Kehilot Moshe: The Discovery of a Rare Illustrated Bible

The Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe contain wonderful and unique illustrations, which feature rare examples of Jewish self-representation

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Song of Songs)

There’s nothing like discovering a rare, hidden masterpiece, right under your nose…

The Kehilot Moshe publication of 1724 was a celebrated achievement in its day. These days, any remaining volumes and complete sets of this mikraot gedolot, or rabbinic bible, are considered rare treasures in the world of biblical intellectual history and Jewish printmaking. Of all the remaining copies, The Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe represent a special category as pre-ordered special runs.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Kings 1). Click to enlarge


Unlike the other copies with woodblock title initials, the Twin Sets title registers were left blank. The folios were removed from the press, and passed along to artists for illustration. The unprinted areas in the Twin Sets were completed as a special project, probably a commission.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Kings 1). Click to enlarge


Select title initials include hand drawn text and decorative illustrations with figurative narrative bible scenes. Most works are delicately illustrated with ink gouache paint. Some are illuminated in gold.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Samuel 1). Click to enlarge


These figurative miniatures depict Jews as historical characters from the bible in classical costume, as well as characters in modern eighteenth century Dutch fashion. The bible characters include nude Adam and Eve, Moses, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Miriam, King David, a collection of putti, soldiers and many other figures. While representations of Dutch Jews of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be found in a myriad of different artworks and styles, these bible miniatures are of the few rare examples of Jewish self-representation.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Mishlei –Proverbs). Click to enlarge


The first set of illustrated Kehilot Moshe is on long-term loan from Richard and Debra Parkoff to Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library where it is being cared for by Shulamith Berger, Curator of Special Collections and Hebraica-Judaica at Yeshiva University Library. The second set of illustrated Kehilot Moshe was a more serendipitous finding. The special run of Kehilot Moshe was modestly hiding in an unmarked collection of three standard eighteenth century sets in the National Library of Israel’s Department of Manuscripts in Jerusalem. The National Library’s magnificent illustrated Kehilot Moshe includes seventeen miniatures of bible scenes. It is unknown who the artists were. Another unknown is who the Twin Sets’ original owners and patrons were. It was most likely a commissioned project, but there is no existing documentation.


What Can the Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe Teach us?

The Twin Sets are eye opening in their richness of Jewish art history, in what they can tell us about the early modern publishing industry and about the city of Amsterdam during this period. There are two especially valuable lessons to be learned here:

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Devarim – Deuteronomy). Click to enlarge


Firstly, the Kehilot Moshe, created by Moshe Frankfurter, the Amsterdam av beit din (rabbinic court judge) and master book printer, was a project of the Ashkenazi Dutch intellectual rabbinic elite. The figural depictions in a Jewish bible teach us to reexamine the preconception that traditional Judaism disparages representational art. Like other iconoclastic faith practices, this book represents a diversity of opinions and artistic traditions.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Song of Songs). Click to enlarge


Secondly, limited resources in book cataloguing limit our knowledge of the remaining Kehilot Moshe in libraries and private collections. Diminishing funds to the arts, and a diminishing focus on art works on paper and rare books makes it more difficult to know which of the remaining books may be illustrated. The Twin Sets remind us of the relevance of physical books, the necessity to continue to care for old books, and the vibrancy that collectors and libraries bring to cultural heritage.


Where Can You See the Twin Sets?

Since my visit in August 2019, Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the National Library of Israel’s Judaica Collection has sent the books for conservation treatment and evaluation. Meanwhile, the images will be digitally recorded thanks to his immediate recognition of this hidden treasure.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Job). Click to enlarge


Images from the two editions that make up the Twin Sets will be featured together in Yeshiva University’s upcoming exhibition on Kehilot Moshe at Amsterdam Printing on Amsterdam Avenue in winter 2021 as part of a discussion on Jewish artistic traditions.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Samuel 1). Click to enlarge


Underfunding in book cataloguing limits our knowledge of the quantity and quality of the remaining Kehilot Moshe in libraries and private collections. It is probable other illustrated sets of Kehilot Moshe are hidden in library stacks and private collections where they are waiting to be found. Perhaps there are even triple or quadruple sets waiting to be reunited.


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Shedding New Light on Rabbi Reines


Shedding New Light on Rabbi Reines

Manuscripts belonging to Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, one of the founding fathers of religious Zionism, have been donated to the National Library

A postcard featuring an image of Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (center, seated) and other members of the Mizrachi, Verlag Zion, Vienna, 1902

In its early days, the Zionist movement was not popular among traditionally religious Jews. Most rabbis either opposed Zionism or ignored it. Not so Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915), who gave the new movement his wholehearted support. We know Rabbi Reines’ views from his published works, but for a hundred years his many manuscripts have been hidden from the public eye and practically forgotten. Recently the manuscripts were donated to the National Library of Israel, where they were digitized and put online. The manuscripts show a new dimension of Rabbi Reines’ relationship with Zionism and with its founder, Theodor Herzl.

A poster featuring a photograph of Rabbi Reines, printed by the Mizrachi’s Eretz Yisrael fund, apparently in 1940

Rabbi Reines brought together the sacred and the profane in many areas of his life. He founded a yeshiva that combined traditional Talmudic study with secular subjects, an innovation at the time. His scholarship combined traditional Talmudic genius with broad interests including mathematics, philosophy, and logic. So he was perfectly cut out to initiate close cooperation between traditional Judaism and secular Zionism.

Rabbi Reines first got involved in the Zionist movement in 1899, when he participated and spoke at the Third Zionist Congress in Basel. In the coming years he continued to participate in Zionist Congresses. He met Herzl and corresponded with him until Herzl’s death in 1904. In 1902 Rabbi Reines founded the Mizrachi movement, a religious faction within the Zionist movement founded with Herzl’s support.

That same year, Rabbi Reines published Or Chadash Al Zion (A New Light Shines on Zion), a religious defense of Zionism. He sent a copy of the book to Herzl, along with a letter that has been preserved in the Zionist Archive and printed in Sinai 3, page 340:

I am honored to present you with my book, Or Chadash Al Zion (A New Light Shines on Zion), which I dedicate to your great and exalted name. As I publish this book which speaks of the Zionist movement, I see a personal obligation to present it as a gift to the one who founded this movement and gives his life to it.

Upon Herzl’s untimely death, Jews around the world mourned his passing, Rabbi Reines among them. But the newly discovered Reines manuscripts show us that years later, Rabbi Reines was still speaking of Herzl and even made the unusual decision to lecture in honor of Herzl in his yeshiva.

From Rabbi Reines’ Yalkut Arachim, the National Library collections

The lectures of Rabbi Reines from the years 1908-1911 are collected in a manuscript titled Yalkut Arachim (A collection of entries). Rabbi Reines wrote a heading above each lecture with the date or occasion on which he delivered it. Most of the headings are typical occasions for lectures that come up in the life of a Rosh Yeshiva, like “opening lecture for the students at the Yeshiva”, or “Shabbat Hagadol” (the Sabbath before Passover when rabbis typically deliver special lectures), but two surprising dates appear:  “Sunday, 20 Tammuz 5668, the anniversary of the passing of the head of Zionism, of Herzl,” and above another lecture, “What I decided to speak about today, Wednesday, 20 Tammuz 5670, the anniversary of the (passing of) Herzl, peace be upon him.”

The first of these lectures is given the title “the participation of the living with the dead”, and in it Rabbi Reines examines the topic of immortality and life after death. Surprisingly, Rabbi Reines presents a fairly secular view of life after death: “When we see that even after his death, his achievements are recognized, that it a sign of his immortality.” Later in the lecture, Rabbi Reines adds that “those whose help is recognized even after their death have been made to be like God.” The last words of the speech are: “All signs of mourning are signs of immortality.”

From Rabbi Reines’ Yalkut Arachim, the National Library collections

We now know that Rabbi Reines’ connection to Herzl went far beyond political cooperation. Reines truly admired Herzl, seeing him as a figure who was larger than life and practically superhuman. Could it be that Rabbi Reines’ final sentence about signs of mourning is not only a general statement, but also a reference to himself, as he continues to mourn the loss of Herzl even years after his passing?


Find more of Rabbi Reines’ manuscripts, here.


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Ben-Gurion: Prayer is Self-Deception

Israel's first Prime Minister reveals: I do not envy soldiers who pray. A unique glimpse into David Ben-Gurion's inner philosophy

Not one thing about the journey undertaken by the members of the early Zionist movement was clear-cut, simple or predictable. To create a reality that exceeded imagination, Zionism needed creative minds; the young movement found what it sought in figures of the stature of Pinsker, Herzl and Ahad Ha’am. Even after these individuals had passed on, the movement’s members continued to grow and establish Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state that could serve as a spiritual center and “a light unto the nations”, as described by Ahad Ha’am.

After the state was established and the vision that was conceived through words and actions became a reality, manifested in everyday life, the leaders of this movement which evolved into a state continued to challenge the philosophers and theorists. Now they turned to the intellectuals who gathered in the newly-established universities and presented them with problems and questions raised by this rebirth of Jewish sovereign life.

David Ben-Gurion, a statesman with an avid interest in philosophy, made a point of constantly engaging in dialogue with academics and specialists from different areas of expertise. He conducted comprehensive correspondences with inventors, scholars and scientists, observed their opinions on various issues and clarified his own views on those same topics. The National Library collections include many letters sent and received by Ben-Gurion; among them is a letter he sent to the Israeli philosopher and academic Professor Samuel Hugo Bergman, as well as Bergman’s reply.


 The first page of Ben-Gurion’s letter (Hebrew). Click on the image to enlarge

In 1960, Israel’s first Prime Minister contacted Professor Bergman to share his thoughts about a recent personal experience. Ben-Gurion opened his letter to Bergman with a philosophical-theological analysis of the biblical verse: “In the image of God He created him” (Genesis 1:27). Was man truly created in the image of God? Ben-Gurion thought otherwise. Though he rejected atheism and denied the assumption that “the world consists of materials and atoms blindly put together, and that there is no logic, reason or rule to the cosmos,” he also regarded any personification of God as “different forms of idolatry.”

The inability to understand the universe and how it works brings man to “compare the ‘mysterious infinity’ (an expression from the Kabbalah that perhaps describes best the unknowable divine essence) to man – this is but naive haughtiness, an arrogant pretense of a small creature towards its ‘creator.'” Ben-Gurion wrote the word ‘creator’ in quotation marks, a way of pronouncing man’s inability to articulate the meaning of infinity or capture it through logic.

At the end of his letter, Ben-Gurion describes the experience that brought about the thoughts he shared with Bergman: “And it may seem strange that I write this immediately following Yom Kippur, after joining a company of paratroopers holding the Yom Kippur prayer service in one of the shacks here [in Sde Boker, Ben-Gurion’s desert home]. All evening yesterday and nearly the entire day today, until ma’ariv [the evening prayer]. I listened to the prayers and contemplated them. I could feel the devotion of the few people who believed in what they were saying; I felt respect and fondness for them – but I did not envy them.” Ben-Gurion argued that prayer is not a dialogue between man and his creator, claiming that “it may feel pleasant – yet it is not reality, but self-deception.”

One month later, on November 11th, Bergman sent his reply, apologizing for the delay. He addressed the Prime Minister by his name (“Mr. Ben-Gurion”) omitting his title but adding “the highly respected.” Bergman responded dismissively to the idea that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai: “Although I must say my view of the Torah is closer to that of those who have pure faith than to those who see the Torah as no more than a purely secular book and do not see the fundamental, vast difference between the Torah and secular literature.”


Bergman’s full reply to Ben-Gurion. Click on the image to enlarge

Bergman claimed, “it is a fundamental fact that there are holy texts; texts that were written with inspiration from above.” According to Bergman, these holy texts also include the New Testament, the Quran and the Indian Vedas. The fact that these texts are holy does not eliminate the necessity to “examine the books applying historical-scientific means of criticism”. At the same time, Bergman acknowledged the existence of higher worlds, “and these holy texts are the most important channels through which the higher worlds impact man’s development.”

The creation of the world, according to Bergman, just like the creation of man in God’s image, is one of those facts that are true “in a divine, metaphysical or symbolic manner, if you will.” Bergman agreed with Ben-Gurion that God cannot be comprehended through logic, and therefore one must “stand before Him in reverence and awe.”

At the end of his letter, Bergman addressed the question that had been troubling the ‘Old Man’ (as the Prime Minister was commonly known) – the question of the essence of prayer. He wrote as follows: “The question whether or not prayer is a dialogue is not one that can be answered, in my opinion, through theoretical arguments. Theoretically, to all appearances, you are of course right that the person praying is speaking to themselves. Yet whether that is the whole picture, an onlooker cannot say. It is a matter of experience. I am an empiricist and therefore believe the reports of the greatest prayers of all religions and nations. He who says it is but ‘self-deception’ is like someone who observes two lovers, and insists that there love is but self-deception. ‘Objectively’, outwardly, he is right. And yet, ‘love is strong as death.'”

The full transcript of Ben-Gurion’s letter prepared by S.H. Bergman. Click the image to enlarge it.


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Latkes, Hanukkah Donuts and the Head of Holofernes

What did Jews eat on Hanukkah throughout the generations? When did the sufgania come along? And what were latkes made of before potatoes reached Europe in the 16th century?

A few years after Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucid dynasty, the Maccabean Revolt began. It was a struggle between Jews who were zealously protective of their religion and culture and the Hellenized Jewish elite who were supportive of the Hellenistic reforms introduced by the new king.

Three years of tenacious fighting ended with a Maccabean triumph. While the coveted victory was obtained, the Temple remained in a state of neglect and chaos, forcing the victors to rededicate the altar and celebrate – though rather late – the eight-day-long festival of Sukkot. A few hundred years after the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty, the Talmud recited the story from a slightly different angle; completely ignoring all military-related matters, the Talmudic story tells of the Temple’s priests who found a small cruse of olive oil that hadn’t been desecrated; though the amount of oil it contained should only have been enough to light the Temple Menorah for a single day, it miraculously lasted a full eight.

It is hard to think of a more appropriate story to establish a holiday filled with a wonderful assortment of oily, fatty foods – the kind that make you immediately want to scrap all those failed diet plans and new year’s resolutions, as well as any semblance of proper eating manners as you gobble away (no worries, we’ve all been there). But it turns out that was not the case. Comfort food dunked in rivers of olive oil was an invention born much later in history.

A small cruse of natural ‘Tnuva’ honey for Hanukkah, the National Library Ephemera Collection

Judith and Holofernes – A Hanukkah Story?

The mention of the oil cruse is one of the very few references to the Maccabean Revolt made in Talmudic literature. As a result, the question “What are we eating?” – perhaps the most important Jewish question imaginable when it comes to the holidays – was not fully answered, at least according to historical research, until the 14th century.

So, what did they eat during Hanukkah in the 14th century?

Around this time, the Sephardic Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girona (known as the RaN) instructed that one must eat dairy foods on Hanukkah. To substantiate this custom, the RaN told an interesting story about ‘The daughter of Yohanan’, who, deeply concerned for the fate of her people, fed cheese to the commander of an enemy army so that he would grow thirsty – and then proceeded to decapitate him. Following the death of their commander, his soldiers fled.

This story is conspicuously reminiscent of the well-known story of Judith and Holofernes. The RaN, followed by other Jewish rabbis of those days, began to falsely associate the story of Judith (who was not always mentioned by name) with Hanukkah – even though according to the Book of Judith itself, its heroine lived hundreds of years before the days of Antiochus. Who was Judith and how did she make her way into the story of Hanukkah?

The Book of Judith is part of the Jewish Apocrypha, a non-canonical text which survived over the ages thanks in large part to Christian traditions which adopted it. The story tells of Judith, a Jewish widow who snuck into the camp of an enemy force camped outside Jerusalem and loyal to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. The beautiful Judith seduced the enemy’s general Holofernes, feeding him dairy foods (according to certain versions) which caused him to become thirsty and drink large quantities of wine. When the drunk commander fell asleep, she decapitated him, spreading panic through the Babylonian intruders’ camp and causing the enemy soldiers to disperse in confusion. The RaN found justification in the medieval folktale versions of the story of Judith for what was apparently a popular custom of the time – eating cheese on Hanukkah. This is albeit the fact that Judith’s name does not actually appear in the story told by the RaN.

“Judith with the Head of Helofernes” by Giuseppe Cesari. The story became a common theme in European art

Latkes With No Potatoes? What is That?

More familiar Hanukkah foods began to appear in the 14th century. It was then that Hanukkah levivot (latkes in Yiddish) were mentioned for the first time in the satiric poem Even Bohan, composed by the rabbi and poet Ḳalonymus ben Ḳalonymus in Provence. But what were these pancakes made of, especially when potatoes were to reach Europe only well after America was discovered in the second half of the 16th century?


The first print of Even Bohan, Naples, 1489, one of the first books printed in Hebrew.

The folktale versions of the story of Judith provided an answer to this pressing question. According to some versions of the story, when Judith wished Holofernes to become thirsty, she fed him levivot, in addition to the aforementioned dairy foods. After beheading Holofernes, Judith commanded that a festive meal be prepared, including levivot or latkes, made from a mixture of dough and honey. Judith also encouraged the consumption of wine, to help bring about the joy of the holiday, much like in the story of Purim which appears in the Book of Esther.

And what about that marvelous oil? When did that come in? As it turns out, it all started with the sufganin – the ancestor of the sufgania (Hanukkah donut) we so adore. As early as in the Mishna, the word sufganin (סופגנין) appears in a complex Halachic discussion relating to the ancient custom of Hafrashat Challah – the setting aside of a portion of bread dough for the Temple’s priests – a practice which  was forced to evolve after the destruction of the Temple.

New immigrants to Israel celebrate Hanukkah with IDF soldiers and sufganyot, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

The authors of the Tosafot, who added to Rashi’s commentary on the Torah and Talmudic literature between the 12th and 14th centuries, were the first to associate the sufganin with Hanukkah. Over time, the link between doughy pastries, the sufganin and Hanukkah grew stronger; by the 14th century, oily foods were a proud Hanukkah tradition. Here below is a translated segment from Even Bohan, Rabbi Ḳalonymus’ 14th century poem  which makes reference to levivot and sufganin:

In the ninth month, in Kislev,
(his voice raised)
in order to honour Mattityah ben Yoḥanan the renowned
and the Ḥasmoneans,
the important women should gather
knowledgeable about making food [biryah] and cooking levivot,
large and round, the whole size of the frying pan,
and their appearance good [tovyani] and ruddy [argamani],
like the appearance of the Rainbow.
They bake the dough and make different kinds of tasty food from the mixture,
Ḥavitz in the pot, and porridge;
and above all they should take fine wheat flour
and make sufganin and isqaritin from it.
And the drinking should be what is proper to festivals,
with joy over every single cup


Even Bohan translation courtesy of the Open Siddur Project