A Personal Story of Migration as Told in a 1000-Year-Old Jewish-Afghan Letter

Broken promises, a lack of piety and a wife left behind – What forced a young Jew to leave his home and family in 11th-century Afghanistan?

The first page of the 11th-century letter, written in Judeo-Persian, from "Yair" to Abu al-Hasan Siman-Tov, the National Library Collections.

The first page of the 11th-century letter, written in Judeo-Persian, from "Yair" to Abu al-Hasan Siman-Tov, the National Library collections.

What has become known as the Afghan Genizah is a collection of thousands of manuscript fragments originating in medieval Afghanistan. A large portion of these texts were written in Afghan Jewish communities that we previously knew almost nothing about. In recent years, the National Library of Israel has been able to acquire nearly 300 pages of material from the collection. The study of these documents has shed a great deal of light on the lives of Jews living in Afghanistan nearly a thousand years ago – how they lived, worked, prayed and communicated, as well as how they interacted with their Muslim neighbors.

In the early 13th-century, these same Jewish communities were decimated by Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, along with the entire surrounding region of Khorasan. The fact that these documents were able to survive the devastation is likely a matter of luck more than anything else. The collection preserved at the National Library includes personal letters and business records, as well as legal, administrative and literary papers. The oldest were written in the 11th-century and the newest date to the early 13th-century.

One of the most interesting items in the trove is a letter written by a young Jewish man by the name of Yair, who had run into some trouble: Failed business ventures caused him to migrate from his hometown of Bamiyan to the community of Ghazni, some 94 miles away (over 150 kilometers), leaving behind his wife.

The Afghan city of Ghazni, as it appeared in 2010, a thousand years after the writing of Yair's letter. Photo by Tech. Sgt. James May, U.S. Air Force.
The Afghan city of Ghazni, as it appeared in 2010, a thousand years after the writing of Yair’s letter. Photo by Tech. Sgt. James May, U.S. Air Force.

The young man also faced accusations that he had failed to observe the Sabbath and “committed falsehood regarding property.” Yair’s letter is addressed to a man known as Abu al-Hasan Siman-Tov, who may very well have been his brother-in-law. It was written in the 11th-century in Judeo-Persian (Persian written in Hebrew letters).

The first page of the 11th-century letter, written in Judeo-Persian, from "Yair" to Abu al-Hasan Siman-Tov, the National Library collections.
The first page of the 11th-century letter, written in Judeo-Persian, from “Yair” to Abu al-Hasan Siman-Tov, the National Library collections.

Here are some excerpts from the letter, as translated and transcribed by Ofir Haim:

“A thousand greetings to the beloved brother Abu al-Hasan Siman-Tov, may he have a long life, son of Abu Nasr, son of Daniyal. May God’s blessing and praise upon (his) body and soul (increase)…

The letter of the beloved brother arrived, may God keep him alive. I read (it). I was joyful at the news of his good health, may God bestow good tidings. Also I inform the beloved brother that these several letters (which) were written (saying) that I committed falsehood regarding property and broke promises, are all false claims. There should not be so much reproaching. If I took property, my affair and my reply are with the Merciful. I did not do a thing by which the Merciful was not pleased. If one says that I do not observe the Sabbath, I know such, brother, that the Mericful will not punish him because of that. These many reproaches should not be done by anyone. I did nothing contrary to (the customs of) people…

…this much should be known to you, that anyone who marries a woman does (this) for his own well-being, as all people have a (wife), not for this that I sit in Ghazni and she in Bamiyan. If I could have made a living in Bamiyan, it is true that I would have acted according to your will. 

Furthermore, if this portion of the alms and what should be given that people must give had not existed, I would have come there immediately, whether I could have done a certain work or not…

You know that I own goods, and God, blessed be His name, has apportioned (to me) as you see – not with a generous hand, a hundred thousand thanks to God, blessed be His name. I cannot do any other work and I am not a man who is accustomed to travelling and being remote from home, and I cannot do (this). And you know that this business and work that I do, if I am absent from the shop for one day, I will be needy that day. Therefore, when I must be workless for half a year, the door of the shop is closed here, the supplies run out, and I sit there workless. If you say that the answer to that is that I sit here and they in Bamiyan, by no means do I accept this.

I cannot bring this work to an end, but I will make an effort that perhaps (if) I set aside these alms, I will immediately come there. I am concerned about the mother that I am very troubled about her, for I know that she is full of sorrow. However, she should not search for her happiness, others should look after some of it…

From Yair son of ‘ymyd/’ymyr

(To be sent) to Bamiyan…God, almighty and exalted, willing.

The ninth of (the month of) Elul

A page from the 11th-century letter, written in Judeo-Persian, from Yair to Abu al-Hasan Siman-Tov, the National Library collections.
A page from the 11th-century letter, written in Judeo-Persian, from Yair to Abu al-Hasan Siman-Tov, the National Library collections.

We do not know what response Yair received to his letter, or whether he was ever reunited with his family.

This article is based on research conducted by Ofir Haim, a graduate student in the Department of Middle Eastern History at the Hebrew University, and Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel.

You can find more information on this subject in the article An Early Judeo-Persian Letter sent from Ghazna to Bāmiyān published in Bulletin of the Asia Institute New Series, Vol. 26 (2012), pp. 103-119


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Rare Books That Kept Prayer Alive During the Jewish Migrations of the 19th Century

These miniature prayer books were designed to be small enough to fit in the traveler’s pocket so they could be taken along for journeys across the sea.


A century before the Holocaust would destroy large percentages of the Jewish communities of Europe, long before even the First World War, Jewish migration from Europe to the West was already underway. From the 1820s through the 1880s, approximately 150,000 Jews immigrated to the United States from European countries. In the 1840s, German Jews, in particular, began to leave their home country in waves in search of a better life in “The Goldene Medina” (“The Golden Country”) of America.



Jews in Germany at that time were facing many hardships including persecution, restrictive laws and economic struggle as industrialization and modern improvements eliminated the need for several standard Jewish professions. The Jewish community was forced to take a hard look at their social status and many recognized that, if they hoped for a better future, they would need to look for it in another country.

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These German Jews took with them their culture and their heritage on their long and arduous journey across the ocean – including the traditional prayers, chanted by the Jewish people for centuries. In fact, the National Library of Israel holds several rare payer books from this time period of Jewish migration.



In the 1840s, the S. B. Gusdorfer and Zuerndorffer & Sommer publishing houses in Fürth, Germany, began printing new prayer books (siddurim) intended specifically for these immigrants. What made the books unique was their size, as the siddurim contained all the required prayers for every day of the year, but the books themselves were easy-to-carry miniature versions of the standard full-sized prayer books used in everyday prayer services.



Each of these books is smaller than a fist, intended to be carried in the pocket of a traveler who was heading out on a long journey. The cover page of the siddur reads, “Prayers for the entire year, for those on a journey and those crossing the sea and for those traveling to the country of America” in Yiddish. The books contained everyday prayer services as well as prayers for Shabbat, the various festivals, the High Holidays, and of course, the wayfarer’s prayer, a supplication read by travelers embarking on a long journey.



It seems that these miniature books were somewhat popular as the publishing houses printed multiple editions over the years. The National Library holds copies printed in 1842, 1854 and 1860. These books are considered to be very rare as many of them were either worn out from use by their owners on their journeys and in some cases they did not survive the trip at all.


A Student Admission Request to the Hebrew University on the Eve of the Destruction of European Jewry

"I will pay you with my blood for homeland and science.”


The third gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel will take place in Jerusalem on March 17-19, 2019, bringing together prominent figures to discuss this year’s topic: “Migration-Borders-Identity”.   The following article is presented in the context of this year’s theme, encouraging broader discussions of these topics.


Kobe, 9 February 1941

To: The Administration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


It is now ten days since I arrived in Japan after an arduous and perilous journey, and having risen at last from my sick bed on which I fell with my arrival here, I reach out to you now in high hopes.

My name is Tanchum Rabinowicz. When I was in Vilna as a refugee, I sent you all the requisite documents in order to obtain a student-certificate, that is, a notarized copy of my Hebrew high school diploma, the application, photographs and curriculum vitae, for all of which I received from you an official letter informing me that you are willing to accept me on condition that tuition and other fees will be paid in Palestine. The letter bearing the date 9 June 1940 is in my possession.

I do not as yet feel well enough to describe in detail all the events of the Polish refugees in Vilna after the arrival of the Russians, and my own ordeals. I will describe them only in brief so that you will understand how I arrived in Japan in my wanderings to Eretz Israel.

Just as the Russians entered and consulates began to close, a few hundred refugees managed to obtain visas on their Polish passports to Dutch-American Curaçao [one of the islands], and based on these – Japanese transit visas, though no one believed at the time that any of this had any practical purpose, but the psychosis that infected everyone was the same, to acquire any type of visa. I too was among those who bought such a visa, and I kept it with me, and on the basis of it, I presented a request for an exit visa from Soviet Russia. The matter dragged on for months, but there was no one to receive the exit requests, on the contrary—we were prepared for them to send us to the dark mountains, or the “white-bears” [Siberia] as we called it in Vilna. Suddenly the situation took a turn and they started giving out massive numbers of exit visas. Among the recipients was myself.

Who could imagine my joy, who can describe the happiness and my friends’ jealousy? And indeed, the first group numbering 67 persons received exit visas and I was among the first. But all this was mingled with mostly pain and suffering, the Intourist [the official Soviet travel agency] would not accept rubles in payment for travel expenses, only dollars, and I had none. Because the visa had an expiration date, I didn’t think too long, and I and three other friends set off on the journey on our own and without our accounts (without getting in touch with Intourist). Thus, I traveled across Russia, buying tickets from one stop to the next, until I reached Vladivostok. I would never again attempt such a journey and in such a manner. Even now it is difficult for me to describe the hardships and obstacles we faced along the way and how we boarded the Japanese ship. Enough said that the Japanese consul from Vladivostok who helped me tremendously, came himself before the boat sailed and parted with me in front of everyone, and said it was an amazing feat of human heroism to make such a journey as I had.

Dear friends! I am, to my sorrow, once again a refugee. From my escape from the Soviets in Vilna, I left everything at home, I took only my high school diploma in order to contact you and only in this have I placed my hope, today as I am twice naked and a refugee + the letter from you which I have kept. Here am I lonely and deserted, and to whom should I turn if not to you—for your help. My situation is that I am on the edge of an abyss. The government does not permit me to remain here long, and since I am here only in transit, and if in case in the near future I do not receive any help to immigrate, the government will send me to Shanghai, where the material plight of the refugees is awful, without any aid, dying of starvation, and as bread is the most important force in our lives, and when one feels its lack it can bring a person to the brink, such is the situation in Shanghai. Dear friends, I cannot imagine that, for a few dozen Pounds that I have to pay, you would forsake a man – I risked my life on the path to Zion, I was educated in the spirit of loyalty to the homeland like you, who take care of homeland matters, I do not write in detail here because my head is still spinning, but I ask please, find my curriculum vitae in my documentation and read it again, and this letter afterward, and certainly you will not turn me away empty-handed.

I am pleading with you, send me a student certificate because I am standing at the precipice, don’t be so formal, I will pay you with my blood for homeland and science, but do not let me fall, I am already tired, and only just 23 years old, I send this letter to you without knowing if it will reach you, like a drowning man casting a message in a bottle into the ocean. I find myself now in a place foreign to my spirit and my soul, among people traveling to America with unused certificates in their possession, and they look at me, someone who is trying to reach and talking about Eretz Israel, with derision. Oh, that I may be able to find the time to describe everything, about Jewish psychology, about the awful collapse of ethics among the wealthy Jews in times of catastrophe and hardship. My telegraph address is Kobe Jewcom for Tanchum.

I am done, I know not whether there is any point to my letter, because as I said my head is still spinning. But know this, you will be saving a man for science and for Zionism.

I am awaiting your help via telegraph, and nevertheless keeping the faith!

Tanchum Rabinowicz

The Telegraph regarding my issue was sent to you by the Committee for Refugees!

(Letter from Tanchum Rabinowicz to the Hebrew University, 9 February 1941, Hebrew University Archive, box 138, file 2100-r-I)


The letter written by Tanchum Rabinowicz was recently discovered in the archive of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was presented for the first time in the exhibition Uprooted: The German-Jewish Scholars of the Hebrew University, now on view at the National Library in Jerusalem. This is one document from Rabinowicz’s file for admission to study at the University which includes his application form and photograph, a copy of his high school diploma and curriculum vitae written in the first-person. The file also includes the correspondence he conducted with the university between May 1940 and March 1941 and uncovers a life trajectory that began in Poland before the war and ended with an escape to Japan four months before the onset of the destruction of European Jewry. Rabinovitch’s request is one of many such requests sent to the university in the 1930s by young Jewish men and women who hoped that studying at the university would grant them a certificate to enter Palestine. As expected, most were unsuccessful in this hope, and what remains is this record documenting their lives, desires, fears, and lives as refugees while trying to extricate themselves from Europe.

The letter of Tanchum Rabinowicz stands out among the nine requests for admission presented in the exhibition’s display case devoted to students, while as a group they reflect the cultural and geographic variation of the Jewish communities on the eve of the Holocaust. Rabinowicz, who was born in Stołpce in Poland (now Stowbtsy, Belarus), to a well-to-do Zionist family, was a revisionist and active in the Beitar movement in his hometown and completed his studies in the Hebrew high school “Tushia” in Vilna. With the outbreak of World War II, like many among the Jewish intelligentsia, he fled to Vilna, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union as part of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact but after a few months was transferred to the Provisional Government of Lithuania. As Rabinowicz describes, during his flight eastward in the hope of one-day reaching Eretz Israel, he carried with him all of his possessions— “my high school diploma, […] the only possession remaining to me on my way toward Zion.” While a refugee in Vilna, he filed an admission request to study at the university in Jerusalem to which he added a notarized copy of the diploma he had with him.

This document was sent from Kobe in Japan after Rabinowicz had succeeded, with great difficulty, in crossing the Soviet Union with the help of a visa he was given by the vice consul of Japan in Kaunas (Kovno), Chiune Sugihara.  Against orders, Sugihara issued visas to thousands of Jews looking to escape from Europe, in the aftermath of the re-annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. In light of the Soviet’s intention to close the foreign consulates in Kaunas and the prohibition against traveling across the Soviet Union without a valid visa, Sugihara, who would one day be awarded the title Righteous among the Nations, gave out 2,139 transit visas to Japan with the final destination being the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean, which was then a Dutch colony and did not require entry visas.

The secretariat of the university was not indifferent to the cry of Rabinowicz’s letter and replied: “We do not have a single permit at our disposal […] but we want to help him and will do what we can to save him. […] We will try to find the means for this purpose from the national institutions, but it will not be easy, because the number of needy is great and the means minimal.”

It is unknown if the certificate from the university is what helped Rabinowicz to complete his journey to Palestine via India in 1941, the year the letter was written, at least according to the newspapers from that period. Upon arrival in Palestine, he enlisted in the British army and the Irgun and later joined the Jewish Brigade and was sent to the Italian front. In March 1945, while returning from a patrol, he was accidentally shot and he died a few days later. As he promised, Rabinowicz paid with his blood for his homeland but had not yet paid for science. At the age of 26, he was buried in Italian soil.

Roll Out the Red Carpet: When the Royals Paid a Visit to the Jews of Amsterdam

Rare documents from the National Library of Israel show the excitement and dedication that went into the preparations for the visit of Wilhelm V and his bride, Princess Wilhelmina.

Portrait of William V, Prince of Orange

Portrait of William V, Prince of Orange by Henry Bone (1801).

The summer of 1768 proved to be an interesting time for the Jewish community of Amsterdam. The royal newlyweds, Wilhelm V, Prince of Orange and Prussian Princess Wilhelmina, were invited by the local Jewish leaders to visit the Ashkenazic congregation in the hopes of securing good ties and a solid relationship with the new couples’ court. A positive relationship with the royals was an essential factor in building and creating a favorable environment and decent conditions for the Jews living in the city of Amsterdam and in the Dutch Republic as a whole.

The Amsterdam Pinkas (Jewish community register) which is held in Amsterdam’s civic archives, details the frenzied preparations that took place ahead of the visit set for July of 1768. Included in these preparations was the creation of a compilation of prayers and psalms to be recited in honor of the visit. The prayers were carefully selected and the pamphlet was meticulously curated, detailing the order of prayers and psalms.

“Light and Happiness for the Jews”
The cover page of the pamphlet printed on satin which reads “Light and Happiness for the Jews,” printed in both Hebrew and Dutch. Click to view the full pamphlet.

The community took great care in ensuring their royal guests would be able to follow and understand the procedure and prayer services that would take place in their honor. According to the Pinkas, the prayer book was produced in three separate versions. The first version included just two special copies that were produced for the royal couple themselves. The pamphlets were beautifully bound pieces of printed satin fabric that held the texts written in both Hebrew and Dutch. The second version was printed a total of 50 times for the members of the royal court. These copies were printed in Hebrew and Dutch on paper and were bound in red satin fabric. The third version was a simpler Hebrew printing of 500 copies for the local members of the congregation who were expected to be in attendance.

“Light and Happiness for the Jews”
Click to view full pamphlet.

The prayer booklet was given the name, “Light and Happiness for the Jews,” a phrase taken from Megillat Esther, the text that is traditionally read on the holiday of Purim. The congregation leader bequeathed the two unique satin-printed copies to the royal couple during the proceedings and according to the community records the visit was considered a great success.

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Let’s flash forward a few centuries to the year 2011 at the National Library of Israel (NLI). Dr. Stefan Litt, an archival expert and Pinkas researcher at the National Library learned of this unique story while studying the community register of the Ashkenazic community of Amsterdam and wanted to know more. He set out on a mission in the hopes of finding that at least one of the prayer pamphlets produced in honor of the royal visit was still around and available for study.

“Light and Happiness for the Jews”
Psalms in Hebrew and Dutch from the satin copy of the pamphlet. Click to view the full pamphlet.

After performing a quick check in the NLI catalog, Dr. Litt found not only one, but two copies of the pamphlet preserved in the National Library stacks. The first pamphlet was a slightly faded copy of the version that was printed in Hebrew and Dutch and bound in red satin – one of the 50 copies that had been produced in honor of the visit for use by the royal entourage just as it had been described in the Amsterdam Pinkas.

This copy arrived at the National Library of Israel from the personal library of the German-Dutch researcher and rabbi, Sigmund Seeligmann.

“Light and Happiness for the Jews”

The National Library of Israel recently acquired another copy of the 50 pamphlets produced in Hebrew and Dutch, however, this copy is missing the original red satin binding. It was part of the famous Valmadonna Trust Library, which was purchased by the Library in 2017. With this addition, the NLI now has the largest number of these printed testimonies of the royal visit in the summer of 1768. They were produced by Proops, the famous Amsterdam Jewish printing house. There is only one other known copy of this printing of the pamphlet that is held in the British Library in London.

“Light and Happiness for the Jews”

As for the second copy kept at the National Library, Dr. Litt was amazed to find that it was one of the original two copies that had been beautifully printed on satin in honor of the royal couple themselves! The rare and exquisite pamphlet arrived at the NLI as a part of a large donation of books made by Dr. Joseph Chazanowicz from Poland over 100 years ago that made up the foundational collection of the Library according to the stamps located on the satin pages.

“Light and Happiness for the Jews”

You may be asking yourself – how did Dr. Chazanowicz get his hand on this extremely rare pamphlet of which only two were made? Well, in truth, we may never know. What is clear though, is that the royal couple did not seem to take much interest in this special gift. The second copy of the pamphlet produced for the couple appears to have gone missing without a trace. Even more notable is that there seems to be no remaining evidence of this historic visit in the form of pamphlets located in any of the major libraries in Holland. For now, the Jewish community’s efforts and careful planning will be held on record both in their community Pinkas and deep in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

Special thanks to Dr. Stefan Litt for his assistance in writing this article.


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