The Holy Land “in Natural Color”: German Postcards From 1932

Less than a year before the Nazis came to power, a collection of postcards featuring holy sites and the developing Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel was published in Munich…

The Jaffa Gate

In addition to the thousands of books that find their way to the National Library of Israel every year, there are also hundreds of other historical items which are added to the collections on an annual basis: photo albums, posters, letters and, once in a while, the occasional mysterious cardboard box.

Such a box was recently donated by Chana and Yoram Harel. On its cover appears a description in German that offers a first clue to its contents. The description reads:  Das Heilige Land: 126 Ansichten in Naturfarbenphotographie. Preiss & Co., Munchen – “The Holy Land: 126 Postcards in Natural Color, Price and Co., Munich”.

When we opened the box, its contents were as we had expected—several dozen postcards featuring landscapes of the Holy Land, two maps of Palestine (north and south), a map of Jerusalem and a booklet in German. A closer look at the postcards reveals that these were created using the photochrome technique.

A young Bedouin


Landscapes of the Holy Land

In 1880, a Swiss printing company by the name of “Orell Füssli” developed a technique for creating color images. This method came to be known as the photochrome technique. Long before the development of analog color photography, which captures original colors of the subject being photographed on a roll of film, the photochrome technique enabled color reprinting of a black and white photo. Orell Füssli’s innovation was the use of the centuries-old technique of lithography to produce these color prints.

Ironically, the photochrome technique gave rise to a strange state of affairs: in the event that the colorists did not have precise instructions concerning the original colors of the image they were being asked to reprint, they had no choice but to use their own imagination and common sense.

This was the case in many photochrome albums, where the relationship between the actual colors of the photographed subject and the colors that were artificially added later on is often purely coincidental. In the postcards we have here, on the other hand, it seems that the “Uvachrom” company that published them went to great lengths to get as close as possible to reality.

The booklet that accompanies the postcards provides the necessary background. The 126 photos in the collection were taken during a “trip to the Holy Land in spring 1931,” a year before the postcards were printed in Munich. The booklet’s title page makes reference to a “High Shepherd”, who gave his approval to the project. It seems this collection of postcards was produced for a German Catholic audience, printed with the approval of a high-ranking bishop, possibly even the Pope himself.

Das Heilige Land: 126 Ansichten in Naturfarbenphotographie. Preiss & Co., Munchen – “The Holy Land: 126 Postcards in Natural Color, Price and Co., Munich”

But don’t let this fact mislead you. Despite the many images of Christian holy sites (including, of course, the Church of the Dormition, which was built following the visit of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Holy Land), many others depict the progress of the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel. There are, for example, pictures of the Hebrew University, the National Library at its former location on Mount Scopus, the tomb of Rabbi Meir in Tiberias, and the electric power station established by Pinchas Rutenberg.

The Tomb of Rabbi Meir in Tiberias

Eighty of the original 126 postcards in the collection remain in their original box. The rest were probably sent by the owners of the collection to friends and family. This leads us to the obvious question: Who was the target buyer of such a collection? While we do not know the identity of the collection’s original owner, the accompanying booklet makes clear who it was meant for. The collection is described as a “precious souvenir for anyone lucky enough to see the land with their own eyes, providing all others with a vivid glimpse of its beauty.”

The 67-page booklet contains detailed information about the Holy Land: general topographical information, an explanation of the perpetual water shortage; a history of Zionism and the Hebrew language; an in-depth discussion of Jerusalem including information about the Temple Mount and the Western Wall; as well as details of the different stations in the life of Jesus in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel.  The booklet concludes with a drawing of the Temple Mount Plaza.

The collection’s date of publication is of particular historical significance. It was published in Munich, Germany, in 1932; less than a year later, on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.

Yohanan Ben Zakai Synagogue in Jerusalem


The Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. The domes of the Hurva and Tiferet Yisrael synagogues are both visible


Jerusalem children enjoying locally grown oranges


Tomb of Rabbi Akiva


Rachel’s Tomb


This building on Mount Scopus housed the Jewish National and University Library at the time, today’s National Library of Israel


A view from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus


The Dome of the Rock


Dr. Stephen Litt, Curator of the Humanities Collection at the National Library, contributed to the preparation of this article.

The Magical Reincarnation of the Ancient Date Tree

When scientists found 2000 year-old plant seeds buried deep inside the ancient fortress of Masada, no one dared hope that they would lead to the recultivation of one of the most powerful trees in Israel. This is the story of Methuselah, the 18-year-old tree sprouted from biblical roots!

A poster designed in 1929 by artist Ze'ev Raban, of the Bezalel Art School, for the "Company for the Promotion of Travel in the Holy Land", the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

Since the earliest records of human history, the date palm tree has been a symbol of life and prosperity in the Land of Israel. They were cultivated in the region as far back as 3100 BCE by the Mesopotamians and due to their sweet and long-lasting fruit they were even considered a gift from the heavens. As far back as the days of King Solomon, Israelites were busy cultivating this special tree, known for its compatibility with sandy desert areas. It was considered to be a symbol of fertility, blessing, peace and prosperity and was important enough to be mentioned several times in the Bible including the well-known verse in Psalms: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree” (Psalm 92:12).

Mordecai Kafri and a friend climb a palm tree in Nahalal, northern Israel. This item is part of Archive Network Israel 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


1924 postcard from Denmark depicting a date palm tree, along with the Hebrew verse ‘The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree’ [Psalms. 92:13]. A Hebrew greeting for the New Year is printed at the bottom. The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

The Bible describes the date palm being carved into the walls of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, while several biblical women were given the name “Tamar” – the Hebrew word for the date palm tree. It was so important that its image appeared on ancient Judean and Roman coins and is even featured on the ten-shekel coin in modern-day Israel.

A Hebrew manuscript from 19th century Russia depicting details of Solomon’s Temple, including a tabernacle wall decorated with date palm branches (center-right, below the Menorah, you can zoom in here), the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Photo of a Roman coin from 80 CE. It depicts a date palm tree and Jews in mourning. On both sides of the tree an abbreviated Latin inscription reads: Judea Capta, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Photo of a Roman coin from 71 CE, depicting a palm tree with a cluster of dates hanging from either side. The inscription reads: IMP VESPA SIAN. Vespasian besieged Jerusalem shortly before becoming Emperor of Rome. The Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


This mosaic floor decoration featuring a Judean date palm was located in the Maon Nirim Synagogue in pre-state Israel and dates back to the year 500 CE, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It is hard to overstress the importance of this species. As far back as 400 BCE, Herodotus would speak of the Judean date tree with pride, expressing appreciation for the dry and non-perishable dates which made them perfect for export (Palm Trees in the Greco-Roman WorldWathiq Ismaeel Al-Salihi). In the 1st century CE Pliny the Elder commented that the dates from this tree type were famous for their succulence and sweetness.

A field trip in the Arava Desert, circa 1930-1944. This item is part of Archive Network Israel 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

However, the date palm was to meet a sad end. Most of these trees were razed down over time as farmers cleared new fields or as invaders sought building materials for their homes and weapons for wars. When the Romans came to take control of the region in 70 CE, date palms were an integral plant to the Judean economy, making them a prime target of destruction for the Roman empire. By the year 500, the plant was thought to have been wiped out in its entirety. It’s worth noting that Asaph Goor, in his prominent article “History of the Date through the Ages in the Holy Land,” contests that the date tree was not actually wiped out completely until the 14th century, during a collapse in agriculture under the Mamluks. Either way, it is agreed that the poor tree was killed off far before the modern state of Israel was founded.

That was, until 2005, when Dr. Elaine Solowey stepped into the picture. Dr. Solowey was a horticulturalist who specialized in desert environments. One fateful day, a discovery that had been made years earlier was brought to her attention by the Arava Institute.

Image from an article published in The Australian Jewish Times, 23 January 1986, celebrating the finding of date palm seeds on Masada

In 1963, Professor Yigal Yadin and his team of archaeologists discovered a handful of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds at Herod’s Palace on Masada. They were found at the northern entrance of the palace, next to the site of the ancient food stores, and they had been preserved in a small clay jar that had been maintained by the extremely dry and sheltered environment for millennia.

Dr. Solowey hurried to send the seeds to the University of Zurich, where researchers radiocarbon-dated the seeds to between 155 BC and 64 CE.

When this discovery was made in 1963, Israel was experiencing a terrible drought and the archeologists feared that if they replanted the seeds immediately, they would wither and die. To preserve whatever treasures these seeds had been hiding away for the last two millennium, they were held in storage at Bar-Ilan University, waiting patiently for a day when the weather conditions might improve and a scientist with enough skill and passion might suddenly appear on the horizon.

Image of young Methuselah from a newspaper article in the Jerusalem Post – May 27, 2016, courtesy of the Arava Institute

Dr. Elaine Solowey was certainly sure of her skill set and knew that she could be the one to revive the ancient seeds. She had been studying endangered medicinal herbs, searching for plants that could be grown in marginal and arid areas, and studying biblical plants native to southern Israel. In short, she had all the expertise needed for this monumental task.

Dr. Solowey, not one to stick to traditional methods, took a baby’s bottle warmer and used it as an incubator in which she could slowly hydrate the seeds. After they had sprouted, she fed the sprouts a careful mix of fertilizers and growth hormones and to everyone’s surprise, a baby sapling was born. “I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey.

She decided to name the new tree “Methuselah” after the biblical character with the longest lifespan. Six of the cultivated seeds were planted in Ketura in Southern Israel. The first surviving male from the other 5 seeds was named Adam and the first surviving female was named Hannah. These seeds from Masada are the very oldest ever to be germinated.

This newspaper excerpt comes from The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), 17 June 2005

Years later and the seeds were doing ex-seed-ingly well. All six seeds originally found on Masada had lived to adulthood and Methuselah itself was producing his own babies! “He is a big boy now. He is over three meters tall, he’s got a few offshoots, he has flowers, and his pollen is good,” Solowey said three years later. “We pollinated a female with his pollen, a wild female, and yeah, he can make dates.”

Article from The Jerusalem Post, August 25, 2021. The item shows a harvester picking dates from Methuselah, photo by Marcos Shonholtz


Image from a Jerusalem Post article published on May 27, 2016. Dr. Elaine Solowey is standing on the right in this 2008 image, alongside Methuselah and Dr. Sarah Sallon, courtesy of the Arava Institute

The story of Methuselah was picked up worldwide and the tree was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. In 2016 Dr. Elaine Solowey deservedly received the Ben Gurion Prize for the Development of the Negev and she is currently working to build an ancient date grove with date trees cultivated in the same conditions found in biblical descriptions. She longs to see how the dates differ to those we can create from Methuselah today.

Any interested person can take a trip to Ketura and visit Methuselah and his five friends including Adam and Hannah. As for Dr. Solowey, she will be known forever more as the magical woman who revived the great Judean date tree.

Image of Methushelah from a Jerusalem Post article published on May 27, 2016. Courtesy of the Arava Institute




To Whom Did This Spy Dedicate His Legendary Love Letter?

Although Avshalom Feinberg was only 27 years old when he died, he knew a true love or two... or five. Meet the many contenders for the title - “recipient of the most romantic love letter in the Hebrew language”

Avshalom Feinberg, 1915, the Ben Zvi Institute Archive. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, accessible through the collaboration of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel. Right: Raïssa Maritain, courtesy of the Feinberg Family Museum. Left: Miriam Kavshana, courtesy of the family.

The following is a story of unrequited love.

That is probably the best way to describe the Hebrew letter Avshalom Feinberg wrote in 1910 to an unknown lover. Originally titled “A Ballad of a Thousand Kisses,” the letter leaves us with very little information about the curly dark-haired and fair-skinned woman mentioned in it.

Feinberg was among the founders and leaders of the Nili underground. This spy ring was active in what was still Ottoman Palestine during the First World War, passing along intelligence to the British Empire and aiding its efforts to conquer the Land of Israel. Other members of the Nili underground included Aaron, Sarah, Alex and Rivka Aaronsohn.

Did Avshalom really write this ballad for his one and only true love? Did such a person even exist? And if so – who was she?

Quite a few women could have potentially answered this question in the first person. The fact that they all managed to have some connection to Avshalom or at least a plausible case, paints a more rounded portrait of this young Zionist idealist, a master of words and serial heartbreaker.

Here are the known and indisputable facts: the passionate and inspiring poetic ballad was written in October 1910, just after Avshalom returned from Paris, and before he was about to leave for the research station in Atlit to join Aaron Aaronsohn’s agricultural enterprise in Palestine (Aaronsohn had by this point become world famous for his work as an agronomist and botanist. His research also served as a convenient cover for his espionage activities).

If we play detective for a moment, we can use the descriptions on the letter’s second page (which most readers don’t usually get to) to try to figure out the nature of the relationship and the depth of the intimacy between Avshalom and the letter’s intended recipient.

“I want to find this spring and put my lips to it, to glue my mouth to the spring of light and drink my fill, and that would be the thousandth kiss. But the sky does not favor my sinful eyes, the light does not favor my impure, earthly, drunken lips, and therefore this impossible kiss will burn my lips forever and trouble my wanting breast to the last breath.”

העמוד השני מתוך המכתב המקורי הנמצא היום בבית אהרנסון, מוזיאון ניל"י
The second page of the original letter, today in the Beit Aaronsohn – Nili Museum

Who was the woman for whom Feinberg yearned when he transformed his passionate musings into words on a page? During our search to uncover the identity of this enigmatic figure, several candidates presented themselves. Each of them is from a slightly different time and place, but all have one thing in common: they were all beautiful young women who were at some point certain that they held the key to Avshalom’s heart.


An Aaronsohn Family Love Triangle

The first claimant to the crown is Rivka Aaronsohn, who was officially considered his fiancée. Rivka was Aaron Aaronsohn’s younger sister and she and Avshalom had a close relationship. A co-claimant is her famous sister Sarah, who was apparently the closest thing to a soulmate Avshalom had.

Avshalom’s letters to Sarah and Rivka are full of emotion and various flowery descriptions. He occasionally wrote to both sisters together, using terms of endearment such as “my girls” and “my darlings,” but he also maintained a separate, much more intimate correspondence with each: “To my Sarah.” “To my Rivka.” “Yours, Avshalom”

“Oh! If I could only have flown yesterday before you and lined the whole path with beautiful flowers, placing a kiss on each flower in the hope that your feet would be good enough to touch them, how happy that would have made me.”

מכתב אהבה מאת אבשלום פיינברג אל שרה אהרנסון, יולי 1911. מתוך אוסף אברהם שבדרון, אוטוגרפים, הספרייה הלאומית.
Love letter from Avshalom Feinberg to Sarah Aaronsohn, July 1911. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

But even though Avshalom did not spare any kisses in the letters he wrote to the sisters, and despite the similarities that emerge here and there, the “thousand kisses” letter could not have been written for either of the two.

The Aaronsohn sisters were disqualified due to a discrepancy in the dates. The letter is dated October 18, 1910, and Feinberg would only meet the sisters later on.

The source of the confusion over this point is likely due to the fact that the letter was found among documents belonging to the Aaronsohn family, and is today deposited in the Beit Aaronsohn – Nili Museum.

Did Avshalom originally write the letter to an unknown woman, before later rededicating it to the red-haired Rivka or to the fair-haired Sarah? We’ll probably never know for sure.


The Paris Affair

Avshalom spent almost five years of his life in the French capital (from 1904 to 1909, with short breaks in Switzerland and Palestine). During his studies in Paris, he met Jacques and Raïssa Maritain through his revered aunt Sonia Belkind, establishing a strong friendship with the couple and becoming a frequent visitor in their home.

Jacques Maritain was a French Catholic philosopher and thinker. Raïssa Maritain was the daughter of a Jewish family that had immigrated to France from Russia at the end of the previous century, fleeing local persecutions of Jews. She met Jacques at the Sorbonne, fell in love with the gentle-faced young man and married him in a Christian ceremony against her family’s wishes.

The young couple had a strong bond. Raïssa testified in her diary that everything she did in her life and all the spiritual wealth she accrued was thanks to her husband. Jacques, in turn, later wrote that she was his inspiration, and that every one of his successful creative endeavors was due to her.

And yet, when Avshalom arrived at their home, he fell in love with the dreamy and beautiful young woman and she with him. Her sentimentality found an echo in the heart of this idealistic young man who was so different from her serious husband. Despite her failed attempts to lure him to Christianity, when they eventually parted, it was with the pain of lovers who know they will most likely never meet again.

Rumors and gossip about his French love followed Avshalom upon his return to Palestine. Despite this, he continued to maintain a correspondence with Jacques, writing to him from Hadera, Zichron Ya’akov and Atlit. Some of the letters, in fluent French and Yiddish, can be found in the archive of the philosopher André Neher, deposited at the National Library of Israel, but as far as we know, no personal letters to Raïssa were found among them.

Is it possible he wrote the letter for her but never sent it?

The dates certainly fit, as does the context: the unrequited love and the great distance that separated them, preventing Avshalom’s metaphorical kisses from reaching her.

ראיסה מריטן, באדיבות מוזיאון בית פיינברג
Raïssa Maritain, courtesy of the Feinberg Family Museum

The Beautiful Nurse from Jaffa

Miriam Kavshana was a young girl and an ardent Zionist when she and her older brother arrived in the Land of Israel from Plonsk, Poland. Other family members joined them later, but in the interval, Miriam worked as a nurse at the hospital in Jaffa.

There, as she would tell her family, she met Avshsalom. He was a young and charismatic patient; she was a dedicated and beautiful nurse. What could possibly happen?

We could not find any documentation of Avshalom’s hospitalization at that time, as few patient records remain from those years. Miriam’s relatives, however, have preserved a poem that was found among her papers. It was written by Avshalom Feinberg to a girl by the name of Miriam.


“It has been several days and several nights

that I have been lusting to see you Miriam

but to my great and bitter sorrow

this has proven to be

despite all of my toil, impossible

yet still, a glimmer of hope remains…”

 – The opening lines of the poem Avshalom dedicated to a “Miriam”


But by 1911, Miriam had apparently moved to Yavniel, near the Sea of Galilee, with Haim Yaffe, whom she would soon marry.

Was Avshalom really in love with her? Was the “Ballad of a Thousand Kisses” written for her, precisely because he could no longer claim her heart, after Haim had taken her up north?

מרים כבשנה בצעירותה, באדיבות המשפחה
Miriam Kavshana in her youth, courtesy of the family

If so, one can only wonder what the happily married woman must have felt when she read these words, which may have been intended for her.


Tsila’s Girl

In family conversations, Avshalom’s beloved little sister Tsila brought up another name: Segula Beckman Razili. In the archives of the Khan Museum in Hadera there is another letter that Avshalom wrote to Segula, as well as an envelope addressed to her in his own handwriting.

Did the envelope ever contain the famous ballad? It is empty now, and the address on its back does not hint at its past contents.

Not much is known about Segula’s life, except for the fact that in 1918 she married Haim Resnik (later Razili).

Tsila was very close to Avshalom. Even when they were not in the same place at the same time, they maintained an extensive correspondence (in which the various women are described very differently from the romantic metaphors that filled his love letters). She probably knew him better than most of his friends, and it is logical to think that he shared his innermost thoughts with her.

There is only one problem with this theory: according to family sources, Segula was born in 1896. A simple calculation leads to the conclusion that in 1910 she was only 14 years old. Anyone reading the entire letter, beyond the highly publicized opening, will find this fact quite disturbing.


So, for whom were the thousand kisses really meant?

Does it even matter for whom the ballad was written?

The image that emerges from cross-referencing these stories with what we know of Avshalom’s role in Zionist history, is that of a young Jewish man whose heart overflowed with feelings of love. Love for his people, for his country, for his family. And yes, also for the girls and women he met in his life.

Thanks to his rich and expressive linguistic talent, even decades later, we can almost touch those warm feelings that were so abruptly ended.

Thankfully, Avshalom’s beautiful ballad to an unknown lover was preserved for future generations by songwriter Mirit Shem-Or who rearranged the words to music written by Svika Pick. The song, today a well-known Israeli classic, was performed by Yehoram Gaon in 1986.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Napoleon: The Meeting That Never Was

In 1799, after a perilous journey, Rabbi Nachman arrived in the Land of Israel just in time to witness its conquest by Napoleon. Only by a miracle did R. Nachman escape Napoleon’s siege on Acre. So why did he make the French general the hero of one of his best-known stories?

The statue of Napoleon atop Napoleon’s Hill in Acre, the site where he stationed his cannons. Photo: Almog, Wikipedia

On Sunday, January 16, 1810, Rabbi Nachman related to his followers the story of the Ba’al Tefillah – “The Master of Prayer”, one of his best known and most enigmatic tales. The story follows the deeds of an anonymous tzaddik who attracts a growing number of people to the “purpose of the whole world,” which is to serve God in prayer, song and praise.

Word of the Master of Prayer’s efforts to “steal” people away from their normal lives and into the service of God had begun to spread. In order to continue his work, the tzaddik was forced to assume different guises, “with one person he would be a pauper; with another a merchant; while with others he would have different disguises.” Even when conversing with the people he was trying to bring to his side, he did not always reveal his true purpose. He knew exactly how to sway each person individually. For example, he could determine a poor person might need to be dressed in royal robes while a rich person “needed to wear torn, humble clothing.” This was how the mysterious tzaddik spent his days, until he heard of “a land that possessed great wealth”, where everyone was rich.

The Land of Wealth turned out to be a huge challenge for the tzaddik. He wanted to bring its inhabitants to repent, but he soon discovered that they were not interested in his religion for they had their own – the religion of money, which ranks everyone according to their wealth. If this wealth was devoid of any theological dimension, the Master of Prayer might have been able to overcome its destructive power. But when money is the religion, even the poorest of the poor—who are considered beasts according to this doctrine—believe in it with all their hearts. The truly rich are compared to heavenly stars, and the richest of all are worshipped by the rest, as if they were divine beings. To avoid being tainted by other, poorer people, the residents of the Land of Wealth even removed themselves to a remote location surrounded by high mountains.

The Master of Prayer fails utterly in his attempts to convert the people of the Land of Wealth from their religion, and to add insult to injury, they arrest him and put him in prison. But before he can be sentenced, a Mighty Warrior and his army arrive at the gates of the Land of Wealth. The Warrior presents his demands – the same demands he has presented to countless other lands he has conquered: surrender and avoid destruction. The ultimatum strikes fear into the hearts of the people of the Land of Wealth. They wish to surrender to avoid their own demise but they are afraid for they know that the Mighty Warrior is not interested in money but in control, which in their religion makes him a heretic. They try and fail to seek help from a country richer than their own, and they are at a loss of what to do next.

After failing completely in his mission, the Master of Prayer suddenly remembers that he might actually know this Mighty Warrior who is lying in wait outside the walls of the land. Brought before the ministers, he tells them that he himself was once “with a king, who had a mighty warrior who was lost. If that warrior is this Mighty Warrior, then I know him.” Only now, with the people of the Land of Wealth in mortal fear of conquest and destruction, was the Master of Prayer able to begin to sway them.

The story does not end there, but in order to understand its finale and guess the identity of that unnamed hero, we must go back even further in time, a full ten years earlier—to the journey of the real Rabbi Nachman to the Land of Israel. We will learn whom he encountered there (and whom he did not) and why he saw this journey as the defining moment of his life, for it was then that he went from being just another community leader, albeit with a noble family pedigree but nothing more, to a Ba’al Tefillah and a true tzaddik. In other words, this is the story of how Rabbi Nachman became the celebrated figure who continues to draw new adherents even two hundred years after his premature death.

Sippurei Maasiyot LeRabbi Bachman MeBratslav (“Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav”), Berlin, 1922

Rabbi Nachman’s Great Journey

Like so many big decisions in Rabbi Nachman’s life, the decision to journey to the Land of Israel seemed to come out of nowhere. In fact, it came from a sudden inner calling that he never bothered to explain fully.

As a young child, Nachman developed his unique way of approaching God intuitively. On harsh winter nights, he was said to visit the grave of his great-grandfather, the Besht, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, or he might go off by himself into the woods, or even shut himself in the Besht’s study and refuse to come out until the holy books began to “speak” to him. Outwardly, he would feign ignorance, but inwardly he burned with faith and religious zeal. He composed his own prayers and even secretly gave his meager allowance to a teacher in return for extra lessons. It is quite possible that the stories that have come down to us about Nachman the boy are exaggerated, but it is clear from them that he was a fervently religious young man with a searing belief in himself, who was simultaneously racked with self-doubt concerning his own ability to realize his destiny.

In 1798, at the age of 26, Rabbi Nachman announced his intention to embark on the dangerous and arduous journey to the Land of Israel. He provided a number of justifications before and after the journey, the main one being his desire to visit the grave of his grandfather, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, whom he had lost touch with.

The idea of pilgrimage to the Land of Israel was not an invention of Rabbi Nachman’s, not even a re-invention. His great grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, had undertaken just such a journey but was forced to turn back when he reached Constantinople. Other rabbis and Hasidim took the same journey and, unlike the Besht, many had completed it. Nevertheless, the journey surprised and worried the young Rabbi Nachman’s disciples. His wife tried to dissuade him from embarking on this dangerous trip and sent one of their daughters to convince him to give up on the idea. This was Rabbi Nachman’s answer to his daughter:

You will go to your in-laws. Someone will take in your older sister as a maidservant, a nienke. Someone will have pity on your younger sister and will take her in. And your mother can become a cook. I will sell the entire contents of the house to pay for the journey.

Rabbi Nachman’s insistence surprised many, for two additional reasons: First, by that time, Hasidic rabbis had already developed a theological justification for not undertaking the physical journey to the Land of Israel. They claimed that stepping foot in a synagogue in the Diaspora is equivalent to setting foot on the soil of the Land of Israel, encompassing all of its virtues. Secondly, there was the small matter of the war raging in Egypt and Palestine between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Ottoman Empire.


The French Giant Sets Out to Conquer the East

It’s not unusual nowadays to see an advertisement claiming a product to be “revolutionary,” but, it was the French Revolution that epitomized the new meaning of the term “revolution” – a radical, rapid and root-deep disconnection of the present from the past. This disconnection is present in many of Rabbi Nachman’s stories where kings—who, before the revolution, were believed to be all-powerful, ruling by divine grace—are shuffled as in a deck of cards. He who was small becomes great, and he who was great is shunted aside and discarded. More broadly, the world is generally depicted as being in turmoil, and so it also remains at the end of many of Rabbi Nachman’s tales.

Napoleon Bonaparte was perhaps the archetype of the small minor player who becomes the star of the show. Born in Corsica, Napoleon belonged to the unlanded lower aristocracy, but thanks to his great military prowess and political cunning, he rose from obscurity to become a celebrated general of the French Revolution. The 28-year-old Napoleon sealed his fame during his military campaign in Italy in which he succeeded in doing the impossible: in a matter of twelve months, he snatched Italy from the clutches of the Austrian Empire, which had ruled over it for hundreds of years.

Napoleon’s next foray was the conquest of Egypt, which he completed in 1798. After capturing Cairo from the ruling Mamluk dynasty, news spread of the Ottoman army (which was being backed by the British), making its way from Asia Minor through the Land of Israel. This spurred Napoleon to quickly set off for the conquest of Palestine.

Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804

Back to Rabbi Nachman. Convinced of his righteousness, the 26-year-old rabbi and leader, informed by “the heavens” of his first destination, left his hometown of Medzhybizh for the city of Kamenitz. The secret journey to Kamenitz remains shrouded in mystery. Yet, this visit served as both a symbolic beginning and miniature version of the internal and physical journey he had to endure in order to be able to enter the Land of Israel. It was a journey of a righteous person descending into the world of impurity, struggling with what he finds there and emerging pure and unscathed. It seems that only this paradigm can explain the rest of Rabbi Nachman’s (very strange) actions on his way to and in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Nachman and his childhood friend Rabbi Shimon set out on their journey on May 4, 1798. They traveled by wagon from the town of Medvedka to Nikolayev and from there sailed down the Dnieper to Odessa. From Odessa, they took a ship to Constantinople. On board the ship, Rabbi Nachman began composing texts that he refused to show to his companion—the first known examples of secret texts he would continue to write throughout his life and which he ordered to have burned after his death.

In Constantinople, Rabbi Nachman began exhibiting strange behavior. He would walk about barefoot and without a belt or hat. He would leave the inn in a dressing gown, run around the market and laugh aloud. He befriended boys in the streets and would act out war games with them in which “one would be called France (referring to Napoleon) and one by another name.”

When they were about to leave for Palestine, news came of Napoleon’s invasion of the Holy Land. At first, the Jewish community in Constantinople prohibited Jews to travel there. But news of the increasing danger only enhanced Rabbi Nachman’s resolve, come what may. He told Rabbi Shimon not to accompany him on the dangerous journey, but his friend refused to leave his side. A few days later, when an elderly and respected sage insisted on returning home to Jerusalem, the Jewish community relented and approved the journey. And so, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon set sail aboard a ship bound for the port of Jaffa.

The voyage was not easy. When a storm threatened to sink the ship, all the passengers shouted “everyone to God,” except for Rabbi Nachman who “sat there in silence.” He convinced the others to emulate him and trust God through silence, saying: “If you are silent, the sea above you will be silent as well.” And so it was, according to Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Nachman’s biographer and scribe, who wrote of this event many decades later.

Upon arriving in Jaffa, the port authorities suspected Rabbi Nachman of being a French spy and he was not allowed to disembark. Eventually, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon managed to get off the ship at the next stop, which was Haifa, where they arrived on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual elation quickly turned to depression almost as soon as he stepped foot on the holy soil. The young rabbi turned inward and expressed a desire to return home at once. He agreed to stay only after the pleas of Rabbi Shimon and the Hasidim of Safed and Tiberias.

Rabbi Nachman eventually remained in the Land of Israel for a total of three and a half months, but his spirits remained low the entire time he was there. In Tiberias, he and Rabbi Shimon were well received by Rabbi Abraham Kalisker and his followers. This meeting left a deep impression on him and upon his return home, he established the Bratslav community according to the model of this revered rabbi. Some speculate that the description of the exemplary Hasidic community at the beginning of the Ba’al Tefillah story is based on that community in Tiberias. Encouraged by the meeting with Kalisker, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon stayed in Tiberias for two months. From there they would take short trips to holy places in the Galilee where the sages of the Zohar had lived and worked.

Rabbi Nachman’s departure from the country was postponed several times. The news of the occupation of the coastal strip by Napoleon’s army, and particularly the threat to the port city of Acre finally convinced him that he could no longer delay his leaving. Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon arrived in Acre on March 15, and immediately encountered a large stream of residents fleeing the city. Two days later, they managed to board a Turkish ship. Napoleon’s siege of Acre began on March 19, two days after their departure.

Rabbi Nachman’s composure, which he was able to maintain throughout all the tribulations, completely fell apart at this point. In the ensuing commotion, unable to speak the local languages, they mistakenly boarded a warship. It was only by the mercy of the ship’s cook, who provided them with small portions of food each day, that they survived the long journey to Europe.

This time too, a storm threatened to sink the ship and as water entered the vessel’s lower decks, the two had to stand on top of pieces of furniture to keep from drowning. They were certain that they would be sold into slavery the moment the ship docked, but upon arrival in Rhodes, the local Jewish community agreed to ransom them for a considerable sum—owing in large part to Rabbi Nachman’s distinguished family pedigree. From Rhodes they sailed on to Constantinople, where they encountered more difficulties, before an eventful voyage to Galați during which most of the passengers drowned in yet another storm. They finally arrived home in early summer, 1799.

What is the point of all of this? We hope you won’t be disappointed if we tell you that we don’t have a clear answer. Throughout the remainder of his life, Rabbi Nachman would often bring up his journey to the Land of Israel. He demanded that every remnant of his teachings from before the journey be destroyed, and he repeatedly claimed that whenever he felt his spirit fail, the only thing that revived it was what he had experienced and seen in the Land of Israel.

We can, however, offer you a certain hint: though the siege of Acre convinced Rabbi Nachman that he must flee the country as soon as possible, throughout the journey, he never saw himself as a random victim of circumstance or ongoing war. Rather, he felt that his time in the country was imbued with spiritual meaning and purpose. Rabbi Nachman later recalled a number of dreams he had had in the Land of Israel. In at least two of these dreams the Ottoman Sultan appeared before him. The Rabbi told of the great compassion he felt towards the Sultan because he—the Sultan—was one of the only people in the world who still knew their original name – Ishmael (a clear allusion to Islam). He mysteriously added that he attempted to give the Sultan a piece of advice which he seemed to have already known.

Portrait of Sultan Salim III, ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the time of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and the Land of Israel, by Konstantin Kapıdağlı

Perhaps herein is a key to Rabbi Nachman’s view of his own journey and the tumultuous historic events that shook the known world: Perhaps he, of all people, being nothing more than a simple rabbi, had something of value to offer – thanks to faith in God, his willingness to sacrifice everything in order to set off for the Land of Israel, the internal and physical hardships he overcame, from childhood and right up to his return home – perhaps he, of all people, had something important to say and a unique way of influencing events. It is fitting, then, that we end this article where we began, with the story of the “Master of Prayer”.

After the tzaddik tells the ministers of the Land of Wealth that he might be acquainted with the Mighty Warrior, he reveals to them the way he himself managed to secretly enter the heavily fortified land. When he and the Mighty Warrior were in the old king’s court, the tzaddik said, they studied the map of the world inscribed on the king’s palm. Thus, they came to know all of the world’s paths—the familiar and the hidden. Although this is not explicitly stated, Rabbi Nachman used Kabbalistic symbols to imply that the old king was none other than God.

And indeed, when the Master of Prayer and the Mighty Warrior meet, they recognize each other immediately and fall into each other’s arms: both had served in the court of the ancient king, and were separated only when a great storm broke out in the world. This fascinating story reaches its happy conclusion (perhaps too happy – it all works out and everyone comes together). But what is important for our purposes is that in Rabbi Nachman’s view, it is the Mighty Warrior, the greatest conqueror of all, seemingly bent on destroying the world, who turns out to be a lost servant of God who conquers all the lands only to hand them over to the rule of God.

Did Rabbi Nachman miss an encounter with this Mighty Warrior by a matter of just two days when he fled the siege imposed by Napoleon’s army on Acre? According to this interpretation, which others have already proposed before us, the meeting between the great Jewish mystic and thinker and the military commander and ruler who shaped the face of Europe never happened. But Rabbi Nachman’s literary imagination could not resist the temptation of bringing himself and Napoleon together.

What a fascinating picture this is: a historic meeting between Rabbi Nachman and Napoleon Bonaparte—two young men, neither of them even thirty years old—and already, each in his own way, had begun to reshape the world.


An extra bonus for our readers:

Only two historical sources provide us a glimpse of Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual journey to the Land of Israel. Both are by the hand of Rabbi Nachman’s disciple and scribe Rabbi Natan, who recorded both accounts decades after the journey, and after Rabbi Nachman’s death in 1811 at the age of 38.

This is not the case with Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt and the Land of Israel. At the National Library of Israel alone there are more than two hundred documents relating to this historical episode. We have even dedicated an entire website to it!


Further Reading:

The Revealed and Hidden Writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: His Worlds of Revelation and Rectification, Zvi Mark, translated by Yaacov David Shulman, De Gruyter Oldenbourg

Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Arthur Green, University of Alabama Press

Napoleon: A Political Life, Steven Englund, Scribner