Two Scholarly Giants: Prof. David Halivni & Prof. Gershom Scholem

Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Collection, shares some personal memories of his own Rabbi and mentor, Prof. David Halivni, who recently passed away and whose path crossed with that of the legendary Kabbalah scholar…

The Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Prof. David Halivni (1927-2022), who recently passed away in Jerusalem and who was a near-permanent presence at the National Library of Israel for many years, had a friendship of sorts with the scholar of Kabbalah, Prof. Gershom Scholem (1897-1982).

Scholem was 30 years older than Halivni, so it wasn’t an “even” friendship. I suspect that it was initially established via Prof. Shaul Lieberman, Halivni’s mentor and a very close friend of Scholem. I once asked Prof. Halivni what Scholem and Lieberman had in common, as they seemed to have come from such different backgrounds, lived different lifestyles and had different scholarly pursuits (there is an urban legend that the Lieberman was once in Scholem’s apartment, with a library of some 30,000 volumes, and quipped, “But there is nothing here to read!”). Prof. Halivni answered, “They were both lovers of Torah”.

When R. Halivni left the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1980s over the issue of women’s ordination, Scholem reacted incredulously, remarking, “but you are the Wellhausen of the Talmud!”, a reference to Julius Wellhausen, the father of Higher Biblical Criticism, and seemingly comparing the German scholar’s work to Halivni’s own Source Critical approach to Talmudic analysis. Apparently Scholem was incapable of understanding how one could be simultaneously a critical text scholar as well as a conservative halachasist.

In the Scholem Collection there is one offprint of a Halivni article and a photocopy of another. The offprint is of “Contemporary Methods of the Study of the Talmud” (Journal of Jewish Studies 30:2, Autumn 1979), and is annotated with Scholem’s marginalia. It is possible that Scholem also possessed some of Halivni’s books as well. Not everything from his home collection came to the Library, but that deserves a separate discussion.

From a copy of “Contemporary Methods of the Study of the Talmud” (Journal of Jewish Studies 30:2, Autumn 1979) – Scholem’s notes in Hebrew and English (“He was right!”, “He should have elaborated”, “So what?”…) can be seen in the margins, the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel (click to enlarge)

Since we mentioned R. Lieberman, I will close with a little-known anecdote that Prof. Halivni once shared with me. The first time he visited Israel (early 60s I believe) was to lecture at the World Congress of Jewish Studies. When he entered the lecture hall he saw the Israeli author S.Y. Agnon (whom he recognized from pictures) sitting in the front row. He couldn’t figure out what he was doing there. When he returned to New York he mentioned this to R. Lieberman who chuckled and said, “Agnon is always telling me that I probably don’t have any good students in the Diaspora, so I told him he should go listen to you”.

On that note, in 1963, the American Hebrew newspaper, HaDoar, printed a special edition in honor of Lieberman’s 65th birthday. In his “ad” which appeared in the edition, Agnon reflected sadly upon R. Lieberman living outside of Israel (though Lieberman did also own an apartment in Jerusalem, close to that of Scholem, were he spent a good deal of time during his later years), concluding, “As long as most of Am Yisrael is in exile it is good that this scholar, a true Gaon, is in your midst, for surely HaShem sent him as a salvation for you, to raise up a great remnant”.

“As long as most of Am Yisrael is in exile it is good that this scholar, a true Gaon, is in your midst, for surely HaShem sent him as a salvation for you, to raise up a great remnant.” –  S.Y. Agnon on Prof. Shaul Lieberman in a special 1963 edition of HaDoar. Lieberman was Halivni’s mentor, and the protégé also published an article in the same edition. The Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Prof. Halivni also had an article in the same edition of HaDoar, titled – “לפרושה של סוגיה בירושלמי”.

Both Professors, Scholem and Halivni, participated in a program in 1973 called “The Religious Dimension of Judaism”, hosted by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. In it, Scholem read a paper and Halivni was one of the responders. You can listen to a recording of the event here.

May the memory of all of these great scholars be for a blessing.


Ruth the Moabite: The Most Beautiful Woman You’ve Never Seen

The Book of Ruth is an extraordinary biblical story. At its center is the brave friendship between two women that leads to the founding of the Davidic dynasty, and a heroine whose character traits made her an everlasting symbol of beauty


Naomi and Ruth, reproduction of a work by French artist Louis Héctor Leroux, one of the first 100 postcards printed by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Among the hundreds of stories that appear in the Hebrew Bible, the tale that unfolds in the Book of Ruth is imbued with a unique, fresh spirit and unparalleled originality. It is a story devoid of heroic male figures or villains, no sin or punishment, war or peace. It is a story of life itself embodied in the figures of two female protagonists: Ruth and Naomi. The Bible devotes very little space to the stories of women, and few female figures receive an entire book. Some women in the Bible aren’t even mentioned by name, and those who are tend to have their outward appearance emphasized. Ruth is an exception.

Ruth is a heroine whose actions define her character—her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi, who can offer her nothing but companionship; her willingness to leave her familiar life behind and move to a foreign land, without money, property or security; her modesty, resourcefulness, and the brave,  underestimated, friendship between the young foreign widow and her mother-in-law. All of these factors make Ruth a beautiful figure, without us knowing anything about her physical appearance.

Ruth holding a sheaf of wheat, reproduction of a work by the French artist Alexandre Cabanel, 1886, one of the first 100 postcards printed by the Lebanon Company, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

These traits explain why Ruth captivated the imaginations of so many artists, and often served as a model of female beauty in paintings of biblical scenes, particularly during the Romantic era. It is therefore not surprising that a picture postcard series published by the “Lebanon” publishing house in the late 19th and early 20th centuries includes a number of wonderful reproductions of artworks depicting scenes from the Book of Ruth.


A Biblical Legend: Two Women against All Odds

Ruth is not a classic heroine. She is a figure on the margins of society: a foreigner, widowed and poor. But, like in a fairy tale, not only does her story end with a joyous marriage to a respectable man, a member of the chosen people, she is also rewarded: her lineage establishes the royal dynasty of King David. This success is not to be taken for granted in the patriarchal world of the Bible. In fact, such a positive story dealing with the relationship between two women -Ruth and Naomi – is unique in the literary landscape of the Bible.

The fields of Boaz, reproduction of a work by an unknown artist, postcard published by the Jüdisher Verlag, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

In just four chapters, the biblical author of the Book of Ruth manages to create the image of a complete world for the story’s heroines,  sketching a delicate and loving relationship, which, against all odds, changes destinies—and for the better. The brief dialogue in the first chapter between Naomi and her widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, sets the stage for a much larger plot.

Naomi virtuously asks her daughters-in-law to return to their community so that they might rebuild their lives. However, Ruth chooses to share her mother-in-law’s fate despite the many difficulties, offering a strong declaration of love:

“Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me” (Book of Ruth 1: 16–17).

Readers learn about their hardships only tacitly from the story. At their most vulnerable moment, Ruth and Naomi find a clever solution that relies on their respective talents. In an effort to save her mother-in-law from starving, Ruth goes to the fields to gather stalks of wheat dropped by the reapers. Meanwhile, Naomi, who does not join Ruth in the field, uses her practical sense to devise a plan to save her brave daughter-in-law. Their mutual caring and capacity to listen to each other are the keys to their alliance. Knowing that a young and impressive woman like Ruth attracts attention, Naomi creates the conditions for a solution to her daughter-in-law’s predicament, which in the biblical world is marriage and status.

Ruth in Boaz’s field, a reproduction of a work by Hungarian artist Lajos (Ludwig) Bruk, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the next part of the story, more is hidden than revealed. The biblical author leaves things seemingly innocent on the surface. Yet, in setting the scene on the threshing floor at night, and using language replete with verbs carrying a secondary sexual meaning, he constructs palpable sexual tension. We will never know what happened that night between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing room floor, but the story ends happily—Boaz redeems the poor foreigner Ruth and their marriage makes her a rich and respectable woman. With the birth of the couple’s son Obed, Naomi too is rewarded. She becomes a grandmother, a role that was almost denied her. The Davidic dynasty was established thanks to these two women and their story is enshrined in the Book of Books.

Ruth and Boaz, reproduction of a work by French artist Henri Frédéric Schopin, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

A Bold, Trailblazing Female Partnership

The Book of Ruth’s revolutionary feminism may not have shattered any glass ceilings, but it did make some dents. In the end, Ruth and Naomi’s fate was changed by the actions of men. Yet those actions were carefully shaped by thoughtful female instigation and guidance. One can also find in the story an ambivalence familiar from the modern era — women as the main driving force in private spaces, and men who dominate the public arena, while benefiting from greater privileges.

The first three chapters describe an enterprising and courageous sisterhood of two unique women. Ruth is assertive, independent and loyal to Naomi. She operates modestly and with complete trust in the wisdom of her elder. In reward for her loyalty and goodness, wise Naomi guides the young woman’s life to ensure her future welfare. Naomi and Ruth demonstrate an autonomy and feminine wisdom not described anywhere else in the Bible. Together they act towards their own benefit within the social conventions of the era and without compromising their reputations.

Ruth and Boaz, reproduction of a work by French artist Henri Frédéric Schopin, published in postcard form by the Lebanon publishing firm, the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

This cooperation and reciprocity gives power to the powerless. In a tough world with rigid boundaries, this partnership manages to change fates, not through physical beauty or cunning, but through courage, empathy and mutual support. Together they bring about an optimal result, which otherwise would not have materialized. This is an inspiring story about women in a man’s world and about how women’s character, friendship, and love have changed destinies over the ages, from biblical times to this very day.

Out of the Vault: Incredible Torah Scrolls Revealed

Check out these clips featuring four of the most stunning and interesting Torah scrolls from the National Library of Israel collection

This miniature Torah is just 6 centimeters (2 1/3 inches) in height! (Photo: Amit Dekel Productions)

For thousands of years, Jewish communities across the globe have treasured one object above all others: the Torah scroll – the five Books of Moses meticulously handwritten on parchment.

The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem safeguards numerous Torah scrolls among millions of other treasures. Their letters are largely identical, yet as historical objects some are certainly more interesting and significant than others.

Due to their invaluable nature and fragile state, these treasures are very rarely ever removed from the National Library vaults, but – with the approval and oversight of our experts – we managed to take a few of them out briefly in order to to give you a glimpse and share their stories!


Yemenite Torah Fragments from 1,000 Years Ago

These fragments from an approximately 1,000 year-old Yemenite Torah scroll were found in a bookbinding, for which they were used as raw material long after the scroll was originally written:


The Rhodes Torah

This Torah scroll was used at the Kahal Shalom Synagogue in Rhodes for centuries. The local mufti is said to have hidden it from the Nazis under the pulpit of a local mosque, where it subsequently survived the war, even though the vast majority of the Rhodes Jewish community did not:


The Saul Wahl Torah

Legend has it that in the late 16th century a Jewish merchant and adviser to royalty served as King of Poland for just one day. Some believe that this was his personal Torah scroll:


The Tiny Torah

This may not be the world’s smallest legible Torah scroll, but at just 6 centimeters (2 1/3 inches) in height, it’s certainly one of them:


These clips were created for the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, as part of A Look at the Jewish Year, a journey through the Hebrew calendar via the peerless collections of the National Library of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.

The project is part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Haircuts on Lag BaOmer: The First Printed Documentation!

A beautiful illustration from a book printed in 1601 for the Jewish community in Venice contains the first-ever printed documentation of the Lag BaOmer holiday haircut tradition

The earliest known documentation of the custom of haircutting on Lag BaOmer. From: Sefer HaMinhagim, 1601, the National Library of Israel collections

In 1601, a unique manual was printed in Venice for the benefit of members of the Jewish community, with the intended audience including adults and children alike. The Sefer HaMinhagim (“Book of Customs”) was printed in Yiddish—a language we would not necessarily associate with Italian Jewry. Although Yiddish was not widely used in the rabbinic literature of the time, Judeo-German was one of the most commonly spoken languages ​​among Italian Jews.

The book’s authors took into account the difficulty of some of its readers in deciphering the written commandments and therefore included woodcut illustrations to make the religious laws, commandments and customs more accessible. The use of illustrations that dramatized the various laws and traditions was apparently intended to allow readers of the book to clearly understand the practicalities of Jewish life and customs in simple, direct fashion.

The book contains the first known documentation of the Lag BaOmer custom of cutting one’s hair, an act that symbolizes the end of the historical period of mourning dedicated to the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to Jewish tradition, the Rabbi’s 24,000 disciples were stricken with disease as punishment for not treating each other with respect. Some scholars believe that the Rabbi’s followers in fact perished during the events of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

“The more detailed the illustration in the books, the easier it was to clearly explain the religious laws relating to the haircutting custom,” explains Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Men receiving haircuts on Lag BaOmer, a woodcut illustration from the Sefer HaMinhagim, 1601, the National Library of Israel collections