What a Load of Kreplach!

Kreplach are small dumplings made with minced meat, chopped vegetables, and often a layer of cabbage leaf… and no one likes them! So why do we eat these little dumplings each Sukkot? Where did the tradition come from? And is it really important enough to ruin our chicken soup for?

Kreplach in chicken soup, DMCA, Pxfuel

I remember standing in the kitchen as the smell of boiled cabbage made me gag into the chullent pot, watching my mother roll minced meat in her hands and chop vegetables until she cried. She said it was the onions, but I think it was the long hours of ordering around her 8 children, trying in vain to organize us into teams to either peel potatoes, or help our father build the sukkah.

Since the raising of our stubborn wooden sukkah would come with copious swear words and much cursing, and I was the youngest of the children, my job was always safely tucked away from the violence of the tent poles and into the relatively safe home of the sharp knives and boiling pots of the kitchen. This is why I have such strong memories of the kreplach-making process. While Passover was welcomed with smells of cinnamon from the sweet charoset, and Purim was filled with poppy-seeded hamantaschen biscuits, the ceremonial food of Sukkot was always the kreplach dumplings.

In case your ancestors don’t hail from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, I will enlighten you: kreplach are small dumplings made with minced meat, chopped vegetables, and often a layer of cabbage leaf. Each Jewish mother swears that her way is the only real way to make kreplach – less meat, more meat, cabbage on the inside, cabbage on the outside – but the truth is, even prepared according to meticulous tradition, they never taste all that great. Many people will cook them in the chicken soup broth, whereby they inevitably fall apart and make the soup lumpy and strange. But tradition is tradition!

Woman serving kreplach on Sukkot, 1904, Karte aus dem Tomor – Kalender der Sana-Gesellschaft, Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Mendel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University, the National Library of Israel

So why is this a Sukkot tradition? Sukkot is the Jewish festival which arrives less than a week after the High Holy Days, and celebrates the Jews’ faith in G-d. For the week-long festival, Jews build walled huts with roofs made from natural materials, and dwell in these temporary living places. Most practicing Jews eat all of their meals in this hut, and many sleep inside them too. During Sukkot, it is also customary to buy a citron, a palm frond, some myrtle, and willow branches and shake them together in a prescribed manner. The tent symbolizes how Jews are willing to leave their comfortable homes and place their faith in the sustenance of G-d alone, while the shaken salad represents the bringing together of all different types of peoples. Each custom of this holiday is dripping with meaning, and Sukkot comes with many mystical practices and traditions which are carried out with care and joy.

But why the kreplach?! As with most things in Judaism, the answer depends on who you ask.

Kreplach in chicken soup, DMCA, Pxfuel

One reason is a particularly kabbalistic reason. In Kabbalah, it is often believed that the food we eat has a direct impact on our mindset. Instead of the idiom “you are what you eat,” Kabbalah subscribes to the more prophetic “you will be what you eat”. As such, we must eat food which manifests our desired outcomes at appropriate points in the year. On Hoshana Raba, the final day of Sukkot, our fate for the next year is said to be sealed and closed by G-d. Sukkot is part of a triad of festivals known by the terror-evoking name “the Days of Judgement”, and kreplach represent the type of judgement that we would like to receive: full of meat and onions.

In all seriousness, according to Jewish mystical tradition, meat is a food which is said to evoke G-d’s might and power. As a food source, it gives life by energizing us, but it also takes away life (namely the life of poor Curly the Cow), thus meat represents this strong and powerful hand of G-d. Bread, on the other hand, is the most innocent of foods, so long as you don’t have a particular affinity with the plight of wheat. Bread sustains life even in the most desperate of situations, and was a lifeline for the biblical Jews in the desert, hence it represents G-d’s kind and forgiving nature.

The first known instance of “creplech” in an American recipe book, 1901 (p. 70/108), The Settlement Cook Book, compiled by Mrs. Simon Kander, assisted by Mrs. Nathan Hamburger, Mrs. Henry Schoenfeld, Mrs. I. D. Adler, Settlement Cook Book Company, Milwaukee, the National Library of Israel

Taking these ideas together, we eat kreplach on Sukkot to symbolize that G-d’s harsh judgements of us (the meat) should be shrouded in His kindness (the dough). We wish for G-d’s mercy to cover His might and therefore judge us favorably. Moreover, we eat the kreplach in the hope that when we go before G-d’s judgement, He overlooks our most human trait of containing both good and bad like the meat, and sees only our purity and goodness, as characterized by the bread. In fact, a special prayer is even added on Sukkot to ask that G-d’s mercy should overcome His wrath and that He should see our purity, not our tainted personalities.

Children eating kreplach with chicken soup, 1990, Photographer: Danny Lev, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

There is, however, another deep idea about kreplach, because even dumplings have meaning in Judaism. Kreplach look like little buns, and it’s only when they are bitten into by an unsuspecting bread-seeker that the hidden meat is revealed. Kreplach are secretive little foods, which makes them apt to eat on what is sometimes called the “hidden holiday” of Hoshana Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot.

Jewish children at camp eating in the sukkah, 1969, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The last day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, is a bit of a mystery. The day’s meaning is not stated in the Torah, and its practices which range from the slightly abnormal (the congregation paving seven circles around the synagogue while chanting and singing) to the outright bizarre (headless shadows and the bashing of willow branches against the ground until the synagogue looks more like a jungle than a place of prayer) are not explained at all in the Torah. If Hoshana Rabbah isn’t a big enough enigma already, it is certainly made more so by the fact that it’s official culinary sponsor is kreplach.

Triangular kreplach, Slovenčina: Gazdovské pirohy, Peter Zelizňák, Wikimedia Commons

Some attribute kreplach’s significance at Sukkot to their shape. Kreplach are usually formed into three-sided parcels, which are said to represent the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. I can already hear you asking “but then why do we only eat them on only one of these pilgrimage festivals if they’re meant to represent all three?” The reason is mainly a practical one. On Passover, when any leavened bread will get you hastily kicked out of the kosher kitchen, it is not the time for a dough-based appetizer. And Shavuot, the other of the three pilgrimage festivals, is a holiday that marks the very start of the wheat harvest. Back in the day, it was fairly difficult to prepare kreplach when your main ingredient was still in the ground! So, of all the three festivals, Sukkot, which marks the end of the wheat harvest, was the only one on which it was both practical and appropriate to make wheat-based foods. After all, wheat is now in abundance! Thus, Jews make the food of the three pilgrimage festivals on this date.

All that being said, many dispute that we eat kreplach due to any of these mystical or traditional reasons. Of course, these meanings add significance to the practice, but they simply may not lend the food it’s true origin story. So, if it’s not due to the holiness of the dumpling, why do we spend so many hours folding the parcels and ruining our chicken soup?

Kreplach marketed by Osem as meat-filled ravioli,   Otto Wallish, Eri Wallish Collection, the National Library of Israel

Well, one reason is that in the Middle Ages, dumplings were an especially popular food all over Eastern Europe. In Polish they’re called pierogi, in Ukrainian they’re called Varenyky, and in Russian they’re called Pelmeni. In many Eastern European cultures, these dumplings were eaten as a festive food on holidays such as Christmas. In fact the very word pierogi, used in much of medieval Europe, comes from the word “pir” which is proto-Slavic for “festivity”.

Because it was common practice to eat dumplings on holy days, the local Jews did it too! The Ashkenazim simply called them kreplach, from the Yiddish words krepp (rounded dough) and lach (little). It was not due to some esoteric teaching that the Jews ate these dumplings, but simply because common practice at the time was to eat dumplings at festivities.

In a time when meat was a rarity and much more prized than today, families would have to make meat stretch to many hungry mouths during big festive meals. And portioning it out into dough parcels was a great way of doing that! Never was this truer than at Sukkot! After a full season of High Holidays, the Jews of old, much like the Jews of today, looked at their wallets with despair. In lieu of buying new ingredients, they had to use what was left over from the previous Tishrei festive meals. Namely, challah dough and scraps of meat. And what can you make with challah dough and scraps of meat? Yes, that’s right! Kreplach!

Men eating kreplach in the sukkah, Photographer: Lev Utevzkiy in the court yard of the Leningrad synagogue, 1988, the Leonid Nevzlin Center for Russian and East European Jewry, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Institute of Jewish Studies St. Petersburg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Even the custom of boiling them in the chicken soup rather than cooking them in oil was a novel way to save money on cooking supplies. So the tradition caught on – Jews would take wheat, which was abundant at this point in the agricultural year, and grind up the last of their leftover meat, and stick it in their bubbling pots.

This is not to say that kreplach have no meaning. Firstly, the great Rabbis teach that “minhag Yisrael Torah hi” – which means that tradition and custom are no less the word of Torah than biblical laws are. Further, significance is brought to traditional Jewish foods from the fact that our culture has been making kreplach for centuries – this in and of itself is a lineage to pass down. As with most things in life, it’s the thought that counts. If you eat the kreplach with the ideas of compassionate judgement in your mind, or commemorate the hidden nature of the festival through this food, who can tell you that you’re wrong? Meaning is man-made, after all!

The first known written mention of “creplich” outside of Eastern Europe, London, 1892, Children of the Ghetto A Study of a Peculiar People, Israel Zangwill p. 116/61, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, the National Library of Israel

Now I’m all grown up and no longer living with my mother, or her huge cooking pots. In fact, with my own daughter on the way, I must decide which Jewish traditions I wish to pass down to her like my mother before me. I had always thought that maybe I would spare her the cabbage-rich stench of the kreplach tradition, but after all this contemplation, I don’t think I will!

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.

When Judaism and Buddhism Meet

Why does the National Library of Israel have a collection of more than 100 pieces of Buddhist art? Why are so many Jews drawn to Buddhism? Why did the Dalai Lama attend a Passover Seder? The answer to all these questions can be found by exploring the fascinating connections between the two religions.

Shaka Nyorai, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

In the process of researching a project about the lunar calendar, I typed the word “moon” into the National Library of Israel’s online catalog search bar. Alongside the many other images, to my surprise, I saw a beautiful picture titled The Kami and the Buddhas of Todaiji. I bookmarked the page on my computer, but soon forgot about it. A couple of weeks later, while looking through some of the NLI’s posters for a social media project, one image that I stumbled upon suddenly stood out to me: the Buddhist Shaka Triad.

The Kami and Buddhas of Todaiji, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel
Buddha Shakyamuni Triad, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

I promptly emailed the NLI’s curator of the Humanities Collection to ask him how we came to possess these two lovely Buddhist pieces of art, and his reply shocked me!

In 1891, an upper-class and well-educated Englishwoman named Elizabeth Anna Gordon visited Japan for the first time at the age of 40, as part of a world tour she undertook with her husband, John. The visit left a strong impression on the couple, and Elizabeth actually ended up moving to Kyoto, Japan, where she lived until her death. During her years in Kyoto, she spent her time researching Japanese Buddhism and expanding her impressive collection of Buddhist art.

Elizabeth had an insatiable interest in many of the world’s religions, and despite the fact that she enthusiastically studied Buddhism in Japan and collected numerous Buddhist books and artworks, she was also a deeply devout Christian, as well as a stout supporter of the early Zionist movement. Elizabeth Anne Gordon’s name is listed in the annals of Zionist history due to the fact that she funded the Zionist Labor Histadrut mission in 1903 to the Lake Victoria region of Africa. They had come to scout out the area for what would later be known as the “Uganda Plan” – the failed proposal to create a Jewish state in Uganda.

As she grew older, Elizabeth made a decision in honor of her commitment to Zionism, to bequeath part of her Buddhist art collection to the National Library of Israel – then still known as the Jewish National and University Library. Once donated, these images sat largely unexplored in the Library’s vast collections until 1938. When a promising young researcher of Japanese art from the Hebrew University requested to borrow some Buddhist paintings from the collections, staff at the Library were alerted to Elizabeth’s bountiful artworks which had been, by now, almost completely forgotten. Some years after the exciting rediscovery of this collection, the NLI decided to create an online exhibition of 139 of these Buddhist paintings, which is of course what I had accidentally stumbled upon.

Nembutsu Prayer Devotional Diagram with Amida Triad, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

But my original question remained: What does Buddhism have to do with us, the Library of the Jewish people? As it turns out, a lot!

In September 1893, in Chicago, Illinois, a Buddhist priest from Sri Lanka named Anagarika Dharmapala met with the young Jewish businessman Charles T. Strauss. Reciting an oath in Sanskrit, Dharmapala converted Strauss to Buddhism marking the first non-Asian person to be ordained into the Buddhist Sangha (monastic order). Following this monumental event, Buddhist leaders started to seriously explore the potential for an American Jewish interest in Buddhism. Buddhist teachers began to travel to the United States, giving lectures to large audiences disproportionately made up of Jews, about the similarities between the two faith systems, and a significant trend of new emergent literature from Jews who had adopted Buddhist belief systems can be traced to those years.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the Jewish Buddhist movement really took off. With the hippy ‘peace and love’ mentality on the rise, and many modern Jews seeking a more spiritual path, lots of young American Jews turned to Buddhism. Jewish friends Michael Fagan and Sam Bercholz established the Shambhala Buddhist festival; Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz founded the famous Insight Meditation center and movement; and even David Ben-Gurion espoused Buddhist meditation!

Ben-Gurion’s visit to Burma (now Myanmar), 1961, this item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN), made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben-Gurion House Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Buddhism is non-theistic, which is to say that Buddhists do not believe in a G-d, rather a set of values to live by. Judaism, however, is monotheistic and encourages belief in one G-d as well as a strict set of rules, both in the form of practices and prohibitions. It is therefore possible, according to some opinions, to follow both religions simultaneously: to believe in a Jewish G-d, keep the Sabbath and laws of kashrut, and also subscribe to Buddhist mysticism, traditions, and values.

For Jews in the 1960s who felt that their Judaism lacked the guidance or spirituality that they craved, one option was to turn to Kabbalah, the Ethics of the Fathers, or the philosophy of the Kuzari. Alternatively, they could look further afield and adopt meditation, Karma, and the Zen beliefs of Buddhism. Many Jews chose the latter.

The Bodhisattva Kannon, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Later in the 20th century, the term “JUBU” emerged, used to refer to the growing sect of Buddhist Jews. Chogyam Trunpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, actually said that most of his students were Jewish, and the Dalai Lama even attended a Passover Seder in 1997! Vipassana Buddhism retreats are extremely popular with Israelis who travel to India, many of the western visitors to the Dalai Lama are Jewish, and it has been estimated by the writer of the famous JUBU book, The Jew in the Lotus that “a third of all Western Buddhist leaders come from Jewish roots.” According to certain estimates Jews count for as many as a third of all non-Asian Buddhists in North America today.

The Dalai Lama (Tensin Gyatso) arrived in Israel on March 20th, 1994 for a four-day visit as the guest of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Gideon Markowiz, 1994, Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel (1, 2, 3)

So why do so many Jews feel at home in the embrace of Buddhism?

According to Emily Sigalow, author of American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change, it was “the practice of meditation really drew them [the Jews] in.” With meditation being one of the core tenants of Buddhism, it is easy to see why some people strongly feel that these meditative practices are what attract Jews to Buddhism. Meditation is encouraged in Judaism and was practiced in the days of the Bible by prophets and priests. The mind-body duality of meditation is echoed in the Jewish belief that our bodily practices affect our spiritual growth, and that through elevating the body we can elevate the soul. Hasidic Jews often practice meditation, and for many Jews, the chanting ritual of prayer three times a day is a strongly meditative exercise. With that in mind, it is clear to see why Jews seeking to connect to a higher force may pick the meditation-focused path of Buddhism. In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, he relates how Buddhist meditation “illuminated” his unconscious and allowed him to “grow spiritually” as he related “how Jewish so much of this unconscious material was.”

Shaka Nyorai, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

However, mediation is not the only practice common to both Judaism and Buddhism. Many of the 253 monastic vows taken by committed Buddhists share similarities with Jewish mitzvot, such as tzniut (modesty) and yichud (the idea that men and women should not be alone in private). Moreover, four of the five Buddhist precepts are bans on murder, adultery, theft and lying. If these sound familiar to Jewish ears, it may be because these are some of our own Ten Commandments. Both Buddhism and Judaism encourage long hours of textural study and a high level of both spiritual and worldly education. Both religions are averse to materialism, especially in the form of modern technology. Both schools of thought believe that humans are not in true possession of the world and thus are taught (via abstinence from greed in Buddhism and via charity in Judaism) to let go of some of what we consider to be ‘our own’.

It doesn’t end there! Both Buddhism and Judaism state that improper or frivolous sexual encounters are immoral, while tantric or muttar (permitted) sexual interactions, conducted in certain settings with certain limitations, are indeed a spiritual practice. Both religions encourage self-growth as totally central to their faith, with Buddhists believing that being a better person will lead them on an enlightened path, and Jews believing that the world was created in order for humans to sanctify it with holy acts. As such, both religions believe in mussar, or guidance from others, and share a desire to tame and refine one’s character. Both groups also have a strong focus on meticulously daily activities, prescribed in order to make sure that each moment of the day contains a measure of spirituality.

Hoshi Mandara, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

But perhaps the most comparable of these similarities is the shared focus on suffering. Judaism is a religion which has endured far more than its fair share of suffering in the course of Jewish history. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a core tenant of the world: it is the cause of evil, and only through liberating ourselves from worldly suffering can salvation be reached. Ruth Sonam, a Jew who has been practicing Buddhism for over 25 years in Dharamsala, Tibet says “It’s so Jewish, you see, to always talk about suffering, as Buddhists do.”

However, while certain practices of Judaism and Buddhism may appear similar, perhaps more significant are the spiritual similarities between the two. Buddhists seek an elevated understanding of the world, and go through a similar process to what in Judaism we call chochma (a spark of understanding), binah (a deeper exploration of that understanding) and da’at (an elevated consciousness as a response to that understanding, or what Buddhists would call samadhi). Understanding the oneness of the world is a mutual goal in both religions. In Judaism we do this through kavannah (divine awareness) which is used to connect our actions to G-d. In Buddhism, spiritual consciousness is a constant goal imbued in every practice, too.

The Buddhist belief in Karma (what you do will be done back to you) is comparable to the Jewish principle of middah k’neged middah, which embodies a similar idea that the good or bad you put into the world will be returned to you in kind. Furthermore, both Jews and Buddhists say that the difficulties that one may face in life are simply tests, sent to trial our strength and help us overcome something within ourselves.

Mandala of White Path Crossing Two Rivers, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Jews and Buddhists also share spiritual beliefs about death. In Buddhism, the tradition is that a person will be reincarnated repeatedly until they attain Nirvana, the highest form of consciousness. Some adherents of Jewish mysticism believe that a soul will be reincarnated eight times until it has grown to the highest spiritual level that it can achieve, and only then will it be at eternal rest in heaven.

Brenda Shoshanna says in her book Jewish Dharma, that the spiritual practices of Judaism and Buddhism are “two wings of a bird… Buddhism helps one understand what authentic Jewish spiritual practice is”.

All this being said, there is one primary reason that I think Buddhism holds a strong draw for Jews. Up until now I have been calling Buddhism a religion, but many Buddhists actually do not consider Buddhism to be a religion but more of a practice or philosophy. “Buddhism is ontologically not a religion. ‘Buddhism’ does not exist: it is a Western designation for the path and philo-praxis offered by Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni… to solve the existential problem of suffering through self-directed meditation” says Mira Niculescu in I THE JEW, I THE BUDDHIST: Multi-Religious Belonging as Inner Dialogue. The Buddha never mentioned G-d in his teachings and Buddhism is non-theistic in its beliefs. It can therefore be argued, that following Buddhism is no more Judaically forbidden than learning philosophy or dedicating one’s life to a pursuit such as sports.

Image of the Buddha Shakyamuni Statue in Seiryōji, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Despite Jews having a history of conflict with most other religions, this is not the case with Buddhism, and importantly, one need not ‘convert’ to Buddhism in order to meditate, or follow the teachings of the Buddha. One can spend their entire life in Buddhist practice without ever taking a formal oath or covenant to become a Buddhist. So those who wish to remain Jewish and dislike the idea of converting to a different religion, need not do so to practice Buddhism. There is, moreover, no genetic lineage to Buddhism, so a Jew may practice Buddhism while still recognizing their Jewish ethnicity and even seeking to pass their native Jewish lineage to their children.

Rakan, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

So, maybe on balance, it really is appropriate for the National Library of Israel, as the Library of the Jewish people, to have so much Buddhist art in its collections. After all, it seems that Buddhism is as Jewish a religion as you can get!