WEIZAC and GOLEM: The Start-Up Nation’s Earliest Computers

Today, almost all of us carry a smartphone and own a PC or laptop at home, but the earliest computing devices couldn't exactly fit in your pocket…

WEIZAC in action in the 1950s

The fact that you’re probably reading this article on your laptop, or even more likely – on your smartphone device – seems so trivial, that most of us don’t even stop to consider how wonderful this is. Generation Z was born into a reality in which texts are read from a screen, and if you want to turn a page – all you have to do is “swipe”. They’re hardly aware of the fact that until recently, in order to “browse”, you actually had to lick the tip of your finger with your tongue, and physically turn the page!

Even for earlier generations, it often seems that touchscreen computers and smartphones have been with us all along, despite the fact that Apple only launched its first iPhone in 2007.

Although computers have existed in human history for a comparatively short time, they have already changed our whole way of thinking, as well as our day-to-day routines.

Surprisingly (or not), one of the world’s pioneering devices in the field of electronic computing was made here in Israel: the “WEIZAC” – the first electronic computer in Israel and one of the first computers in the world! WEIZAC was an acronym for “Weizmann Automatic Computer.”

The WEIZAC started operating in 1955, a mere 7 years after the State of Israel declared its independence, and paved the way for the technological and entrepreneurial culture that Israel is known for to this day.

The man behind WEIZAC was Professor Chaim Leib Pekeris, a pioneer of computer science in Israel, and an Israel Prize laureate in physics, who was born nearly 112 years ago, on June 15th, 1908. Pekeris was a mathematician, a geophysicist, and the founder of the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He passed away on February 24th, 1993.

For six years, WEIZAC was the only operational computer in Israel. A quick search of the National Library of Israel’s JPress-Historical Jewish Press website, reveals newspaper headlines from the period, which informed the public of the activation of a powerful “electronic brain”. It turns out that the State of Israel was already a “start-up nation”, as early as the 1950s! WEIZAC was one of the earliest large-scale stored-program electronic computers in the world, following on the heels of the IAS device built earlier at Princeton University. It was used, among other things, to study global changes in tide, as well as earthquake behavior and numerical analysis. Although WEIZAC was the size of a wall closet, it was more advanced than its older brother from Princeton, with four times the memory, as one of the newspapers proclaimed. It seems that even then, Israelis were good at taking existing inventions and improving on them.


“‘Electronic Brain’ Activated at Weizmann Institute – ‘Memory’ is four times as powerful as that of the brain at Princeton University”Hatzofe, October 24th, 1955


WEIZAC, the first electronic computer in Israel, built at the Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science (from Wikipedia)


Later on, as is usually the case with technological evolution, the WEIZAC was superseded by GOLEM, a new series of computers (we swear we didn’t make that up) which continued to serve the research needs of the Weizmann Institute and other Israeli research institutes. In 2006, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) declared WEIZAC “a milestone in the history of electrical engineering and computing”, and awarded the “WEIZAC Medal” to the team who built it.


“Preparations in Rehovot for the Presentation of ‘Golem B'”, Maariv, December 30th, 1963


Chaim Pekeris won quite a few awards and received recognition for his work and contribution to science in Israel and around the world. Among other things, he was awarded the Weizmann Prize for Exact Sciences in 1958, and in 1965, he won the Rothschild Award. In 1974, Columbia University awarded him the Vetlesen Prize and in 1980, he won the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. In the same year, he was also awarded the Israel Prize for Physics. A search of his name on the National Library website allows us a glimpse into the wider circles of Pekeris’ life: his prominence in the scientific community on the one hand, and his involvement and relationships with intellectuals from varied fields (S.Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem…) on the other.


Chaim Pekeris (in the middle) with author S.Y. Agnon, at a ceremony granting Agnon honorary membership on behalf of the Weizmann Institute of Science


The State of Israel can be proud of its position at the forefront of global technological innovation. Thanks to this legacy which stretches back decades and is based on the contributions and work of people like Chaim Pekeris and many others, our country has come to be known across the world as a start-up nation.


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The Epidemic That Brought Jews Back to Jerusalem

Fleeing a Galilean plague, a handful of the Vilna Gaon's students rewrote the holy city's history

The 'Vilna Gaon Map' is believed to be a copy of a map drawn by the Gaon, which was illustrated by his students shortly after his death around 1800. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

A century ago, the Spanish Plague killed tens of millions of people globally.

A century before that, communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean were devastated by a bubonic plague outbreak, which reached the ancient Galilean city of Safed in 1812, quickly decimating its population.

Just a few years prior, three waves totaling some five hundred followers of the Vilna Gaon – one of Jewish history’s intellectual and spiritual giants – had come to the Land of Israel from White Russia, fulfilling their leader’s own dream a decade after his death. It was a significant demographic boost to the relatively small and overwhelmingly Sephardi Jewish community already in what was then Ottoman Palestine.

An illustration of the Vilna Gaon. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

Nearly a full century before Herzl, some consider the arrival of the Vilna Gaon’s students to be a watershed event in the history of modern Zionism.

The failure of the last major group of Ashkenazi Jews that tried to establish itself in the Land of Israel was the main reason why this group had to settle for the slightly less holy city of Safed, instead of Jerusalem.  At the end of the 1600s, a group led by Polish Jew “Judah the Pious” had set out to establish a community in Jerusalem. Arriving in 1700, the community was soon unable to support itself, nor pay off its growing debts. Ashkenazi Jews were banned from living in the holy city. Those already there either moved out or lived in disguise, dressing like their Sephardic brethren. Not particularly interested in the differences between a Litvak and a Hassid or any other intra-religious distinctions for that matter, the local authorities held all Ashkenazim accountable for the debts owed.

Needless to say, a large group of Jews from White Russia would not feel particularly welcome.

In fact, it would take the bubonic plague to get Ashkenazim back into Jerusalem.

With the plague ultimately claiming the lives of some 80% of Safed’s Jewish community, towards the end of 1815 some of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples decided it was time to finally go up to Zion.

Safed in the 19th century. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

The group was led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, a man who had led efforts to organize and print the Vilna Gaon’s writings following his death in 1797, and who had also led the first wave of immigrants in 1808. Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the other leader of the community, would briefly flee to Jerusalem but ultimately choose to stay in Safed. Efforts were made to ensure that Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s group remained small in number and did not syphon off too much funding from the communities’ patrons throughout Europe, many of whom had been cultivated by Rabbi Yisrael as he made fundraising trips across the continent.

According to various legends, the Ashkenazi community in Jerusalem was so small that they did not have a minyan (traditional Jewish prayer quorum of ten adult males), and would either pay a Sephardi Jew to be their tenth man; utilize a legal loophole to count a child holding a Torah scroll as a member of their prayer quorum; or simply count the Torah scroll.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his band were determined to reestablish an Ashkenazi presence in the holy city.

It took about five years, but after sending representatives all the way to Istanbul to negotiate with the Ottoman authorities, Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s men succeeded in securing a royal decree annulling the debts owed by the previous un-related Ashkenazi community, decades earlier. They then successfully focused their efforts on securing additional documents from local and international Islamic and civil authorities that would ultimately allow them to develop the compound which had been abandoned by the previous Ashkenazi community and destroyed by its creditors. Warm relations with some of the Christian and Muslim neighbors certainly did not hurt these efforts.

Letter from R. Yisrael of Shklov asking an emissary to speed up efforts to obtain Turkish approval for rebuilding Jerusalem’s Hurva Synagogue, and not to hesitate to go to Vilna to collect donations for distribution to the community. From the National Library of Israel archives

Rabbi Menachem Mendel and his group thus succeeded in both ridding themselves of the debt left by a community to whom they had no connection, and then achieving official recognition as (in some way) the lawful heirs to the property rights of that very same community!

While visiting Jerusalem in 1837, Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, the head of the Safed community, received word of a devastating earthquake in the Galilee. His entire city was destroyed, 4,000 members of its Jewish community lost. Perhaps he took it as a sign or else simply had no other options, but Rabbi Yisrael decided to stay in Jerusalem for the last two years of his life. Many refugees from Safed did the same, joining the followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel and their descendants.

Ultimately, this small contingent of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples laid the foundation for much of the dramatic renewal and expansion of Jewish life in Jerusalem which continues until today.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is one of many notable descendants of these early Zionists. A mysterious and controversial work entitled Kol HaTor (“The Voice of the Turtledove”) was purportedly passed down in the Rivlin family for generations before being published in the 20th century. It includes Kabbalistic teachings attributed to the Vilna Gaon and relating to the Messianic age. In the work, two dates on the Jewish calendar were identified as having exceptional spiritual qualities especially as related to the redemption of the Jewish people. The first was the Fifth of Iyyar, which we now celebrate as Israeli Independence Day. The second was the 27th of Iyyar, the date on which – at the height of the Battle for Jerusalem in 1967 – the decision was made to unify the city under Jewish sovereignty for the first time in two millennia.

Israeli soldiers overlook the newly liberated Western Wall and the Old City of Jerusalem in June 1967 (Photo: Dan Hadani). From the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


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 in Europe and beyond.

Thanks to Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the National Library of Israel’s Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism for his insightful comments.

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The Israeli Roots of the Penalty Shoot-Out

Cherry tomatoes, soup mandels and penalty shoot-outs – all Israeli inventions! This is the story of the most significant Israeli contribution to the beautiful game


From the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was a hot summer’s day in July, 1994. Millions of viewers were glued to screens around the world, watching Italy and Brazil compete in the FIFA World Cup final, taking place at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. It was a tedious affair, with not a goal being scored, even during thirty minutes of extra-time. Thus, the stage was set for the great climax – the World Cup final would be decided for the first time by a penalty shoot-out! Football (soccer) fans who watched the event still remember how Roberto Baggio, the star of the Italian team, missed the final penalty kick, and the Brazilians were crowned world champions.


It seems that the roots of this dramatic scene reach all the way back to… Israel? Yes, the man responsible for implementing this method of deciding international football matches was named Joseph Dagan, an Israeli journalist at the time. It was he who came up with the radical new system which to date has caused the downfall of many a footballer, brought about countless moments of joy and despair for fans and players alike, and more than anything, contributed to extreme levels of tension and anxiety for all involved.

“The Cruelest of Them All – The Penalty Kick” Ma’ariv, February 23rd, 1969. For the full Hebrew article, click here

Until the 1970s, whenever a victory decision was required in a football tournament, matches which ended in a draw were primarily decided by playing a replay match in a neutral venue, or worse, by flipping a coin. Apart from the heavy burden that the replay matches placed on the players, they also led to complicated logistical problems, since it wasn’t always possible to schedule replay matches in tight tournament schedules. As regards coin flipping, there’s no real need to explain the problem – this odd method had nothing to do with sport, and matches decided in this way were naturally a source of much grief and disappointment. Penalty shoot-outs had been used here and there during several specific tournaments, for example in Yugoslavia. From there, the method spread to Israel where it was used in cup matches (the newspapers called it “the Yugoslav method”).

“The Decision Came by Penalty-Kicks, Bnei Yehuda-Maccabi Petah Tikva 5-2”, a report on a cup game in Israel from May 30th, 1968, by which time the penalty shoot-out was already in use. For the full Hebrew report, click here

Dagan was a sports writer for the Ha’aretz newspaper and soon became a member of the Israeli Football Association, being appointed its general-secretary. He had a front row-seat during the Israeli national team’s fantastic campaign at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. At the time, there was no age limit set on players in the Olympic tournament, and the Israeli team included the likes of Mordechai Shpigler and Giora Spiegel, who would famously be part of the only Israeli team to participate in the World Cup, two years later.

Giora Spiegel playing for the Israeli national team, Ma’ariv, December 5th, 1969

The Israelis succeeded above and beyond expectations at the 1968 Olympics and reached the quarter-finals, where they played against the esteemed Bulgarian team. The game ended in a draw, even after extra-time, and the Bulgarians were finally declared victorious following a coin toss, continuing on to the semi-finals. Israel returned home, with only the flip of a coin preventing a sensational sporting achievement. However, Dagan had an idea. These games needed to be resolved differently – and following the incident, Dagan decided the penalty shoot-out, used to this day, should be established as the proper method for deciding matches which ended in a stalemate.

“The Coin Defeats Israel – After Extra Time”, Al Hamishmar, October 21st, 1968, for the full Hebrew article, click here

Micha Almog, who at the time was chairman of the Israel Football Association, brought Dagan’s idea to FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, and in 1970, the method was approved by the international organization. Later that year, the penalty shoot-out was used for the first time in a cup game in England, and gradually, the system spread across the world. Penalty shoot-outs were first used in the World Cup in 1982, and since then, they have twice decided the result of the final. Although penalty shoot-outs have also been criticized over the years, no better method has yet been suggested.

“Penalty-Kicks to Replace Coin Toss”, a report describing FIFA’s decision to adopt the Israeli system, Ma’ariv, June 28th, 1970

Dagan, who passed away in March 2020, was officially recognized by UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, for his contribution. In fairness, it should be noted that a German football referee named Karl Wald also claimed to have invented the method – at the exact same time – before offering it to the Bavarian football association, from where the idea reached FIFA. But as far as we’re concerned, with all due respect, this is yet another Israeli invention.


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The Story of Israel’s National Anthem

How did the only original written copy of "HaTikva" arrive at the National Library of Israel? And how does it differ from the version we know today?

Decades after his death, the author of Israel’s national anthem, HaTikva would become known as “the first Hebrew beatnik”. A more common moniker, and perhaps more fitting, was “Imber, the Wandering Jew”. Indeed, the title reflects some of the adventures of this man who was a bit of an enigma in the eyes of his contemporaries, and has largely remained one to this day. Even after arriving at the destination about which he wrote so many poems, he only managed to stay there for five years before moving on to continue his wanderings.

In 1882, Naftali Herz Imber closed the shop where he sold matches, charms and amulets in the market of Istanbul, and went to meet Sir Laurence Oliphant, a Member of the British Parliament and businessman. Imber’s initial goal was to declare before Oliphant that the Jewish people didn’t need Britain’s favors in order to return to their ancestral homeland. However, as he described later on, “when I entered, I laid my eyes on Mrs. Oliphant for the first time.” This was enough for the young man to come up with a new plan – a joint journey to the Holy Land. That same year, funded entirely by Oliphant, (Imber was broke and wouldn’t have it any other way), the three reached the port of Haifa.

Naftali Herz Imber, the Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

After arriving in Ottoman Palestine, the members of this strange love triangle parted. The Oliphants, who were essentially Protestant Zionists before the term had even been coined in the modern sense, chose to travel and enjoy the beauty of the land and its holy sites, all while working on a plan to return the Jews to their homeland – which would, of course, hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Meanwhile, Imber, according to every available account, preferred to drink the days away. Whenever he found himself in the proximity of a fair maiden who caught his eye or a patron with enough wine at his disposal, the poet pretended that he had been struck by inspiration at that very moment, proceeding to “compose” the legendary poem which captured the essence of Zionist longing before their very eyes, Tikvatenu – “Our Hope”.

The impressions left by Imber’s time in the Land of Israel can still be witnessed today, in places such as Gedera, Yesod HaMa’ala, Mishmar HaYarden, and Rishon LeZion all of which claim, without exception, that the poem that would later become the anthem of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, was written within the boundaries of their own territory.

In truth, Imber most likely began to compose the poem which would bring him world fame in the city of Iași in Romania, basing it on a German song, Der Deutsche Rhein (“The German Rhine”), which also opens every stanza with the words “As long as”. In 1884, in Jerusalem, he finally completed the composition. The final version of Tikvatenu consisted of nine stanzas. Later, the poem was abbreviated to two stanzas and some of the words were changed in order to fit the contemporary context of people returning to their homeland. The last modifications were made by Dr. Y.L. Matmon-Cohen, founder of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium high school. Cohen replaced the words “the ancient hope” (hatikva hanoshana) with the words “The two-thousand-year-old hope” and replaced “To return to the land of our fathers, the city where David encamped” with “To be a free nation in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem”. These changes sealed the final version of the song, with its new name, HaTikva. In 1886, a farmer named Samuel Cohen composed a tune for Imber’s anthem of longing.

Three years later, when the farmers of the Jewish settlement of Rishon LeZion rose up in rebellion against Baron Rothschild’s bureaucrats, they would choose Tikvatenu as their protest song. Imber, who at that time happened to be visiting Rishon LeZion, was lucky enough to hear them singing – as he sat at the dining table of one of those very bureaucrats. This event marked the beginning of the song’s ascent into the heart of the Zionist pantheon, and it also served as Imber’s sign to continue his wanderings. He soon left for England, and from there on to New York.
During the last year of his life, Imber was admitted to a Jewish hospital in New York, where he met a young singer – Jeanette Robinson-Murphy. At her request, he wrote down the original words of the first two stanzas of his song, which would become the national anthem, on a piece of hospital paperwork that was at his disposal at that moment. In 1936, Ms. Robinson-Murphy sent the manuscript, the only one of its kind in the world as far as we know, for eternal keepsake at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

Imber’s original handwritten text of Tikvatenu, the Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel


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