Jerusalem: City of Lepers?

For thousands of years, leprosy was one of the world’s most feared diseases | Jerusalem’s “Hansen House” is known as the city’s legendary leper asylum, but a look back through time reveals a longstanding relationship between the city and the illness | On Jerusalem: city of holiness and leprosy

A man and two boys suffering from leprosy, photographed at the gates of Jerusalem, 1890-1910, Underwood Brothers collection, courtesy of Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi

“Near the rose garden in Jerusalem is a closed institution, where sadness prevails and isolation is everywhere to be found: the leper hospital.”


This was the opening sentence of an article about Hansen House in Jerusalem’s Talbiyah neighborhood, published in the Davar newspaper in November 1951. The building housing this institution was designed by the famous architect Conrad Schick, becoming something of an urban legend and the focus of horror stories told by Jerusalemites for many years. The late Jerusalemite author and scholar Yaakov Yehoshua recalled how the hospital reminded him in his youth of the weekly Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora – both related to leprosy. The connection he made between the cantor’s sad voice in the synagogue, describing the sick leper cursed by God, and the disfigured lepers residing at Hansen House, was a natural one. The hospital terrified residents of adjacent neighborhoods, and to this day, the old timers of the neighborhoods of Katamon and Talbiyah remember how they would look at the building with a mixture of awe and fear.

Though many are familiar with the leper asylum at Hansen House, the institution represents but the latest chapter in the story of Jerusalem’s relationship with the disease. An exploration of the untold story of leprosy in the Holy City reveals of a mysterious and powerful connection between the city and the illness, which was considered to be a divine curse all the way up to the 20th century.

The Jesus Hilfe or Jesus’ Help Asylum in Talbiyah in its early days, with the sign prominently placed at the entrance. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Leprosy, one of the world’s most notorious diseases, is mentioned already in the Bible. Like other serious skin ailments, it was considered a punishment from heaven, and those afflicted were socially shunned. The disease was caused by a bacteria which caused disfigurations of the skin and changes in the body. Leprosy has been documented for thousands of years, and the description in the Bible would appear to be one of the first documented attempts to cope with a contagious illness of this sort.

The Bible calls for expelling lepers “outside the camp”, and to a great extent, until the 21st century – treatment of lepers in Jerusalem followed suit. The Bible tells us of Uziyahu, King of Judah, who was stricken with leprosy and exiled until his death. When he dwelled in isolation in the “house of separation”, which popular traditions place in the Kidron valley east of the Old City of Jerusalem, did he imagine that an urban leper’s asylum would be built in nearby Silwan more than 2000 years later? Did the patients who collected alms at Zion Gate in the Old City in the 19th century know that the King of Jerusalem himself was a leper centuries before?

The “Lepers’ Village” near Zion Gate, Jerusalem. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


Sick With Leprosy and Not Recovering? You’re as Good as Dead

“Leprosy” has been used as a general descriptor for a whole range of serious and disfiguring skin diseases throughout history. In 1873, Norwegian researcher Gerhard Armauer Hansen identified the bacteria causing this illness, and it has since been called Hansen’s Disease, after the man who discovered it. The leprosy the Bible speaks of has been proven to not be the disease we know today; historical-linguistic developments led to confusion on the subject. For centuries and millennia, the state of those suffering from leprosy in the Holy City was appalling.

The three powerful religions in the city – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all considered lepers to be cursed by God, with those not recovering from the disease even considered to be effectively dead. In Judaism, the main fear of the disease was religious, as lepers were considered impure; priests were charged with removing them from the camp or the city so that the spirit of God could dwell among the Children of Israel.

Like Judaism, the other religions – including the religions of the ancient Near East in Babylon and Mesopotamia – viewed lepers as impure beings to be separated from the healthy population. Even in our time, when leprosy is no longer the threat it once was and can be effectively treated, the term “leper” remains to mark out people who are rejected from society. A formal request was once submitted to change the Hebrew term for the disease to destigmatize the people suffering from it.

Letter sent by Prof. Feliz Zagher (Sagher), director of the Hansen Hospital from 1949, requesting the name of the disease be changed. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Things changed during the Crusader occupation of the Holy Land. In contrast to the treatment of lepers in the Western Christian world, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem treated them with respect. Upon conquering the city in 1099, the Crusaders came into more direct contact with lepers than they were used to, as leprosy was more prevalent in the Middle East at the time; many Crusaders were even afflicted themselves.

To deal with the lepers without expelling them, a special order was established – the Order of Saint Lazarus, named after the patron saint of lepers mentioned in the Christian Bible. Many knights afflicted with leprosy joined the order, and they were required to bear a noise-maker to announce their arrival in any densely-inhabited area. The knight bearing the noise maker became the symbol of the order, also known for its knights who fought without faceguards, in order to terrify enemies with their disfigured faces. Many of the knights knew they would not live long with the disease, and so preferred to die on the battlefield.

The peak of leprosy’s fame, or notoriety, in the city came with the rise of Jerusalem’s “Leper King”, Baldwin IV, who fought against Saladin in four battles, the last of which required he be carried by his knights to the battlefield. The Domus Leprosorum or “Leper’s Home” in Latin, the order’s center for treatment and prayer, was established outside the northern wall of Jerusalem, where the “French Hospital” stands today.

Symbol of the Order of Saint Lazarus


The Lepers at the Gate

In the modern era, even after it was scientifically proven that the Biblical leprosy and Hansen’s Disease – leprae – are not the same illness, the stigma remained. Lepers were removed from the city and healthy people refused to go near them – due to their serious and clearly visible physical symptoms, among other reasons. They were excommunicated and forced to live in an isolated community, without support beyond collecting alms. The sight of beggars at the city gates became a fixture, only increasing the locals’ disgust. Towards the end of the 19th century, most lepers in Jerusalem lived in a number of shacks next to the Old City walls, between Zion Gate and the Dung Gate. They married among themselves and lived in rickety houses made of stones taken from ruins, mud, and branches. The Ottoman government neglected them.

Lepers outside Hansen House. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Their condition improved thanks to the churches which became increasingly dominant in the city from the mid-19th century onward. In 1865, the land was visited by a German noblewoman named Auguste von Keffenbrinck-Ascheraden. Her shock at the sight of the scarred and pitiful lepers at the city gates led her to raise money to build a hospital and home for them. To that end, she recruited the aid of the Moravian-German church in an effort which would forever change the fate of lepers in Jerusalem.

Patients at the leper hospital in Jerusalem, late 19th century. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia


From Mamilla to Talbiyah, With a Stop in Silwan

People had only begun to leave the walls of the Old City as the 19th century came to a close, and Jerusalem’s urban heart still lay within their confines. The German countess and the Moravian church chose a nearby location known today as the neighborhood of Mamilla. The structure was established next to its pool, one of the city’s water sources, and away from the main roads to and from Jerusalem.

In 1866, the first leper’s hospital was established, and would eventually become the Lazarist Monastery on Agron Street. It had a number of rooms, which did not fill up that quickly – the Jerusalemite lepers were suspicious of the hospital built by the church; the Jews and Muslims in particular were wary of proselytizing. Still, the hospital staff managed to win their trust over time, and it soon became apparent that the hospital wasn’t big enough for all the city’s lepers.

The first leper’s asylum in the Mamilla neighborhood, which can be seen today on Agron Street. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

In the meantime, the leper neighborhood next to Zion Gate was demolished by the Ottoman authorities between 1873 and 1975. The government had taken note of the church’s efforts to take the lepers under its wing and decided to follow suit, ordering the construction of government homes for lepers next to Bir Ayoub, south of Silwan. The urban hospital was managed under difficult conditions, without regular supervision and handling, and four patients died in its first summer. Despite this, many of the city’s patients, particularly those of Muslim faith, chose at first to go to Dir Ayoub, since the European beds and Christian nurses in the German Mamilla hospital were foreign to them. But the difficult conditions, lack of doctors, and non-separation between those with “lighter” and more “severe” leprosy led many to ultimately seek the aid of the church. This demand led the church to purchase new land southwest of the Old City to establish the Jesus Hilfe or “Jesus’ Help” hospital for lepers, which would later become Hansen House.

Lepers’ homes built in Silwan by the Ottoman government, the Schneller Orphanage Collection, Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi


From the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate and the State of Israel

The Jesus Hilfe hospital was established in Talbiyah on a large lot, surrounded by walls. Opened in 1887, it operated in various forms until 2002, witnessing the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of the British Mandate, and the coming of the State of Israel. It had room for some 60 patients alongside medical staff and nurses, and was built to be a self-sustaining establishment. Trees and plants were planted around the building and a vegetable garden was set up where the lepers could work, hoe, grow fruits and vegetables and set up a chicken farm. Cedar trees were brought in specially from Lebanon to beautify the courtyard, alongside cypress and other kinds of trees.

Hansen House’s first doctor, Dr. Adalbert Einsler (the father-in-law of architect Conrad Schick) used new methods to treat the patients. They were allowed to receive visitors and take trips around the country, and they were forced to give up begging. The leper asylum went by many names among the Arabs of Jerusalem, including dar al-masaknin (“the house of the pitiable”) and “the Morafi hospital” after the Moravian church. The lepers walking freely around the hospital terrified the city’s residents, who stayed as far away as they could.

Lepers engaging in routine activity at Hansen House, late Ottoman period. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

After the Ottoman defeat in the First World War and the start of the British Mandate, the institution’s working relations shifted away from Germany. The hospital was placed under the supervision of the Mandate’s health department, even receiving a government budget and being placed under the aegis of the British branch of the Moravian church.

In 1919, Palestinian Jerusalem doctor Tawfiq Canaan was appointed chief physician of the institution, a position he held until the ’48 war. With the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jesus Hilfe hospital was purchased from the Moravian church. The State of Israel turned it into a government hospital and called it “Hansen Hospital,” after the man who discovered the disease. Despite the repeated demands of neighboring residents, as well as a number of attempts to move the institution, the hospital operated on site until 2002. It was then abandoned and left in that state for years – only contributing to its mysterious image. Today it serves as a cultural center and museum.

Sign for the government hospital known as Hansen House, after it was transferred to Israeli government control after the ’48 war. From the Roni Ellenblum History of Jerusalem Collection. Prepared by: Tamar Hayardeni, Wikipedia

Today, leprosy isn’t the terrifying disease it once was, and effective treatment in the early stages does much to prevent it. The national – and only – center in Israel for treating lepers is in Jerusalem, located on Strauss Street in the center of town. Leprosy ceases to be contagious after initial treatment, removing the need for isolation of patients. The infection rate is very low, and some 95% of the population is naturally immune. But the once-ominous disease left its marks on Jerusalem, just like the scars it once left on the human body, reminding us of days long past.


Chanan and Nahbi: A Window Into Avraham Mapu’s Mind

The man who wrote the first ever Hebrew novel, Avraham Mapu, had never even been to the Land of Israel. Despite this, almost all of his works extol the Holy Land with awe and reverence, except for a single cryptic children’s story. So, what exactly is this puzzling kid’s story really trying to tell us?

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

“There are two rich men who live in the town of Zafron. One is called Chanan, the other Nahbi. Chanan is a generous man, granting every wish to the people around him: old clothes to some, money and bread to others.

Nahbi is a miser, unwilling to give. When his parents ask him why he turned away from the beggar in the streets, he tells them: I did not see him. He does not see anyone, he even ignores his friends and relatives.

In his [Chanan’s] house, he expresses pity for the poor, and sympathy for those close to him. The hungry knock on Chanan’s door and leave satisfied. Chanan is successful in all his undertakings, for the Lord has mercy on him and the inhabitants of Zafron praise Chanan, for he is a cherished member of the community, a man with no envy or hatred in his heart. Nahbi hates him, yet he does not hate Nahbi. Nahbi chases the poor away; Chanan takes them in.

Zafron is a small town, but it contains many poor people. However, they are not worried about the Passover holiday, for they are certain of Chanan’s charity: he buys flour and his assistants bake matzot for the poor. Once the chametz are removed from the town, Chanan sends food to the poor: matzot, meat, wine, oil and sweets for the holiday, and those who receive assistance eat and drink merrily and bless the home of the righteous man.”

Chanan and Nahbi – the tale of the good and the evil, are the main characters of a children’s story written by Avraham Mapu, but this little tale does not actually describe men at all. Chanan and Nahbi are but a metaphor. However, to understand what Chanan and Nahbi really represent, we first need to take a look into the life of their esteemed author: Avraham Mapu.

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Abraham was born on January 10, 1808, in a poor suburb of Kovno, Lithuania, called Salvodka. His family had very little money but they were happy, and content with a religious, small-town life. His father, Rabbi Yekutiel was a teacher and a wise Jewish man who studied Torah and prayed with fervor. A strong believer, he tried to pass this love of studying down to his son by sending him to cheder from a young age, and telling him wonderful stories about the Land of Israel, a marvelous dream land of liberation and Jewish freedom. Little Avraham took to Jewish studies well and was known for being especially bright, but having to find work at a young age to help his struggling family, he never had much of a formal education.

By the time he was 17, Mapu had found a way to make a living on his own by following in the footsteps of his father and becoming a teacher. He was wed before his 18th birthday, and suddenly found himself in a life which exactly mirrored that of his parents – a struggling teacher, trying to build a livelihood for himself and his small Jewish family. But Avraham dreamed of more. Like his father before him, he was also a fantasist, and he knew deep in his heart that life had more in store for him. He longed to visit the Land of Israel and see for himself whether it really was the paradise described to him, a land of Jewish intellectual curiosity, where milk and honey flowed through the valleys in great rivers.

Avraham Mapu’s Wife, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

To his disappointment, he couldn’t save enough money to quench this curiosity and cross the continents, but in search of a brighter future closer to home, Mapu found himself travelling around the Russian Empire with his wife, who by this point had given birth to two children. But despite his searching, all his travels succeeded in doing was exhaust his poor wife! Well, that’s not entirely true. His travels, despite them not bringing him the prosperity or satisfaction he so wished for, did serve to broaden his mind. Along the way, he met groups of new and revolutionary Zionist maskilim. The maskilim were ‘enlightened’ Jews and saw themselves as the pioneers of intellectual Judaism and a modern concept of Jewish self-determination. Their focus was on how to bring Judaism into the modern age and integrate a high level of rationalism into the religion while rebuilding a Jewish homeland based on the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Meeting the prominent Haskalah pioneer Shneur Sachs in Rossyieny, Lithuania, Mapu was encouraged to act on this new-found belief system, and the preeminent writer and scholar Sachs encouraged Mapu to follow in his footsteps and write some of his own Haskalah works. Avraham considered this idea, and with caution, he carefully tiptoed into the waters of Hebrew literature.

A letter from Abraham Mapu to his brother (1859), Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine archive, the National Library of Israel

Literature in the early 19th century, even enlightened Jewish literature, was usually written in the author’s mother-tongue. But seeking a more romantic and authentic style of writing, Mapu broke new territory and started to compose his first book in Hebrew. An ardent Zionist, Mapu knew that this was the only language for his art. Modern Hebrew as we know it did not yet exist, but Mapu had been taught how to read Gemara by his father years earlier and remembered his biblical Hebrew training. Most people think of Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda as the father of modern Hebrew, and this is certainly true to an extent. That being said, Ben Yehuda was born 50 years after Mapu, by which point Mapu had already published multiple books in a mixture of biblical and adapted Hebrew prose. Mapu should really be credited as one of the first pioneers of the modern Israeli language, adjusting the old Hebrew lexicon to suit his contemporary literary needs.

Avraham Mapu, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Avraham began composing a book in Hebrew named “Shulamit” which was set in the Land of Israel. It documented the great beauty of the land and contrasted this sharply with dire and dreary descriptions of life in Eastern Europe. But before long, Mapu grew discontent with the challenge of writing Hebrew prose, and as he worked long days and tried to take care of his growing family, he lost his motivation for writing. He had never even been to the Holy Land and seen it for himself, and his faith in his ability to write authentically dwindled until he simply stopped writing altogether. But he always kept hold of the incomplete “Shulamit” manuscript, which would one day become Ahavat Tzion (“The Love of Zion”), one of his most well-known and beloved Hebrew books.

Ahavat Tzion, his first published work, was completed while Mapu lived in Yurburg. In 1832, Mapu was hired by a wealthy local who was seeking a tutor for his children. Mapu accepted this offer, lured in by its substantial financial reward, but he found far more than just wealth in this new role. Finally having a welcoming and friendly home in which to live, a job in which he was treated with respect and reverence, and a beautiful town to raise his family in, Mapu thrived. Close to the German border, Yurburg was a wealthy western town brimming with intellectuals who accepted Avraham as one of their own. He was able to find a community of other maskilim, who would meet to read literature and discuss the possibilities of reviving a Jewish state. But most importantly, this new community of academics encouraged Mapu to write, and write he did, finishing Ahavat Tzion and even starting on his next novel, The Guilt of Samaria.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript of Ahavat Tzion, the Avraham Shchwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ahavat Tzion is considered the first modern Hebrew book, and tells winding tales of life in the Land of Israel. Despite never having seen the place, Mapu describes a paradise complete with sprawling nature, groups of curious Jews eager to build and share their knowledge, and a land full of passion and love. He continuously contrasts this with a grey and bleak description of life in Europe: the crumbling buildings, lack of purpose, cold weather and unfriendly people. Perhaps these descriptions were slightly hyperbolic, but they did truly reflect Mapu’s desire to leave behind his birthplace and move to Israel. For him, this far-off dream was enough to keep him going, whether it was based in reality or not.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript, digitized as part of the “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

His neighbors were his kindest critics, reading his works approvingly and encouraging him to continue telling his stories. But Mapu did not have that same faith in himself: “I built and destroyed, built and destroyed” he wrote in a letter to a friend, expressing how he never felt entirely content with his own writing. But arguably the most interesting thing he wrote was not in fact for his adoring friends, but for his students.

The custom for tutors in 19th century Europe was to gift a book of literature to one’s students as a reward for learning how to read. However, Mapu couldn’t find a book that he was content to pass on, and decided to take matters into his own hands instead, by composing his own book! As opposed to the children’s stories usually gifted to students, Mapu wrote a short manuscript which he named “Pedagogic Training”, a book of general knowledge, as well as grammar, Hebrew language and even some moral philosophy.

It is in this copy that we find the story of Chanan and Nahbi. Seemingly out of place in his book of languid teachings, later critics took a deeper look at this story, trying to figure out what was going through Mapu’s mind when he decided to include this fanciful tale. Some have suggested that Nahbi represents Mapu’s own miserly village of Salvodka while Chanan is a representation of Yurburg. Others think that Nahbi embodies the old, traditional shtetl Jews, while Chanan is a personification of the Haskalah movement and its liberation of the modern Jew. All agree, however, that this story, told with such moving and emotive prose, represents far more than a fairytale told for its own sake.

Avraham Mapu’s original manuscript, The Russian State Library, Moscow, Russia, digitized as part of the “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

But perhaps the most convincing interpretation is that this story is teaching us an important message about Mapu’s Zionism. Avraham Mapu saw Europe as a place of poverty, where people avert their eyes to the suffering of others, abandon their own families, and live a life of hopelessness. We can easily see how this is symbolized by the character of Nahbi. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, was a place that Mapu believed to be full of companionship, celebrations of Jewish festivals, friends eagerly offering helping hands and allowing each other to explore their culture and religion. All of this was personified by Chanan, whose character provided hope for a sorely needed escape from the realities of the world that Mapu actually occupied.

As Mapu’s list of published works grew, he went on teaching, eventually working for a state school and raising his children to become intellectuals like himself. In 1860, still quite young, his health took a turn however, and he began to lose much of his strength. His wife passed away and Avraham became frail, needing help to walk and complete even basic tasks. Despite this, he continued publishing books right up until a few months before his eventual death in 1867.

Abraham Mapu’s grave, photographer: Jüdische Friedhof Königsberg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Avraham Mapu left behind a legacy of great Hebrew literature and novels. Many are familiar with his name because of the roads and streets in Israel named after him, and of course his status as author of the first modern Hebrew novel. Yet, Mapu’s story of Chanan and Nahbi remains both his least understood, and arguably most interesting work, to this very day.

Who Was the Soldier Who Pleaded for His Life in David Grossman’s Classic Book?

A signed copy of David Grossman's book, "To the End of the Land", reveals the link between the author's pain over the death of his son and a tragic event that happened fifty years ago. This is the story of how Grossman made use of rare recordings from the Yom Kippur War in an attempt to ease the burden of a harsh reality

David Grossman (photo by Kobi Kalmanovich) and a soldier praying during the Yom Kippur War (photo by Avi Simchoni) courtesy of David Grossman and the IDF Archives

David Grossman’s note to Yossi Rivlin, in the book Isha Borakhat Me-Bsora (To the End of the Land)

To Yossi –

With fond memories from the radio –

And in great friendship

David Grossman

May 4, 2008


At first glance, this handwritten note scribbled by David Grossman in a copy of his novel, To the End of the Land, appears unremarkable. A few words from an esteemed author to a former colleague at the Kol Yisrael radio station. But behind this seemingly ordinary dedication hides an extraordinary story. Its beginning goes back to the first terrible hours of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and it ends with Grossman’s epilogue in his masterpiece To the End of the Land, published thirty-five years later, after the death of his son Uri in the Second Lebanon War.

While sitting at home and reading Grossman’s book shortly after its release, Yossi Rivlin was struck by a passage that sounded very familiar to him, but he couldn’t remember from where:

“Hello, hello? Anyone left? […] Why doesn’t anyone answer?…What is this, are you playing with me? Over, over, over,” Avram mumbled hopelessly.


“And I need clean water and bandages,” Avram mumbled, exhausted. “This thing stinks. It’s a rag…Hello? Hello? Can’t hear. Why would you hear, you assholes. Well, if you don’t hear, you’ll soon smell, with this wound. Gangrene for sure, fuckit.”


“Plant, this is Peach.” A new voice rose dimly over a rattling engine sound. “We’ve been hit on Lexicon 42. We have casualties, requesting evacuation.”

“Peach, um, this is Plant. Copy. Sending evacuation momentarily, over.”

“Plant, this is Peach. Thanks, waiting, just hurry ’cause it’s kind of a mess here.”

Peach, this is Plant. We are handling, we are handling, out.”


“Hello, hello, answer me, you sons of bitches, you quislings. You left me here to die? How could you leave me to die?”


In the background, Avram sang vigorously, “My sukkah is a delight – with greenery and lights!” and the radio operator hummed along with him, bobbing his head to the rhythm. “Listen to him. Thinks he’s on Sesame Street or something.”

The song broke into a groan of pain.

(David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010, p. 549-552)

David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010

For hours Yossi racked his brain until he finally recalled the event that took place two decades earlier.

It was back in the 1980s, when Yossi was working as a reporter for Kol Yisrael radio. He was tasked with doing the research and then handing over the material to more senior journalists who would turn what he had found into a news item. Always on the lookout for a good story, one day a co-worker mentioned man named Avi Yaffe. Avi was a recording technician who lived in Jerusalem and had some rare and interesting recordings in his possession. In late September of 1973, Avi was called up for army reserve duty and he brought along a large Nagra tape recorder thinking that he would be able to listen to music and maybe also document the unique atmosphere that prevailed in the military outposts Israel had erected along the Suez Canal.

But Avi had no idea that within a few days war would break out and that he would find himself at the frontlines of the fighting, stationed at the “Purkan” outpost on the banks of the canal. The Egyptian attack began with an intense artillery barrage directed at these Israeli military positions, as Egyptian soldiers began to cross into Sinai. Instead of listening to music, Avi used the machine to record the communications during the war’s first few hours between the headquarters in the rear and the heavily bombarded frontline outposts, including his own.

Avi Yaffe with his Nagra tape recorder, from a personal photo album

Yossi went to see Avi. In a long and painful interview, he listened to Avi’s chilling stories about the early days of the Yom Kippur War on the southern front, and how he had managed to save himself and the four tapes he had recorded.

From among Avi Yaffe’s stories about that frightening time, Yossi could not shake off one story in particular – about Sergeant Max Maman, a reservist trapped in one of the outposts that was being battered by Egyptian artillery and his pleas over the radio for backup. Those at the headquarters tried to calm him knowing that there was nothing they could do. The helplessness in his voice, his pleas that went unanswered – it was unbearably hard to listen to. So much so that Avi eventually turned off the tape recorder because he simply couldn’t continue listening to the voice of the soldier begging to be rescued, knowing that his fate was already sealed.

Sgt. Max Maman

Here is a transcript of that recording from the “Hizion” outpost. Sergeant Max Maman, codename “Troublemaker”, is in communication with the contact post, codename 22:

“22, Troublemaker here, urgent, over.”

“22 here, over.”

“Troublemaker here. They’re firing at the outpost with artillery, we have to destroy them, over.”

“Endless tanks, endless, need immediate assistance, urgent, aerial, artillery cover, help us, over.”

“Everything will be OK, hang in there, things are a bit difficult but it’s not too bad, over.”

“Troublemaker here, over. I hope you are right, I also hope you get here fast with the air support, because there is no possibility to even lift up our heads here, over.”

“Attention, they’re coming at me through the gate, I’m asking, uh… artillery through the gate…”

“Voices from the Inferno” – part one of a special program produced by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, based on recordings from the Yom Kippur War (Hebrew)

It’s a gut-wrenching experience to hear Sergeant Maman’s trembling voice over the radio transmitter asking over and over again for help, and the evasive response from the headquarters.

In another recording, from Avi Yaffe’s outpost, one can hear singing. One of the soldiers starts off with “Hava nagila, hava nagila, hava nagila venis’mecha” – let us rejoice and be glad – and the others join in. The singing sounds almost macabre against the background of gunfire, explosions and calls for help coming from the outposts around them. But, when you think about the impossible reality they found themselves in, this song must have provided some kind of relief from the tension and sense of helplessness.

What does all this have to do with David Grossman? Yossi and Grossman worked together in the 1980s at Kol Yisrael radio’s Reshet Bet station, where Grossman was a broadcaster. Grossman used Yossi’s research and Avi’s recordings for a special report about the Yom Kippur War and the difficult decisions those few soldiers were forced to make while under heavy fire in the outposts along the canal. The program, broadcast on the eve of Yom Kippur 1987, was very well received.

Yossi eventually left his radio job, became a writer and published a number of works of fiction. David Grossman went on to become one of Israel’s most celebrated authors.

Years later, David Grossman’s son, Uri, was killed together with his entire tank crew in the last few hours of the Second Lebanon War, in August of 2006.

Grossman wrote To the End of the Land years before his son’s death.  But in the epilogue, he writes about the book’s close connection to Uri and his death:

Uri was very familiar with the plot and the characters. Every time we talked on the phone, and when he came home on leave, he would ask what was new in the book and in the characters’ lives. (“What did you do to them this week?” was his regular question) […] At the time I had the feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him. […] After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.

David Grossman’s epilogue in To the End of the Land

While reading To the End of the Land, Yossi remembered that broadcast about the lone soldier stuck in the outpost, begging for help during the Yom Kippur War. He decided that he had to ask Grossman about it.

But Grossman rarely discussed his new book in public, and even if he was able to attend an event with the writer, Yossi wasn’t sure Grossman would even remember him.

When Yossi heard that Grossman was scheduled to appear at the Tmol Shilshom café in Jerusalem, he decided to try his luck and meet with him. At the end of the event, Yossi sheepishly raised his hand and asked Grossman whether it was possible that a certain section in the book was based on the broadcast they had both worked on many years before. Shading his eyes from the glare of the lights, Grossman looked out into the audience, then stood up and walked over to Yossi, a giant smile on his face:

“’Yossi?’ he asks me. ‘Yes,’ I answer… and he says: ‘Yes! Of course! It’s from your broadcast!’”

Both of them were overcome with emotion, and at the end of the evening, David Grossman inscribed the copy of the book that Yossi had brought with him, a memento from a uniquely tragic yet oh-so Israeli story.

To the End of the Land tells about the reality of life in Israel. A reality that cannot be avoided, a reality in which war, bereavement and PTSD are an inseparable part of life. Grossman’s story had proved prescient in a most personal way.

In the story about a woman trying to escape bitter news, a scenario which haunts everyone who lives in this country that has known its fair share of wars, Grossman included his and Yossi Rivlin’s broadcast about those rare recordings from the early days of the Yom Kippur War. At the end of the book, the reader is left not knowing whether she succeeded or not. What we do know is that Grossman could not escape his own tragic news, the death of his son Uri, killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War.

Uri Grossman, son of author David Grossman, killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War together with his tank crew (family photo album)

But perhaps Grossman was able to do for Ora, the book’s heroine, what he was not able to do for himself and for his own son. He did the very thing that all the soldiers who listened to Max Maman’s pleas from the outpost on that day and those who listened with dread to the tapes years later could not do. In the book, he chose to save the character Avram, the soldier stuck in the outpost. Yet while Avram survived, he was not spared the post-trauma that many of those who made it through the war suffer from.

On the last page of the book, Grossman does one more thing – perhaps the only thing one can do for those who are gone. He offers the possibility of the existence of hope:

“(…) I thought that if we both talked about him, if we kept talking about him, we’d protect him, together, right?”

“Yes, yes that’s true, Ora, you’ll see –”

“But maybe it’s the exact opposite?”

“What? What’s the opposite?” he whispers.

[…] She grips his arm: “I want you to promise me.”

“Yes, whatever you want.”

“That you’ll remember everything.”

Yes, you know I will.”

(David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010, p. 650)


Grossman’s decision not to shelve the book after his son’s death, may also have been a decision to choose hope.

For more on the rare recordings from the Yom Kippur War, and what transpired in the outposts in its first few days, watch the series produced by Kan 11 (Hebrew): part one, part two and part three. Information about those recordings is also available on Avi Yaffe’s website, and in his recently published book (Hebrew) documenting the complete story: Shovakh Yonim (“dovecote”, the codename for the outbreak of the war).

The two volumes of Shovakh Yonim, Avi Yaffeh’s book on fighting in the Suez Canal outposts during the Yom Kippur War

Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s Extraordinary Tabernacle Model

Among the thousands of documents, letters, rare books and manuscripts in the Yahuda collection at the National Library of Israel, there is a unique and unusual object: a precise three-dimensional model of the Tabernacle and its vessels down to the last detail of its golden rings and scarlet threads. What was the impetus behind Prof. Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s extraordinary model?

Abraham Shalom Yahuda and the model of the Tabernacle. All the photographs in this article depict the Tabernacle model in the Abraham Shalom Yehuda Archive at the National Library of Israel

With his prodigious knowledge of Arab culture, and expertise in Oriental studies (now called Middle Eastern studies) as well as Jewish religion and history, Abraham Shalom Yahuda was a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. However, one lecture in particular made it into the headlines of the 1939 Passover edition of the venerated British Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle: “BUILDING OF THE TABERNACLE – Evidence of Biblical Authenticity – HEBREWS AT THE TIME OF EXODUS” (March 24, 1939).

The newspaper enthusiastically reported that Prof. Yahuda “delivered a lecture last week on ‘The Building and Craftsmanship of the Tabernacle,’ […] accompanied by the showing of a model, specially built for Professor Yahuda of the Tabernacle, and it aroused great interest. The model was complete down to the most minute detail […] in strict accordance with Dr. Yahuda’s views […] [Yahuda] revealed a perfect knowledge of absolute craftsmanship and of architecture.” (ibid.).

How did a boy from the Sephardic community of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem wind up studying for a doctorate in Semitic languages in Germany? What drew him, in the midst of his academic career, to undertake the complex and Sisyphean task of crafting a model of the Tabernacle? And most curiously, what does the model, now in the Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, look like? In order to answer these questions, we must go back in time to Jerusalem of the late 19th century, which was just beginning to expand beyond the Old City’s walls.


From Jerusalem to Germany

The year is 1877. Abraham Shalom is born to the Yahuda family living in the Even Yisrael neighborhood, the sixth to be built outside the walls. His mother was originally from Germany and his father was the scion of a distinguished and wealthy family originally from Iraq. In Jerusalem of those days, such mixed ethnic marriages were rare, but in his family, it was expected, as Abraham Shalom writes in his memoirs:

In those days, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities were estranged. [However] my grandfather’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Yehezkel Yahuda, who had come from Iraq to Jerusalem, because of his charity and generous support of many scholars, was beloved by all communities, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike… and he tried with all his might to endear the communities to each other.

And the first thing he did was to give his daughter Sara’s hand in marriage to Rabbi Yehoshua Yellin of Łomża, and to betroth his eldest son Shaul to the daughter of Rabbi Yeshaya Bardaki, one of the great Ashkenazic rabbis and important community leaders, and his younger son Faraj Haim to the daughter of the Chabad follower Rabbi Israel Shapira from a distinguished family from Poland. My father, Rabbi Benjamin, also followed in his footsteps and sought to draw the Ashkenazim closer, and hired melamdim (religious tutors) from the community for my elder brother and myself.

(Abraham Shalom Yahuda, When I Studied Rashi [Hebrew])

From a young age, Abraham Shalom was taught Torah, Jewish law, Mishnah and Talmud and other religious texts according to Jewish tradition, by private tutors hired by his parents. Yahuda describes it thus:

My father, being well-to-do, would pay a well-known tutor double and triple the going rate on condition that he not take on more than two or three additional students besides me, and who must be more advanced in their studies, in order to stimulate my scholarly envy. He did the same with all of my tutors. Indeed, this was to my benefit, particularly, a few years later, when I was studying Talmud. (Ibid.)

In his teens, he began studying other subjects, also with private tutors, Arabic language in particular, which became his great passion. At age 17, he published an article on the Arabic language in the newspaper HaMelitz, and the book Kadmoniyot Ha’Aravim (“Antiquities of the Arabs”) about the history of Arab culture before Islam. Shortly after, he wrote another article titled Nedivei ve’Giborei Arav (“The Nobles and Heroes of Arabia”).

Yahuda, wanting to pursue higher education in the field of Oriental studies, traveled for that purpose, to the birthplace of this scientific field, which, as chance would have it, was also the birthplace of his mother. He studied at various universities in Germany and received his doctorate in 1904.


A Zionist of Arabia

Oriental studies, as developed in Germany, included both Jewish and Bible studies as well as Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, so that by the end of his academic training, Abraham Shalom Yehuda was an expert in several fields. Being in Europe also opened up new intellectual and social horizons for him and he forged personal connections with scholars and researchers as well as with international statesmen, leaders and members of the elite. He was invited to give lectures at universities throughout Europe and even at the court of the King of Spain, a connection he later leveraged in order to aid persecuted Jews.

In addition to his academic career, Yahuda also became a Zionist activist, befriending Shaul Tchernichovsky and Prof. Joseph Klausner, and even meeting with Theodor Herzl in London. Yahuda describes this meeting and Herzl’s great interest in the young Orientalist’s thoughts about current relations between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land:

Dr. Herzl . . . asked me if I thought the Muslims in the Land of Israel would willingly accept the matter of a Jewish state, if the Sultan will hand over the Land of Israel to the Jews… I was a little embarrassed, because I knew . . . that he knew only a little about the real conditions in the Land of Israel and the situation of the Arab population. I told him that in my opinion we must gain the local Arabs’ sympathy for the plan, and that the Sultan will not take any serious step without the consent of the residents . . . Dr. Herzl sounded disappointed upon hearing my opinion.

(“Herzl’s Attitude to the Arab Problem“, Hed Hamizrah, October 7, 1949 [Hebrew])

Yahuda met Herzl again about a year later at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, where he reiterated his thoughts about initiating direct communication with the country’s Arabs, but to no avail:

Dr. Herzl was adamant that the residents of the Land of Israel have no opinion on this matter, that the Sultan has absolute say. I warned him again . . . emphasizing [the importance of] establishing a closer relationship with the Arabs of the Land of Israel and explaining the Zionist objectives to them as well as the great advantages they will achieve from honest cooperation with us.

I realized from everything he told me about the Arabs that he was completely misled by representatives who never had a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the Arab problem, yet these were the “experts” on whose opinion Dr. Herzl was relying. (Ibid.)

Prof. Yahuda belonged to a stream in the Zionist movement that believed in cooperation and dialogue with the Arabs of the Land of Israel, who knew them, their way of life, their leaders and social codes from childhood. They sought to establish relationships with them and not go above their heads and present them with a fait accompli that would inevitably lead to resistance and rebellion. Apparently, this thinking – and the desire to prove the existence of ancient connections between the Jews and their Arab surroundings – was one of the reasons he decided to invest so much of his time and resources in the Tabernacle model, discussed in more detail below.


“Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you” (Ex 25: 9)

The model of the Tabernacle built by Prof. Abraham Shalom Yahuda is based on the description in the Book of Exodus, chapters 25–35. These contain the commands for the building of the Tabernacle and describe in detail the preparation of the tools and other accessories used in the ceremonies performed in it. The text also includes instructions for the Tabernacle’s dismantling and reassembly in accordance with the practice of the ancient Israelites during their wanderings in the desert, on their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan. Besides relying on the descriptions in the Bible, Yahuda would consult the writings of the great biblical commentator Rashi for whom he had the greatest admiration, on any matter that seemed to him unclear:

I was always impressed with Rashi’s vast knowledge in every field, even in crafts, such as pottery, carpentry, silversmithing, sewing, weaving, and the like regarding the crafts and craftsmanship of the Tabernacle.”

(When I Studied Rashi)

Thus, equipped with the Bible’s instructions and Rashi’s commentary, Yahuda began his work. First, he built the Tabernacle’s frame: the sides made of wooden posts on silver bases and connected to each other by means of three bolts threaded through crossbars.

The crossbars were gold-plated, and accordingly Yahuda placed golden cylinders inside them, creating the impression that they were made of gold, according to the biblical command:

At the Tabernacle’s entrance there were columns on which was hung a veil (parokhet) made of woven fabric. Similar columns separated the Tabernacle’s two parts – an outer sanctuary, the “Holy Place” and an inner sanctuary, “the Holy of Holies.” Yehuda decided to decorate these with Corinthian capitals, a detail that does not appear in the Bible.  These too are covered with fabric.

According to the Bible, the veil fabric was specially woven on both sides so that each side displayed a different pattern. According to Rashi’s commentary, the pattern featured lions. Prof. Yahuda followed this interpretation and had a fabric woven which clearly shows the variety of the threads as detailed in the Bible “blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen” (Ex 39: 2), with images of lions on it.

The Tabernacle was covered with bolts of various fabrics and hides, which were connected with hooks. You can see in the model the precision and attention to detail in connecting the hooks to the fabrics.

The Tabernacle was surrounded by a courtyard, which also consisted of columns on which was written “And their tops were overlaid with silver.” Here too, Yahuda depended on Rashi’s commentary which interpreted this to mean that the columns were decorated with silver fillets – and so he also built the courtyard columns and decorated them with hoops of silver wire.

Finally, the walls of the Tabernacle’s courtyard were prepared with the greatest precision, and as Rashi explains, were made “like a kind of ship’s slats, with apertures, like basketry, and not like the weaver’s work.”


“Build an altar” (Ex 27: 1)

Besides the Tabernacle structure itself, Prof. Abraham Shalom Yehuda’s model also includes the Tabernacle vessels and other accessories that were used in it. For example, he built a model of the altar, square and with four corners, and like all the vessels of the Tabernacle it was attached by rings to long wooden poles for carrying it on journeys in the desert. The beautifully crafted model of the altar includes a “a grate of bronze mesh”, with “…a bronze ring at each of the four corners of the mesh”, which is placed “beneath the ledge of the altar, so that the mesh comes halfway up the altar.” (Ex 27: 4–5). See in the accompanying photo how the model follows closely the instructions in the biblical text.

Yahuda also included in the model the bronze laver used for washing the hands and feet of the priests before they entered the interior space of the Tabernacle to perform their work.

as well as the various musical instruments: trumpets, cymbals, and more, which accompanied the Tabernacle work and the Israelites’ journeys in the desert.

To these, he added small explanatory handwritten signs in beautiful script.

Small figurines were apparently placed in different locations around the model in order to demonstrate the various roles of the priests and the ceremonies and events that took place in the Tabernacle. Among the figurines are a man bringing an offering of first fruits, a priest washing his hands and feet, a guard, and a man bringing an animal for sacrifice.

Yahuda apparently made use of the model, and an accompanying drawing in his many lectures, in which he explained the construction of the Tabernacle and the daily activities that took place in it. Judging from the report in the Jewish Chronicle, it clearly aroused great interest among listeners and viewers.


An Orientalist Becomes an Artisan?

We are left with the question: what was Yahuda’s motivation in embarking on such a project that included an abundance of items, of which only some have been described here, that necessitated such precision and detail, required much deep research, and engaged professional artists in its construction?

Unfortunately, Yahuda did not leave any notes explaining his motive, work and goals. We can however find several explanations in the lectures he gave after its construction.

As mentioned, Yahuda was an Orientalist who strove to strengthen ties between Jews and Arabs, between their respective cultures and in particular between the peoples living in the Land of Israel. For him, the Tabernacle was a means of proving the deep ties that existed in ancient times between the Jews and the Egyptian people. According to Yahuda, it would have been impossible for the Israelites in the desert to obtain all the materials, means and talents to build such a magnificent Tabernacle without having learned the various crafts from the Egyptians and without having been able to take with them fabrics, metals, precious stones and other materials from the wealth of pharaonic Egypt. As he saw it, the years of hard labor described in the Bible were preceded by years of Jewish integration in Egypt, in its culture and in its physical and spiritual wealth. The Tabernacle is evidence of this.

The work of the Tabernacle, he believed, is proof of monotheism’s uniqueness over the idol worship practiced in Canaan, and in this, Jews and Muslims, for whom belief in one God is a pillar of both faiths, share common ground.

Another motive for building the model is related to an equally important issue that Yahuda grappled with in his professional life, which is the controversy over the degree of truth behind the real-world artifacts mentioned in the biblical stories. Yahuda, who as mentioned was also an expert on religious issues, had disagreements with his colleagues on these topics. Construction of the Tabernacle supported his claim for the Bible’s veracity in these matters.

And it might also be possible that between his scholarly pursuits, research, reading and writing, Yahuda perhaps also may have enjoyed working with his hands and giving free rein to his imagination, creativity and the artist in him.

In any event, after Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s death in 1951 in the United States, where he had been a professor at several universities, thousands of items from his personal archive were transferred to the National Library of Israel, including dozens of boxes containing the parts of the spectacular model he built. The Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, which numbers documents and manuscripts as well as the elaborate model of the Tabernacle and its vessels, is a reflection of his multifaceted professional personality.


The photos of the Tabernacle model that are published here for the first time, are from the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive at the National Library of Israel. The archive is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.