A Haredi Holocaust Hero in the Congo

"I am happy and proud that our mission is spreading the idea of loving one another, loving humanity, without paying attention to skin color."

Dr. David Sompolinsky with children in Congo-Léopoldville, 1960 (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

“According to the newspaper and the radio, the Congo is now the epicenter of global unrest, a powder keg. And here I am some 30 days in the Congo. The land is quiet, pleasant, smiling.”

Sometime in the summer of 1960, Dr. David Sompolinsky — an ultra-Orthodox Jew throughout his long life — scribbled these words onto Air France stationery, part of a 12-page handwritten report on his time in the fledgling African nation.

Nearly two decades had passed since Sompolinsky had risked his life in a very different environment, working valiantly to save hundreds of fellow Danish Jews from the Nazis. In his book October ’43, devout Christian Danish resistance fighter Aage Bertelsen — who worked closely with Sompolinsky rescuing Danish Jews — recalled David’s vast knowledge of halakha, which he kept “conscientiously and rigidly… even more than other orthodox Jews,” as well as his striking, selfless courage:

“Incessantly, day and night, literally, David was busy helping, completely disregarding his own dangerous situation… He was on the go everywhere, and everywhere he looked up Jews and helped them out, always bubbling with activity, yet always well balanced, cheerful, but also cunning and level-headed.”

After the war, David returned to Denmark, where he finished his studies prior to moving to Israel in 1951. It was in his new home that he would soon become a respected expert in microbiology and take part in an epic mission to Africa.


Developing nations

In the summer of 1960 there were two newly established neighboring countries, both known as “The Republic of the Congo.”  To avoid confusion, the Belgian Congo was referred to as “Congo-Léopoldville,” and the French Congo as “Congo-Brazzaville”.

Only 12 years old itself, Israel was still a developing country at the time. The Sompolinsky family, like many others, did not even have a refrigerator in their home. Nevertheless, the young state — driven by Jewish humanitarian values and practical diplomatic concerns — dispatched the mission and numerous others like it in those early years. Israel had, in fact, boasted one of the largest delegations at Congo-Léopoldville’s official independence festivities on June 30, 1960, which included then-Minister of Finance Levi Eshkol.

King Baudouin of Belgium reviews Congolese troops after his arrival in the Congo for independence ceremonies, June 1960 (Congopresse / Public domain)

Sompolinsky was asked to join an Israeli delegation being sent to help set up the nascent country’s medical system. Headlines from Léopoldville were troubling. Violence and chaos appeared prevalent. Rumors reached Sompolinsky’s wife, an Auschwitz survivor with nine kids under the age of 14 at home, that cannibals were prevalent in the Congo. And yet David, who had risked his life saving the Jews of Denmark, felt obligated to use his professional expertise to help those in need and fulfill what he saw as his Zionistic civic duty.

And so, one day in July 1960, Mrs. Sompolinsky took her nine small children along to Lod Airport to bid farewell to their father, and he was off to Africa.


Surprises in the Congo

The Israelis nearly didn’t make it to their destination. After stopping in neighboring French Congo, the team was informed that it wouldn’t be able to get to Léopoldville because the situation was too unstable. Determined to nonetheless begin their mission as soon as possible, they managed to score rides on two small planes and a helicopter, eventually reaching their destination on July 24, 1960.

What the Israelis found in the Congo surprised them: in some ways better than what they anticipated, and in some ways much worse. In an interview published in the Ma’ariv newspaper shortly after Sompolinsky returned to Israel, he even used the word “holocaust” to describe the medical situation they encountered when they arrived:

“When the Belgians were in the Congo, there were 800 doctors and 50 veterinarians. Now, almost all of them have left the country. Medically this is a holocaust, and yet the Congolese believe that they can overcome anything as long as they are their own masters.”

Many of the estimated 200 hospitals and 80,000 beds were inaccessible due to violence, instability, and other factors. The situation they found was a bizarre paradox of sorts, as the former colony was actually exceedingly well-equipped in some respects, especially compared to Israel at the time.

“Preventative medicine in the Congo is incomparably more developed than in Israel… They have equipment that we in Israel don’t even dream of,” Sompolinsky assessed, recalling one of the hospitals in Léopoldville as “massive,” with an exceptional institute for tropical medicine unlike anything in Israel.

Dr. Sompolinsky teaching bacteriology (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

With the indigenous population barred from many areas of higher education and training under the oppressive Belgian colonial system, the young country suffered from a gaping vacuum in terms of personnel to operate key areas of the medical system. When he got there, for example, Sompolinsky found that some locals knew how to perform various lab tests but had never been trained in analyzing the results, rendering their efforts all but pointless. By the time he and his team left, the Congolese could run the labs and analyze test results completely independently.

“The Congolese are a marvelous people, warm and full of faith in the future,” Sompolinsky would later report.

Sompolinsky with Congolese children (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

He and his team had indeed been warmly welcomed. They encountered no cannibals and did not feel particularly threatened as “white” people, which they thought they might. Locals clarified that it was only the Belgians they hated, not all whites. White UN soldiers were actually a common sight in the streets of Léopoldville: The young doctor recalled shocking some Swedish UN personnel when — speaking fluently in their native tongue — he explained what the Israelis were doing in Africa and told them all about life in Israel.

As far as the natives themselves were concerned, Jerusalem and Nazareth were familiar from the Holy Bible, not from any contemporary atlas. Sompolinsky and his colleagues, sporting the symbol of the Jewish state, were in many cases the first to ever inform many of those they encountered that the State of Israel existed.


Distance learning

Walking to fulfill his medical mission one Shabbat (when driving is forbidden according to Jewish law), Sompolinsky was stopped by a group of Congolese soldiers “hunting” for whites,  according to the Ma’ariv article:

“At first he was stuck in a quandary, but ultimately decided to act as naturally as possible. He approached the Congolese officer and said ‘mbote‘ to him, meaning ‘hello’. This greeting was enough: Within one minute Dr. Sompolinsky found himself surrounded by Congolese soldiers listening with intent and curiosity to the reason the Israeli delegation had come.”

Though already in 1960 there were some Israelis and other Jews living in the Congo, Sompolinsky was unable to form them into a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 Jewish men), even on Shabbat. Never one to compromise his kashrut standards, Sompolinsky survived largely on papaya and other fruits.

Yet his physical distance from the “comforts” of Jewish communal life and his children did not stop him from working to fulfill the commandment to educate them, as evidenced in the postcards he frequently sent back to his family. He would drop them at the Israeli Embassy simply addressed to: “Mademoiselle Sompolinsky, Rishon Lezion.”

Sompolinsky with the Congolese family that “adopted” him (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

In the letters, he provides details of his daily life in the Congo, while also clearly trying to model and educate his children from afar. In one, he describes seeing traditional African face scarring, and then goes on to explain to his children how the practice is forbidden according to Jewish law.

On the solemn day of Tisha B’Av, he wrote how his fast had gone quite easily and that in the afternoon he would put on his tallit and tefillin, in accordance with Ashkenazic Jewish tradition. In the same letter, he chronicles some of the many injustices the local Black population had to bear under Belgian rule, his tone clearly reflecting the deep impact that seeing such racism had on him, a devout Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazi genocide.

The only Black person allowed on white buses was the driver.

Bathrooms and kitchens were segregated, with Blacks given far inferior facilities.

Black people who wanted to use the telephone had to submit a special request, including the reason for the call and the name of the intended recipient.

Blacks were expected to greet and bow to any whites they encountered, without ever expecting even the most basic acknowledgment of their existence in return.

In this context, Sompolinsky clearly took pride in the role he was able to play in helping the new masters of the Congo set up a functional medical system following centuries of colonial rule and oppression:

“I have no doubt, and I am happy and proud that our mission is spreading the idea of loving one another, loving humanity, without paying attention to skin color.”

In the letters, he told his wife and kids how much he missed them and beckoned the children not to fight with one another or with their mother. When he came back to Israel, he brought exotic gifts including de-toxined poison arrows, with which generations of Sompolinsky children would play.

Sompolinsky helped start a program to bring Congolese fellows for training at Bar Ilan University, and over the next six decades he would become a prominent figure in the field of microbiology, playing an active role as Israel became a global leader in medical research and practice.

Sompolinsky later in life in his lab (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

He even launched a few public health crusades of his own, including one to warn his local ultra-Orthodox community about the fatal dangers of smoking.

David Sompolinsky continued working well into his 90s. He passed away in October 2021 at the age of 100.

An extensive obituary appearing on the leading ultra-Orthodox news site B’hadrei Hadarim eulogized Sompolinsky as not only a savior of Danish Jewry and a founding father of Israel’s scientific community, but also as a genius “immersed in the world of Torah, a tremendous scholar who never spoke idle chatter” and who had special relationships with some of the 20th century’s most prominent rabbis, including the Hazon Ish and the Brisker Rov.

Perhaps reflecting hopes for his own children at the time, Sompolinsky had concluded his 1960 report with his belief in “a happy and prosperous future for the Congolese people,” whose youth were “courageous and knowledge-seeking.”

The mission to the Congo was a biographical drop in Sompolinsky’s century-long story, but a tale that was known to many of his estimated 700 living descendants, and one that undoubtedly reflected a man with seemingly boundless dedication to bettering the human experience and remaining full of faith in the future.


A version of this article was originally published in Tablet MagazineIt appears here as 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.

Menachem Begin Swears Allegiance to the Jewish State

For four years, Menachem Begin was a man underground, in the fullest sense of the word—a commander of an underground force and a wanted man, hiding from the British. After Israel’s declaration of independence, Begin came out of hiding with a historic speech that transformed him into a national political figure.


Menachem Begin speaking at a Herut Party event. Photo: Beno Rothenberg, from the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

The events of the 5th of Iyar (May 14th) 1948, the day on which the State of Israel declared its independence, are well known: the reading of the Declaration of Independence by David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, the signing ceremony, and the thousands who danced in the streets, are an integral part of Israeli collective memory. But what happened on the next day, the first full day of the new state’s independence, while perhaps overshadowed by the outbreak of the War of Independence, was of no less historical consequence.

Citizens of the Hebrew Homeland, Soldiers of Israel, Hebrew Youth, Sisters and Brothers in Zion!

After many years of underground warfare, years of persecution and moral and physical suffering, the rebels against the oppressors stand before you, with a blessing of thanks on their lips and a prayer in their hearts. The blessing is the age-old blessing with which our fathers and our forefathers have always greeted Holy Days. It was with this blessing that they used to taste any fruit for the first time in the season. Today is truly a holiday, a Holy Day, and a new fruit is visible before our very eyes…

We therefore can say with full heart and soul on this first day of our liberation from the British occupier: Blessed is He who has sustained us and enabled us to have reached this time.

Begin’s speech, delivered on May 15th, 1948. Note the rhetoric and the repetition of the messages. The first break concludes with the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Since February 1944, and the publication of his first proclamation as commander of the Irgun (the right-wing Jewish paramilitary organization whose policy was based on the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky), Menachem Begin had been underground, in every sense of the word. Not only was he in command of an underground movement (since December 1943), but he was also forced to hide from the British after calling for an all-out war on British Mandate rule. Begin remained in hiding up until the first full day of Israel’s independence. Then, on the evening of Saturday, May 15th, Begin gave a special speech on an underground radio station. With this speech, he not only emerged from the underground, but dismantled it altogether. Well, except for the Jerusalem faction, but that’s another story… This step was of immense importance given the political situation, with the outbreak of the War of Independence and the demonstrated lack of cooperation, if not outright hostility, that prevailed among the Irgun, the Lehi, the Haganah, and the Palmach – the various Jewish military organizations.

Begin’s hideout in Petach Tikva, one of the many safe houses he used during his period in hiding. From the Oded Yarkoni Historical Archive of Petach Tikva, available via the Israel Archives Network of the National Library of Israel and the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage

With the end of the mandate that expired on May 15th, 1948, the days leading up to the British withdrawal from the Land of Israel were full of uncertainty. Even the date of the declaration of the state was in doubt, since the United States had sent a clear message calling for a ceasefire as well as talks on the nature of the future governing of the region. Inside the territories of the designated state, doubt was also cast on the strength of Jewish military power in the face of the Arab states’ threats of invasion and the already burgeoning war in other parts of the country. The need for a single, regular, and orderly army that would be subject to the new interim government was obvious, but first, the situation with the underground paramilitary forces of the Irgun and the Lehi had to be resolved. Unfortunately, relations between the commanders of these underground groups and the leaders of the mainstream Jewish political organizations were problematic, and the years-long intense hatred between the different factions had infiltrated into the ranks. All of which raised concerns about the ability to establish a functioning army in such a short time and under so much pressure, even though the military infrastructure in the form the Haganah, which was strongly associated with the ruling elite of that period, was at the ready.

Begin in Paris, apparently in December 1948. From right to left: Ben Zion Shmuel Chomski, Menachem Begin (seated in the middle), and Eli Ferstein, a commander in the Irgun. Photo courtesy of the Ben Zvi Institute, available via the Israel Archives Network of the National Library of Israel and the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage

Begin began the speech on the underground’s Kol Haherut radio as the commander of the Irgun, but ended it as the leader of the opposition, at least temporarily. As befitting the moment and in light of the war, he chose the path of the common good of the people—he backed the government, called for unity, and swore allegiance to the state.

Knowing the move might weaken him politically, but understanding the magnitude of the hour, and in view of the real threat to the newly established state, Begin chose to do what was in its best interest. However, he also felt it was his duty to acknowledge the work of the underground movement: “It took generations of wandering from one land of slaughter to another country of pogroms . . . the toil of generations of pioneers and builders, the uprising of rebels, the crushers of enemies, people sent to the gallows, and wanderers over deserts and across seas—for us to reach where we are today.”

Justice prevails in the State of Israel, according to Begin. From Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948

Begin, known even back then for his dramatic speaking style, began with a pathos-filled description of the state of affairs in the newly founded State of Israel. In the second part of the speech, he spoke of the brains and the brawn that would be required to win. In the third part of the speech, he outlined the foundations of Israel’s future foreign policy, including absorption of widespread immigration. Begin did not sidestep the difficulties but confidently sketched the new state’s ability to address them. The next part of the speech was devoted to the justice to which the state should aspire.

And within our Homeland, justice shall be the supreme ruler, the ruler over all rulers. There must be no tyranny. The Ministers and officials must be the servants of the nation and not their masters. There must be no exploitation. There must be no man within our country—be he citizen or foreigner—compelled to go hungry, to want for a roof over his head or to lack elementary education. ‘Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt’—this supreme rule must continually light our way in our relations with the strangers within our gates. ‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue’ will be the guiding principle in our relations amongst ourselves.

Declaring the dismantling of the underground. From Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948

After laying the foundation, Begin came to the real purpose of his speech—dismantling the Irgun inside the borders of the new state (with the exception of Jerusalem). Begin announced the acceptance of one state and one army under the authority of the Hebrew law—the concept of the rule of law, as befitting a democracy.

It is for these goals and principles, and in the framework of democracy, that the Herut Movement will struggle, arising out of the underground and fashioned by the fighting family, a movement made up of all circles, all exiles, all streams around the flag of the Irgun. The Irgun Zvai Leumi is leaving the underground inside the boundaries of the Hebrew independent state. We went underground, we arose in the underground, under a rule of oppression in order to strike at oppression and to overthrow it. And right well have we struck. Now, for the time being, we have a Hebrew rule in part of our homeland. And as in this part there will be Hebrew Law—and that is the only rightful law in this country—there is no need for a Hebrew underground. 

The reward for the willingness to head into battle, in Begin’s eyes, was the existence of an upright and secure Jewish state, where Jewish children could grow up in an independent country of their own, as in the days of yore. He concluded his speech with a personal prayer, seen below.

The prayer concluding Begin’s speech on May 15th, 1948, and at the bottom of the page—is that a shopping list?

God, Lord of Israel, protect your soldiers. Grant blessing to their sword that is renewing the covenant that was made between your chosen people and your chosen land. Arise O Lion of Judea for our people, for our land. On to battle. Forward to victory.


Begin delivering a speech, in the 1960s. Photo: Boris Carmi, from the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

Two weeks after the declaration of independence, Begin announced that he had signed an unofficial agreement with Ben-Gurion, and referred to the Israel Defense Forces as “the united forces.” The IDF was established on May 31st, 1948, and on June 1st, 1948, Begin signed an agreement with Yisrael Galili, a representative of the provisional government, which began the disbanding of the Irgun and its integration into the IDF. The agreement stipulated that the Irgun’s operations would cease to operate “as a military brigade in the State of Israel and in the territory of the Government of Israel.” As mentioned, the Irgun preserved its independent status in the blockaded city of Jerusalem because it was not part of the State of Israel at the time and the agreement referred only to state territory.

Begin’s historic speech dismantling the underground and calling for loyalty to the state and its army, was an important step, albeit a preliminary and mainly declarative one. Begin of course meant every word of his speech, but the actual implementation was much more difficult and complicated. Begin’s speech marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life as a political leader, who, eventually, after twenty-nine years in the opposition, would became the first Likud Prime Minister.

The speech was not only broadcast on the Irgun’s Kol Haherut radio, but was also disseminated in print, in a small pamphlet distributed to the fighters. A copy of “The Speech of the Supreme Commander of the Irgun to the People in Zion” is preserved at the National Library of Israel. While it is unclear how this particular copy entered the collection, it was apparently a very personal one: at the end is a handwritten list of items that includes a lamp, coat, shirt, books, and papers. We do not know its purpose, but perhaps the writer was hoping to buy these items or pack them away, maybe to furnish a new apartment, after finally leaving the underground, and coming out of hiding.

The Story of Israel’s First Shelter for Battered Women

“We didn’t think we were making history. All we wanted was to work on behalf of women”: The story of the first shelter for battered women in Israel, established in Haifa in 1977, and the women who founded it

Israel’s first shelter for battered women in Haifa. Photo: Courtesy of the Haifa Women’s Coalition Feminist Archive

Among the first was Tzilla, who came to us straight from the hospital, the eye she’d almost lost still bandaged. Tamar who came with four small babies. Sarah, a kibbutznik whose husband had tried to kill her. Carmella, with twenty stitches in her scalp, ominously certain she would never escape her husband’s death threats. Shula, mother of five, who pulled up her sweater to show us her chest and back covered with knife wounds and cigarette burns.

All these women came because they were sure that the next beating would be their last. They came because they feared death and because there was no place else to go. This apartment in Haifa, they all said, was their last stop. No, we said, you will move on from here to live again. We were right about most of the women . We were wrong about Carmella.

– From Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir, by Marcia Freedman


“Doyou want to open a shelter for battered women?” Marcia Freedman asked her friend Judy Hill.

It was shortly after Marcia had failed in her bid for re-election to the Knesset, this time as a member of the Women’s Party in Israel.

Her question would change the course of everything related to the treatment of battered women in Israel. Five women—Marcia Freedman, Judy Hill, Joyce Livingstone, Cholit Bat-Edit and Barbara Swirski—turned that “question” into a reality. Though none of them were born in Israel, all were pioneers of Israel’s women’s movement. Search high and low and you won’t find a single photograph of these women together. “We never thought we were making history, so we didn’t see the point of taking a picture together,” says Barbara Swirski, who was one of the founders of the shelter and ran it in its early years. “All we wanted was to work on behalf of women.”

Marcia Freedman. January 1974. Photo: Yaakov Saar, GPO

Like many great things, it started from humble beginnings: a group of women, with the help of dozens of other feminist activists, began by renting an apartment in the Hadar HaCarmel neighborhood in the northern Israeli city of Haifa to be used as a shelter. The location was kept a secret for obvious reasons, and everything in it was either donated or improvised. The furniture was donated by local residents and collected in a small truck.

The shelter was actually a five-room residential apartment. It wasn’t much, but even long journeys begin with one small step. Almost the entire staff of the new shelter agreed to work on a volunteer basis: a lawyer, a doctor, a gynecologist, all worked for free or for a nominal fee. The shelter opened in the fall of 1977. For the first time in Israeli history, abused and battered women who until then had nowhere to turn, finally had a place to go.

“Rape? Physical Abuse? Call 04-660281” Haaretz reports on the new shelter. November 4, 1977. Click to read.

Since there was no precedent in Israel for this type of shelter, in order to determine the rules for its use, the team of women had to look at similar projects already operating in other countries. For example, they determined that a stay in the shelter could last for up to three months, men were not allowed access, and each resident would receive legal, personal and medical assistance while there, enabling her to start out on a new path at the end of her stay.

“In the end, all we wanted was to help women suffering from abuse,” Swirski said in a conversation with us. “We read the professional literature on the subject. We learned about the shelters set up in England and the Netherlands. Then we had to learn on our own what to do and what not to do.”

Following the shelter’s opening on November 3rd, 1977, the founders launched a “hotline” for women seeking assistance. At first, the flow of women seeking shelter was very limited, but an article in Yedioth Ahronoth on February 3rd, 1978, just a few months after the shelter opened, changed everything. Suddenly the phone was ringing off the hook. Women would simply show up at the entrance, and in the months following the article’s publication, more than a hundred women applied for shelter.

“Battered Women”, by Orly Azulay. The article that was published on February 3rd, 1978. Courtesy of Yedioth Ahronoth

“Once the article in Yedioth came out, the shelter never closed,” Swirski says. “The first women to come to the shelter were actually the stronger ones for whom the shelter was a lifeline. They simply saved themselves. Women from other parts of society only came at a later stage.”

The change was rapid and unequivocal. The founders described it in a special report issued after the first six months:

Within two weeks, the woman calms down. She starts eating and sleeping. After a month in the shelter, she is usually ready to help the newer arrivals in their various tasks. She begins to think about work and the future. She is no longer a helpless victim facing an omnipotent man, but a stronger woman, and not frightened.

The shelter in Haifa, 1978, photo: Yossi Rot, Yedioth Aharonoth

Not everything went smoothly, and not all the women were able to break the cycle of violence and begin a new life, but “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire,” says Swirski, quoting the familiar saying. “There was one woman who had recovered in the shelter and was well on her way out of her difficult reality. We became very close. About two years ago, she contacted me through Facebook Messenger. I went to meet her and saw that she was doing well, raising her children. One had been a baby in a crib when she was at the shelter. She has a steady partner, but she was not ready to remarry. We spent a few hours together. What a joy!”

Six months after the establishment of the first shelter, a second opened in Herzliya. In 1981, a third shelter was established in Jerusalem, and at the end of that year, a fourth was opened in Ashdod. Over the years, many other shelters have been established and even received organizational and governmental “support,” but the first shelter in Haifa was the one that broke new ground in protecting victims of domestic violence. “It’s a great thing to do something that has not been done before,” Swirski says. “Seeing a woman come in hunched over and then to see her leave with her back straight, getting on with her life—it’s a great feeling when that happens! You change the world!”

Barbara Swirski, Spring, 2021

“Actually,” Swirski concludes with a sober look at the present, “nothing has changed.” “What’s really changed? There are more institutions, more solutions, more options. The phenomenon hasn’t disappeared and probably never will. Unfortunately, Israel is in competition with the United States and is becoming increasingly violent in all areas, not just in the home.”


Many thanks to Hannah Safran of the Haifa Women’s Coalition for her assistance in preparing this article.

The article is dedicated to the memory of all victims of violence against women in Israel.



Further Reading

Exile in the Promised Land: A Memoir, by Marcia Freedman

Daughters of Eve, Daughters of Lilith, by Barbara Swirski

Don’t Wanna Be Nice Girls: The Struggle for Suffrage and the New Feminism in Israel, by Hannah Safran

Isaac Newton’s Map of the Apocalypse

Isaac Newton, who possessed one of the greatest scientific minds in human history, had some fascinating views on the End of Days. His vision even linked the apocalypse to the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland.

So then the mystery of this restitution of all things is to be found in all the Prophets: which makes me wonder with great admiration that so few Christians of our age can find it there. For they understand not that ye final return of ye Jews captivity & their conquering the nations (of ye four Monarchies) & setting up a peaceable righteous & flourishing Kingdom at ye day of judgment is this mystery. 

—Isaac Newton, Of ye Day of Judgment & World to Come

How does one bridge the gap between science and faith? In 1795, the English poet and artist William Blake created one of his most iconic paintings. Its subject was the English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (1642–1727), one of the greatest scientists in all of history. Blake defined Newton as one of the fathers of rational thought. However, make no mistake, the painting was not complimentary of its subject. Blake painted Newton at the bottom of the ocean, immersed in measurements and calculations and ignoring the world around him.

The modern image of Newton is perhaps not so far from Blake’s somewhat mocking representation. After all, the first image that generally comes to mind when one mentions the name “Newton”, is that of a rationalist scientist so preoccupied with his theoretical musings that it took an apple dropping on to his head to bluntly remind him that there was indeed a real, tangible world to be contended with. In the popular imagination, Newton’s apple was responsible for sparking his mission to formulate the universe’s physical laws.

Despite this stigma, it seems that few, including Blake, were familiar with Newton’s mystical and esoteric writings. The collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda purchased these manuscripts in 1936, which were deposited, along with the rest of his collection, at the National Library of Israel in 1969. Many of the writings are digitally accessible through the Library’s website, and reveal a completely different side of Newton’s world.

Isaac Newton by William Blake (1795)

In Jewish tradition, the End of Days is not generally a common topic of discussion or study. Indeed, the Day of Judgment is mentioned only briefly in some of the apocryphal books (ancient texts that were not included in the Bible), although over the course of Jewish history, the issue did occasionally surface during darker periods, which brought with them episodes of messianic revival. Nevertheless, the belief in the destruction of the existing world and the creation of a new one in its stead does not occupy a central place within Judaism. On the contrary, Jews are commanded to preserve the existing world. In Christianity, on the other hand, the apocalyptic vision in the New Testament describes the End of Days with chilling accuracy. The Book of Revelation (also called the Apocalypse of John), the last book of the New Testament, describes the exact geographic location where the final and decisive war in history, known as Armageddon, will take place. Apologies for the spoiler.

Newton believed in the unequivocal, divine origin of the Bible. He devoted his time not only to clarifying the laws of nature, but also to searching for the essence behind them. The scientific motivation to comprehend the world and explain it was also what pushed him to seek understanding of reality’s more esoteric secrets, as well as any religious meaning that lay behind them.

One of Newton’s main pursuits in this respect was calculating the exact time and location of the end of the world. Among the seemingly vague chapters of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, Newton sought accurate prophecies for the future of the world and the redemption of the human souls living in it. It is important to understand that at the time Newton formulated his great scientific theories, modern science had not yet completely abandoned the esoteric and religious sources from which it had developed.

Already in his early theological writings, Newton invested much interpretive energy in deciphering John’s apocalyptic revelation. Among other things, he hoped to discover the exact location where the events that would lead to the End of Days would begin. Not satisfied with theoretical research and written interpretation, the scientist even attached a map that indicates precisely the area expected to be the focus of the Day of Judgment to one of his essays on the subject. We will come back to this map, created some 300 years ago, and the many notes scribbled in its margins, which hold an abundance of multidisciplinary information.

Newton’s map of the apocalypse. Click for a closer look. View the full manuscript here.

John’s Revelation tells of the sounding of seven trumpets, each of which heralds a different apocalyptic event. Because Newton did not believe that the end of the world would come in his lifetime, he did not define the location of the seventh and final trumpet sounding. What he did mark on the map were the events leading up to the End of Days; that is, the sounding of the fifth and sixth trumpets (Revelation 9). Newton understood the fifth trumpet to be the rise of Arab Islam. And the sixth – the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which Newton believed was sent by God to punish sinful Christians and finally destroy the remnants of the corrupt Roman Empire, that is, the Byzantine Empire.

And where, according to Newton, do the end time events take place? Why, right here, in our own cozy little neighborhood known as the Middle East, where else? With great precision, Newton identified four provinces: Asia (the city of Konya, in modern day Turkey), Syria (the city of Damascus), Mosul (in Iraq), and Meyafarikîn (today the city of Silvan, also in modern Turkey). To each he assigned one of the four angels of the apocalypse liberated from the Euphrates River during the sixth trumpet event (Revelation 9: 14). According to John’s vision, the departure of the four angels of the apocalypse to sow destruction and devastation throughout the world precedes the coming of the mysterious beast—mentioned in the book as one of the initiators of doomsday—and symbolizes the final battle.

Given the starting point of the angels of the apocalypse according to Newton, one area stands out for its absence from his map. This is Mount Megiddo, which in the Greek translation became Armageddon, later taking root in Christian tradition as the name for the Judgment Day event itself. Megiddo is mentioned in the Bible several times, often in the context of an important battle (remember the story of Yael and Sisera? That happened nearby), but only in Christianity is it incorporated into the vision of the end of days. According to Revelation, the final battle between the forces of evil, led by the beast, and the forces of good commanded by God, will take place at Mount Megiddo. In this battle, the wicked will be defeated, after which the kingdom of heaven will reign over the earth.

Newton provides a historical example for the connection between the forces of evil and divine providence. In a note scribbled on the map’s margins, Newton discusses two military leaders of the forces of evil: one is Saladin (1138–1193), who expelled the last of the Crusaders from the Holy Land, and the other is Genghis Khan (1162–1227), whose Mongol hordes appeared from the East, and sowed destruction and devastation across much of the world. Newton perceived the rise of the two conquerors as the intervention of divine providence.

The first page of Newton’s essay to which he added the Judgment Day map. Click here for a closer look.

Newton’s manuscripts preserved at the National Library of Israel offer an intriguing glimpse into aspects not widely known about this venerated scientist, notably his interest in alchemy and his systematic attempt to recreate the divine prophecy that had been lost since biblical times; that is, to understand the prophecies handed down by the Hebrew prophets. Albert Einstein made the case for the significance of these documents clearly in a letter to his friend, the collector and Middle East expert Abraham Shalom Yahuda, in 1940. Einstein elucidated for Yahuda the importance of collecting and making Newton’s theological and alchemical writings available for study, emphasizing that these writings open an unprecedented window into the man’s work. Einstein wrote:

While the formative development of Newton’s lasting physics works must remain shrouded in darkness, because Newton apparently destroyed his preparatory works, we do have in this domain of his works on the Bible drafts and their repeated modification; these mostly unpublished writings therefore allow a highly interesting insight into the mental workshop of this unique thinker.

From the theological records preserved in the Library, it is clear that like a number of 17th-century Protestant commentators, Newton also believed that the end of the world was encrypted in the text of the Bible. The thousands of carefully hand-written pages are evidence of the devotion of one of human history’s greatest minds to the solving of this riddle. As hinted in the quotation which appears at the beginning of this article, the return of the Jews to Zion was a central part of the Newtonian vision.


Browse through Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts, preserved at the National Library of Israel, here.