A Cinderella Story: The First Winner of the International Bible Contest

Overnight, Amos Hakham, winner of the first International Bible Contest, became an Israeli celebrity. From that point on, the Israeli public just couldn’t get enough of him…

Amos Hakham, winner of the first International Bible Contest, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection, the National Library of Israel

“Some people spend their free time reading novels or crime fiction. I read the Bible,” said the first winner of the International Bible Contest. His name was Amos Hakham, he had cerebral palsy and suffered from a speech impediment. Yet, Hakham proved himself an extremely knowledgeable young man, despite not receiving any formal education – he did not attend elementary or high school and did not study at any institution of higher learning. He was 37 years old when he won the coveted title, suddenly becoming famous and receiving widespread admiration from the Israeli public.

Hakham was born in Jerusalem in 1921 without any disability, but before his first birthday, he suffered a traumatic head injury that left him with cerebral palsy and a speech disability. His father, Dr. Noah Hakham (after whom Amos’ son would eventually be named), decided to home school the boy, fearing that the neighborhood children would bully him. Amos Hakham thus never attended a “regular” school. At the age of 29, after both of his parents had passed away, he found a low-paying job as a clerk at the School for the Blind. While his employer greatly appreciated his dedication, day after day Amos would wait impatiently for his shift to end, so that he could go home to his small, modest room, where his only possessions were his books. There, he would pore over the Bible—his most favorite book of all.

In 1958, thanks to an initiative spearheaded by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Hakham was given an opportunity that changed his life. Even before the establishment of the state, Ben-Gurion had worked to renew and strengthen the Jewish people’s ancient affinity to the Bible. In accordance with his belief that “the Bible is the secret of the Jewish people’s existence and eternalness,” with the establishment of the state, Ben-Gurion supported various initiatives to consolidate a new Jewish-Zionist tradition. Some of the initiatives were complete and utter failures, such as the “Independence Haggadah.” A few were resounding successes— the International Bible Contest was the most significant of these.

The International Bible Contest we know today is a quiz for Jewish youth, broadcast live every year on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. But the contest was originally a Bible quiz for adults, launched during the state’s celebrations of its first decade of existence. Back then, the contestants were not only Jews, but people from all over the world.

The announcement of the upcoming Bible contest took Hakham by complete surprise. He didn’t see himself as a possible contestant, but his neighbors, well aware of the depth of his knowledge of the Bible, pushed him to enter. He successfully passed the first screening round which was conducted in writing, and was invited to the next stage—the national quiz. What troubled Hakham however was not his biblical knowledge but his financial situation, namely how was he going to afford a decent suit for the stately event. In the end a neighbor offered to loan him one.

The National Bible Quiz for Adults took place on August 4, 1958 and aroused enormous excitement among the Israeli public. From the start, Hakham demonstrated an impressive proficiency, easily and precisely answering every question. After handily winning the national quiz, he advanced to the next stage—the International Bible Contest held later that month. Again, he won first place, outsmarting his competitors who had come from all over the world. An excited Prime Minister Ben-Gurion awarded Hakham the first prize and immediately after, invited him to his office where they talked, of course, about the Bible.

The first International Bible Contest, held on August 19, 1958 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram Campus. Photo from the Bitmuna Collection, Eddie Hirschbein Collection, the National Library of Israel

With his win, Hakham’s life changed completely. He began academic studies for the first time and eventually became an important Bible scholar. He wrote commentaries for several books of the Bible as part of the Da’at Mikra series, which are known for their clarity and thoroughness. About two years after winning, Hakham married Devora Atas, and the couple had a son, Noah Hakham.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. With his win, Hakham quickly became known as a world expert on the Bible and he began receiving inquiries, from everyone from fourth graders to major corporations, research institutes and universities. He was even asked to suggest Bible verses suitable for decorating the halls of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building. Even after many decades, his fame as the winner of the first International Bible Contest did not wane and he continued to receive letters and requests.

“Please give a helping hand in decorating the halls of our legislature with biblical verses and sayings of the sages…” – a request from 1977

One interesting request came from the commander of a new secret Israeli army intelligence unit, who asked Hakham to propose an animal from the Bible that would be a fitting symbol for the unit’s spirit and goals. Would the eagle be a good choice or was there another animal that might be more suited?

“My intelligence unit, which handles hostage interrogations and psychological warfare, has tasked me with coming up with a symbol and flag design for the unit… In what context is the eagle mentioned in the Bible?” – a letter from a member of an IDF intelligence unit

From time to time, Hakham was called in to settle a family dispute, such as a dramatic debate over the name “Nimrod”. Was this a suitable Hebrew name? Or the name of an evil idolator?

“We gave our son the name Nimrod and were later told that this name is unacceptable in Judaism and the child’s grandfather now shuns us…” – a letter from a disgruntled family

Hakham was even asked to contribute his biblical knowledge in legal matters. In the next letter, the issue at hand is whether a child of divorced parents can have her last name legally changed to that of her new stepfather.

“This question has great legal ramifications” – a lawyer’s urgent question

Before the Google age, Hakham was also called upon as a human search engine for verses from the Bible. For example, the poetry translator Yehoshua Kochav maintained an extensive correspondence with Hakham who helped him in his translations of biblically inspired poets such as William Blake and John Milton.

A question “regarding a specific literary work” – a poetry translator’s query

Hakham’s love (one could also say private obsession) for the Bible was what made him so sought after. And along with requests for help, many wanted to reward him for his knowledge with various and sometimes unusual perks. At Ben-Gurion’s order, Hakham received state-funded treatments from Dr. Moshe Pinchas Feldenkrais, whose method of physical exercise and movement was said to improve a person’s quality of life. The Egged Public Transportation Company awarded him a lifetime of free bus travel. In Hakham’s archives, you can even find a letter from politician Pinchas Lavon asking where he preferred the location of the apartment that the Histadrut (the national labor union) had decided to purchase for him. These were only a very small part of the rewards showered on Hakham.

How did the once anonymous Amos Hakham deal with his unexpected celebrity? In a conversation with us, Amos’ son, Prof. Noah Hakham, recalled that his father reacted mainly with humor. His father would say, “It’s just easier for someone to call me instead of looking for the biblical verse in question using a Bible concordance.” Although Noah was born five years after his father’s success, he remembers the many phone calls Amos received at all hours of the day, usually from a stranger with a burning biblical question. “From someone who wouldn’t be given a second glance or even a first glance on the street, he became the most famous man in the country,” said the son of his father’s transformation.

Hakham meeting with Ben-Gurion after his win (you can guess what the topic of conversation was). The Eddie Hirschbein Collection, the National Library of Israel

Amos Hakham passed away in 2012, at the age of 91, 54 years after the achievement that changed his life. Hakham’s archive was deposited at the National Library of Israel, in which are preserved, among other items, the letters presented in the article.

We conclude the article about this fascinating man with Hakham’s own words, words that largely defined his life, and which he wrote immediately after winning the contest in 1958: “There are facts that even the most resounding applause of all the citizens of the country will not change. Being disabled is one such fact. And every disabled person can follow one of two paths: one is isolation, escaping from active life and depending on others. This path seems at first to be the easiest way out, but it ends in depression and decay. This had been my path from the day I was able to decide things for myself. Although, in my heart I always felt that this is not the right path, that there is another way, a path of complete integration into life, while developing qualities and talents that lie hidden in every person,  and that can serve as a kind of substitute for what was lost and cannot be recovered.”

This article was prepared with the help of Arik Kitsis of the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel

When General Allenby Saved Sukkot

In the midst of World War I, two old Jews, Chaim Weizmann and General Edmund Allenby teamed up to ensure that the holiday could be celebrated properly...

General Edmund Allenby may not have personally participated in the Sukkot celebrations of 1918, but many Jews had reason to thank him that year (Composite image: Allenby, ca. 1917 and a ca. 1900 paper cutout depicting observance of the Sukkot holiday / Public domain)

Chaim Weizmann waited patiently for the one train that could take him to Cairo that day.

As the departure time approached, so too, did two seemingly ancient men. Weizmann estimated that their combined age must have been 180.

The Zionist leader had come to the Land of Israel as head of the Zionist Commission – a delegation of prominent figures tasked with gauging and laying down initial foundations for a Jewish state following the British government’s Balfour Declaration the previous autumn.

The Zionist Commission arriving in British-controlled Palestine in 1918. From the “Palestine at the End of First World War” photo album, National Library of Israel archives. Click image to enlarge

The First World War was still raging and the Commission, which a few iterations later would become the Jewish Agency, faced a host of problems. The heterogenous group was ripe for internal division, with members from different countries and ideological persuasions. Its role and authority rather vague, the local British military command was all but unsupportive despite official backing from London. Poverty and disease were rampant and the internal politics of the small local Jewish community needed to be addressed, as did the concerns and opposition of the local Arab population, which the Commission sought to engage in productive dialogue.

The Zionist Commission visiting a school in Nes Ziona, 1918. From the “Palestine at the End of First World War” photo album, National Library of Israel archives. Click image to enlarge

All of these issues and many more were on Chaim Weizmann’s mind one day in September 1918 as the elderly men approached him.

In his autobiography, Trial and Error, Weizmann recalled how besides the men’s age, the thing that immediately struck him was that he did not recognize either of them:

“By this time I was under the impression that I had met every man, woman and child in the Jewish community of fifty thousand, most of them several times.”

They looked closely at Weizmann and his luggage.

“But you are not really going away? You can’t go yet. There are still some matters of importance to be settled here.”

The brilliant scientist and statesman knew very well that there were in fact many matters of importance that remained to be settled – some of them for decades to come.

Yet, while poverty, disease and conflict may indeed have troubled the men, those were not the issues about which they had come to talk to Weizmann.

“Do you not know that the Feast of Tabernacles [Sukkot] is almost upon us, and we have no myrtles?,” they asked, referring to one of the “Four Species” required to properly observe the holiday in accordance with Jewish law. 

An old Jewish man holding myrtle branches, ca. 1920 (Photo: François Scholten). This photo is part of the Israel Archive Network 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

“Though I was familiar enough with the need for myrtles… it had somehow slipped my mind, and it had not occurred to me to include this particular job among the many chores of the Zionist Commission, operating in the midst of a bloody war,” Weizmann recalled in his memoirs.

Not fazed, he responded, “Surely you can get myrtles from Egypt,” to which the old men looked pained:

“…one must have myrtles of the finest quality. These come from Trieste. In a matter of high religious importance, surely General Allenby will be willing to send instructions to Trieste for the shipment of myrtles.” 

Weizmann explained that the world was at war and that Trieste was located in enemy territory. 

“But this is a purely religious matter,” one of the men responded, “a matter of peace. Myrtles are, indeed, the very symbol of peace…”

As the time for his train’s departure neared, Weizmann, ever the visionary pragmatist, tried persuading the two men that they would simply have to do with inferior Egyptian myrtles. Though seemingly oblivious to the geopolitical realities of a world war, the ancient men in fact did know something about importation restrictions and pointed out to Chaim Weizmann that myrtles could not be brought from Egypt because a quarantine was in place and the British authorities forbade importation of plants from Egypt to Palestine.

Somewhat stumped and soon to miss his train, Weizmann promised the men that he would make every possible effort to secure a myrtle supply in time for Sukkot, yet he had no idea how exactly he might do that.

“I travelled down to Egypt genuinely worried over this question of myrtles and the quarantine; and even more worried by the responsibility for some thousands of people living, like these two old gentlemen, in a world of their own so remote from ours that they seemed as unreal to us as the war did to them. By the time I fell asleep in the train I was no longer sure what was, in fact, real, the war or the Feast of Tabernacles.”

The countless other issues at stake and meetings in Cairo all but drove the myrtle promise from Chaim Weizmann’s mind. Yet then, just before his boat sailed and he took leave of General Allenby, the legendary liberator of Jerusalem (not Trieste) exclaimed:

“By the way, about those myrtles!  You know, it is an important business; it’s all in the Bible; I read it up in the Book of Nehemiah last night. Well, you’ll be glad to hear that we have lifted the quarantine, and a consignment of myrtles will get to Palestine in good time for the Feast of Tabernacles!”

This article has been published 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.

The Story of Israel Told Through Rosh Hashanah Greeting Cards

There was a time when Israeli greeting cards designed to celebrate the Jewish New Year were the most common mail item in the country. These charming postcards expressed the sentiments of their time in every Jewish home in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card from 1958

The custom of sending greeting cards before the Jewish New Year began in Germany in the late Middle Ages and gradually spread to Eastern Europe and the United States. The early twentieth century was the “golden age” of postcards, and among Jews, the Rosh Hashanah greeting card was easily the star of this particular show. With the rise of electronic communications, the custom has naturally faded, and today it is likely that most of the New Year greetings we receive arrive via other mediums: text message, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Tiktok, email, the list goes on. But we wanted to look back for a moment, to those distant days when sending a Rosh Hashanah greeting required more than just a click.

The holiday postcards usually carried Jewish-related motifs, such as traditional and ideological symbols, or illustrations of major Jewish current events. With the formation and rise of the Zionist movement, Rosh Hashanah greeting cards became platforms for conveying ideological and Zionist messages related to prominent public events.

This Jewish New Year greeting shows what the opening of the Second Zionist Congress in the city of Basel looked like in the last week of August 1898. Encouraged by the first Congress that had convened there the year before, hopeful representatives of Jewish communities from all over the world gathered together again to plan the future of Zionism. In the center of the photo we can see Theodor Herzl addressing the crowd.


In the spring of 1901 a meeting between Herzl and the Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid stirred hopes in the Jewish world. At the meeting, Herzl asked the Sultan to sell the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, and offered a large sum of money to the Ottoman Empire and an equally large sum to the Sultan himself in exchange for a charter for the land, but the Sultan declined the request. This special greeting card was published on Rosh Hashanah 1901 to mark the historic meeting that had taken place a few months earlier.


The same New Year’s postcard series with the photographs of Herzl and the Sultan also included postcards of other heroes of the Jewish national awakening in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, such as Nordau, Emile Zola and one of Alfred Dreyfus, shown here below.


During the first three decades of the State of Israel, New Year greeting cards were the most common mail item in the country. These cards expressed the spirit of the New Year in every Jewish home in Israel. In the last few weeks of each Hebrew year, the post office would switch into high gear to meet the challenge posed by the countless postcards that flooded the postal system. The diverse images on the postcards expressed the hopes of Israeli citizens at the beginning of the New Year. Together they form a collective picture of Israeli society in its own eyes.


“At Basel, I founded the Jewish State”

(Theodor Herzl, Basel, 1897)


“It is with a sense of honor and awe that I rise to open the Constituent Assembly of the State of Israel, the first Jewish assembly of our day, in Jerusalem, the eternal city.”

(Prof. Chaim Weizmann, President of the Provisional State Council and the first President of the State of Israel at the opening ceremony of the Knesset, then called the “Constituent Assembly,” 1949)

This card from 1949, recalls two important events in the life of the nation: the First Zionist Congress in Basel (note the wrong year written on the card – 1896 instead of 1897) where Herzl laid the cornerstone of the future homeland of the Jewish people and the opening session of the first Knesset.


Shana Tova from 1930s Tel Aviv! A greeting card depicting Dizengoff Square, named for Zina Dizengoff, the first lady of the first Hebrew city.


Years before the Western Wall was in Israeli hands, the Jewish people prayed for “the liberation of our holy places.”


Happy New Year from the “Egged” Public Transportation Company:


1967 was an exciting year. After days of anxious waiting and uncertainty, Israel quickly defeated its neighbors in the Six-Day War. One of the symbols of this victory was the liberation of Jerusalem’s Old City after nineteen years of Jordanian rule and two thousand years of Jewish longing for the city. The postcard shows an armored vehicle entering the Old City through the Lion’s Gate. Blasts of mortar fire can be seen through the gate and outside it. Written on the postcard is the Hebrew text: “Like lions, the warriors of Israel prevailed,” along with “Peace and security”, appearing twice:


“Shana Tova from the banks of the Suez Canal – to the victorious IDF.”


Even the Hora was commemorated in Rosh Hashanah greeting cards. Originating in the Balkans, the Hora was brought to Israel by immigrants from Eastern Europe and has since been identified with the Land of Israel and Zionism. The Hora is a circle dance in 4/4 time which allows equality among the dancers and a sense of togetherness. These features of the dance suited the pioneering spirit that prevailed in the country in the early decades following Israeli independence and was nostalgically commemorated years later, as in this card, which likely dates to the 1970s.  The Hebrew inscription reads “An abundance of blessings for the New Year”.


“Today, through my visit to you, I ask you why don’t we stretch out our hands with faith and sincerity so that together we might destroy this barrier?… Why don’t we stand together with the courage of men and the boldness of heroes who dedicated themselves to a sublime aim? Why don’t we stand together with the same courage and daring to erect a huge edifice of peace? An edifice that builds and does not destroy. An edifice that serves as a beacon for generations to come with the human message for construction, development, and the dignity of man.”

On November 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat delivered these words during his historic visit to the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem. A month later, in December 1977, the historic first El Al flight took off from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Cairo. To mark the occasion, a Rosh Hashanah greeting was issued with an illustration of an El Al airplane decorated with Israeli and Egyptian flags and the words Peace in Hebrew and Arabic.

An El Al plane with the flags of Israel and Egypt to mark the historic flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to Cairo


Postcards from the Heddy Or Israeliana Collection and the National Library of Israel’s Ephemera Collection.


Meet the Ottoman Kavass Guards, Protectors of the Chief Rabbi

With the rise in status of foreign and non-Muslim dignitaries in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century, the Ottomans assigned special bodyguards to protect diplomatic consuls, Christian patriarchs, as well as the chief rabbis of Jewish communities throughout the empire. The church patriarchs continue to use these bodyguards to this day, but what happened to the kavass guards that were assigned to the Jews? And what does all this have to do with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef?

Bezalel Mevashov (right), Hacham Rafael Azriel, son-in-law of Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir (center) and the kavass Yaakov Bachar (left), 1939. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

In the summer of 1969, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was appointed Chief Rabbi of the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv. The inaugural procession left the religious council building for a motorcade parade around the city in honor of the new appointee. At the head of the procession, marching in front of the rabbi, the mayor and their attendants, was an unusual figure: an elderly man, dressed in official uniform, carrying a large wooden staff with a silver pommel and wearing a belt holding a curved and decorated sword. Stern-faced, he led the convoy, tapping out a uniform rhythm with the tip of his staff, and only after the new Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv was safely seated in the waiting car did he get into the front seat. Later he could be seen standing to the left of Rabbi Ovadia, acting as his personal assistant. This is one of the last records we have of a Jewish kavass, a relic from another time in the Holy Land.


Bodyguards for Foreigners in the Ottoman Territories

To understand why the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv was accompanied by a bodyguard wielding a staff and a sword, we must look back to the mid-19th century. At the time, the Ottoman Empire was trying to quash the rebellion of Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman army officer who had taken control of a large region encompassing both Egypt and Palestine. In one of the last battles between the empire and the forces controlled by Muhammad Ali, who is considered the founder of modern Egypt, the Ottomans had no choice but to accept help from foreign powers, including the British Empire, alongside the Russians and Austro-Hungarians. Recognizing the weakness of the great Muslim empire, these nations offered their help in exchange for the advancement of their own interests within the Ottoman territories. This led to the “Capitulations” – contracts signed between the Ottoman Empire and the various European powers.

As a result of these contracts, the foreign consuls became sovereign over the citizens of their respective countries living in Muslim territories. This meant the European countries could establish civil systems to serve their own citizens, which ran parallel to those provided by the empire, such as foreign banks, a post office, hospitals and schools. Later, the European countries demanded that the capitulation rights also be applied to non-Muslim populations in the Ottoman Empire, regardless of their origin—including mainly Christians and Jews.

Thus, a situation was created in which, for the first time in the Ottoman Empire, non-Muslims were granted enhanced rights and Christian and Jewish religious leaders were empowered to represent the communities they headed. The office of the Jewish Hakham Bashi, which the Ottoman authorities united at that time with the office of the Rishon LeZion (Chief Rabbi), received a new validity, with subordinate rabbis being appointed to head the various Jewish communities in the empire. In view of the changes and the new rights granted within the capitulation contracts, the Ottoman authorities decided to assign bodyguards to the consuls, foreign diplomats, and various VIPs of one sort or another, as well as to non-Muslim religious leaders.

Bodyguard (kavass) of the Pasha of Jerusalem, colored drawing by Ermete Pierotti. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

These guards, called “kavass” (the meaning in Ottoman Arabic is “archer” or “bowman”), in fact received the status of a soldier or policeman, even though they did not belong to any official body. The role of the kavass was to walk in front of the official or dignitary they were accompanying, to clear the way for them, and if necessary to protect them from harassment, mobs or even attack. European institutions, such as banks, received permission to maintain a kavass that would protect their interests. Since the kavass did not belong to the police or the army, Jews and Christians could also hold this position, thereby circumventing the ban on non-Muslims carrying weapons.

Man wearing the decorative, embroidered kavass “uniform,” Jaffa. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

Staff, Sword and Special Dress

The kavass were colorful characters, whose dress mimicked the style of the dress uniforms worn by the Ottoman military in the mid-19th century. Their uniforms consisted of wide-legged oriental-style pants, a large embroidered coat, a wide sash and “Fez” hat (tarboush), which was common throughout the Ottoman Empire at the time. Most also sported thick mustaches in accordance with the day’s fashion. As mentioned, they wore a belt with a large sword, and always carried a large staff. This staff was usually topped by a pommel made of silver or some other metal, with a steel tip attached to it, in keeping with its function as a weapon. Yet the staff had another purpose besides: the kavass would use the stick to tap the pavement while leading a religious procession or accompanying a dignitary. The taps were meant to signal to the crowd to clear the way. If at first, the kavass’ role was intended to protect foreign office holders within Muslim territory, towards the end of the Ottoman Empire the presence of kawass became a status symbol, and they were often selected to perform important duties due to their visibility and prestige.

Kavass – morning procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Courtesy of photographer Dancho Arnon, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Every Christian patriarch was assigned a kavass, and the custom continued even after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with the appointing of a kavass for the British High Commissioner. Muslim kavass guards sometimes found themselves in a “conflict of interests”. Journalist Uri Cesari recounted an incident that took place during the 1921 riots, when the Anglo-Palestine Bank was stormed by an angry mob: “The bank had a Muslim guard, a loyal guard, a ‘kavass,’ a figure bequeathed to us in the capitulations.” Later, Cesari described how the kavass promised that he would not let any trespasser through the bank’s doors, but the Jews, unsure with whom the kavass’ loyalty truly lay, chose to flee anyway.

Funeral procession of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir, which proceeded from Jaffa Street to the Mount of Olives, 1939. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

The Ottoman kavass became part of the Rishon LeZion’s honor guard along with many important rabbis. In his memoir of the German Kaiser’s visit to Jerusalem, David Yellin writes: “Two armed men dressed in their official clothes with silver staffs in their hands walk in front of our Chief Rabbi.” In his short story “The Jewish Kavass,” the author Yehoshua Ayzenshtadt (Barzilai) describes how at the beginning of the 20th century a Jewish kavass from Jerusalem was chosen to protect a large sum of money collected by the Jewish community in the Land of Israel: “In the Eastern countries, this person dressed in strange clothing is called ‘kavass.’ These people serve the royal envoys, religious heads and all the dignitaries; anyone who has a ’kavass’ is known to be important.” Ayzenshtadt goes on to describe the kavass’ heroic qualities as well as the amount of fabric needed for his traditional costume, given his large size. In his story, Ayzenshtadt, a European Jew, drew a portrait of the kavass that was clearly influenced by Orientalist tales: a big and strong Jerusalemite, a Jew who speaks Arabic and is familiar with the city as only a native son can be.

The Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yaakov Meir in traditional dress, to his right his bodyguard Bezalel Mabshus wearing the kavass costume, 1936. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

The Kavass Receives an Israeli Identity Card

With the establishment of the State of Israel, the kavass in their original traditional appearance remained only in the area of Jerusalem. Embassies were stationed in Tel Aviv, and the Christian patriarchs are the last to still have a kavass leading their processions. Most have abandoned the full oriental dress and are seen wearing it only on special occasions. Instead of the embroidered pants and coat, most kavass guards accompanying the Christian patriarchs wear blue suits, though the tarboosh remains, a sign of the past. They also still carry the silver-tipped staffs and swords.

Inauguration ceremony of Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Heichal Shlomo Synagogue, Jerusalem, 1964. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and is made accessible through the cooperation of the Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Heritage and Jerusalem and the National Library of Israel

For the bodyguards of the Christian patriarchs, being a kavass is often a lifelong profession and many have adopted hallmarks of the particular Christian church they belong to. For example, the kavass guards of the Orthodox Patriarchate wear the symbol of the Orthodox Church on their lapel, whereas some of those who serve the Armenian Patriarchate refuse to wear the fez, which, as mentioned, is a distinctly Ottoman symbol, in protest of the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. The kavass guards of the Rishon LeZion, whose position was integrated into the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, continued to serve the rabbis in the early years of the State of Israel. Little by little they became akin to personal assistants of the Chief Rabbi, and wore uniforms somewhat similar to those of the Knesset Guard, with a matching cap in place of the Ottoman headdress.

Inauguration of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, June 17, 1969, Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue. Center: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right: Yosef Shalit, the Chief Rabbi’s assistant, wearing the kavass uniform. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Eventually, they became a mere symbolic relic of a bygone era. In 1968, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim’s kavass made headlines, when the rabbi and his assistant visited the Western Wall plaza and decided to remove a partition that was illegally erected there by the Ministry of Religions. In 1969, a bodyguard accompanied Rabbi Ovadia as he set out on his new path as Chief Rabbi of the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Three years later, when he was elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia abolished the position of the rabbi’s kavass guard. This spelled the end of the role of the Jewish kavass, although the Christian counterparts can still be found in the Old City of Jerusalem, accompanying the church patriarchs who have not yet decided to relinquish this symbol of honor and dignity from the past.

A Greek Orthodox Christmas procession in Jerusalem’s Old City, 1991. The Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel