The Mysterious Case of Joseph G. Weiss’s Hasidic Library

Prof. Joseph G. Weiss was one of the 20th century's leading scholars of Hasidism. Following Weiss's tragic death in 1969, his mentor Gershom Scholem selected 250 books from his former student's personal collection to be brought to the National Library in Jerusalem. Yet something happened along the way. To this day it's not clear what became of many of these books...

Joseph G. Weiss, photo from the Joseph George Weiss Archive at the National Library of Israel

Prof. Joseph G. Weiss (1918-1969), was one of the foremost students of Prof. Gershom Scholem. He would go  on to direct the Institute of Jewish Studies at University College London and edit its “Journal of Jewish Studies”. Weiss left behind a scholarly oeuvre which, although sometimes debated and criticized, is without a doubt the forerunner of modern Hasidic studies. He was ahead of his time, and that perhaps explains the current reawakening of fascination with his work.

Weiss’s untimely and tragic death and the publication of his correspondence with Gershom Scholem a decade ago have also contributed to the great interest both in Weiss the scholar, and in Weiss the man.

I would like to offer some brief observations regarding the Hasidic books that were held in Weiss’s personal library, and their mysterious fate. After Weiss’s death in 1969, his widow Erna decided to sell his Judaica collection through the agencies of Weiss’s friend and colleague at University College London, Prof. Chimen Abramsky, who also worked as a book dealer. Prof. Jacob Taubes of the Judaica Institute of the Berlin Free University, Scholem’s student (and later nemesis), and an early friend of Weiss, purchased the collection for his institute. However, when the books arrived in Berlin, he noticed that many of the most important volumes were missing. It seems that Weiss, in his will, had given permission to his mentor Scholem to have first choice of the books that he wanted for the collection of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, and needless to say, Scholem had selected the best. Taubes in response angrily cancelled the agreement and returned the remainder of the collection to London, where they were subsequently auctioned.

Extensive correspondence exists in the archives of the National Library of Israel regarding the transfer of “250 books” (“mostly on Hasidism”) from Weiss’s library, that arrived in Jerusalem in February 1970. Some of the correspondence is in the Joseph Weiss archives, and some in non-catalogued folders of donor information. Some of the letters, mostly between Erna Weiss and Dr. I. Adler, who was then the Library’s Director, mention a list of the 250 books, which I have sadly not been able to locate.

“Two hundred and fifty volumes pertaining to…Chassidut”


Here we see correspondence between Erna Weiss and the Dr. Adler, then Director of the JNUL, regarding the shipping of 250 books (mostly on Hasidism) from Weiss’s estate to the Library. In Erna’s response she refers to a list of the books which was needed for legal purposes. This is the list that I am still searching for.

“I have had to draw up a list of the books”


“The valuable library of your late husband…has arrived safely”


Shortly after their arrival, the reception of the volumes was noted in the Library’s inventory, which specifically lists Noam Elimelech and Ohr HaMeir, apparently as the only two which the Library did not previously hold. I am still searching for these two volumes.

Noam Elimelech and Ohr HaMair in the Library inventory


Approximately one hundred of the volumes were in Hebrew and some 150 in other languages. Some of them contained marginalia in Weiss’s handwriting. By February 1970, the Library reported to Erna Weiss that the volumes had all arrived and in May wrote explicitly that the three special volumes that she had handpicked for Scholem’s personal collection had all been located. The three are Sipurei Maasiot, Yosher Divrei Emet and Ketonet Pasim. In Sipurei Maasiot, the most heavily annotated of the three, Weiss had the book rebound with a blank page for notes next to each page of text, a method that he probably learned from Scholem.

Sipurei Maasiot


The other two volumes that Erna Weiss had sent for Scholem himself, were two upon which Weiss had published articles, Yosher Divrei Emet and Ketonet Pasim.

Yosher Divrei Emet


Ketonet Pasim


Strangely, these books are not located in the Scholem Collection, but rather in the Rare Book Division. All were copied onto one microfilm and later scanned, and are available here.

The microfilm of the three volumes


 In total there are currently some eight Hasidic books with Weiss’s annotations in the Rare Book Division, and others in the Scholem Collection.

Eight books with Weiss marginalia


Some, such as Ketonet Passim, and Haim V’Hesed of R. Haim of Amdor, Weiss had previously published articles on. The other volumes with (less extensive) notes that have been located are, Noam Elimelech,

Meor V’Shamesh,

Lekutei Maharil,

Ahavat Dudim,

and Hayim V’Hesed by R. Haim of Amdor.


A handwritten English note dated 21.12.75 and preserved at the National Library, describes a visit by “Mrs. Erna Weiss, accompanied by Prof Y. [Isaiah] Tishby…and her son [the poet Amos Weisz], came in to inquire what had become of her husband’s collection – mainly ‘Hassidut’ – sent 1970 via London…. apparently, the collection was to be kept intact… (Prof. G. Scholem also took an active role)”. In a second note from a few days later we learn that “Prof. P. [Peretz] Tishby, Chief librarian…telephoned to inform me that most of the collection, as well as relevant correspondence and inventory of the collection is in the Dept. of Manuscripts and Archives – no need to search further”.

“No need to search further”


On the other hand, Jonatan Meir has written that, “Due to Scholem’s intervention some 250 volumes arrived in Jerusalem, yet a large portion of them mysteriously disappeared”. Sadly, this indeed seems to be the case. In retrospect, it is well known that Scholem’s desperate attempts to preserve the life of his beloved student, ultimately failed. More surprising is that the preservation of Weiss’s library also fell short of Scholem’s usual efficiency. For the world of Hasidic research, this is a double tragedy.


This article is dedicated to the memory of Weiss’s student, Prof. Ada Rapoport-Albert, z”l, who first encouraged me to look into the fate of Weiss’s books at the National Library of Israel.


For Further Reading:


Works of Weiss

Joseph Weiss, unpublished Hebrew dissertation on Dialectical Torah and Faith in R. Nahman of Breslov, can be viewed here

Joseph Weiss, Circles of Discussion: A Collection of Discourses and Customs of R. Nahman of Breslov, Tel-Aviv 1947.

Joseph Weiss, Studies in Braslav Hassidism (Hebrew, Mendel Piekarz, ed.), Jerusalem 1974.

Joseph Weiss, Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, London and Portland (David Goldstein, ed.), 1985, 1997.

Joseph Weiss, Likutim, (Hebrew, Avinoam Stillman and Yosef Sweig, eds.), Jerusalem 2019.


Works on Weiss 

Daniel Abrams, “The Becoming of the Hasidic Book”: An Unpublished Article by Joseph Weiss, Study, Edition and English Translation, in Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts vol. 28 (2012), pp. 7-34.

Joseph Dan, Joseph Weiss Today, in Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, pp. ix-xx.

Jacob Katz, Joseph G. Weiss: A Personal Appraisal, in (Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed.), Hasidism Reappraised, London and Portland 1996, pp. 3-9.

Esther Liebes, On Joseph Weiss [Hebrew], in (David Assaf and Esther Liebes, ed.), The Latest Phase: Essays on Hasidism by Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem 2008, pp. 313-315.

Shaul Magid, The Correspondence of Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss, Between Zionism and Friendship, in The Jewish Quarterly Review (summer 2017) 423-440.

Jonatan Meir, Tiqqun ha-Paradox: Josegh G. Weiss, Gershom Scholem, and the Lost Dissertation on R. Nahman of Bratslav [Hebrew], in Mahshevet Yisrael 4 (2023), pp. 151-206.

Jerry Z. Muller, Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes, Princeton and London, 2022, pp. 322-323.

Muki Tzur, Introduction, in (Muki Tzur, ed.), Joseph Weiss: Love Letters to Channa Senesh [Hebrew], Tel-Aviv 1996, pp. 5-19.

Sara Ora Heller Wilensky, A Portrait of Friendship: The Correspondence of Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss 1949-1957 [Hebrew], in Proceedings of the Tenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, 3:2 (Jewish Thought and Literature), Jerusalem 1990, pp. 57-64.

Sara Ora Heller Wilensky, Joseph Weiss: Letters to Ora, in (Ada Rapoport-Albert, ed.), Hasidism Reappraised, London and Portland 1996, pp 10-41,

Noam Zadoff, On Joseph Weiss and Gershom Scholem: Introductory Words, in (Noam Zadoff, ed.), Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss: Correspondence 1948-1964, Jerusalem 2012, [Hebrew], pp. 10-32.

Singing to Napoleon’s Tune on Yom Kippur

As Yom Kippur draws to a close, a nostalgic tune is sung in Ashkenazi synagogues around the world. While many Jews recognize this tune, most do not know that it was actually composed for Napoleon Bonaparte himself. So how did a Napoleonic marching tune make its way into our neilah prayer service?

Napoleon aiding the Jewish people, William L.Gross, 1806, the National Library of Israel


You’re standing there with your mahzor close to your chest, constantly checking your watch – time doesn’t seem to be moving forwards. Your stomach is continuously grumbling and your mouth is dry. The room feels cold and you look around at the somber faces in the rows of seats surrounding you. Your fingers count the pages of the mahzor in your hands, and you try to figure out how many prayers you still need to get through. Then, the cantor opens his mouth and a tune fills your ears that shakes you to your very core. This is a tune that you’ve been hearing since you were a little child, hanging onto the strings of your father’s tallit. It evokes memories of your childhood synagogue, that particular smell of the final hours of Yom Kippur, the bitter-sweet prayers so filled with longing and tears. And suddenly time starts passing again, perhaps even too fast, as you immerse yourself in the emotional neilah service.

Neilah prayer service, 1987, the National Library of Israel
Yom Kippur Mahzor containing neilah, 1350, Italy, Ktiv Project, the National Library of Israel

Neilah is the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year. The word neilah means “locking” in Hebrew. Coming in at hour 23 of the 25 hour-long fast day, this set of prayers is the last time to repent, ask for forgiveness for your sins from the previous year, and make requests for the upcoming year. Known also as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is traditionally seen as a serious day, full of rituals and prayer, on which we are judged by G-d, but in fact it is more than that: it is a chance to start afresh and a day on which, in Jewish belief, one can be incredibly close to G-d. It is also a day full of rules: no eating, drinking, wearing leather or gold, bathing, or touching the opposite sex. For many, it is a day in which the majority of the time is spent in synagogue, and some even take an oath of silence to honor the holiness of the day.

By the time neilah comes around, most people are hungry, thirsty, and emotional. There’s a mixed feeling in the room of wanting the day to be over so that everyone can return to normal tasks, but also of hanging onto the coattails of this holy time and desperately using each moment to atone before the heavenly book of judgement is sealed for the year. This is why it is such an evocative service for so many people, and why the tunes are filled with a significance reserved only for this service.

One of these tunes is well-known by most Ashkenazim, especially those whose ancestors hail from the Soviet Union. It is the tune that is heard in the Youtube video at the start of this article. In Chabad synagogues, the tune is not accompanied by words, and instead is chanted as a stand-alone melody at the end of the service. In other Ashkenazi synagogues, the melody is usually attached to one of the many piyutim of the service. It’s an iconic, upbeat, tune which really stands alone amongst the generally mournful melodies of the festival. This is because it was never written for the Yom Kippur service, it wasn’t written by a rabbi or scholar, indeed it wasn’t intended for prayer at all!

Yom Kippur by Jacob Weinles, Publisher: Levanon, Warsaw, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Napoleon Bonaparte had dreams of world domination and would stop at nothing to fulfil this quest. He was an astute and brilliant military commander who did succeed in colonializing many countries, expanding the French empire by magnitudes. He was known for his ability to motivate his troops by filling them with high spirits and confidence before going into war. One way that he raised group morale was by singing. He believed that if the troops sang upbeat and patriotic marching tunes as they rode into their next conquest, they would be more impassioned to fight for their country.

So it was, in 1812, that Napoleon was leading his army on horseback towards Russia. This would be one of his most ambitious campaigns, and little did Napoleon know that it would also be one of his worst defeats. We can assume that his soldiers were at least a little apprehensive, and Napoleon decided to use his tried and tested method for calming their nerves: singing. The tune he chose was an unknown battle march, written specifically for Napoleon and his conquests, and within a short time, his army was belting out this unnamed song with vigor.

At the same time, the Jewish people were playing out their own story across Europe. Mainly living in small villages and shtetls, Jewish life in the early 1800s could be incredibly difficult. Discriminatory laws and overt antisemitism plagued many of their communities, and common legislation entrenched prejudice against them. However, Napoleon was generally seen as a friend to the Jews. As he conquered different territories, local Jews were placed under the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which were a liberating set of laws that amongst other things, promoted religious freedom. As well as endorsing the right to practice Judaism openly, these laws would also allow Jews to work in many various fields rather than the few that they had previously been limited to – they would be able to trade, open legal firms and even become doctors under this new set of regulations! In addition, crippling taxes which were typically levied on Jewish people were abolished, greatly improving their economic status. Finally, Napoleon sought to outlaw Jewish ghettos and allow Jews to live in freedom amongst their fellow countrymen. In effect, Napoleon was promoting equal rights for Jews, and generally providing them a better life.

Napoleon aiding the Jewish people, William L.Gross, 1806, the National Library of Israel

Because of this, the Jews would often aid Napoleon in his conquests, housing and feeding troops, acting as messengers or guides for his incoming armies, and helping out where they could. But the Alter Rebbe had other plans. Rabbi Scheur Zalman of Liadi, more commonly known as the Alter Rebbe, was the founder of the Chabad movement and wrote some of the most significant Jewish books of his time, including the Tanya and an updated version of the Shulchan Aruch. He was widely praised as one of the most important and respected rabbis of his era, and was often known as simply “The Rav” or “Rebbe” due to his preeminence. To put it in a nutshell, he was a man that people listened to.

On this occasion, he was also a man who sought to impact the political tide of Europe. The Alter Rebbe claimed that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, as he was praying the Musaf prayers in the morning, G-d came to him to let him know that Napoleon wasn’t going to win this war against Russia. Whether or not this divine intervention actually took place, it is possible that the Rebbe was simply politically attuned and understood that the Russian army and terrain were a formidable match for Napoleon’s troops. Either way, he knew that the fate of the Jews was hanging in the balance, and if they ended up supporting the winning side, their lives would be far easier in the future.

The Alter Rebbe, ca. 1880-1910, Avraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Alter Rebbe predicted that Alexander I, the Czar of Russia, would win this war, and if the Jewish community backed him up and helped hasten his victory, the Czar would remember their loyalty and treat them kindly in the future. He thought that as thanks, the Czar might lift some of the taxes imposed on the Jews, and rescind some of the rules entrenching the antisemitism of the region.

Thus, he instructed his large group of followers to support the Czar and be, as it were, on the right side of history, even as many other Jews continued to support Napoleon.

Against this backdrop, Napoleon’s army crossed the Prussian border, and the Alter Rebbe watched on as the troops marched confidently forward. They were still singing their morale-boosting song, and this uplifting tune stuck in the Rebbe’s head, becoming a core memory that he associated with the ensuing battle.

Jewish prayer written by Yisrael Gedaliah ben Moses Kazis for the military success of Napoleon and his armies, 1797, Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel

Sorry to ruin the ending, but the Alter Rebbe was largely correct in his predictions. The Czar won the war, with Napoleon’s forces suffering irreplaceable losses at the Battle of Borodino, just two days before Yom Kippur. In thanks, the Czar made the Rebbe an Honorary Citizen for all Generations – a very high award – and when the Rebbe passed away, his son (who took over as the next Rebbe) was given some land by the Czar in Cherson to build new Jewish villages.

In the year of Napoleon’s great Russian defeat, Yom Kippur was a celebratory festival for the Altar Rebbe and his followers. As the Rebbe stepped up to recite the neilah service, he wanted to mark this victory, and manifest its continued blessings for the year ahead. He quickly called upon one of his disciples and asked the student to remind him of Napoleon’s marching tune, which had become, in his head, the tune associated with the victorious battle. As he once again heard the rousing melody, he began to sing it loud and clear before his congregation.

Handwritten document by a Bonapartist to ascertain the allegiance of the Jews in Paris, 1815, the National Library of Israel

Soon, all of his students and followers were joyously singing along, jumping up and down to the victory march, completely rejuvenating the somber service of Yom Kippur, and forgetting all about breaking their fast. It was a moment to behold, and took root in the hearts and minds of all the people in attendance. The next year, the tune was incorporated into even more neilah services across the country, and in the years that followed, communities all across Eastern Europe began rejoicing in Napoleon’s marching tune during the closing moments of their neilah services.

Today, this well-known tune is ultimately thought of as a victory song, marking the belief that G-d looks over the Jewish people and will protect us both in times of war and peace. We sing this melody in the hope that our prayers have been heard and accepted, and that G-d is writing our names in the book of good life – we have been victorious.

Cantor leading neilah prayers, 2014, photographer: Dancho Arnon, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Once again, let me bring you back to the smell of polished wood and old books as we stand in the synagogue finishing up the neilah service. It has been a long day and you’re emotionally and physically tired. But as you turn the next page, your ears perk up as the congregation collectively breaks out into this joyous victory song and within seconds you know that your atonement has surely been accepted, that G-d is with you, and that all will be okay. The shofar is blown and a cheer breaks out as everyone lets out a sigh that they’ve been holding in for 25 hours. You take a moment to rejoice in the song “Next Year in Jerusalem” and you bask in the beauty of this long and historic religion.

Flogging as Atonement? An Often-Overlooked Yom Kippur Custom

How a little-known Yom Kippur ritual became a weapon in the hands of antisemites

“Malkot” – Flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah postcard published by the “Yehudiyah” publishing house in Warsaw, 1912-1918

It’s a ritual that catches a lot of people by surprise.

Many of those we told of the custom of flogging synagogue congregants on Yom Kippur, to the extent they’d even heard of it, immediately connected the practice to the Muslim day of Ashura. Ashura is marked every year on the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, marking the day in 680 CE when Hussein Ibn Ali fell at the battle of Karbala in Iraq, fighting to gain control of the Muslim Caliphate. This was the turning point of the new religion established by Hussein’s grandfather, the prophet Mohammad, which subsequently split into Sunni and Shi’ite factions. In our modern era, Ashura is marked by millions of Shi’ite Muslims around the world, and one of the day’s most prominent customs is self-flagellation.

One could easily err in thinking that the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur originated with Eastern or Mizrachi Jews, and that this custom was influenced by Shi’ite Muslims. And indeed, many of the leather whips used for this purpose, which can be seen today in Israeli museums, originate in the East.

Whip from Afghanistan – Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

But as we already hinted, this would be a mistake. One of the first mentions of the custom of flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur is found in Medieval Ashkenaz or Europe – beginning with the prayer book or siddur of Rashi, and later on in the collected religious rulings of the Rosh (Rabbenu Asher Ben Yechiel) on the Babylonian Tractate of Yoma (14th century). This important Rabbi and religious jurist wrote of the Yom Kippur customs in Ashkenaz: “And it was customary in Ashkenaz that after the [afternoon] Minchah prayer [before Yom Kippur], [congregants] are flogged in the synagogue” (ch. 8, siman 25).

So how does it work?

On the face of it, this would seem a purely Jewish custom, a remnant of a biblical form of punishment. It went like this: On the eve of Yom Kippur, the synagogue shamash (beadle) or one of the community rabbis would flog congregants 39 times on their back with a leather whip.

Yom Kippur flogging ceremony at a synagogue in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo: Ze Redwan, 2000. Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University

Deuteronomy 25:2 states that “then it shall be, if the wicked man deserve to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to the measure of his wickedness, by number.” And the number of floggings? 39. Precisely the number that is still in use today, among those who partake.

Some of the communities which observed this custom followed the description which appears in the Mishnah (Makkot 3.12-13), some continue to observe it to this day:

How do they flog him? He ties the two hands of the person being flogged on this side and that side of a post, and the attendant of the congregation takes hold of his garments to remove them. If they were ripped in the process, they were ripped, and if they were unraveled, they were unraveled, and he continues until he bares his chest. And the stone upon which the attendant stands when flogging is situated behind the person being flogged. The attendant of the congregation stands on it with a strap in his hand. It is a strap of calf hide, and is doubled, one into two, and two into four, and two straps of donkey hide go up and down the doubled strap of calf hide.

And the attendant flogs him with one-third of the lashes from the front of him, on his chest, and two one-third portions from behind him, on his back. And he does not flog him when the one receiving lashes is standing, nor when he is sitting; rather, he flogs him when he is hunched, as it is stated: “that the judge shall cause him to lie down and to be beaten” (Deuteronomy 25:2), which indicates that the one receiving lashes must be in a position that approximates lying down. And the attendant flogging the one receiving lashes flogs [makeh] him with one hand with all his strength.

“But despite the similarity to the Mishnah,” writes Professor Shalom Tzabar in his article on illustrated Jewish rituals in the Diaspora from the early 20th century, “this is not a custom from the time of the Bible or the Talmud, and the description in the Mishnah is unrelated to Yom Kippur, as it refers to the physical punishment imposed on one who intentionally violates a Torah prohibition.”

So it seems that in the diaspora, in an era when there were no longer Jewish courts or Batei Din with the authority to impose flogging, this biblical punishment for violating negative commandments was transformed into a symbolic (though still somewhat painful) custom in which the congregant atones for his actions. So why have most of us never heard of it?

The custom of flogging, unlike another Yom Kippur custom – Kapparot (the swinging of a chicken or money above the head as an act of atonement) – did not take root in every community. Today, the custom is primarily observed in some Hasidic sects and among some Mizrahi Jews. We can only speculate why this is, but the answer may lie in how the custom was portrayed outside the Jewish community in the diaspora.

There are hardly any illustrations of the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur in Jewish manuscripts. But they are common in another genre: books describing Jewish customs written by Jewish apostates, religious converts to Christianity, which were intended for Christian audiences.

Second edition of Paul Christian Kirchner’s Jüdisches Ceremoniel (“Jewish Customs”, German). This edition includes engravings by artist Johann Georg Puschner

We don’t know much about the life of Paul Christian Kirchner. His Jewish name was Mordechai Gumprecht ben Shlomo, and he was originally from the city of Frankfurt. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Shabbtai Zvi, and after the Muslim conversion of this false messiah, the Rabbi from Frankfurt abandoned his Judaism for good, converting to Christianity on November 6, 1713. After becoming a Christian, he barely eked out a living teaching Hebrew, until he was offered to publicize the story of his conversion so that other Jews would follow. The idea appealed to Kirchner, and in 1717, he published his book Jüdisches Ceremoniel, or “Jewish Ceremonies,” in the city of Erfurt.

Throughout his book, Kirchner the apostate Rabbi provides his Christian readers with a great deal of material, an extended peek into all the central Jewish rituals and holidays. Although most of the information in the book is accurate, Kirchner often exaggerated his description of Jewish customs in a way that would flatter his Christian readers and mock the prejudices and superstitions of his former brethren.

Yom Kippur, for instance, is correctly presented as a central holiday in Judaism, focused on repentance and atonement for the sins of the past year. But what Kirchner chooses to emphasize is the ritual of physical atonement. He presents the ceremony literally: in order to atone for his sins, the Jew must lie on his belly like an animal and receive a series of purifying blows. Thus, a custom which is primarily symbolic becomes (in the hands of an auto-antisemite and apostate) a perfect example of how the Jews refuse to accept the Christian gospel in order to preserve their degrading and absurd customs.

Yom Kippur customs, including flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur

Kirchner was not the only or even the first apostate Jew to use the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur to mock Jews. He was preceded by Friederich Albert Christiani (born Baruch), who in 1700 published his book Der Juden Glaube und Aberglaube or “Jewish Beliefs and Superstitions,” which included an illustration of the flogging custom. It’s interesting that it also includes a description of Kapparot – a custom which a number of important Rabbis also opposed.

Kapparot (top) and flogging (bottom) rituals on the eve of Yom Kippur. Bronze engraving in F. A. Christiani, Der Juden Glaube und Aberglaube, Leipzig, 1705, pl. VII. Source: JTS Library, New York

More than a century before these two apostates, the book Der Gantze Jüdisch Glaub or “The Whole Jewish Faith” was published in 1530. The book was the work of Antonius Margarita, an apostate born into a well-known rabbinical family – his father was Shmuel Margaliyot, the Rabbi of Regensburg. In his book, Margarita claimed to reveal the lie on which the Jewish religion was based, while warning innocent Christians from maintaining any contact with their Jewish neighbors. He also used the flogging custom on Yom Kippur as a way of bashing the people he abandoned. The illustration added to his book manages to mock the flogging custom even further – this time, the faithful are whipped on their exposed behinds.

Der Ganz Jüdisch Glaub by Antonius Margaritha, 1530. Bill Gross Collection, Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University

We obviously can’t stop here, ending with these exaggerated and grotesque images. In the aforementioned article by Professor Tzabar, we found a number of Jewish visual images of the flogging custom. These are postcards which came out during the golden age of illustrated postcards – the early twentieth century – produced in Poland by Jews and for Jews. And indeed, they more authentically represent this unique ritual as it was marked at the time.

Malkot” – Flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah postcard published by Yehudiyah in Warsaw, 1912-1918

Let us end with a thorough description of the ritual in Eastern Europe, quoted by Tzabar in his article. The quote is taken from the writings of Zionist leader Shmaryahu Levin (1867-1935), born in the town of Svislach, Belarus, who recalled experiences from his childhood:

After the Minchah prayer that day [the eve of Yom Kippur] […] I saw with my own eyes, how elderly Jews prostrated themselves on the floor of the Beit Midrash and Elazar the Psalms-sayer or, as he was called publicly for his craft, Elazar the bathhouse attendant, stood over them with a strap and whipped them without mercy. Of course I knew, that this whipping was the flogging, but memories of the cheder [a religious school for children] unconsciously arose in my heart. And the whippings came in perfect order: one below, on the section of the body that was prepared for the worst, and which was the common target of the rabbi and his strap in the cheder, and two above, on the back. And so he would repeat and count: one, one and one, one and two – sometimes fifteen times. And my confusion grew sevenfold, in seeing how the whipped person would get up and throw a few bronze coins into the bowl, which Elazar the bathhouse attendant would serve. It is indeed a wonder and will be a wonder: They are whipped and pay the fee for whipping!


Further Reading

שלום צבר, בין פולין לגרמניה: טקסים יהודיים בגלויות מאוירות מראשית המאה העשרים, מחקרי ירושלים בפולקלור יהודי (כרך כז), הוצאת מאגנס, 2011

“And Charity Will Save From Death”: How Rabbi Akiva’s Daughter Saved Her Own Life

The stargazers predicted that Rabbi Akiva's daughter would be bitten by a poisonous snake on her wedding day. The great sage now faced a cruel question: How to contend with such a prophecy? The Talmud tells of his choice, and how his daughter ultimately saved herself, unlike a certain Sleeping Beauty…

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter and the snake. Illustration: Aviel Basil, from the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance, are days when we can change our fate, according to Jewish tradition. Every night, thousands set out to say the selichot prayers of forgiveness and request that this year, we will be recorded in the Book of Life. That we should merit a livelihood and redemption. That our fate should be decreed to be positive.

It is precisely in times like this that we should recall the story of the daughter of Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic story which shows how a person can change a seemingly unchangeable fate.

The fate of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter was foretold, determined from on high, and was set to be grim and bitter. But she was able to change her destiny on her own, along with the reality in which she lived. True, we don’t even know her name; like many Talmudic women, she appears in the story only as the daughter of a great sage. Despite this, she succeeds in becoming a significant figure whose story touches every heart and captures the imagination of the readers.

Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest Talmudic sages, whose sayings fill the pages of the Talmud and whose thought had a great impact on Jewish history and culture up to our own time.

We will tell the story, which may seem reminiscent of a certain fairy tale, here below:

The prince finds Sleeping Beauty. From: Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories. Source: Wikipedia

In the Babylonian Talmudic Tractate Shabbat, on the second side of page 156, we are told of how stargazers predicted to Rabbi Akiva that his daughter would suffer a terrible fate on her wedding day: She would be bitten by a snake and die. Rabbi Akiva now had to decide what to do: tell his daughter, protect her and not let her marry, or perhaps just eradicate all snakes in the area. But Rabbi Akiva decided not to do a thing. He did not tell his daughter of this prophecy, which might have scared or upset her. Instead, life continued as usual.

From the outset, this story is similar to that of Sleeping Beauty. Both involve a young woman with no name. Both mention a great danger facing her (Sleeping Beauty is to be pricked by a spindle’s needle and die or sleep until receiving a kiss from the prince). Both have a father who is forced to deal with this news. Both fathers decide to remain silent and not warn their daughter. But while Sleeping Beauty’s kingly father decides to order the destruction of all spindles in the kingdom, Rabbi Akiva has a different answer – he simply moves on with his life.

He doesn’t change his daily routine, and doesn’t take any decisive action. Instead, he chooses to trust his daughter, believing that she has the power to overcome the snake and save her own life. He gives her the independence to deal with this challenge on her own, granting her the ability to be tested, to cope with adversity.

Then the day comes for Rabbi Akiva’s daughter to marry. I imagine all of them excited at the meal, I imagine the dress she wore and all of the guests and relatives overcome with happiness. Only Rabbi Akiva sits in silence, worried. He doesn’t know if she will survive the night, if she will show up the next morning.

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter and the snake. Illustration: Aviel Basil, from the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books

In the dark of night, Rabbi Akiva’s daughter takes out the pin holding her hair in place, and sticks it into the wall. Unbeknownst to her, the pin also punctures the eye of the snake set to kill her, killing it instead. With this unintentional act, she succeeds in saving herself and changing her fate.

In the morning, she removes the pin from the wall, discovering the dead snake attached to it.

Interestingly, despite this being a wedding celebration marking the union of a new couple, the Talmud doesn’t spend even a single word on the groom, choosing instead to focus on the bride. This tale thus contains a Talmudic twist on a story familiar to us from the legend of Sleeping Beauty – but in this case, instead of the prince saving his beloved with a kiss, she manages to save herself.

Well over a thousand years ago, long before Disney concluded that female heroines can save themselves, the Talmud placed this brave woman at the center of the story and even sent us to follow in her footsteps and change our own fate.

Approaching her father Rabbi Akiva with the dead snake, he immediately understands that she has successfully changed her destiny and asks her – “What did you do?” The sages comment that by this he did not mean – “How did you kill the snake?” but rather “What good deed did you do which enabled you to change your fate?”

A charity box featuring the quote “And charity will save from death”. Photo: Zev Radovan. From: the Jewish Art Collection, the National Library of Israel

She responds – “In the evening, a poor man came and called on [us at] the opening [to our home], and all were busy with the [wedding] meal and none heard him. I stood and took a meal you gave me and I gave it to him” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 156, side 2 – translation from Sefer Ha-Agaddah)

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter tells her father how, on the night of the wedding, while all the guests were busy at the wedding feast, she heard a knock at the door. A light rap, perhaps, maybe even a faint one, but she heard it. At the door was a poor man asking for food. She took her meal, given to her in honor of her wedding, and gave it to him.

Rabbi Akiva listens to her story, and immediately issues a statement which is famous for appearing on Jewish charity boxes – “And charity will save from death” (originally from Proverbs 10:2). The action she took helped her change her own fate, due to her changing the fate of that poor, hungry man. Her actions had an impact on the world.

Rabbi Akiva and his daughter teach us that our actions have real world effects, and that we need not wait for others to change our own life. We need to act on our own to change reality.

Banning all the spindles or the snakes from the kingdom won’t help. Nor will trying to hide from life as a whole. Danger is everywhere, whatever we do. The only way to make it through life is to be a good influence on one another, and to listen to the knocking at the door and the voices around us, doing our best to hear them.

Only through this, can we save ourselves, just like Rabbi Akiva’s daughter.

Cover of the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books, illustration by Aviel Basil


This wonderful story about Rabbi Akiva’s daughter is not particularly well-known. In fact, it’s rarely mentioned. Like many stories in the Talmudic literary genre known as Aggadah, it is hidden among the pages of the Talmud and its Aramaic language means few children can even read it.

This and other aggadic stories have recently been published in a book I wrote with Shirley Zfat Daviday, Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), which is all about Talmudic stories for children, with the ancient tales told in connection with modern life, in our own time. There is a wonderful treasure trove of amazing characters hidden among the Aramaic words of the Talmud. The book frees them from anonymity and brings them back to life in a fascinating manner.

The Talmud doesn’t just tell nice stories. It contains painful stories as well, tales of the wounded and tales that have the potential to wound. It includes stories of people who tried to change the world and failed and also tales of those who succeeded without trying. These are stories of human beings. The Talmud does not paint a picture of utopia, it is authentic, touching, real. This is why its stories touch us so deeply, and why its characters remain relevant to this very day.