wife. As his tears fell, a heavenly hand passed him a note and a holy voice instructed him: “Go out immediately to the Western Wall, place the note between the stones and you will receive complete healing,” implying that it was already customary to bury notes in the Western Wall nearly 260 years ago.

More biblical sources are also quoted as the root of this tradition. The biblical commentator Ramban notes that the Children of Israel were writing their prayers on notes in order to receive blessings even during the exodus from Egypt, and sources for inscribing prayers in note form can be found in Ezra 9:8 and Isaiah 22:23 too. Clearly there is dispute about the origins of inserting notes into the Western Wall – and fierce competition to be the first person to have remarked upon this tradition. The truth is that we probably don’t know who wrote the first prayer note – in fact, it has surely long since disintegrated, or been buried… which leads us to the next fascinating debate in the world of Western Wall notes.

A printed micrograph from 1979 showing the blueprints for the Western Wall, from the Jeselsohn, David and Jemima Collection at the Israel Museum, in the National Library of Israel collection

The tradition being as old as it is (and how old is that, I’m still confused!) today anyone visiting the Western Wall would have to swim through a sea of letters if it were not for the Jewish law forbidding the desecration of any article containing the name of G-d. Of course, it is impossible to know how many of these little notes contained the name of G-d without hiring a formidable team to open and read each of these private requests, so all the papers must be treated as if they contain those holy letters.

Photograph from the 1940s of Jews inserting notes into the Western Wall. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Thus, twice a year before Passover and Rosh Hashanah when hoards of visitors are expected to descend onto the streets of Jerusalem, the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, immerses in the mikve, takes a long wooden stick, and pries all the notes from the wall. He fills over 100 bags full of notes and takes them to the Mount of Olives to be buried.

Image of a woman putting her letter into the Western Wall, 1974. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When Jews leave notes at the graves of holy rabbis, generally these notes get burned, and there is much deliberation in the rabbinical world over whether the same should be done with the Western Wall notes. Burning the notes is “more pure” but burying them shows “more honor” according to many rabbis, giving the proper respect to the notes’ manifold authors.

Postcard depicting people praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

So, who are these people writing the notes? Well, everyone! Of course, Jerusalem natives and tourists are the main contributors, but geographical distance is no barrier to having your letter put in the wall. Simply log onto the Western Wall website and type out your prayer. It will be printed anonymously, on size 4 typeface in an illegible font to prevent anyone reading it (don’t worry, G-d has a good pair of eyeglasses), before being hand-placed into the wall. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch also receives hundreds of letters annually, addressed to “G-d, Jerusalem.” He folds up these letters and inserts them, too, in the wall. There is even a fax and email address set up for those who want to send their letters digitally. And of course, an entire department exists in the Israeli Postal Service for the thousands of letters sent to Israel simply addressed “to G-d.” The postal workers take each one and dutifully deliver it to the Western Wall, which would explain why the average Israeli has to wait approximately 781 business days to receive any mail!

Via Twitter, the Israeli Postal Service proves that they send all the letters addressed to G-d to be placed in the Western Wall

Of course, some letters are more high profile than others, although I hear that G-d doesn’t pick favorites. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have placed their prayers into the wall, as well as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Most famously, in 2008 when Barak Obama inserted his note into the wall, it was removed and sold to an Israeli newspaper who published it, to the anger of many.

Not everyone agrees with the idea of putting notes into the Western Wall. Rabbi Zalman Koren famously recounts that many Jews do not bury their requests among the stones of the Western Wall so as not to deface the precious bricks. Rabbi Jacob Joseph agrees that this practice “pollutes” the holy space.

Book of remembrance of Jerusalem. This book contains many of the traditions and sources pertaining to Western Wall. From the Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel collections.
Pamphlet publishing the prayers and customs of the Western Wall, 2009. Found in the National Library of Israel collections

Moreover, Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk clearly states that “Attributing holiness to any object borders on idol worship” and in the bible (2 Kings 18:4) King Hezekiah agrees that worshiping even holy sites and objects is idolatrous.  Thus, modern day rabbis often argue that worshiping the Western Wall by placing notes in its crevices is similarly idolatrous, and the debate rages on.

Poster of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. Notice the men in the background inscribing words into the stones. This poster is part of from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel
A 1974 photograph of women praying at the Western Wall. Note all the letters in the cracks of the wall. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

We started with a story, so we shall end with a story: A man told his rabbi that he was going to place a prayer in the Western Wall. “Why?” the rabbi asked, “G-d hears prayers regardless of where you are or how you convey them.” “True, G-d is the same everywhere” replies the man, “but I am not”. The practice of placing notes into the Western Wall is a source of comfort, hope, and encouragement for so many thousands of people, whether in person or via a disgruntled Israeli postal worker. So, debate all you like, it seems that the tradition is here to stay.

The Woman Who Ignited the Hasmonean Rebellion

Very few know her story. It isn’t taught in schools and certainly not in kindergartens, but according to the midrash, Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, sister of the Maccabees, was a key figure in the Hanukkah story. What does the midrash tell us of the woman who stood up to protect her Jewish sisters? How did she use her wedding day to spark the fire of rebellion in her brothers?


Elizabeth Richman holding a jug, 1926. Courtesy of Archive Network Israel in collaboration with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

According to the midrash, the entire Hanukkah miracle is based on the act of one brave (and today largely forgotten) woman who dared to speak aloud what everyone else knew but would not say. Her declaration led her brothers to start a rebellion. She was the true heroine and instigator of the festival of Hanukkah.

Her story is not taught in schools, certainly not in kindergartens. Her name was Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, sister of the Maccabees.

According to the midrash, the Jews, then living under Greek Seleucid rule, had remained silent for three years; three years in which every woman who married would first be raped by the local Greek governor before she could enter her husband’s house. This is how the midrash describes it: “When the Greeks saw that Israel was not affected by their decrees, they stood and decreed upon them a bitter and ugly decree, that a bride would not go in [to her husband] on her wedding night, but rather to the local commander” [all quotes from Midrash Ma’aseh Ḥanukkah “alef,” A Tale of the People’s Resistance to the Seleucid Greek Occupation].

It is awful to imagine how many women underwent this violation and humiliation. The midrash tells us that the men of the Hasmonean family did nothing. And the women of Israel fell victim again and again to the abuse.

Matityahu the Hasmonean in battle, a relief likely sculpted by Jacob Roukhomovsky, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Then came the wedding day of Matityahu the Hasmonean’s own daughter Hannah. This time, Hannah decided to put an end to the ongoing atrocity. In the middle of the wedding banquet, while all the distinguished and important guests were eating and enjoying themselves, she stood up and ripped off her wedding dress, leaving herself naked in front of her family and friends.

“And when everyone was sitting down to eat, Ḥannah, the daughter of Matityahu, stood up from her palanquin and clapped her hands one on the other and tore off her royal garment and stood before all of Israel, revealed before her father and her mother and her groom!”

At first, her brothers reacted with anger and shock. They wanted to kill her for having disgraced them and for shaming the family and herself.

But she, in turn, scolded them for turning a blind eye, all the while knowing what awaited her that night at the governor’s palace. Not one of them had raised a finger, not one had stood up to protect her dignity. She reprimanded her brothers for being angry at her nakedness in front of them, even as they remained calm at the thought of her having to go later that night to the governor who would sexually assault her.

An expedition to the graves of the Maccabees. Courtesy of Archive Network Israel, in collaboration with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“She said ‘Listen, my brothers and uncles! So what—I stand naked before you righteous men with no sexual transgression and you get all incensed?! And you do not become incensed about sending me into the hands of an uncircumcised man who will abuse me?!’”

She forced them to face up to the bitter truth. According to the midrash, this was the moment her Maccabee brothers first raised the flag of rebellion.

The first question that comes to mind when someone hears this story is – did this really happen?  After all, this isn’t a story that is told as part of the typical Hanukkah celebration. We know the story of the miracle of the jar of oil, we know all about the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the heroism of Judah the Maccabee. But the story of the woman who incited the rebellion, or the story of the sexual exploitation that was behind the uprising isn’t common knowledge.

Among the Ashkenazi communities of Europe, the story of Hannah, whose name may derive from the name of the Hanukkah holiday itself, appears in some sources, but she is occasionally referred to anonymously as bat Hashmonaim – a Hasmonean daughter. In the communities of North Africa, on the other hand, they tell the story of Judith who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes, and whose heroism is recorded in a slightly different way in the apocryphal “Book of Judith.” Some researchers suggest that these two women—“bat Hashmonaim and Judith—are one and the same.

Judith with the head of Holofernes, Bezalel Archive

I think the more interesting question we need to ask ourselves is why hasn’t this story been told more often? I believe that the story of Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, has remained hidden or suppressed because of its complexity. Telling this story, a tale of silenced sexual violence, can be a disturbing experience. It is much easier to tell the story of a military triumph of good over evil as we light our menorahs and eat our jelly donuts.

But Hannah’s story is an important one and its telling is long overdue. It is a story that can bring about a real change, even today.

Rashi’s commentary on the lighting of the Hanukkah candles in the tractate Shabbat offers additional evidence for the significance of Hannah’s role in the Hanukkah narrative. The question is asked whether women are obligated to fulfil the commandment of lighting Hanukkah candles. The answer is affirmative, women are obligated and the Talmud’s explanation for this special obligation is that women were partners in the Hanukkah miracle and are therefore also obligated in lighting the candles that commemorate the miracle.

Rashi writes of the Hanukkah miracle and Hannah’s role in it: “Since the Greeks decreed upon all the virgins getting married to have intercourse with the high official first. And the miracle happened through a woman.” Rashi, the great commentator of the Bible and Talmud, offers here a concise interpretation of the female heroism behind the Hanukkah story and its female protagonist. He makes the claim that a woman wrought this miracle, and for that very reason, to this day, women are expected to light Hanukkah candles.

Invitation to a “Maccabee Festival” in Germany, Hanukkah eve, 1903. The Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Of course, this is not proof that the story happened necessarily, but it is evidence that it is not new either. Rather, it is an ancient story reflecting a familiar reality from various times in Jewish history passed down in Jewish tradition.

The story of Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, is a harsh one and it remains hidden and untold. But in my view, it is the most important story there is.

Hannah expresses the voice of silenced women throughout the generations, right up to this very today. She shows us how important it is for us to stand up for each other. She reminds us to support and help those women whose voices have been taken from them through violence. She teaches us that sometimes the baring of the naked truth, no matter how painful, is the only way to create change.

Hanukkah has a female hero. A hero whose strong voice resonates in today’s painful Israeli reality. A hero who implores us to look around and see who is in need of help. If we dare to place her story in the center of our discourse, if we dare to tell of her brave act, we can strengthen female voices that choose not to remain silent and give voice to the wronged women who have been silenced throughout history.

Did Medieval Jewish Kabbalists Design the Tarot Deck?

Until the 18th century, tarot cards were simply playing cards. It was then that occult researchers became convinced that these cards in fact held magical properties, and that they contained a secret truth that originated in ancient Egypt and was preserved in Jewish mysticism…

It was during one of the early waves of the COVID pandemic, when the future seemed shrouded in mist and I was spending my time balancing a hectic schedule of frequent afternoon naps and proper nighttime sleep, that I was drawn deep into the world of Tarot. As usually happens when I begin to research an occult doctrine or theory that is new to me, I was apprehensive at first.

On the one hand, I consider myself to be a rational, logical, and sensible person and I knew that there was nothing to fear. On the other hand, maybe this stuff actually worked? A friend had mailed me my first tarot deck, and to quote the Israeli singer-songwriter Meir Ariel, every time I turned to my deck with a question – I immediately felt that the cards were able to “guess me and open themselves up to me”.

As I delved deeper into the history and mythology of Tarot, a question began to form in my mind that even the tarot deck couldn’t provide me with an answer to: were tarot cards influenced by Jewish mysticism – the Kabbalah – with which I was already familiar from my work at the National Library of Israel? How else can one explain the fact that the Sefirot from the Kabbalistic Tree of Life keep showing up in the tarot cards?


The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, consisting of the Sefirot


Many books have dealt with the connection between Tarot and the Kabbalah, and particularly – Tarot’s reliance on the latter. The majority of these books seem to presuppose the connection between the popular card deck and Jewish mainstream mysticism, and don’t feel the need to explain the relationship or prove its existence. But since we are, of course, rational, logical and sensible people, we will need to find the answer to this question within the complex and intricate history of the deck of cards that we refer to as Tarot. So, let’s dive in.

The first appearance of the tarot deck came about in medieval Italy when a new card game called Tarocchi became a hit among the Italian aristocracy. The structure of the new playing deck was different from other card decks of the era, which might have been the reason that an anonymous monk in 1377 decided that the tarot cards were the most complete and accurate representation of the “current state of the world”. And indeed, the first 22 cards in the deck, known as the Major Arcana, depict medieval personas, such as the Emperor, the Empress, the Magician, the Hierophant and the High Priestess. Alongside these, appear cards with conceptual values and symbols: the World, Justice, Temperance, the Wheel of Fortune and Death.

The 56 Minor Arcana cards are organized in a structure that would eventually inspire the playing cards we are familiar with today. The Minor Arcana cards are subdivided into four suits: Wands, Cups, Pentacles (also referred to as Coins), and Swords. Each suit begins with the number one card – which is the Ace – and runs up to the number ten card; following are the four Court cards: the Page, the Knight, the Queen and the King.

The 22 Major Arcana cards in the Rider deck


For centuries, the tarot deck was used as a regular deck of playing cards and for gambling. It was only some 400 years later, in the late 18th century, that the deck was attributed hidden powers. In 1781, a Protestant pastor named Antoine Court de Gébelin published a book dedicated to the tarot deck, and became the first to draw a connection between Tarot and ancient Egyptian theology. During one of his walks through the streets of Paris, Gébelin came across a group of women playing with a tarot deck and determined then and there that these were not ordinary playing cards but an arcane repository of timeless esoteric wisdom. In his ensuing studies he concluded emphatically that the tarot symbols were based on ancient Egyptian wisdom that had made its way to Europe through Jewish Kabbalah.

Although the ancient Egyptian language had not yet been deciphered at the time, the Frenchman asserted that the word “tarot” derived from two ancient Egyptian words: “tar” (road or path), and “ro” (king or royalty). Therefore, according to Gébelin, the meaning of the word “tarot” is, “the king’s path”. When Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822, the etymology provided by Gébelin was revealed to be completely delusional.

Gébelin was not the first to view the ancient Egyptian religion as a significant and unique source of knowledge. Since the Renaissance, the belief had existed in Europe that western culture had its roots in ancient Egyptian theology, that its wisdom was handed-down to ancient Greece through conquest and expansion; and to Judaism (and from there on to Christianity) through Moses.

The innovative book contained a short article by the Comte de Mellet, who followed Gébelin’s esoteric thought, and asserted that the 22 Major Arcana cards are an illustrated representation of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This idea would subsequently become an anchor for those who claimed a direct connection between Tarot and Kabbalah, as flimsy as the evidence may have been: 22 cards correspond to the 22 letters of the alphabet.

Gébelin and de Mellet’s assertions instantly changed the way the tarot deck was perceived, to this day: from a popular pastime for European aristocrats, the tarot decks quickly became associated with fortunetellers, magicians and occultists. In fact, two years after Gébelin’s book was published, Jean-Baptiste Alliette popularized the tarot divination method.

The Death card designed by the occultist, Alliete


Éliphas Lévi further developed Tarot as a key to the great mysteries. This 19th-century French author and poet, born Alphonse Louis Constant, wrote more than twenty esoteric books about Kabbalah, alchemy, and magic. He maintained in his book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, that “without Tarot, the magic of the ancients is a closed book”.

Lévi likened Tarot to a book. Whereas Alliette designed tarot cards, Lévi elevated the Tarot of Marseilles to the rank of sacred scripture. “One who is confined, with no access to any books aside from the Tarot, can obtain universal wisdom within a few years and proficiently lecture on all subjects unmatched and with undoubtable astuteness”, asserted Lévi, who believed that Tarot’s wisdom preceded even the Law of Moses.

The Tarot of Marseilles is a standard pattern that has been common in Europe since the Middle Ages. Historians trace this deck’s origins to the 15th century, in the northern Italian city of Ferrara. It was named the Tarot of Marseilles, since the city of Marseilles subsequently became a prominent printing center that produced an assortment of decks designed by different artists. Photograph: the version in my possession – the Tarot of Marseilles, designed by Claude Brudel, 1751


Lévi continued Gébelin’s line of thought. He accepted the correlation between the 22 Major Arcana cards and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, he directly associated the first ten cards of each suit with the ten Kabbalistic Sefirot, and contended that each of the four tarot suits corresponds with a letter of God’s name (Y-H-W-H). Within a few decades, Lévi’s tenets reached England, and were circulated and enhanced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This New Age of tarot and spirituality had begun to take shape.


The Rider-Waite Tarot and the Thoth Tarot Deck

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a secret society that concerned itself with mystical doctrines. The Order was established in 1887, in London. For over a decade, the Order acted in its original configuration until it disbanded and split into various, and at times contentious, groups. One cannot overestimate the Order’s great influence on modern Tarot and Western spiritual movements.

Two members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn would subsequently design the two most influential and popular tarot decks of the New Age declared by the Order. They both deliberately embedded Kabbalistic symbols into their decks—along with emblematic drawings from astrology, Christian mysticism, alchemy, and ancient Egyptian theology. The members were, Arthur Edward Waite, who published his deck in 1909, and Aleister Crowley, whose Thoth deck was published posthumously in 1969.

The Rider-Waite pack is named after the publisher (William Rider) and its mastermind (Arthur Edward Waite). The name given to this deck disregards the essential contribution of the artist who actually designed the deck, Pamela Colman Smith. The major innovations of this deck are the illustrated scenes that Waite and Smith crafted into the Minor Arcana cards – which in the older decks resembled simple playing cards. The Kabbalistic influence is most apparent in the 10th card of the Pentacles suit. In this card, ten Pentacles are arranged in the pattern of the Sefirot in the Tree of Life, superimposed on a scene depicting urban life. The images of the Sefirot and the Tree of Life are central symbols in Kabbalah, visual representations of the divine Sefirot – the ten omnipotent powers of God, who is manifested from Ein-Sof (“the Infinite”) into the material world.

In the accompanying book written by Waite, which details his tarot deck, he made no reference to the Sefirot and the Tree of Life displayed on the card.

Ten of Pentacles (Coins) in a Rider Pack


Ten of Pentacles (Coins), from Tarot de Marseilles


The other clues disseminated by Rider are found in the Major Arcana: The Magician (card no. 1) lifts his right arm to the sky while his left points to the ground – a Kabbalistic emblem that signifies the connection between heaven and earth. The infinity symbol hovers over his head.


In card no. 2, the High Priestess is seen reading the Torah, with Boaz and Jachin, the two pillars of Solomon’s Temple, on either side of her. Waite wrote of the High Priestess, who in the Tarot of Marseilles is called La Papesse (“The Popess”): “In a manner, she is […] the Supernal Mother herself – that is to say, she is the bright reflection. It is in this sense of reflection that her truest and highest name in bolism is Shekinah – the co-habiting glory. According to Kabalism, there is a Shekinah both above and below.” This is one of the few instances in Waite’s commentary in which he interprets one of his tarot cards using a Kabbalistic symbol – the Shekinah or Shechinah, which is the last of the Kabbalistic Sefirot, and the female essence of the divine.


The Lovers card (no. 6) – in older decks, the card depicts a young, enamored couple with Cupid floating overhead, while in Rider’s deck the couple transforms into the naked Adam and Eve with the angel of God poised over them.

The Lovers, from the Marseilles Tarot deck, after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s restoration


The Lovers, from the Rider Tarot deck


The Wheel of Fortune tarot card (no. 10), features a wheel adorned with the Hebrew letters י-ה-ו-ה”” (Y-H-W-H, the divine name), and on its four sides stand the four “living creatures”, the animals described in the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, each reading a book. In the older tarot decks, this card was called “The Wheel”, and the four creatures did not appear.

And these are just the most obvious clues.

Even though Waite published his tarot deck, he did not elaborate on his interpretation of the cards. In this sense, Waite was a faithful follower of Golden Dawn, an order whose members were not expected to impart its substance and secrets outside of its private circle.

With Aleister Crowley, the opposite was true. One of the reasons he was expelled from the Order was his reckless distribution of manuscripts and artwork compiled and composed by members of the Order. Of the two, Crowley was the one who put a particular emphasis on Kabbalah.

A Thoth Tarot deck together with the accompanying book written by Aleister Crowley

As early as the introduction in his book, after detailing the Tarot structure (Major and Minor Arcana), Crowley asserts that this structure might appear “arbitrary, but it is not. It is necessitated, as will appear later, by the structure of the universe, and in particular of the Solar System, as symbolized by the Holy Qabalah. This will be explained in due course”.

Thus, in a single paragraph, Crowley explains how he understands the Kabbalah: the Sefirot symbolize the universe, and not the ten omnipotent powers or qualities of God, as they do in traditional Kabbalah. Crowley combines astrology and Kabbalah in his interpretation of the tarot deck. And it seems that most of the cards refer to at least some aspect of Kabbalah – particularly one of the ten Sefirot. Many examples can be offered, but we’ll settle for two that stood out to us.

Card number 10 in the suit of Swords, called “Ruin”:


Crowley expounded on the deck he crafted in the book that accompanied the Thoth cards. His own interpretation of this card begins with:

“The number Ten, Malkuth [kingship/kingdom], as always, represents the culmination of the unmitigated energy of the idea. It shows reason run mad, ramshackle riot of soulless mechanism; it represents the logic of lunatics and (for the most part) of philosophers. This is reason divorced from reality.”

“The hilts of the Swords occupy the positions of the Sephiroth, but the points One to Five and Seven to Nine touch and shatter the central Sword (six), which represents the Sun, the Heart, the child of Chokmah [the wisdom Sefirah] and Binah [understanding].”

Another clear Kabbalistic influence appearing in Crowley’s deck is found in the Wealth card in the Pentacles suit, which Crowley referred to as the Disk suit: disks arranged as the Sefirot in the Tree of Life, with the central disk featuring the name of the Archangel Raphael, written in Hebrew.


Frieda Harris, who designed Crowley’s deck of cards, claimed that the tarot cards that originated in Egypt were lost. And so, the illustrator of the most peculiar and mysterious deck of tarot provided the most peculiar and mysterious claim about their origin: she claimed that Jewish Kabbalists were responsible for redesigning the tarot deck in the Middle Ages. The majority of advocates of the secret connection between Kabbalah and Tarot make a claim that is much more subtle: that medieval tarot illustrators were influenced by the Kabbalah, which was itself shaped by Egyptian theology, and that these influences were hidden among medieval images and personas such as the Emperor and the Hierophant.

Arthur Waite made another intriguing claim. He flat out rejected the idea that Tarot originated in ancient Egypt. By analyzing the two Arcana he understood that these were two disassociated decks that had been deliberately united in Europe. The inception of the tarot cards, therefore, is an unsolvable enigma. Historical research supports this conclusion. The tarot deck is a combination of ordinary playing cards and others featuring allegoric imagery. So indeed, Waite was correct.


The Kabbalah in Support of Tarot

In this article, we referred to the term Kabbalah, without expounding on its essence. It is important to emphasize that the two deck creators – Waite and Crowley – were influenced by the Christian interpretation of Kabbalah, rather than the Jewish Kabbalah. Christian Kabbalah, as this interpretation was termed, flourished in Europe as early as the 15th century, and its main objective was to promote Christian dogma while utilizing  Jewish Kabbalistic symbols.

Despite their differences in approach, it was not the intention of the creators of the two most prominent modern decks of Tarot to endorse Christian dogma. Waite and Crowley both believed that applying Kabbalistic aspects would allow them to restore the original, natural religion that preceded Christianity, and thus bring forth a New Age in which man would knock the gods off of their divine perch, and fashion a new life for himself, in his own way, according to his own wishes.

In line with the notion that the tarot cards symbolize the universe, Crowley altered card no. 21 – the World card – to the Universe card


Crowley was radical in everything he did, and even asserted that he aimed to replace Christianity with a new-ancient religion revolving around the Egyptian deity Horus, and thus he felt he was permitted to alter the original pack as he saw fit. Arthur Waite negated the concept of Tarot’s Egyptian origins, and the deck he and Pamela Colman Smith illustrated remains the closest to the older tarot decks. It is also currently the most prominent and accepted pack, and the one which the majority of new Tarot artists base their illustrations on.

The New Age concepts that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn members promoted, later became the New Age that we are quite familiar with today. The New Age reverted its gaze from Egypt, and beginning in the 1860s, turned to the true Far East: India and China.

The World card in the Tarot and Cats deck, designed by Thiago Corrêa


The World card in the Rider Tarot


And what does academia have to say about the matter? Gershom Scholem, who was the founder of the modern academic study of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, utterly dismissed the Golden Dawn’s modern analysis of Kabbalah (this was a typical attitude of Scholem’s). Although he had some respect for Éliphas Lévi and his “erroneous but brilliant” analyses, he referred to Crowley as a “gaudy imposter” and determined that “it is pointless to waste words on Crowley’s ‘Kabbalistic’ writings and what he called “magic” in his books and his periodical ‘The Equinox’.” The scandalous notions and interpretations of Crowley and similar figures led Scholem to advocate for “a redemption of this forsaken field [the study of Kabbalah] by applying rigid rules of historical research. I am committed to this mission”.

So who was right? Does the tarot deck really have secret and possibly prophetic powers? Are these forces obtained from the Kabbalah? And is it possible for us to come to any conclusion? A fabulous way to circumvent the need for an unequivocal and clear conclusion was offered by the psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung, Freud’s prodigious student. Jung proposed to view Tarot as a direct path to our subconscious. A way to penetrate our deepest thoughts, to self-explore our place in the world and make sense of our own lives. I prefer this approach to the common mystical analysis. Because even if the cards do provide an answer to my question, isn’t the knowledge really emanating from my inner self and subconscious?



Further Reading

Aleister Crowley, The Book of Thoth (Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1985)

Arthur Edward Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1989)

Robert Wang, The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy (Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1983)

מורן גאם-כהן, גלגוליה של הקבלה דרך העולם הנוצרי עד ה”עידן החדש” על ידי בחינת מסדר “שחר הזהב”, עבודת גמר עבור תואר מוסמך בחוג למחשבת ישראל באוניברסיטה העברית, שנת 2011

אורי רז, האתר טארוט

גרשם שלום, זרמים ראשיים במיסטיקה היהודית, הוצאת משכל, 2016