You’re Going to Die and be Buried – So Better Do It in Style

Documents from the Cairo Genizah: How is one to be buried? And more importantly, what should one wear to the burial? Egyptian Jews had clear requirements on the matter.

An argument between a husband and wife in the Cairo Genizah

The Jews documented in the Cairo Genizah spent much time pondering death, the world to come, and the revival of the dead. Among other things, many of them considered the way they would be buried, and especially the clothes they would wear. The wealthier members of the community were not buried in simple shrouds, but went out of their way to order nice, sometimes new, clothes for themselves, which they would be dressed in at their burial – perhaps in order to reach the World to Come in a fitting manner, and perhaps to be dressed smartly when the dead are brought back to life. The Genizah is filled with many such examples.

One example can be seen in a testimony written in Hebrew from Fustat (Old Cairo) in the year 980 – over 1000 years ago – in which witnesses testify that a dispute broke out “Between Shlomo HaLevi son of Yeshua” and his wife Satana,  and after they “discussed the matter extensively” they came before the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) where the husband Shlomo declared the following (the page itself is torn on the left hand side, and the lines were filled in by the publisher of the document, M.A. Friedman, according to the context – in square brackets):

“My wife Satana has been with me for several years, and it was decreed by God for her [descendants] not to survive and she is miserable and bereaved of her children”. What did this Satana want her husband to promise her? That if she should die before him “that the clothes [and coverings] and garments […for her burial] should be in place and that I should not remove any of them…the expenses and shrouds for her burial to the extent of my obligation to her and not to detract from them…and that I will not deduct and not change and not replace…”

If you assumed that “shrouds” refers to simple white cloth, the document contains a description of the desired garments: “And these are the garments: reichanei (apparently a perfumed garment, a prevalent custom at the time), netzpia (‘half coat’) and jilia duria (an undergarment, apparently perfumed), and netzpia (another ‘half coat’) and jilia tzand […]”.

In a will from Fustat almost two hundred years later, a sick person on his deathbed instructs for his debts and businesses with his partners to be put in order, and then commands: “I wish for you to shroud me in highest-quality shrouds, to cut a netzpia for me, and an upper coat from new atabah cloth, and a turban (and ama’ah) and a new coffin – and this is my final provisions from my possessions”.

The Will

“Netzpia” is an expensive garment, apparently cut, perhaps a skirt, whose price amounted to several monthly salaries. Jilia is an undergarment, which clings to the body, and was used by both men and women. Atabah cloth is an expensive material made of a combination of silk, linen and gold threads, which was named after the place it was produced – the Alatabein quarter in Baghdad. An ama’ah is the most magnificent head covering. ‘Cut for me’ – the writer orders that the clothes be new, and cut especially for him.

From these certificates and others, it seems that Egyptian Jews did not believe that “You can’t take money to the grave”.

(The many details about the items of clothing were taken from Ora Muld-Vaza’s PhD on the topic. Rabbinic court testimony regarding the case between Shlomo and his wife Satana can be found in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, ENA4020.50, JTS, and was published by M.A. Friedman in his book ‘Ribui Nashim B’Yisrael’, page 194. The will is in the Cambridge University Library, TS13J3.2, and was published by S.D. Goiten in his article “Wills from Egypt During the Period of the Genizah” in volume 8 of the Sefunot journal).

1695: What Is Missing from the Young German’s Medical Diploma?

It is unusually beautiful, but a small detail is missing from the diploma Capilius son of Yosef Piktor received.

In 1695, Capilius son of Yosef Piktor completed his medical and philosophy studies (which was a general name for sciences at the time) in the Padua University in Italy. In December of that year he was awarded a certificate attesting to completion of his studies – a magnificent diploma formed like a booklet and comprised of three sheets of parchment illustrated and decorated with many colors and figures.

Apart from an illustration of Piktor’s birthplace (Bingen in Germany), the diploma is missing an important detail related to its recipient’s identity – the new doctor’s Jewish status. Even the name the doctor is mentioned by is simply a Christian-Latin name given to him – apparently in order to register for studies. His true name was Yaacov Mahler.


A portrait of the newly-certified doctor Yaacov son of Yosef Mahler

What was the reason behind this peculiar omission?

Testimonies from the fourth century CE onward reveal an interesting fact about Italian history: the presence of Jewish doctors. Specific Popes periodically forbid Jews from being accepted to study medicine in Italy, or prevented the Jewish doctors from treating Christian patients, but the presence of medically-educated Jews on the Italian Peninsula, or of Jews from various European communities (such as Mahler) who studied medicine in Italian universities, was a permanent fixture. The medical profession – every stereotypical Jewish mother’s dream – was one of the only professions available to Italian Jewry, despite requiring long years of education and training.

The dignified diploma Yaacov Mahler received reveals something about the ambivalence and perhaps even discomfort of the Christian majority when dealing with the existence of Jewish doctors in Italy: young Jews were permitted to study medicine and to work in it in their communities, but for as long as they studied in a Christian university – they must adopt a suitable Christian name and discard any external signs of their Judaism.


Yaacov Mahler’s full diploma. Click here to view the item in the Library catalog


Moving Testimony: A Prayer from the Anusim of the Communist Revolution

A rare manuscript reveals that even in the midst of Soviet oppression there were Jews who insisted on preserving a remnant of their ancestors' faith.

A Yizkor prayer written by a Soviet Jew on the blank pages of a printed book

As soon as the Soviet revolution tightened its grip throughout the vast expanses of the Tsarist Empire, upon whose ruins it arose, many believing Jews were forced to abandon the faith of their forefathers and declare their uncompromising loyalty to the values of the Revolution. Many did so willingly, confident in the limitless possibilities the Soviet Union offered them. Others did so reluctantly and from a lack of choice. A significant minority of Jews decided to secretly uphold the principles of the religion which they gradually found themselves forgetting.

The entire item consists of three leaves, this is one of them. This is a printed page with the Ministry of Culture approval to print the work – the name of the work is unknown.

Moving testament to preservation of the embers of Judaism by the “Anusim of the Revolution” can be found on the protective leaves (the first pages before the body of the text of the book) of a Soviet book printed in Homel (Gomel), a city located in south east Belarus. Next to the Ministry of Culture’s official approval for the book to be printed, the book’s Jewish owner wrote a prayer in memory of the souls of his family and relatives.

The other two leaves of the item. This is a handwritten transcription of the Yizkor prayer in memory of the souls of the writer’s family

A study of the manuscript reveals that Hebrew was not a language this anonymous Jew was used to writing, and the prayer is replete with spelling mistakes. This fact strengthens our hypothesis that the prayers were written from memory and not copied from written text – which would have constituted a grave crime at the time.

Our attempts to date the manuscript were unsuccessful. We know that the book itself was printed in Gomel, a city which boasted a Jewish community from at least the 16th century. The Wehrmacht captured the city in August 1941. Most of the Jews of Gomel were evacuated before the invasion by the retreating Red Army. The 4,000 Jews who remained in the city were murdered by the Nazis.

Does this fact provide proof that the prayer was written before the Second World War? This could well be the case. However, we do know that a small number of Jews who survived the horrific war returned to Gomel at its end, and  one of them may be the author of the manuscript.

The article was written in collaboration with the Manuscript Department and the Institute of Microfilmed Manuscripts.  



Bringing Darkness to Light: Singing Hanukkah Songs Through the Holocaust

Rare recordings kept in the National Library's collection reveal the Chanukah songs that gave hope to Jewish children during WWII.


A Chanukah candle lighting ceremony in the Westerbork transit camp, Netherlands, December 1943. Photo: Yad Vashem.

In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill, a Jewish man of Polish descent and a lover of everything Yiddish with a keen historical awareness, made his way uptown on the New York City subway system carrying a bag filled with recording equipment. Word had reached him that Jewish refugees had been brought to a hotel on the Upper West Side, and he wanted to get there as quickly as possible.

When he arrived at the hotel, Stonehill found the lobby overrun; the place looked more like a crowded European train station filled with luggage and lost people rather than a modern American hotel. Every man, woman, and child in that lobby was a Holocaust survivor.

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Stonehill set up his equipment and asked the refugees to sing all the songs they knew from before the war. He recorded over 40 hours of music and most likely saved more than 1000 songs from being lost forever.

Men and women, young and old, sang in Hebrew, Russian, and Polish – but most of them sang in their mother-tongue – Yiddish. Children clamored around the music recorder, begging for a chance at the microphone. They wanted to hear their own voices, recorded by Stonehill. The technology delighted them and they were excited to sing the songs they heard at their parents’ knees, songs from their Hebrew school, from their youth movement, from the ghetto, from the camp, and even from where they remained hidden during the destruction. Those pieces of their culture, their voices, would now be alive forever, for future generations.

As we listen, other voices can be heard in the background, other survivors crying, laughing, and singing along.


Ben Stonehill (center) with his children, New York, 1948

Among the children that sang for Stonehill was a little boy named Meir, a 9-year-old who survived the war and had just set foot in New York. The song, Simu Shemen (“Put Oil On It”), is sung in Jewish households around the world to this day.

Hanukkah was celebrated and observed throughout the war, in the ghettos and even in the camps, as the survivors hoped beyond hope that the suffering would end and believed that they would be free once again. These were small glimmers of light in the endless darkness and Hanukkah was of specific symbolic importance during the Holocaust.


Hanukkah in Fuerstenfeldbruck DP Camp, Germany, 1945. Yad Vashem Archive 1486/582

These rare recordings that Ben Stonehill taped reveal a nearly lost world, barely kept alive as an entire generation and culture were almost completely wiped out.



Thankfully we are able to listen to those days long gone.


This article was written with the help of Dr. Gila Flam, head of the National Library’s Music Department.

The Ben Stonehill Collection of Jewish Folksongs in the Sound Archive was cataloged by Amy Simon, you can listen to more recordings from the collection, here.


If you liked this article, try these:

Revealed: How Chanukah Was Celebrated a Thousand Years Ago

A Great Miracle Happened Where? The Origin of the Dreidel

Latkes, Chanukah Donuts and the Head of Holofernes