Celebrating Passover… as the Ambassador to Egypt

"...we felt it would have been strange to hold a Seder in Egypt"

Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer in Cairo with Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, 2000 (Courtesy)

We lived in Egypt twice, for a total of seven years, but never spent the Passover holiday there – for reasons we thought were obvious. Somewhat counterintuitively, as we departed the country each year during our first tour of duty, 1979-82, tens of thousands of Israelis made the reverse exodus to celebrate Passover among the Egyptian antiquities.

Israeli tourists arriving in Sinai, 1970s (Photo: IPPA Staff). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Our experiences with other Jewish holidays and Shabbatot in Egypt were quite positive. Perhaps because we were the only kosher household between Eilat and Nairobi, we hosted a stream of visitors, many of whom we had not known previously. Our devout Muslim chef loved Shabbat, and he would often join us toward the end of the Friday night meal to listen to the songs we sang. He and the staff also constructed one of the most beautiful sukkot we had ever seen, made entirely of palm fronds.

However, we felt it would have been strange to hold a Seder in Egypt, with its repeated references to the travails of the Israelites in slavery. Indeed, a senior Egyptian diplomat who had served in Washington told us often that he would gladly participate in any Jewish holiday observance except the Passover Seder.

The best part about our own annual exodus was the opportunity to spend Passover with family. Our “traditions” included rubber frogs that appeared during the recitation of the ten plagues, a play on a range of words and phrases in the Haggadah, and more recently, a variety of charoset ranging from the traditional to Mizrachi to Hawaiian.

Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer served as the United States Ambassador to Israel and as the United States Ambassador to Egypt. He was a long-time member of the board of NLI USA, which builds support for the National Library of Israel by increasing public awareness of its many cultural, intellectual, and educational resources.

The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

One of the World’s Oldest Esther Scrolls Comes Home

Mid-15th century Iberian megillah now at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and online

"Incredibly rare" ca. 1465 scroll is one of few pre-Spanish Expulsion megillot in existence

One of the world’s oldest known Esther scrolls (also known as a “megillah“) has been gifted to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, home to the world’s largest collection of textual Judaica, where it has also been made available online for the first time.

Esther scrolls contain the story of the Book of Esther in Hebrew and are traditionally read in Jewish communities across the globe on the festival of Purim, which will take place on February 25-28 this year.

Scholars have determined that the newly received Esther scroll was written by a scribe on the Iberian Peninsula around 1465, prior to the Spanish and Portuguese Expulsions at the end of the fifteenth century. These conclusions are based on both stylistic and scientific evidence, including Carbon-14 dating.

The megillah is written in brown ink on leather in an elegant, characteristic Sephardic script, which resembles that of a Torah scroll. The first panel, before the text of the Book of Esther, includes the traditional blessings recited before and after the reading of the megillah, and attests to the ritual use of this scroll in a pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewish community.

According to experts, there are very few extant Esther scrolls from the medieval period in general, and from the fifteenth century, in particular. Torah scrolls and Esther scrolls from pre-Expulsion Spain and Portugal are even rarer, with only a small handful known to exist.

Prior to the donation, this scroll was the only complete fifteenth century megillah in private hands.

The medieval scroll is a gift from Michael Jesselson and family, continuing long-standing family support of the National Library of Israel and its collections. Michael’s father, Ludwig Jesselson, was the founding chair of the International Council of the Library (then known as the “Jewish National and University Library”) and a strong leader and advocate of the Library for decades.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library of Israel’s Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection, the new addition is “an incredibly rare testament to the rich material culture of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.  It is one of the earliest extant Esther Scrolls, and one of the few 15th century megillot in the world.  The Library is privileged to house this treasure and to preserve the legacy of pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewry for the Jewish people and the world.”

A Look at the Figure of Gabriel the Archangel

Gabriel, the archangel in charge of Heaven's heavy lifting

The figure of Gabriel the archangel in "The Annunciatiion", by Pinturicchio, 1501

“In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia,” the prophet Daniel beheld one of his remarkable visions. On the bank of the great Tigris River, Daniel looked up and before him was “a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphas around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude” (Daniel 10: 5–6). Though not alone at the time, Daniel testifies that he was the only one who saw this initially menacing figure, who quickly calmed him and revealed that ever since Daniel had devoted himself to prophecy, the figure had in fact served as Daniel’s protector and guardian. The miraculous being gently touched Daniel’s hand and affectionately reassured him, saying: “Do not be afraid, you who are esteemed . . . Peace! Be strong now; be strong” (19).  The figure also clarified the purpose of the revelation, telling Daniel that all the miseries of the people as a result of the struggles against the mighty empires of Persia and Greece were about to come to an end, adding that the archangel Michael, “your prince”, had come to his aid, and victory was imminent.

The ancient and medieval Jewish sages identified this miraculous being with the figure of the archangel Gabriel who is explicitly mentioned by name in the two previous chapters of the book of Daniel (8: 16; 9: 21–22). This is a unique revelation in the biblical landscape: in contrast to many of the other biblical angels that serve as Divine messengers and then vanish once their mission is completed, here we have an angel mentioned by name, who functions as a guardian angel!

In the Jewish apocryphal First Book of Enoch, which tells of the heavenly ascension of the biblical Enoch, the fifth generation between Adam and Noah, Gabriel appears as one of the archangels who, in the end of days, will destroy the corrupting angel Azazel and his minions who have overrun the Earth. This is perhaps the first time in Jewish scripture that mention is made of a heavenly conspiracy against God—telling of Azazel’s army of fallen angels that descended to Earth as part of an open rebellion against God (a story linked to the tale of the sons of God and the daughters of man in Genesis 6). In the First Book of Enoch, Gabriel is described as “one of the holy angels, who is over Paradise and the serpents and the Cherubim”, while Michael serves in a position similar to the one described in the book of Daniel – a protector of the Israelites, the commander of the heavenly hosts.

The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan, by Guido Reni, 1631

In Talmudic and Midrashic literature, Gabriel usually appears as Michael’s companion: both serve as archangels charged with the safekeeping of the Jewish people. If Michael usually appears in the form of water and snow, Gabriel—the same figure mentioned in Daniel as having “a face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches,” usually appears as a fiery flame. Sometimes the descriptions are reversed.

Perhaps because of his connection to fire and lightning, Gabriel is occasionally portrayed as a “harsh” or “hard” angel (“מלאך קשה”, Eicha Rabba [Lamentations Rabba], Buber edition, Parsha 2e, “Then I heard him call out in a loud voice,” 49b) whom God charges with punishing sinners and inflicting on them various calamities. In Bereshit Rabba (Parsha 51b, Theodore Albeck Edition, p. 533), he is revealed as the destroyer of the sinful city of Sodom, and in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 95b) as the smiter of the camp of the Assyrian King Sennacherib. But as the saying goes, he who is cruel to the wicked, ends up pitying the merciful—besides the severe blows Gabriel inflicts on sinners and evil-doers, he is also the one who saves Abraham from the fiery furnace and ensures the ripening of fruits in time to feed the hungry.

The Kabbalah adopted the figure of Gabriel, and identified him with the emanation of judgment. The archangel of the Jewish apocrypha now stands to the left of the archangel of greatness and grace, who is none other than his comrade-in-arms, Michael.

From his first appearance in the biblical Book of Daniel, Gabriel the archangel’s impressive career has extended well beyond sacred Jewish literature. Gabriel also features in the scriptures of Christianity and Islam, where he is considered an angel with a central mission of revelation.

In the New Testament (Lucas 1: 19, 26), Gabriel returns to the role of heralding angel. He appears before the parents of John the Baptist as well as before Mary, the mother of Jesus, to announce the coming births of their respective sons. His figure is immortalized in Christian art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as in the Annunciation painting in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, thought to be an early work by Leonardo da Vinci, which depicts the moment when Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary and makes his dramatic announcement.

Annunciation, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1472-1475

In the Qur’an, Gabriel carries the word of Allah to Muhammad. Islamic tradition adopted Gabriel as a messenger, and in ancient surahs he was called “the messenger,” or “the noble messenger”. Some interpretations even attribute references to “the Holy Spirit” in Islam to Gabriel.  Islamic literature is filled with stories of Gabriel’s rescue of prophets from distress, and in almost every dramatic turn, he is mentioned as an aide to the heroes of the scriptures. He is the one who comforts Adam after his expulsion from paradise, saves Abraham from the burning furnace (again), stands by Moses in his quarrel with the magicians of Egypt and teaches David to ready his armor.

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel, by Rashid al-Din, Persia, 1307

We began with an interesting point related to Gabriel’s appearance in the Book of Daniel, as the first angel— together with Michael—mentioned in the Bible by name. It is worth returning to this. The book of Genesis tells of Jacob crossing the Jabbok River with his family on his return from Haran to the land of Canaan after fleeing Laban the Aramean. After Jacob leads his family to safety, he is left alone, and throughout the night, he struggles with a mysterious unidentified man. Only the next morning, after Jacob has overcome the man, does the figure reveal himself to Jacob as an angel of God, and perhaps even God himself: “And Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face but my life was spared’” (Genesis 32: 31).

We recall this dramatic scene mainly because of the blessing Jacob requests and receives from the angel, when Jacob is given his new name, Israel. The part of the story remembered less is Jacob’s question to the angel after receiving the blessing. Jacob asks the angel’s name, but the angel evades the question with one of his own and blesses him instead, “Why are you asking about my name? And he blessed Jacob” (Genesis 32: 30). In the first volume of his book History of Hebraic Mysticism and Esotericism (Hebrew, תולדות תורת הסוד העברית) Joseph Dan points out a puzzling fact that casts the story of Jacob and the angel in a new light, and hints at the period of the Book of Daniel’s writing.  Dan writes:

“For about a thousand years, throughout the biblical period, Judaism had several names for the Divine, but not a single name of an angel. In the Second Temple Period, the Divine names were exchanged for general names and monikers, while the names of angels were in the dozens and   hundreds . . . We know absolutely nothing about the motives of this process.”

Gabriel’s appearance as a guardian angel in the great vision described in the Book of Daniel is one of the proofs that the Book of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions were actually written in the early days of the Second Temple. The events of destruction and ruin under the waning Persian Empire and rising Greek Empire are described in apocalyptic and enigmatic language, mostly in Aramaic. Although they are presented as a prophecy of an event hundreds of years in the future, they actually describe the period when the book was written—the period of Hellenistic rule in the Land of Israel, following the conquests of Alexander the Great.

The appearance of archangels by name and their stated purpose is a Second Temple period innovation. We will conclude with an interesting hypothesis that appears in ancient Jewish rabbinic literature: “Rabbi Hanina said: The names of the months came from Babylon. Rish Lakish said: Even the names of the angels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel” (Bereshit Rabba, Parsha 49: 9, Theodore Albeck edition, p. 485).

Salvation from 500 Drunken Killer Elephants: The Other Maccabee Story

A different kind of redemption from Greek tyranny

Ptolemy IV Philopator's drunken elephants turn on their masters, by Jan Luyken, 1700 (Courtesy: The Rijksmuseum)

Antiochus and his elephants left Gaza in defeat.

One of the largest battles of the ancient world was over – apparently the first time Asian and African elephants had faced off against one another – though the victor’s herd had been of little help, famously fleeing the war zone in a crazed frenzy.

The defeated Antiochus was not the one of Hanukkah fame. That would be his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

And the victor was not a Maccabee, but rather a Ptolemy: Ptolemy IV Philopator, to be more precise, the Greek pharaoh of Egypt who reigned before the story of Hanukkah took place.

Statue head of Ptolemy IV, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo: Keith Schengili-Roberts, CC BY 2.5)

As pharaoh, Ptolemy was already considered a divine figure, but he would become even more so following his victory at the Battle of Raphia, as his clash with Antiochus was known.

His subsequent “Raphia Decree” was copied and proclaimed throughout the empire, celebrating the victory, chronicling how the gods had helped him rout his rival and take the latter’s riches (including his elephants).

Ptolemy proceeded to visit and renovate countless pagan temples, repaying the gods for enabling his victory, and erecting graven images all over the place.

Temple relief of Ptolemy IV Philopater at Deir el-Medina (Photo: Kyera Giannini, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, CC BY 2.0)

Nonetheless, Ptolemy was not destined to become an infamous villain in Jewish tradition like the son of his foe, though he does play a similar role in the apocryphal, historically suspect and inaccurately labeled Third Book of Maccabees (or III Maccabees).


The Third Book of Maccabees

Written in Greek, most likely by an Alexandrian Jew sometime in the first century BCE, the Third Book of Maccabees doesn’t really have anything to do with the Maccabees at all, though thematically and stylistically there are certainly some similarities with the far better known story of Hanukkah.

After briefly recounting a foiled plot to assassinate Ptolemy and his victory over Antiochus (inspired by an enthusiastic pep talk given to the troops by his wife/sister Arsinoe), the story joins the pharaoh on his grand tour of pagan temples, which ultimately leads him to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple of the very non-pagan Jews.

Ptolemy brings an offering of thanks to the Jews’ one and only God, and is impressed by the beauty and grandeur of their Temple.

He approaches the Holy of Holies – the revered chamber into which only one man is allowed to enter one day each year: the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Inquiring about the mysterious room, the Pharoah of Egypt – a powerful king and god in the eyes of many – demands to enter, yet is refused due to the room’s sanctity.

Outraged and frightened, some Judeans pray for divine interference to stop the sacrilege, while others – like the Maccabees – raise a call to arms.

Ultimately, the supplication of Simon the High Priest is heeded and God acts: shaking Ptolemy like a reed in the wind, paralyzing his movement and speech. Humiliatingly dragged away by his terrified entourage, Ptolemy returns home to Egypt where he will exact revenge on the Jews for their insolent divine intervention.

Ptolemy IV Philopator gets too close to the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, by Jan Luyken, 1700. From the Rijksmuseum

Ptolemy aims to publicly disgrace the Jews by attempting to coerce them into pagan ritual, limiting the rights of those stubborn Jews who maintain their religion, forcing them to pay additional taxes, reducing them to the status of slaves and having them branded with the symbol of Dionysus.

He gives the Jews three options: scorn their heritage and become like their pagan neighbors; accept the new edicts while remaining Jews; or reject both and be put to death.  According to III Maccabees, some opt for the first option, though most go with the second.

The stubbornness of the Jews to maintain their separate ways leads to increasing enmity among their neighbors, as well as their disgruntled ruler. Fed up, Ptolemy demands that all Jews from throughout the empire be bound, forcefully and mercilessly brought together to be executed like the enemies he deems them to be.

Anyone found sheltering Jews is to be put to death; informants rewarded with the victims’ property.

The ensuing description of the Jews’ lamentations and forced transport to the hippodrome where their death would be made into a public spectacle is part Book of Esther, part Tisha B’Av liturgy, part Roots.

“The Destruction” by Maurycy Trębacz, ca. 1903. From the National Library of Israel archives

Though Alexandrian Jews were previously left out of the decrees, Ptolemy will not accept their empathizing with the plight of their brethren and decrees that they, too, will meet the same fate.

All Jews in the empire will be put to death.

Further enraged that his clerks’ ink had run out before they could successfully count all of the Jews to kill, Ptolemy decides it is time to call in Hermon, keeper of the elephants.

Pharoah’s plan: get 500 elephants really drunk and let them loose on the shackled Jews held in the hippodrome.

Hermon does what he is told, generously giving the large creatures copious amounts of unmixed wine and frankincense. As the time for the massive banquet and spectacle nears, the king remains in an exceptionally deep sleep – another miracle performed in response to Jewish pleas for divine mercy by the God Ptolemy had scorned.

By the time he finally wakes up, the appointed day has passed.

Still shackled waiting for their demise at the feet of angry drunken elephants, the Jews continue to pray.

The next day Hermon gets up at the crack of dawn, moving his elephant herd into place so as not to miss the opportunity again.

Yet, once more, the Lord of the Jews comes to their rescue, this time making Ptolemy’s mind forgetful and demented so that not only does he call off the mass murder, but he also lashes out at Hermon the elephant keeper for having played a role in the scheme.

The Jews praise their God who has redeemed them once more, yet by morning Ptolemy has already returned to his original plan, goaded on by others concerned by his unexpectedly erratic behavior and impatient for the deed to be done.

Five-hundred crazed and drunken elephants are led to the hippodrome accompanied by Ptolemy, likely crazed and drunken himself from days of excessive partying.

The rising dust announces their arrival and the shackled Jews shudder, once again lifting their eyes and hearts to the heavens.

A priest named Eleazar leads them in prayer, recounting the many miracles their God had performed for their ancestors across the centuries. With his prayer concluding just as the elephants and the king approach, the Jews shriek in supplication, their voices so loud that the sound echoes in the nearby valleys. Two angels appear – visible to all but the Jews themselves – and cause a terror to fall upon the elephants and their masters.

Two angels save the Jews from Ptolemy IV Philopator’s drunken elephants, by Jan Luyken, 1700. From the Rijksmuseum

Chaos ensues with the massive tusked beasts crushing many of Ptolemy’s men to death. Upon seeing the bloody spectacle, the king repents and orders that all of the Jews be freed.

He provides them with wine and everything else needed for a lavish seven day banquet to celebrate their survival and the divine miracles that had saved them. The party’s venue would be the very hippodrome in which they were to be put to death.

Ptolemy once again sends a missive to his men across the empire, ordering them to protect the Jews and return all property that had been confiscated.

Transport is readied as Jews from across the empire are returned to their homes by land and by sea, at Ptolemy’s expense.

“The flagship of Ptolemy Philopator” coloured engraving by Robert von Spalart, early 19th c. From the Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0)

The Jews who had turned their backs on their ancestral religion are punished, and a joyous festival is instituted to celebrate the miraculous redemption from Ptolemy and his drunken killer elephants.


Drunken Killer Elephants of Antiquity

Ptolemy was certainly not the only despot in the ancient world to have drunken killer elephants at his disposal, and they are certainly not unique to this story.

In fact, they appear in the story of Hanukkah when Antiochus brings his herd into battle against the Maccabees and Eleazar heroically leaps into action, killing a number of the massive beasts before meeting his demise in their dung.

Since Alexander the Great first brought war elephants back with him from his conquests in the East, they quickly became a symbol of Greek power and reach, with Hellenistic control ultimately encompassing the native habitats of both African and Asian elephants.

Illustration of a Greek war elephant, from A Dictionary of Roman and Greek Antiquities; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Regardless of their origins, capturing and training elephants for warfare was a complex, difficult and expensive endeavor, and one which certainly did not always bear fruit in wartime as evidenced at the Battle of Raphia.

According to the ancient Greek historian Polybius, there were nearly 200 elephants involved in the Battle of Raphia, though Ptolemy’s African variety fled the scene in a chaotic stampede, terrified by their larger Asian counterparts, as well as the sounds and smells of war.

This was after literally generations of Ptolemaic war elephant training, as described by Lionel Casson and others.

Marble stela with Greek text relating to an elephant hunting party, apparently written during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator. © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Getting elephants drunk prior to battle was quite commonplace in the ancient world, according to Patrick J. O’Kernick, though “Modern scholars debate whether this practice was altogether advisable – drunkenness may have brought out the elephant’s aggression and terrifying aspect, but it also may have rendered the beast less manageable…”

Referencing John M. Kistler’s book War Elephants, O’Kernick explains that “like humans, different elephants respond differently to different amounts and types of alcohol; a well-trained elephantarch [commander of war elephants] and his staff would have known how to best administer alcohol to each beast to attain the desired effect.”


Remembering the redemption from the Greek pharoah’s drunken killer elephants

In Against Apion, the famous Roman Jewish historian Josephus reports that an angry Ptolemy once ordered the mass execution of Alexandria’s Jews at the feet of his drunken elephants as punishment for their siding with his rival Cleopatra II, whose two leading generals were themselves Jews.

Illustration of Josephus, from The Works of Flavius Josephus; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Instead of attacking the men, women and children assembled for that purpose, the elephants turned on their masters, killing a great many of the king’s own friends. After seeing a ghost and being persuaded by his concubine to change his ways, Ptolemy canceled the decree. The Jews were saved and the anniversary of their salvation was celebrated as a joyous holiday.

Some scholars have argued that this event, featuring a different Ptolemy, may be the source of the story told in III Maccabees, which also appeared in various versions in Byzantine literature over the subsequent millennium.

The Third Book of Maccabees was canonized by some Orthodox Christian sects, yet never included in the Catholic canon, in contrast to I and II Maccabees.

Despite its engaging plotline and similar style and theme to the story of Hanukkah, the tale of III Maccabees – like countless others – never made it into Jewish tradition in any lasting way.

It surely wasn’t the only book of its kind and Rivka Fishman-Duker has noted that it was just “part of the Diaspora literature of the Second Temple period with an emphasis on vengeance against the Gentiles and renegade Jews, the triumph of the righteous through prayer, and the steadfast refusal to join in pagan worship.”

There are certainly many reasons why the story, like others, didn’t make its way onto the Jewish bookshelf.

As far as “core” traditional Jewish culture is concerned, the story of Hanukkah is the first in which European or Western culture appears, presenting seemingly eternal challenges and questions related to maintaining tradition while confronted with the allure of the material world and modernity.

Perhaps that’s part of why the Hanukkah story remains so popular even outside the confines of religious practice.

The story told in the Third Book of Maccabees is not nearly as universal in this respect, and while it may have drunken elephants, it is lacking in pious warrior priests facing off in physical and spiritual battle against the world’s super power, bent on outlawing Jewish practice and transforming Judaism’s holiest site into an idolatrous shrine.

Though Ptolemy’s attempted entry into the Temple lay at the center of the story’s plot, it was largely set in Alexandria – a city with a significant Jewish community destined to wane – as opposed to Jerusalem, the site of the Temple and the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

The ruins of ancient Alexandria, by Henrik van Krooneveld, 1698. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Third Book of Maccabees was apparently written in the wrong language, place and time to  capture the broader Jewish imagination for very long,  destined to languish in relative Jewish cultural-historical obscurity, much like the great Jewish community of ancient Alexandria, which may have once been spared destruction at the feet of 500 drunken killer elephants.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.