The Woman Who Ignited the Hasmonean Rebellion

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judith with the head of Holofernes, Bezalel Archive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nor shall you follow their laws”? The Influence of Islamic Mysticism on Judaism

A look at the subtle influence of Islamic mysticism on Jewish worship and thought from the Middle Ages to the present

Abraham, son of Maimonides, was born to greatness. As the only son of the great Jewish thinker, he was educated from childhood to inherit his father’s role.

Rabbi Abraham eventually did inherit his father’s position as head of the Jewish community in Egypt. But when he came to lead the Jewish community and strengthen its adherence to Judaism, he revealed himself to be deeply influenced by the Islamic mystical movement of Sufism. This influence is evident in his writings and halakhic rulings, as for example in his innovation of washing the feet as well as the hands before prayer. He based this novel practice on a single Talmudic source that had been rejected by the Sages, though the true influence clearly came from the Islamic culture and tradition that surrounded him.

Rabbi Abraham Maimonides rejected the criticism that he was imitating the customs of the Gentiles in two ways: first, by grounding his innovations in Jewish sources, however esoteric and unique, and second, by asserting that imitating Muslims did not amount to a violation of Leviticus 18:3 –

“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.”

Even before Rabbi Abraham’s time, Sufi influence on the Jewish pietistic movement was a well-known phenomenon.

Bahya ibn Paquda, who was born in 1050 in Zaragoza, Spain, wrote Hovot HaLevavot (“The Duties of the Heart”), the first known book in this tradition. The structure of Hovot HaLevavot is a series of “gates” that lead the reader along a spiritual path at the end of which he will discover, as the tenth gate states, “true love for God may He be exalted.” The structure is analogous to Sufism which is also made up of stations whose purpose is to gradually bring the believer to the exact same point. Originally written in Judeo-Arabic, the book uses Islamic and non-Jewish expressions to describe God. The author makes use of the phrase Hashem yit’aleh (“God will rise”) in Hebrew, which corresponds to the Arabic Allah yita’alah. Another Hebrew phrase that appears in the book is Hashem yitromem veyitnaseh, (“God will rise up and be exalted”), corresponding to Allah ‘azz wa-jal in Arabic.

In addition to the Muslim phrases, Ibn Paquda quotes Islamic sources as validation for his own words. For example, he quotes the Egyptian Islamic mystic Dhul-Nun al-Misri (d. 859), in a chapter dedicated to proving God’s presence in the world: “He who knows God the most is the most humble in relation to Him.” Later in the same chapter, while discussing the comprehension of God’s divine nature, he writes: “It is more fitting to say this about the Creator of everything, that ‘There is nothing like unto Him'”, making use of a quote from the Quran (42:11).

Manuscript of Hovot HaLevavot, 14th century

The book’s structure suggests that it may not be the first composition of this type, but it is the earliest that has been preserved to the present day. Even today, Hovot HaLevavot remains popular and is considered a fundamental book in the fields of faith and musar (morality). The book has been published recently in both a scientific edition and one that is divided into short chapters intended for daily study especially around the period of Sliḥot before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year)

The difference in the popularity of the two authors is due to the fact that while Rabbi Abraham Maimonides wrote with the goal of educating his immediate community, Ibn Paquda wrote for a more generalized audience of Jews, regardless of their existing spiritual knowledge or understanding.

The Sufi movement and its values ​​contributed greatly to the development of Judaism, from the coining of the concept of heshbon nefesh (lit. “an accounting of the soul”), as in a personal reckoning, which did not exist until the appearance of Hovot HaLevavot, through the development of musar literature, to inspiring the emphasis on kavanat halev (lit. the “intention of the heart”), that is mindfulness in the act of fulfilling the commandments.

Separation: The Origin of the Women’s Section in the Synagogue

Some of us find it hard to believe that in Talmudic times women and men prayed together in the synagogue. When did a separate gallery for women become mandatory in Orthodox synagogues, and how did the separation of men and women in the prayer service come about?

Women praying at the Western Wall, 1914, the Yad Ben Zvi Archive

The Jewish sages founded the institution of the synagogue in the days before the Second Temple’s destruction. From the moment of its establishment, it faced a pressing issue: Could women pray there together with the men? And if so, how? Throughout Jewish history, from the destruction of the Temple to the present day a variety of approaches have been used to address this issue in various communities with diverse institutions and houses of prayer built accordingly.

The sages interpreted the biblical commandment “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 11:19),  to mean: “Your sons and not your daughters,” thereby exempting women from learning Torah. But others challenged this statement and objected to women being denied the ability to study Torah.

Synagogue des Tournelle, Paris. The photo is part of a photography project of women’s galleries in synagogues by photographer Aviv Yitzhak


Unlike the issue of whether women should or should not study the Torah, there was never any question that it was the right and even the duty of every Jew—man or woman—to listen and take part in the prayer. It was generally accepted that the men lead the prayer and read from the Torah, while women are permitted to listen.


The Days of Praying Together

The Mishnah and the Talmud are full of examples of women who regularly participated in prayer in public, by either reading from the Torah or listening to a sermon in the synagogue or study house. But where did the women congregate when they came to pray and listen? In this article we will try to locate the origins of the ezrat nashim, the women’s section or gallery in the synagogue.

When the synagogue was founded in the days of the Second Temple, there was no separate women’s section, nor any partition inside the physical structure. Therefore, according to the religious law of the time, women were required to sit and pray alongside the men. Today, in most Orthodox synagogues, the presence of women in the same prayer space as men would be viewed as inappropriate, but in the time of the great Jewish sages it was a routine occurrence.

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria told of synagogues in Alexandria where women and men prayed in the same hall, but in separate locations. Women’s participation in prayer was an agreed and accepted practice and was not even affected by the prohibition against women’s appearance in public (on the grounds of protecting their modesty).

To be able to participate in prayer requires basic literacy. Documents in the Cairo Genizah show that women received a Jewish education at home and learned to read and write so that, among other things, they could take part in prayer. A girl’s father was responsible for her education, and in rare cases adult women tutored girls. Additional evidence from the Cairo Genizah shows that in medieval Egyptian society, women, especially Jewish women, were granted freedom of occupation and economic independence, with some even becoming rich. These wealthy women often contributed to the construction and renovation of synagogues and their upkeep, as well as financing oil for the lamps so that the worshipers could study at night.


From the Women’s Gate to the Women’s Gallery

So when did today’s familiar partitions first appear? It seems that for hundreds of years the term ezrat nashim, meaning women’s gallery, was not in use at all. The renowned scholar Shlomo Dov Goitein presented several sources from the Genizah dealing with the sha’ar nashim, the “women’s gate” in the synagogues of Egypt, proving that in the 11th century at the latest, special entrances were created for women through which they would go up to a gallery above the main hall, where they could then participate in prayer.

The term beit knesset nashim, “women’s synagogue,” first appeared among Ashkenazi Jews in the 12th century. But while the “women’s gate” in the synagogues in Egypt was an entrance to a gallery that separated the men from the women in the same space, the “women’s synagogue” in Ashkenaz was a physical structure separate from the “general” synagogue. The buildings were sometimes located at a distance from one another, but surprisingly, while the individual prayer services for men and the women were held in these separate locations, when the sermon began, the women would join the men in their hall and would either sit alongside them or a partition would be put up.

Apparently, the first exception to this rule was the synagogue in Worms in Germany. This synagogue was built in 1175, and a women’s gallery was added in 1213. An inscription on the wall of the building is the earliest evidence of the existence of a women’s gallery as a separate room in the synagogue next to the men’s section.

The synagogue in Worms to which a women’s gallery was added. Above: the building façade. Below: the inscription on the wall of the synagogue. Photos: courtesy of Prof. Rachel Elior]


With the establishment of the “women’s synagogue” in the Middle Ages, a new creative world of women’s prayer flourished, featuring women poets, prayer leaders and cantors. The tombstone of one such Jewish woman, Ornea, daughter of the cantor Rabbi Abraham of Worms, who died in 1275, features the epitaph: “This headstone was erected for the lady Ornea, the exceptional and esteemed woman, daughter of Rabbi Abraham, chief of the poets, whose prayer was glory, who with a pleasant voice petitioned on behalf of his people, and she too in a sweet voice, sang hymns for women.”

Women such as Ornea, who were called sagerke and firsagerin in Yiddish, served as readers and poets who read or sang the words of the prayers for the illiterate in the women’s gallery.

Only in the 17th century were the practices that had appeared in Egypt centuries earlier adopted in Ashkenaz, with partitions and galleries erected, thus enabling the merger of the men’s and women’s synagogues. The widespread use of the term ezrat nashim in the sense of a “women’s gallery” stems from this time.  The Venetian Rabbi Leone Modena (1571–1648) wrote the following about the women’s section in his local synagogue: “And in the room there is a special place above or on the side with a wooden lattice, where the women stand to pray and watch everything that happens in the synagogue, but they are not visible to the eyes of the men and do not interfere with them in the prayer service so that the intention of the prayer is not corrupted by sinful or criminal thoughts.” And so, in a single sentence, Rabbi Modena clarified the theological and historical rationale for the partition separating men and women.


Praying in the Basement

In France, on the other hand, women’s galleries, which were still called women’s synagogues, were established below the ground floor of the synagogue. The Swiss traveler Thomas Platter, who visited Avignon in 1599, described the town’s women’s synagogue as a basement into which light penetrated from the room above through a hole in the floor. Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulai, also known as the Hida, visited France more than a century later, noting in his book Ma’agal Ha-Tov: “After the prayer we traveled from Avignon to Cavaillon and I lodged in the home of Yisrael HaCohen […] and under the synagogue there is a women’s synagogue and there are shafts on the floor of the synagogue from where they see the Torah scroll and they have a cantor who prays for women in the local language.” This had also been the custom in the women’s galleries in synagogues in Spain, where the prayer was apparently conducted in the local Spanish or Catalan language, and not in Hebrew.

The women’s gallery in the synagogue in Cordoba, Spain. Photo: Tulum, Wikipedia


There were even more restrictions for women in the Muslim world in the Middle Ages. Documents in the Cairo Genizah offer proof of the strict limitations placed on women’s movement. The Ashkenazi traveler R. Petahiya of Regensburg, who, around the year 1175, travelled to the Islamic lands, wrote with amazement that “in the city of Baghdad there are a thousand Jews […] and no one sees a single woman there and no one goes to his friend’s house, lest he see his friend’s wife; he would immediately say to him: ‘Thief, why did you come?’ Rather, hitting a tin [knocker], he [the friend] comes out and speaks with him.” And on the rare occasions that a woman was seen on the street, the traveler pointed out, she was made to wrap herself “until she has covered her entire body with a shawl like a tallit.” And so, the adoption of the institution of the women’s gallery in the synagogue allowed women a gathering place of their own in a society that severely restricted women’s rights.

There were places where women were completely excluded from prayer. This was the custom in Yemen, as noted by the researcher Vered Madar: “There was no women’s gallery in the synagogues in Yemen. Women were completely excluded from taking any part in intellectual life or the world of Torah study in Yemen.”

Drawing from the manuscript Sefer Sod H[ashem]. We have noticed that in scenes of synagogues in Hebrew manuscripts women are either absent entirely or depicted on the margins. In this illustration of a circumcision, the godmother is allowed to bring the child to the entrance of the synagogue but no further as she is forbidden from entering the main hall along with the men. Click here to view the manuscript in the National Library of Israel catalog

And what was the situation in the Land of Israel? “The women’s section was shrouded in darkness, there were no lightbulbs, and only a little light penetrated through the wooden lattice used as a partition between the men and women,” writes the scholar and Orientalist Yaakov Yehoshua about his childhood in Jerusalem at the turn of the 20th century. The synagogues in Jerusalem contained women’s galleries that were usually situated on the floor above the main sanctuary. Religious regulations in 19th-century Jerusalem show an increasing severity in restrictions placed on women in the synagogue. First women were forbidden from listening to the “Kaddish Batra” recited at the end of the prayer service, to ensure that the women would leave the synagogue before the men and not mingle with them. In 1854, the regulations became even more strict, so that “no woman under forty years of age shall go to the synagogue for afternoon or evening prayer […] either on the weekday or on Shabbat except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” In other words, young women were banished from prayer on weekdays and were only allowed to participate on the High Holy Days because “on these days they would wait in the women’s gallery in order to allow the men to leave first and avoid meeting them.”

Despite the attempts at exclusion, even in Jerusalem of the late 19th and early 20th century, women managed to find their way “into the synagogues”. Historian Margalit Shilo, in her book on the female experience in the Jerusalem of that period, writes, “The poorest among them saw to the physical needs of the synagogue, such as the preparation of candle wicks, while the rich raised funds, and sometimes even financed the construction of synagogues. In 1913, there were six synagogues in the Holy City that were founded from donations of Jerusalem women and were even named after them.”

The construction of a partition at the Western Wall was forbidden during the Ottoman period, and therefore, writes Shilo, “women preferred to visit holy sites, such as the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb, and the graves of the righteous rather than their place in the synagogues because it was a clear expression of their exclusion from the camp.” Indeed, in postcards and photos dating from the early 20th century to the beginning of the British mandate, men and women are seen praying together at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem in a postcard from 1911. From the Bitmuna Collection


And as the partition and women’s gallery took root across the Jewish world, it is interesting to discover that the first place where the partition was abolished and joint prayers were held for women and men was the old medieval synagogue in Worms—the first to have installed a partition. The change occurred in 1834, when during a thorough renovation of the synagogue structure the partition was removed and from that moment on men sat on the right side and women on the left inside the sanctuary. Today, in Reform and Conservative synagogues, male and female worshipers sit together.


Jewish Women’s Solidarity

In the 20th century, the term ezrat nashim, which up to that point had signified the physical and symbolic partition between women and men, was given a new meaning in the sense of Jewish women’s solidarity (ezrat nashim can also be translated as “Women’s aid”). In 1901, the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden (“Relief Organization of German Jews”) was established in Germany. Its women’s branch was known as Ezrat Nashim. This was a pioneering Jewish organization that worked to protect and improve the lives of Jewish women everywhere. In 1902, the organization sent Bertha Pappenheim, one of the pioneers of Jewish social work, to Galicia to examine social conditions in the region that had suffered terrible pogroms. There she was exposed for the first time to the female trafficking industry, in which tens of thousands of Jewish girls and women were sold into prostitution by Jewish procurers who deceived them with false promises of decent work in South America.

Following her activity on this issue, Pappenheim was the first woman in the Jewish world to call for equal opportunities in employment and education for women and men, and the first to work for the integration of women into the field of Torah study and into community life. In her view, a decisive factor that allowed human traffickers to exploit and enslave Jewish girls from Eastern Europe was the girls’ tremendous ignorance, which resulted from the lack of education imposed on them by their communities.

Bertha Pappenheim at age 22. Photo from the Bellevue Sanatorium Archive, Germany


The archive of the League of Jewish Women is currently preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Faced with the many attempts to exclude them from active participation in prayer, Jewish women throughout history have found other ways to make themselves present in the synagogue: by donating to the construction and renovation of synagogues, through crafts such as sewing Torah curtains and covers or by supplying candles. And as we mentioned, from the 13th century to the 20th century, in Germany, Eastern Europe and Italy, women led other women in prayer, while elsewhere women composed hymns and poems for their female peers.

Any historical examination of the place of women in the synagogue, and in Judaism more broadly, will encounter a central and glaring difficulty: the lives of Jewish women have often been ignored by the men whose writings we rely on as primary historical sources. And yet, if there is a clear voice that emerges from the sources, it is of the Jewish women who treated the synagogue as an important meeting place for their religious and communal lives.


Further Reading:

Women and the Synagogue, Edited by Susan Grossman & Rivka Haut (The Jewish Publication Society, 1992)

עדי אוסט, מעמד האישה בתלמוד, מתוך “הפרוטוקולים של צעירי בצלאל”, 2010

רחל אליאור, סבתא לא ידעה קרוא וכתוב: על הלימוד ועל הבּוּרוּת, על השעבוד ועל החירות, ירושלים הוצאת כרמל, 2018

ש. ד. גויטיין, יציע נשים בבנין בית הכנסת בתקופת הגאונים, תרביץ לג (תשכ”ד)

בטחה הר-שפי, נשים בקיום מצוות בשנים 1350-1050 בין הלכה למנהג, חיבור לשם קבלת תואר דוקטור לפילוסופיה, האוניברסיטה העברית, תשס”ב

ורד מדר, שירי נשים מתימן ליולדות וקינותיהן על מתים: טקסט, גוף וקול, חיבור לשם קבלת תואר דוקטור, האוניברסיטה העברית, 2011

שמואל ספראי, האם הייתה קיימת עזרת נשים בבית הכנסת בתקופה העתיקה, תרביץ לב (תשכ”ג)

מרגלית שילה, נסיכה או שבויה? החוויה הנשית של היישוב הישן בירושלים 1914-1840, (זמורה-ביתן, 2001)

Once Every Seven Years: Dismissing Debt on Rosh Hashanah

The concept of Shemittah – the Jewish Sabbatical Year – includes among other things a provision to release people from debts owed to others. Though clearly a noble and moral sentiment, such a law can easily lead to problematic situations and even exploitation. Levi Cooper delves into one possible solution to this issue, provided by a 2000 year-old legal loophole…

A Rosh Hashanah greeting card depicting an act of charity, the Hebrew caption across the bottom reads: “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree”, early 20th century, the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection

One aspect of Shemittah – the biblically mandated Sabbatical Year – is debt relief: Creditors release debtors from loans that are due to be repaid. The release – termed Shemittat Kesafim (release of monies) – is triggered on Rosh Hashanah following the Sabbatical Year: sundown September 25, 2022.

The workaround

During the Second Temple period, it became apparent that creditors were not extending loans to the needy, lest they would not be able to recover the funds because of Shemittat Kesafim. Extending credit to the needy is a form of charity. Moreover, not providing loans because of Shemittat Kesafim is in conflict with the biblical warning not to let the remission hinder extending credit.

To combat the trend, Hillel the Elder instituted a legal instrument termed prozbul – a fictitious transfer of bonds held by creditors to the court of law. The sabbatical remission applies only to debts owed to individuals, and not to debts owed to the court. Hence, the bond remains intact despite the biblical debt relief. Creditors – acting as agents of the court – can then recover outstanding debts despite Shemittat Kesafim.

Prozbul involves a simple declaration attested by witnesses or judges: “I deliver to you [insert names] judges of [insert location], that any debt that I have [owed to me] that I may collect it at any time I choose.”

The specific goal of Hillel’s legal innovation was to help the needy by encouraging creditors to extend loans. The motivation for Hillel’s enactment is also described in general terms as mipnei tikkun ha-‘olam, for the sake of order of the world. In contemporary discourse, Tikkun Olam has become a popular – and one could argue overused – catchcry.

It was Greek to me

The meaning of the Greek term prozbul and its Hellenistic legal origins have been discussed by scholars. Already in Babylonia, the rabbis were unsure of the term’s etymology. Thus Rava sought assistance from a foreigner who spoke Greek as to the meaning of the term. The Greek-speaker explaned: Pursa (enactment) of the matter. Scholars have suggested that the term comes from προσβολή (prosbolé), meaning delivery and describing the transfer of the bond to the court. Other scholars suggested that the term is a portmanteau of πρὸς βουλῇ βουλευτῶν (pros boulé bouleuton), meaning before the assembly of councilors and describing the authority that receives the bonds. The Talmud offers a different explanation: The term comes from the words pros buli and buti – the enactment (pros) for the wealthy (buli) who can recover debts, and for the impoverished (buti) who can obtain loans.

Lost in time

By the Middle Ages, Shemittat Kesafim had been forgotten in many Jewish communities. It was not just that the loan remission was not observed, but executing a prozbul to avoid debt cancellation was also not widespread. This is apparent from legal sources that can be divided into four categories:

  1. Justifications for the neglect;
  2. Critique for the neglect and calls for reinstatement;
  3. Contractual stipulations – actual or implied – that circumvent the law;
  4. Communal ordinances that abrogate the law of debt cancellation.

To be sure, prozbul templates and documents from the Middle Ages have survived. For example, a prozbul from 1224 was discovered in the Cairo Genizah.

A prozbul document from the Cairo Genizah, 1224, Jacques Mosseri, Paris, France

The balance of the legal sources was a demand to keep the debt relief law, which meant choosing between two alternatives: either debt release or using a legal instrument to avoid debt release. This second path included various options, such as executing a prozbul, incorporating a circumvention clause in the loan contract, setting the payment date after Rosh Hashanah, securing the loan with collateral, and more.

No one suggested that there was a legal need or a religious value for creditors to do both; that is, cancel debts and avoid debt release. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with choosing different alternatives for different debts. It was at the discretion of creditors whether to cancel a debt or opt for a workaround. It is not hard to imagine a creditor applying the debt release to certain loans, while avoiding the release for other loans. For example, a creditor may choose to cancel a personal loan to a poor debtor, but execute a prozbul for a loan to a successful entrepreneur who has suffered a temporary loss. In other words, the circumstances might dictate the creditors’ decision. No sources suggested that there was a religious ideal to actively seek a way to fulfil the biblical command and release debts.

Symbolic loan

The great Baghdadi scholar, Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1835-1909), discussed debt relief laws in his Ben Ish Hai – a compendium of practical Jewish law, designed as a two-year programme of study. Rabbi Yosef Hayim was a prolific writer, but he is identified by the title of this volume due to its widespread popularity. After recounting the basic laws of prozbul, Ben Ish Hai added a watershed passage:

And behold there are those who act piously, after they write the prozbul, they lend some sum of money – ten grush or less or more – to a friend, and on that amount the prozbul is ineffective, since they loaned [the money] after the time of the prozbul.

And then, after Rosh Hashanah, when his friend brings him the funds to pay him back, [the creditor] should say to [the debtor] “I cancel [the debt],” and [the creditor] should not receive [the funds] from [the debtor], and the debtor can use these funds and enjoy them, and the creditor can enjoy the mitzvah of releasing monies [owed] that he actually fulfilled.

Grush refers to a silver currency unit used for daily transactions in the Ottoman Empire. The purchasing power of ten grush in Ben Ish Hai’s context may be estimated at US$15-20. Thus the loan that Ben Ish Hai was advocating was a symbolic gesture, though the amount was not worthless. The symbolism of the act is further emphasised by the identity of the recipient – a friend, rather than a pauper. This post-prozbul loan was an attempt to preserve an element of debt release, even if it was only a shadow of the original biblical commandment.

A prozbul document from the early 1860s, signed by Ya’akov Bar Ya’akov Amsalem, Morocco, donated by Ezra P. Gorodetzky, the National Library of Israel

Ben Ish Hai opened his description with the claim that “there are those who act piously” – indicating that this was an existing custom. Alas, documentation of such a practice has not reached us. At least as far as local practice was concerned, Ben Ish Hai seems to have introduced the custom in Baghdad, as the following biographical note suggests:

I instituted this mitzvah here in our city Baghdad, may God protect it. I printed prozbul documents and I distributed them to a number of people and they executed them.

And I also taught them that they should do thus – to loan any sum after the prozbul time and to actually fulfil the mitzvah.

Ben Ish Hai added a further angle:

And also if a person borrowed loaves of bread from his friend, even one loaf, the law of Shemittah applies to this.

In the eyes of the Ben Ish Hai, this was an opportunity for fulfilment of the mitzvah by another sector of the community:

Therefore, it is good if the woman loans a loaf of bread or two or three to her friend on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and after Rosh Hashanah when [the borrower] pays her back, she will say to her: “I cancel [the debt],” and thus this woman fulfils the commandment of Shemittah.

Once again Ben Ish Hai provided a local report, followed by a triumphant crescendo:

And thus a number of women did so in our city, may God protect it, because with the help of God may he be blessed, I preached [about] this matter in public. Fortunate is Israel!

“An Announcement on the Matter of prozbul” – a public notice on behalf of the the “Edah Haredit” community organization, mentioning that rabbis would be answering questions on the subject of prozbuls, “everyday between 3 and 4 in the afternoon”, 1966, the Pashkevil Collection at the National Library of Israel

Last minute loan

Lest we think that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was a lone voice advocating this creative course: Another authority, from a later period and from a different cultural milieu also signed a prozbul and then gave a loan in order to preserve an element of the original biblical requirement. This episode was reported in 1994 as Shemittah 5754 drew to a close.

On Shabbat afternoon, August 6, 1994 – the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul, the final month of that Shemittah year – Rabbi Pinhas Menachem Alter of Ger (1926-1996) spoke to his Hasidim, as was his custom. These talks were posthumously published under the title Pnei Menahem. As per the Ger practice, the title of the rebbe’s work became the standard name for the hasidic master.

Within a month of the talk, people would diligently execute prozbuls before the next Hebrew year began. At the end of his talk, Pnei Menahem added a vignette about his father, Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (Imrei Emet, 1865-1948):

I heard from one the elders who saw that my father of blessed memory (when he was in the Land of Israel) in the Shemittah year wrote a prozbul as per the institution of the sages, and nevertheless since he wanted to fulfil the commandment of Shemittat Kesafim, therefore after writing the prozbul he sought after a poor person to lend him a bit of money in order to fulfil the plain meaning of the verse “and your heart shall not be resentful [when you give to him; Deut. 15:10], since loans from here henceforth are released.

Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter of Ger (The Imrei Emet), the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

There is no indication that the Polish hasidic master had been inspired by the Baghdadi rabbinic leader. Imrei Emet seems to have gone further than Ben Ish Hai in that he sought a needy person, so that the debt relief would provide real assistance to the impoverished.

Notwithstanding the difference, it seems that the two rabbis – who were educated in different cultural contexts – were driven by a heartfelt desire to fulfil the original biblical commandment, despite the existence of an acceptable rabbinic workaround.