How Does Dara Horn Get Ready for Seder?

The celebrated author and her family prepare a vast interactive performance...

Dara Horn's son aka Moses parts an asphalt-and-chalk Red Sea

We start preparing for the Seder the day after Purim.

When I say “preparing,” I don’t just mean cleaning the house, planning the food and moving furniture to accommodate all the guests, which of course we do. I mean that every year, my husband and children and I prepare a vast interactive performance that allows our many guests — most of whom are children — to feel as though they personally left Egypt.

We have a nine-foot pyramid that we erect in our living room. We covered a room in our house with black paper, used more paper to subdivide it into a series of rooms, painted it with neon paints to look like an Egyptian palace, lit it up with blacklights, and then had our costumed children lead our guests through the various makkot [plagues], ending with 300 meters of blue yarn suspended from the ceiling which one of our children, dressed as Moshe, “parted” to lead everyone through Yam Suf [the Red Sea].

This performance changes every year, and it also applies to every page of the traditional Haggadah, since we re-enact every page in one way or another, whether it means children who enter the house at Ha Lahma Anya as “escaped slaves” and tell the group about their adventures, or “idol salesmen” who come in to sell “idols” to the guests (made of clay or other toy material) before another child, acting as Avraham, smashes them all.

Every year our children and their many cousins also make a movie that tells the story of Sefer Shemot [Book of Exodus] with their own updates; last year, for instance, the B’nei Yisrael [Israelites] were advised to mark their doors, stay inside, and keep at least six feet away from the Angel of Death.

I now have a dozen years’ worth of these movies, and have watched my children grow up inside this story.

Our approach is intentionally lighthearted, but it works: The children own this story, and every person in my household feels, viscerally, as if they too have left Egypt.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Priests, Rabbis and Sweets: A Bold Approach to Interfaith Relations

The 19th century words and efforts of Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan

Patriarch of Jerusalem Giuseppe Valerga appears in front of the letter sent by Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan to Chief Rabbi of Ottoman Palestine Chaim Avraham Gagin

Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan (1808-1862) was a fascinating and multi-faceted figure: a Talmudic sage, great orator, poet, and speaker of many languages. He believed in interfaith dialogue out of mutual respect, and spoke highly in praise of Christian leaders in Italy.

In his book Nahala LeIsrael (Vienna, 1851) he writes some rather extraordinary things, including the following (pp 46-47):

“Will the esteemed Jewish Roman congregation forget that from the day of the exile from their land, they were not forced to move from place to place, but rather were allowed to settle down in Rome? And they did not hear from any Pope (even during harrowing times) any decree to expel them from Rome.  […] our Christian brethren! Our Messianic lovers! Aren’t we brothers? Are we not two plants that feed off the same source, which is G-d’s Torah!  The Christian Apostles gave you the interpretation of the Messianic Christian religion, and our rabbinical ancestors gave us the interpretation of the Jewish religion.”

Original manuscript of “Nahala LeIsrael“. From the British Library; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

He goes on to praise Christian scholars:

“And truthfully I say, as I said in the past, ‘that the Christian scholars are genuine and science loving people, they judge fairly, they respect religion and religious people, always researching for the truth, and when they find it, I swear, they courageously make it publicly known. They stand like lions to defend the truth.'”

The words of Rabbi Hazan are very bold, and even today would be considered heresy in the eyes of many adherents to Jewish Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, wrote similar words in his 2002 book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, arguing that the time has come for religions to truly recognize that there is truth in each of them.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking at the 2016 gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel (Photo: Hanan Cohen)

In the book, Rabbi Sacks claimed that “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims”. One God must be believed in, but not in the existence of one religion. All three monotheistic religions, he claimed, express the divine truth in the world. The publication of the book caused significant controversy, forcing Rabbi Sacks to soften his words, and publish a revised second edition.

In a letter found in the Meir Benayahu Collection, I discovered an interesting practical implementation of Rabbi Hazan’s religious approach. The letter was written on December 16, 1847 in Rome, while Rabbi Hazan was serving as a rabbi there. It was sent to Chief Rabbi of Ottoman Palestine Chaim Avraham Gagin (1787-1848), more than simply a colleague to Rabbi Hazan, who had once referred to himself as “the humblest student of this great, holy, genius and famous Rabbi of all the Jews, Rabbi Gagin.”

In his letter, Rabbi Hazan tells Rabbi Gagin about his meeting with Pope Pius IX, who “received us with much love”, and about Senior Valerga (Giuseppe Valerga, 1813-1872), the new Latin Patriarch about to arrive in Jerusalem. He praises the Patriarch, and expresses his desire that the Chief Rabbi (also known as “The Rishon Letzion”) and the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem be “as if they are one”.

רחוב הגיא, ירושלים - מבט אל עבר "בית האיש העשיר". צילום: פליקס בונפיס, בערך 1860
HaGai Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, ca. 1860 (Photo: Félix Bonfils). From the Jacob Wahrman Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

According to Rabbi Hazan, this friendship was only natural and desirable, because the religious leaders were “two great people, each one does his work in accordance with his forefathers’ tradition.” This sentence – comparing the work of the rabbi and his tradition to that of the priest – is unusual, its content surprisingly daring, especially given the historical and religious contexts.

Rabbi Hazan goes on to ask Rabbi Gagin to visit the Patriarch upon his arrival in Jerusalem, even giving a little tip on how to win his heart. After advising The Rishon Letzion on how to behave, including wearing nice clothes, coming with a respectable entourage, and giving advance notice, he suggests sending the Patriarch local sweets, which he will surely enjoy. Rabbi Hazan explains that Italians are known to love sweets, yet in Italy no one knows how to prepare them properly. The quality of Jerusalem’s Sephardic sweets, however, does not fall short of those made in Portugal!

Here is a partial translation of the letter:

“Today, I write to you about one of the most prominent of our Christian brethren. He is a priest who was sent by the Pope to be the Roman Patriarch of Jerusalem. This knowledgeable priest is well-respected and of great importance. He is well-versed in every field and knows all Eastern languages including Hebrew and Arabic. I spoke to him about you before his journey and I expressed my desire that you shall be friends and be together ‘as one’.

Both of you are great people, each in his service and tradition of his forefathers. And therefore, when you receive my letter, rise as a lion adorned in majestic cloth, you and your close ones, all of you dressed in formal attire, proceed to visit him.

Inform him of your visit a day or two before it happens. And if you send him some sweets occasionally I am sure he will derive satisfaction from it. The Italians are known to love sweets, and in Italy no one knows how to prepare them properly. Our varieties of Sephardic sweets are just as good, if not better, than those I saw in Portugal!”

Letter from Rabbi Hazan to Rabbi Gagin written on December 16, 1847. From the Meir Benayahu Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

One of the World’s Oldest Esther Scrolls Comes Home

Mid-15th century Iberian megillah now at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and online

"Incredibly rare" ca. 1465 scroll is one of few pre-Spanish Expulsion megillot in existence

One of the world’s oldest known Esther scrolls (also known as a “megillah“) has been gifted to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, home to the world’s largest collection of textual Judaica, where it has also been made available online for the first time.

Esther scrolls contain the story of the Book of Esther in Hebrew and are traditionally read in Jewish communities across the globe on the festival of Purim, which will take place on February 25-28 this year.

Scholars have determined that the newly received Esther scroll was written by a scribe on the Iberian Peninsula around 1465, prior to the Spanish and Portuguese Expulsions at the end of the fifteenth century. These conclusions are based on both stylistic and scientific evidence, including Carbon-14 dating.

The megillah is written in brown ink on leather in an elegant, characteristic Sephardic script, which resembles that of a Torah scroll. The first panel, before the text of the Book of Esther, includes the traditional blessings recited before and after the reading of the megillah, and attests to the ritual use of this scroll in a pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewish community.

According to experts, there are very few extant Esther scrolls from the medieval period in general, and from the fifteenth century, in particular. Torah scrolls and Esther scrolls from pre-Expulsion Spain and Portugal are even rarer, with only a small handful known to exist.

Prior to the donation, this scroll was the only complete fifteenth century megillah in private hands.

The medieval scroll is a gift from Michael Jesselson and family, continuing long-standing family support of the National Library of Israel and its collections. Michael’s father, Ludwig Jesselson, was the founding chair of the International Council of the Library (then known as the “Jewish National and University Library”) and a strong leader and advocate of the Library for decades.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library of Israel’s Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection, the new addition is “an incredibly rare testament to the rich material culture of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.  It is one of the earliest extant Esther Scrolls, and one of the few 15th century megillot in the world.  The Library is privileged to house this treasure and to preserve the legacy of pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewry for the Jewish people and the world.”

A Look at the Figure of Gabriel the Archangel

Gabriel, the archangel in charge of Heaven's heavy lifting

The figure of Gabriel the archangel in "The Annunciatiion", by Pinturicchio, 1501

“In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia,” the prophet Daniel beheld one of his remarkable visions. On the bank of the great Tigris River, Daniel looked up and before him was “a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphas around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude” (Daniel 10: 5–6). Though not alone at the time, Daniel testifies that he was the only one who saw this initially menacing figure, who quickly calmed him and revealed that ever since Daniel had devoted himself to prophecy, the figure had in fact served as Daniel’s protector and guardian. The miraculous being gently touched Daniel’s hand and affectionately reassured him, saying: “Do not be afraid, you who are esteemed . . . Peace! Be strong now; be strong” (19).  The figure also clarified the purpose of the revelation, telling Daniel that all the miseries of the people as a result of the struggles against the mighty empires of Persia and Greece were about to come to an end, adding that the archangel Michael, “your prince”, had come to his aid, and victory was imminent.

The ancient and medieval Jewish sages identified this miraculous being with the figure of the archangel Gabriel who is explicitly mentioned by name in the two previous chapters of the book of Daniel (8: 16; 9: 21–22). This is a unique revelation in the biblical landscape: in contrast to many of the other biblical angels that serve as Divine messengers and then vanish once their mission is completed, here we have an angel mentioned by name, who functions as a guardian angel!

In the Jewish apocryphal First Book of Enoch, which tells of the heavenly ascension of the biblical Enoch, the fifth generation between Adam and Noah, Gabriel appears as one of the archangels who, in the end of days, will destroy the corrupting angel Azazel and his minions who have overrun the Earth. This is perhaps the first time in Jewish scripture that mention is made of a heavenly conspiracy against God—telling of Azazel’s army of fallen angels that descended to Earth as part of an open rebellion against God (a story linked to the tale of the sons of God and the daughters of man in Genesis 6). In the First Book of Enoch, Gabriel is described as “one of the holy angels, who is over Paradise and the serpents and the Cherubim”, while Michael serves in a position similar to the one described in the book of Daniel – a protector of the Israelites, the commander of the heavenly hosts.

The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan, by Guido Reni, 1631

In Talmudic and Midrashic literature, Gabriel usually appears as Michael’s companion: both serve as archangels charged with the safekeeping of the Jewish people. If Michael usually appears in the form of water and snow, Gabriel—the same figure mentioned in Daniel as having “a face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches,” usually appears as a fiery flame. Sometimes the descriptions are reversed.

Perhaps because of his connection to fire and lightning, Gabriel is occasionally portrayed as a “harsh” or “hard” angel (“מלאך קשה”, Eicha Rabba [Lamentations Rabba], Buber edition, Parsha 2e, “Then I heard him call out in a loud voice,” 49b) whom God charges with punishing sinners and inflicting on them various calamities. In Bereshit Rabba (Parsha 51b, Theodore Albeck Edition, p. 533), he is revealed as the destroyer of the sinful city of Sodom, and in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 95b) as the smiter of the camp of the Assyrian King Sennacherib. But as the saying goes, he who is cruel to the wicked, ends up pitying the merciful—besides the severe blows Gabriel inflicts on sinners and evil-doers, he is also the one who saves Abraham from the fiery furnace and ensures the ripening of fruits in time to feed the hungry.

The Kabbalah adopted the figure of Gabriel, and identified him with the emanation of judgment. The archangel of the Jewish apocrypha now stands to the left of the archangel of greatness and grace, who is none other than his comrade-in-arms, Michael.

From his first appearance in the biblical Book of Daniel, Gabriel the archangel’s impressive career has extended well beyond sacred Jewish literature. Gabriel also features in the scriptures of Christianity and Islam, where he is considered an angel with a central mission of revelation.

In the New Testament (Lucas 1: 19, 26), Gabriel returns to the role of heralding angel. He appears before the parents of John the Baptist as well as before Mary, the mother of Jesus, to announce the coming births of their respective sons. His figure is immortalized in Christian art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as in the Annunciation painting in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, thought to be an early work by Leonardo da Vinci, which depicts the moment when Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and makes his dramatic announcement.

Annunciation, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1472-1475

In the Qur’an, Gabriel carries the word of Allah to Muhammad. Islamic tradition adopted Gabriel as a messenger, and in ancient surahs he was called “the messenger,” or “the noble messenger”. Some interpretations even attribute references to “the Holy Spirit” in Islam to Gabriel.  Islamic literature is filled with stories of Gabriel’s rescue of prophets from distress, and in almost every dramatic turn, he is mentioned as an aide to the heroes of the scriptures. He is the one who comforts Adam after his expulsion from paradise, saves Abraham from the burning furnace (again), stands by Moses in his quarrel with the magicians of Egypt and teaches David to ready his armor.

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel, by Rashid al-Din, Persia, 1307

We began with an interesting point related to Gabriel’s appearance in the Book of Daniel, as the first angel— together with Michael—mentioned in the Bible by name. It is worth returning to this. The book of Genesis tells of Jacob crossing the Jabbok River with his family on his return from Haran to the land of Canaan after fleeing Laban the Aramean. After Jacob leads his family to safety, he is left alone, and throughout the night, he struggles with a mysterious unidentified man. Only the next morning, after Jacob has overcome the man, does the figure reveal himself to Jacob as an angel of God, and perhaps even God himself: “And Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face but my life was spared’” (Genesis 32: 31).

We recall this dramatic scene mainly because of the blessing Jacob requests and receives from the angel, when Jacob is given his new name, Israel. The part of the story remembered less is Jacob’s question to the angel after receiving the blessing. Jacob asks the angel’s name, but the angel evades the question with one of his own and blesses him instead, “Why are you asking about my name? And he blessed Jacob” (Genesis 32: 30). In the first volume of his book History of Hebraic Mysticism and Esotericism (Hebrew, תולדות תורת הסוד העברית) Joseph Dan points out a puzzling fact that casts the story of Jacob and the angel in a new light, and hints at the period of the Book of Daniel’s writing.  Dan writes:

“For about a thousand years, throughout the biblical period, Judaism had several names for the Divine, but not a single name of an angel. In the Second Temple Period, the Divine names were exchanged for general names and monikers, while the names of angels were in the dozens and   hundreds . . . We know absolutely nothing about the motives of this process.”

Gabriel’s appearance as a guardian angel in the great vision described in the Book of Daniel is one of the proofs that the Book of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions were actually written in the early days of the Second Temple. The events of destruction and ruin under the waning Persian Empire and rising Greek Empire are described in apocalyptic and enigmatic language, mostly in Aramaic. Although they are presented as a prophecy of an event hundreds of years in the future, they actually describe the period when the book was written—the period of Hellenistic rule in the Land of Israel, following the conquests of Alexander the Great.

The appearance of archangels by name and their stated purpose is a Second Temple period innovation. We will conclude with an interesting hypothesis that appears in ancient Jewish rabbinic literature: “Rabbi Hanina said: The names of the months came from Babylon. Rish Lakish said: Even the names of the angels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel” (Bereshit Rabba, Parsha 49: 9, Theodore Albeck edition, p. 485).