The Jew Who Fought Against the Censors of the Inquisition

From a rare Jewish-Italian manuscript: An outraged letter from the Jews of Ferrara to the Inquisition authorities requesting they stop censoring their printed books.

St. Dominic and the Albigenses, Pedro Berruguete

Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern era, many Christians questioned what their attitude to the extensive wealth of Jewish literature should be. Should the entire genre of holy works (led by the Talmud) be regarded as a group of subversive texts which eternalize the lies at the basis of the Jewish faith, or on the contrary – as works which prove (through tiny details of Rabbinic distortions) the undeniable truth of the Christian Gospel? And what about the negative remarks about Christianity in the Talmud? Whether they were fond of or hated Jews themselves the answers provided by Christian philosophers and the Papal establishment varied.

The development of the Hebrew printing industry, which lagged several decades behind the Christian printing industry, made this complex question more urgent, as thousands of copies of any Jewish text could now be circulated. During the first eighty years of the Hebrew printing press, steps were occasionally taken to censor or supervise this flourishing industry, but the intimidating presence of official censors had yet to appear. It was only in the mid-16th century, as part of the Catholic Church’s re-organization in response to the Protestant reformation, a years-long process known as the “Counter-Reformation,” that the Catholic establishment finally began to examine Hebrew literature, aiming to correct “past injustices” or perhaps simply erase them altogether.

The institutionalized supervision of the Hebrew book was done through several concurrent channels; the mass public burning of holy books is the most famous, but there were also other, less sensational, methods. The general tone dictated by the Catholic establishment was set by a special index of books whose publication was forbidden, to which subversive works were added or removed from time to time. Alongside these lists of books – most of which were not even Jewish – an extensive censorship industry developed. This was a sub-industry within the printing industry which thoroughly and systematically deliberated about the content of the works allowed to be published, supervised their printing, sometimes erased or censored forbidden paragraphs, and occasionally insisted on making changes to the text.

During periods in which the Catholic establishment took a more liberal approach to its Jews and their culture, channels of communication were opened up between representatives of the Jewish communities and the Inquisition, which was responsible (in most of the Catholic world) for censoring the books. An Italian manuscript recently purchased by the Library, dated to the late 16th century/early 17th century provides an example of such a channel.

The first page of the defense of the Jewish books. Click here to browse through the full manuscript.

This manuscript, A General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books, is a defense of the Jewish books that were censored and confiscated by censors on behalf of the Inquisition in Italy. The response is firm and detailed, a thorough and methodical refutation of the many claims that despicable attacks against Christianity are scattered throughout the Hebrew books printed in Ferrara.

The letter of defense’s author is unknown, but it was clearly written by a representative of bodies within the Ferrara Jewish community. Throughout the manuscript, the writer shows himself to be fluent in Italian, the language in which the majority of the manuscript is written, as well as in Hebrew, in which he brings quotes and excerpts from the Jewish books he is defending in the left-hand margins of the text.

At the beginning of the manuscript, the author explains the significance of common Hebrew words which are interpreted by the censor as denigrating Christianity and its leaders. For example, regarding the word “Notzrim”, usually meant to refer to “Christians”, the author explains that in a particular case this word is used to refer to the biblical nation of Edom. The word “Goyim” [Gentiles], the author continues, does not refer to Christian people, but to the Gentile nations, idolaters who surrounded the Jews in the Land of Israel. Later, the author puts forth his ultimate argument counterring the claims of the censors, explaining that the Jews have a halachic obligation to pray for the welfare of the monarch and the nations they dwell among.

The Ex Libris (stamp) of the previous owners, Ariel Tauf

What Next?

After presenting all the details we are aware of, though they are few, we are left with a challenge. The manuscript now rests on a shelf in the National Library of Israel dedicated to rare finds. It awaits a researcher who will pick up the gauntlet, examine the findings and provide us with more concrete details about this curious manuscript, and the complex triangular relationship it reveals – the censor, the Jewish community, and the Inquisition authorities.

Either way, we would love to find out more about this fascinating manuscript

No Children Allowed: Introducing Lilith, the Jewish Vampire Queen

​Dracula? He’s nothing compared to the first vampire in history, the one and only Lilith. Among her many “hobbies”: hounding humankind, causing crib death and night emissions in men, and sucking blood.

Article by guest-writer and vampire-catcher Odelia Barkin-Kamil

On May 26, 1897, the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker was published. The novel caused a sensation and initiated an entire genre of vampire literature and culture, from the books Interview with a Vampire, to the film series Twilight, and the television series True Blood and even an Israeli Vampire series, titled Hatzuya (“Divided”), which was broadcast in over sixty countries around the world.

But in fact, vampires and demons were not created with Dracula. They have been part of human imagination since the dawn of humanity. Evidence of vampire-like creatures called by different names can be found as far back as Sumerian and Babylonian mythology. The Jewish source for vampirism is mentioned in connection with Lilith, the first wife of Adam—who even made a guest appearance in one of the seasons of True Blood. The series creators who were familiar with the myth, gave the Lilith of Genesis an honorary role in season five in which they suggested that God had created the vampires as a race superior to humans.

Two versions of the creation story appear in Genesis. The Midrash explains this by saying that first woman was created as man’s equal, and she was called Lilith (“Male and female He created them,” Genesis 1, 27). The two first human beings argued because Lilith wanted to be on top during sex, and when Adam would not agree, claiming that she was lesser than him, she pronounced the ineffable name of God and abandoned him in Paradise.

Birth amulet with a depiction of Adam and Eve, the earliest known printed Jewish amulet. Amsterdam, c. 1700. From Angels and Demons (ed. Filip Vukosavović)

God sent three angels to find her סנוי, סנסנוי וסמנגלוף   (Sanvay, Sansavay, and Smangalof), and when they reached her she was already deep in the ocean. She chose to become the wife of the king of the demons, Ashmadai, and she too became a blood-sucking demon. They begged her to return to Adam but she refused. As punishment they commanded that one hundred of her newborn sons would perish every day. In revenge for this terrible punishment she announced that she would pursue the human infants, the children of Eve.

Amulet for new mothers, from the Amulet Collection of the National Library of Israel

Thus, according to Jewish tradition, Lilith is believed responsible for crib death. Boy are especially vulnerable to her influence until the ninth day after their birth, and girls until the twentieth day. To avoid her harmful influence, even today there are new mothers who carry a picture of the three angels in their purse or hang the picture over the crib of the newborn, for according to the Midrash the angels came to an agreement with Lilith that she could do any harm in any place where she sees their names. After Lilith left Paradise, Eve was create from Adam’s rib, as subordinate to him.

An amulet intended to protect newborn mothers and infants from Lilith, featuring the three protective angels

How to Protect Oneself against a Vampire

Garlic cloves can be used to protect against vampires. One can also use a crucifix, holy water, or a Star of David, since the Vampire being a Satanic, soulless creature, is the antithesis of holiness and is repelled by religious symbols.

In addition, if a vampire is chasing you, it is recommended to throw a handful of sand, rice or salt at it. According to folkloric legends about vampires in various mythologies – Chinese, Indian and Slovakian – the vampire is cursed with an obsessive compulsive disorder related to numbers (arithmomania) and must count any granules in his path. One of the ways to escape a vampire therefore is by distracting him by throwing a handful of rice or any other granules in his way, which will force him to stop to count them and thereby delay his pursuit. In the 1970s, this characteristic was adopted by the creators of Sesame Street for the character of Count Von Count. Besides the amusing pun with regard to his name (Count is an honorific title and also the verb “to count”), he is a Transylvanian vampire who speaks with an accent, wears a cape like Dracula as portrayed in the early film by the actor Bela Lugosi. This characteristic was also adopted by the creators of the Israeli vampire series Hatzuya.

Odelia Barkin-Kamil is a vampirologist. She lectures on vampires in popular culture, mainly in film and television as an inspirational and empowering figure.

Special thanks to Dr. Zvi Leshem and Yuval De MalachDemalah of the National Library of Israel’s Gershom Scholem Library Collection for their help in locating sources and in the preparation of this article.


The Feminist Version of the Jewish Morning Blessing

Do you thank the Almighty for making you a man or a woman? Two fifteenth-century manuscripts show the choice is yours!

The words “who has made me a woman and not a man" are highlighted here in a siddur kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York

Farissol’s revised version in the 1471 siddur now kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

The traditional Jewish morning blessing includes a verse in which males thank God with the words: “who has not made me a woman.”  Women reciting this verse often modify it to “who has made me according to His will.” This tradition took root in the siddur (Hebrew prayer book) centuries ago, but two fifteenth-century manuscripts reveal a groundbreaking thinker who chose a somewhat more progressive wording for this controversial blessing.

Abraham Farissol changed the familiar wording of the blessing to “who has made me a woman and not a man” in two prayer books he dedicated to two anonymous women.

As a Jewish thinker of the highest order, Abraham Farissol’s reputation preceded him. Recognized for his erudition in his lifetime, Farissol’s many pursuits included cantor, scribe, and teacher. Deeply interested in the advancements of the Age of Discovery sweeping across Europe, he composed the first essay in Hebrew dealing with the discovery of America.

Along with being a pioneering thinker, he was also an exceptional man of faith.  In 1471 and 1480 Farissol hand-wrote two prayer books for women which contain a fascinating feminist innovation. In the prayer book as we know it today, the man reciting the morning blessings thanks God for life that is renewed each morning, for not making him a Gentile, for not making him a slave, and in the words of the prayer that has provoked countless debates, he blesses the Almighty “who has not made me a woman” or in another version “who has made me a man and not a woman.” The woman, for her part, thanks God with the words “who has made me according to His will.” In fact, the text of the accepted blessing for women – “made me according to His will” – is not found in the Talmud, but is mentioned in the early–fourteenth-century halakhic work Arba’ah Turim (lit. “Four Rows,” an important work of Jewish law by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as Ba’al Ha-Turim – “Master of the Rows).

And so, 150 years after the Ba’al Ha-Turim, when Europe was moving out of the Middle Ages, Abraham Farissol wrote two Hebrew prayer books which changed the accepted wording of this morning prayer. In the age of the Renaissance, Farissol abandoned the medieval wording “made me according to His will” in favor of a more interesting, progressive verse – “who has made me a woman and not a man.” One of these books is today kept at the National Library of Israel, while the other is preserved at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

Farissol’s revised version in the 1480 siddur, kept at the National Library of Israel.

We do not know the identities of the two women who Farissol dedicated his books to, as their names were erased from both siddurs. It is possible that Farissol wrote additional prayer books with this blessing which have not yet (or may never) come to light. It is not clear how widespread the change Farissol introduced was or whether it remained the exclusive province of the thinker. What is certain is that at least these two women walked with their heads held high, feeling proud that their Creator had chosen to make them women, and not men.

The morning blessing in the siddur kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
The morning blessing in the siddur kept at the National Library

A Rare Find: The Prayers, News and Blessings Concealed Within the Pages of Visitors’ Books from Rachel’s Tomb

The difficulty of daily life in the Jewish Yishuv, coping with the Holocaust and the breakout of the War of Independence revealed.

Every morning, except for Sabbath and festivals, Shlomo Eliyahu would board bus no. 22 from Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and arrive at Rachel’s Tomb at around nine o’clock in the morning. Armed with a pistol out of fear of attacks from the local Arabs, he would open the entrance door with his long iron key and receive the visitors who came to pray at the Tomb. This was relatively novel in comparison to his predecessors: in their time, the Tomb was open to visitors mainly during the month of Elul and during the festival period.

Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman prepares the oil lights in Rachel’s Tomb. The picture is taken from the book “Al Em HaDerech: Sippuro Shel Kever Rachel” by Nadav Shragi

There is Hope for your Future

And they journeyed from Beth el, and there was still some distance to come to Efrata,

 and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult.

 It came to pass when she had such difficulty giving birth, that the midwife said to her,

 “Do not be afraid, for this one, too, is a son for you.”

And it came to pass, when her soul departed for she died that she named him Ben oni,

 but his father called him Benjamin.

So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Efrata, which is Bethlehem.

 And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.

(Genesis 35, verses 16-20 – English translation from


Fifty eight words in the original Hebrew. Five verses. One of the most tragic events of the book of Genesis is told with familiar Biblical brevity: On the way to the house of Isaac, the father of her beloved husband, Rachel gives birth to her second son and dies in childbirth. She did not even hear her child’s (final) name – Benjamin.

The tragedy of Rachel’s death is intensified by the fact that Jacob’s voice is unheard. What did he feel? What did he do? The Bible does not provide details. The only tears to fall in the Bible are those of Rachel herself. In the book of Jeremiah, the third matriarch is mentioned as one weeping for her children’s fate: “So says the Lord: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not. So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your work, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border” (Jeremiah 31: 15-17 – English translation from

It is this image of Rachel which has been preserved through the generations: the mother who prayed for her children throughout her life continues to worry about them after her death. So too the traditional place of Rachel’s burial is perceived as a place of prayers and pleading for the sons and daughters of the  “tearful mother”s .

The Last Caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb

The last Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb, Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman. The picture is taken from the book ““Al Em HaDerech: Sippuro Shel Kever Rachel” by Nadav Shragi

Shlomo Eliyahu inherited the position of Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb from his father, Yaakov “Yankele HaShamash” Freiman, who served as caretaker for only two short years until his death in 1918. Shlomo Eliyahu had a lot to live up to and he was determined to fulfill the mission he had received.

From as soon as he began his role until it ended under tragic circumstances 29 years later, Shlomo Eliyahu conducted a daily record of the events at the Tomb in the visitors’ journal. The National Library of Israel recently received the last two surviving volumes of the visitors’ journal, out of 24 that are known to have existed. The period they relate to is a crucial period in Jewish history and that of the “State in the making” – the third and fourth decade of the 20th century.

For the ledger from 1932 click here

For the ledger from 1942 click here

What is in the Journal?

The cover of the visitor’s journal. View the complete visitors’ book

The visitors’ journals were arranged in chronological order on a wooden shelf in the room where Rachel’s tombstone is situated. Most of the journals’ pages are full of the names of the various visitors. The many visitors and the varied places they came from show the significance of Rachel’s Tomb, not only to the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora, but also to the many Christian visitors – some of them pilgrims, others soldiers in the allied forces or commanders in the British Mandate. There were visitors who did not suffice with simply writing their names, and added requests from “Mama Rachel”.

Most of the names are unfamiliar to a modern day reader of the journals; others will immediately conjure up images of key figures in the Jewish settlement and in the future State of Israel: Dr. David Yellin, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Henrietta Szold, and even a 7 year old Ezer Weizmann who came to visit together with his mother Yehudit and his sister Yael.

Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi visits Rachel’s Tomb, page 4 of the first visitor’s journal

The anonymous visitors are objects of greater interest: What became of Rachel Frank from Lithuania who visited in 1932, a decade before the Holocaust? Was the couple Esther and Rachamim’s dream to have children fulfilled? Who were the visitors from Persia – new immigrants or tourists who returned to their native country? Each page brings more and more questions.

“Esther Rachamim daughter of Chanina with her husband Rachamim son of Pericha”, page 24 of the first Rachel’s Tomb journal

Eliyahu Freiman made slightly different use of the journals: dozens, and perhaps hundreds of his comments and observations in the two journals provide a more in-depth glimpse into the impact of the dramatic events in the Land of Israel and Europe on the Tomb’s activities. For him, the journals were a way to document the daily activity at the Tomb and his impression of the various visitors. They served as an account of the renovations and repairs, which Freiman himself (usually) carried out, out of fear of the Arab workers, and contain a description of his tense relationship with the local Arabs while mentioning the dramatic events taking place in the world.

“Please do not forget the caretakers who are here daily throughout the year and who endanger themselves to maintain and supervise this holy place and to keep it clean and tidy.” A notice enclosed in the second visitors’ journal

From 1940 onward, the terrifying descriptions of the Second World War and the decimation of the Jews take a central place in the journal. As well as the emotional pleas for help to which Freiman was accustomed. The Holocaust, which the Jewish people was enduring, awakened criticism of “Mama Rachel” as abandoning her sons and daughters.

It is doubtful that Freiman, or any of the visitors at the Tomb, were aware of the extent of the destruction taking place in Europe. Nonetheless, prayers for the salvation of the Jews “who are in danger of destruction” began to fill the journal’s pages. A fixed wording appears in the journal almost daily: a group of Jews comes to the Tomb, and they pray for the welfare of their brethren in occupied territory. One of the detailed examples is on the page dated April 5, 1943. On this day, Freiman notes there was a mass prayer of “several thousand visitors, including schools from throughout the country and several hundred soldiers”. Due to the crowdedness “there were several hours when it was impossible to visit inside due to the multitudes who stood and prayed.” In this emotional prayer “the cries and weeping…were unnatural.” The sights and things said in the Tomb were so disturbing that “several people fainted in distress upon hearing details of the anguish of our brethren who are suffering in the occupied countries.”

“May it be God’s will that we merit to see the complete redemption and the building of the Holy Land this year, speedily in our days, Amen.” Page 94 of the second visitors’ journal

A few days before the end of the War, on April 26, 1945, Freiman records a touching event which took place, when “an historical parokhet [curtain for a Holy Ark] which was preserved from several dozens of synagogues in Poland from the time of the riots which took place in several cities, and still has blood stains on it” was brought to the Tomb. It can be assumed that the parokhet was brought to the Tomb in the early days of the War, as the Freiman family brought the parokhet to the Tomb for several years “And now, on the 14th of Iyar 5705 [April 26, 1945], it was mended and brought once again as a memorial in the holy place.”

The story of the historic parokhet. Page 312 of the second visitors’ journal

Five days before the German surrender, on May 3, 1945, Freiman began the victory celebrations by drawing a large ‘V’ on page 314 of the diary. On the next page he wrote in large letters, perhaps in a very emotional state, the words: “Germany surrendered unconditionally, the war in Europe has ended, today was officially declared Victory Day”.

“Germany surrendered unconditionally, the war in Europe has ended”. Page 314 of the second visitors’ journal

Frieman dedicated the following two pages to writing a blessing of thanksgiving for victory day and a prayer of thanks. The victory celebrations continue at the top of the next page as well.

“On this day, we gather the glorious victory of the allied countries against the forces of darkness and tyranny… to give thanks to Your great name which is praised in bravery.” Page 316 of the second visitors’ journal
“Today was officially declared victory day” Page 318 of the second visitors’ journal

Rachel’s Tomb as the Arena of the National Struggle

Even though many of the visitors expressed concern for the survival of the European and North African Jews during the Holocaust, Freiman dedicated the lion’s share of his writing in the journal to the Jewish-Arab battle around Rachel’s Tomb. Even some of his most banal reports contain expressions of the escalating battle around Rachel’s Tomb. Freiman, who tried to remain on warm terms with the local Arabs as much as possible, found himself, together with them, in an impossible situation. He tried to help his Arab neighbors whenever they approached him for help, but never denied his identification with the Zionist mission and the nation to which he belonged.

When the time came to carry out repairs and renovations in the ancient building, Freiman and his Sephardi counterpart were forced to do the work themselves, out of concern of creating a precedent supporting employment of Arab workers on the site.

On 3, 4, 5, 6 Shevat we repaired the roof and all of the floors, it was scary and fearful but went successfully,” Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman’s comment, page 33 of the first visitors’ journal

Throughout his years as caretaker, Freiman was concerned that the Mufti and the Waqf would attempt to take control of the site by creating small de facto precedents. On March 26, 1936, the secretary of the Mandate government came for a visit and ordered the caretakers to file a report about the tensions with the local Arabs. 

The Secretary of the Mandate Government’s visit to Rachel’s Tomb, page 358 of the first visitors journal

As the years passed, even the most encouraging visits turned sour. When a number of Arabs came to ask for water during Passover of 1940, they told him that they want “the Arabs and the Jews to live in peace”, and did not forget to mention that “the situation is very bad for them because they are not gaining.”

In 1946, a pipe bomb was thrown on Freiman and two Arab neighbors who he was spending time with. This was an omen of what was to come. As the security situation in the Land of Israel became increasingly unstable, and with the mutual preparations for war, the feeling of security at Rachel’s Tomb was lost.

Leading up to the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1947, Rachel’s Tomb becomes unsafe. Freiman relates the throwing of a pipe bomb from a car. Page 382 of the second visitors’ journal.

In one of the last entries in the journal, Freiman copied the letter which he sent to the National Committee in March 1947, in which he informs them about the worrying developments: the appointment of an Arab guard by the Waqf. Ibn Hassan, the guard stationed in the nearby cemetery, antagonized the two caretakers and told the local Arabs that he is the guard of the Tomb. Whenever Ibn Hassan dared approach Freiman and threaten him with commands, Freiman made clear to the National Committee, “I shout at him and he leaves immediately”.

A few days after the U.N. vote on the Partition Plan, Freiman arrived at the Tomb and prepared it as if it was a regular day. The tremendous tension in the area eventually convinced him that he should pack up his belongings and leave. He did so, not before giving the journals to an Arab sheikh who lived nearby. This was last time he saw Rachel’s Tomb.


A news report published on July 3, 1967 about the discovery of Rachel’s Tomb’s visitors’ journal. The report was published in the Davar newspaper.


The two journals belong to an anonymous donor who chose to give them over to the National Library of Israel for safekeeping.