8 Nights, 8 Treasures, 8 Languages

Join us for a Hanukkah video journey across cultures and time, featuring treasures from the National Library of Israel!

The valiant Maccabees and a lit Hanukkiah appear on the cover of a Polish Zionist Hanukkah publication, 1947. From the National Library of Israel collection

Join the National Library of Israel in celebrating Hanukkah this year with eight stories, eight historical treasures, eight languages, and eight candles; part of the National Library’s “A Look at the Jewish Year” series.

First candle

Join Dr. Aliza Moreno-Goldschmidt, head of the Israel and Judaica Reading Room, as she explores a small, rare booklet of Ladino Hanukkah verses, printed in the Ottoman Empire:

Check out these stories about Sephardic culture and heritage:

Memories from my Sephardic Grandparents

Five-Hundred Years in the Life of the Amon Family

Kosher Pork Chops and Crypto-Jewish Identity

Also check out our world-leading collection of digitized, fully searchable historic Jewish press, including numerous titles in Ladino and Spanish.

Second candle

Join Ariel Viterbo, an archivist in the National Library’s Archives, for a look at a late 19th century Tuscan Hanukkah flyer, including texts in Hebrew and Italian:

Discover more Italian Jewish culture and heritage:

Did a Woman Really Read from the Torah in the 15th century?

The Disappearing Headstones from the Jewish Cemetery of Ferrara

Meet Emilia Morpurgo: A Female Ritual Slaughterer from Italy

“I-Tal-Ya Books”, an exciting new initiative to create a unified listing of all Hebrew books in Italy for the first time ever

Third candle

Join Tadeusz Woleński, a project manager in the Culture Department, for a look at two Polish Hanukkah treasures, one from just before the Holocaust and one from just after:

Check out these stories about Polish Jewish culture and heritage:

Also check out our world-leading collection of digitized, fully searchable historic Jewish press, including dozens of titles in Polish and Yiddish.

Fourth candle

Join Dr. Amalia Kedem of the Music Collection and Sound Archive for a listen to the official candle lighting ceremony at the Israeli president’s residence in 1957:

Discover more:

Hanukkah Songs and Sounds From Across the Globe

Bringing Darkness to Light: Singing Hanukkah Songs Through the Holocaust

Diverse musical treasures from the NLI collections

Listen to the full recording of the ceremony described in the video


Fifth candle

Join Emmanuel Fulop, R&D Manager and Architect, for a look at a rare French Jewish text that mentions latkes before potatoes had even made their way to Europe!


Sixth candle

Join Chaya Meier-Herr, head of the Edelstein Collection, for a look at a 1914 Hanukkah publication for German Jewish soldiers:

Seventh candle

Join Alexander Gordin, coordinator of the Special Collections Reading Room, for a look at a rare Hanukkah text from the Bukharian Jewish community:

Eighth candle

Join Daniel Lipson, expert reference librarian, for a look at rare Hanukkah posters printed in India:

Discover more:

Items relating to Kolkata in the National Library’s Digital Collection

Gandhi’s 1939 Rosh Hashanah Greeting to the Jewish People

A Parrot from India Recites ‘Shema Yisrael’ in Cairo

These films are part of “A Look at the Jewish Year,” a series presented by the National Library of Israel, which provides insights into the Jewish calendar and holidays through the lens of the National Library’s world-leading collection of Jewish manuscripts, books, printed materials and more.

They have been produced 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.

Revealed: Stirring Words from the Victims of the Mexican Inquisition

Jews in Mexico who secretly kept their faith were tortured and tried. Their tormentors saved their poems...

"...as much as I feel faint, in just thinking of Him my spirit rejoices..." (Image source: History of the Inquisition / National Library of Israel collection)

A century after a Catholic theocracy rampaged across Iberia in the late 15th Century, multitudes of Jews had fled abroad or were living in hiding.

Those who escaped preserved and built the Sephardi culture we enjoy today.

Many Jews who had immigrated to the New World outwardly lived as converts, while secretly maintaining threads of a Jewish life – so-called crypto-Jews.  They lost the liturgy, could have no prayer books, and knew little Hebrew beyond the “Shema”, yet they clung to their Jewish heritage, creating their own unique brand of Jewish identity and culture.

Many were eventually betrayed as Jewish dogmatizers, yet remained steadfast in their beliefs through years of torture and imprisonment in the dungeons of the Inquisition, even in the New World, ultimately paraded through throngs of cheering crowds to be burned alive at the stake with their siblings, parents, and children, as part of a public display known as an auto de fé.

An auto de fé in Peru, 17th century (Public domain). Click image to enlarge


An auto de fé in San Bartolomé Otzolotepec, Mexico (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

How could they reconcile their Jewish beliefs while facing such horrors?

For some, we actually know the answer, as they inscribed their inner thoughts and rationale into poems and prayers.

The sacred writings of crypto-Jews in Mexico 400 years ago ring with a desperation tempered by deep faith in Hashem, the God of their ancestors.

It was their own sin – turning their back on the Law – that led to their suffering.

Depiction of different forms of torture performed during the Inquisition, appearing in the book History of the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collection

Despite it all, they called out in repentance, hoping, knowing that Hashem would in some way hear their cry – if sincere – and then generously shine His favor upon them once again.

The Carvajal family in Mexico was led by Luis de Carvajal, the younger, an “alumbrado,” a mystic.

His family and friends became embroiled in the Inquisition. Many of them, including Luis, were finally martyred at the auto de fé of 1596 in Mexico City.

The Palace of the Inquisition in Mexico City, now the Museum of Mexican Medicine (Thelmadatter / CC BY-SA 3.0)

What we know of them comes from their own writings.  Fragments of poems and prayers circulating in this crypto-Jewish community are preserved in the transcripts of their trials.  The Inquisitors were scrupulous in their recording of evidence against those that followed the Laws of Moses, forcing the accused to sing the songs and recite the prayers that condemned them in humiliation.

A depiction of the execution of Mariana de Carvajal appearing in the book El Libro Rojo: 1520-1867 (Public domain)

The trial transcripts of crypto-Jews in the New World are currently housed as original single-copy documents in special library collections and archives around the world, as well as rare archival and microfilm copies, such as the Mexican Inquisition Collection at the National Library of Israel’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem.

Fly page of the transcript of the 1601 Inquisition trial of Leonor de Cáceres, grandniece of Luis de Carvajal, now in the Huntington Library collection (Photo: Mark Schneegurt). Click image to enlarge


The new publication, Anthology of Religious Poetry from the Mexican Inquisition Trials of 16th-Century CryptoJews, brings these cultic compositions together in the most comprehensive collection of paleographic transcriptions to date.  It is rich in bibliographic information for scholars seeking to study the religious poetry of Mexican crypto-Jews. For the lay reader, these poems are presented in Spanish and translated into English.

Penitential prayers tinged with hope are mixed with beautiful compositions that speak to a deep understanding and belief in the ways of Hashem.

The most famous compositions are nine poems, known as “canticos”, which were culled from the Inquisition records of  Luis de Carvajal’s trial. The following is the first English translation of one such poem, known as “Cantico 3”:

As for myself, I have a heart enamelled
with the name of the Lord, holy and blessed,
and as much as I feel faint,
in just thinking of Him my spirit rejoices…
Remind me of the time that teaches me,
it was to deliver me from Egypt,
and to see that He that was then is now,
I hope for better times, I pray.


Stars in the heavens

While the Carvajal family and other crypto-Jewish clans in Mexico were pursued by the Inquisition for another 60 years, many survived to become as numerous as the stars in the heavens.

Many became the founders of cities throughout what is now the southwest United States, yet they had lost virtually all traces of Jewish identity.  Some families maintained tidbits of Jewish customs, but did not make the connection to their Jewish heritage, until recently.

Today, crypto-Jews related to the Carvajal family and others are being identified through extensive genealogical studies from El Paso, Texas to St. Augustine, Florida and beyond.

Thousands are returning to Judaism, converting to the religion of their ancestors.

Anthology provides a glimpse into their heritage. It gives us all a vision into how crypto-Jews reconciled their martyrdom, while remaining faithful to Hashem.

There is wisdom here for us all.


Anthology of Religious Poetry from the Mexican Inquisition Trials of 16th-Century CryptoJews, transcribed and translated by the author is now available online, part of the National Library of Israel’s Digital Collection.

This article has been published 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.

Did a Woman Really Read from the Torah in the 15th century?

Leifheit bat Asher owned a copy of the oldest printed Jewish prayer book. Was she also called to the Torah?

A copy of the world's oldest printed Jewish prayer book is held by the National Library of Israel. Leifheit bat Asher is just one of the women central to its story (Image: Portrait of a woman by Sandro Botticelli, ca. 1480 / Public domain)

A name scratched into the back of an old book can sometimes lead down a historical rabbit hole. In this case, it has introduced me to a woman about whom we know very little, other than that she was a member of a prominent Italian Jewish family in the 15th century and that she saw herself as worthy of being called to the Torah for the prestigious reading of the first Chapter of Genesis.

Our story begins with the first ever Hebrew prayer book printed with movable type and the women linked to it.

Most of the earliest printed Hebrew books – which appeared in the last third of the 15th century – were texts for study. One pioneering printer, Rabbi Meshulam Kuzi, decided to go a different route and print a prayer book. He opened a printing press in the small Italian town of Piove di Sacco, outside of Padua. Having created stunning Ashkenazi-style typesets, he planned to print many books, but ultimately succeeded in producing only two: a work of Jewish law entitled Arba’ah Turim, and a book of Selihos, special penitential prayers recited prior to and during the High Holiday period.

Published around 1475, this second book is the first known Hebrew prayer book ever printed. One copy is safeguarded as part of the National Library of Israel’s collection.

Women of the Book

At least three women are linked to this copy.

Rabbi Meshulam passed away while working on Arba’ah Turim and his wife Devorah completed the project. In rhymed poems appearing at the end of the last two volumes, she describes her role in the printing. Though the Selihot prayer book was probably completed prior to Arba’ah Turim, if she was able to take over the printing business after her husband’s death, it is almost certain that she was working in the shop alongside her husband while he was still alive.

Two other women were counted among the owners of the copy of the Selihot book currently held at the National Library. From an inscription on the very first page, we know that one “Mrs. Esther daughter of Rabbi Asher” owned it.

Was she literate enough to pen the calligraphic signature on the front page of the book, which includes a warning to potential thieves? Or did she pay someone to add the note?

At the end of the book another inscription appears indicating that the book had also belonged to one “Leifheit daughter of Rabbi Asher”. The signature of a third owner, a man named Yaakov Hacohen Rafa, also appears.

Who are these three owners and is there any connection between them?

It turns out that there is.  After some information about the book was published on the National Library of Israel’s Hebrew blog and in the Israeli media, I received a call from a collector and dealer in rare Jewish books and manuscripts.

First, he informed me that one of the owners, Yaakov Rafa, was the father of the better known rabbi, scientist, doctor and renaissance man, Avraham Menahem ben Yaakov Hakohen Rappaport, who had extended the shorter last name, and authored the Biblical commentary Minhah Belullah.

More importantly, he said, he knew Leifheit bat Asher and her connection with Yaakov Rafa.


Connection, surprises and questions

We met at the Library and he showed me a small but beautiful parchment manuscript Mahzor from late 15th or early 16th century Italy (along with a detailed description by renowned scholar Shlomo Zucker), which he graciously allowed the National Library to scan.

The Mahzor contains the special blessings for those called to the Torah on the holiday of Simhat Torah.

Rather than leave blank the name of the person called to the Torah as “Hatan Torah“, a distinguised honor bestowed upon a prominent community member, the scribe had included the name of the person who had clearly commissioned the manuscript: Yaakov ben Yekutiel Hakohen, otherwise known as Yaakov Hakohen Rafa, who once owned the Selihot prayer book.

15th century Italian Mahzor honoring Yaakov ben Yekutiel Hakohen as “Hatan Torah” (Courtesy: Private collection)

The very next page of the Mahzor includes the special blessings for the “Hatan Bereishit“, the other main honor of the holiday – the person called up to begin the new Torah reading cycle. There, the name had originally been left blank. Yet in slightly smaller script someone had filled in a name: Leifheit bat Asher.

15th century Italian Mahzor honoring Leifheit bat Asher as “Hatan Bereshit” (Courtesy: Private collection)

It is not hard to speculate about how her name got there.

It seems likely that Yaakov ben Yekutiel Rafa and Leifheit bat Asher were married to one another. The family was well off enough to commission a beautiful manuscript on parchment, and Yaakov had included his name in the first blessing, perhaps because he actually was regularly called up for that honor. Either he or she decided that her name would make a good addition to the second blessing, and her name was added later in slightly smaller script.

Was this merely a kind of owners mark or a sign of honor?

Did Leifheit ask or insist that her name be placed there?

Was she actually called up to the Torah?

Today, there are many communities – including some Orthodox ones – that allow women to be called to the Torah, but in 15th century Italy I know of no evidence that such a thing actually occurred – though women were certainly honored as part of community Simhat Torah celebrations. It seems more likely that her name was added to the blessing as a combination of ownership mark and respect.

Regardless, it seems reasonable to speculate that Esther bat Asher, signed on the first page of the Selihot book, is Leifheit’s sister and Yaakov’s sister-in-law.

Moreover, in some way the story comes full circle after discovering a connection between the Rafa family and that of Meshulam Kuzi, the owner of the printing house.

The Vatican library houses an early 13th century Hebrew manuscript Bible, carefully illuminated and copied. This Bible was bought and sold a few times, and the first page of the manuscript includes a handwritten contract sealing the sale of the volume on the 7th of  the Hebrew month of Heshvan 5227 (1467) in Venice, from one Moshe ben Tanhum to none other than “Meshulam who is known as Kuzi.” One of the witnesses to the sale is a Menahem Cohen Rafa, certainly a relative of Yaakov.

It turns out, however, that the Kuzi and Rafa families were not only friends; they were relatives. A Meshulam Kuzi is also mentioned in a 15th -16th century Halakhic work, the responsa of Mahari Mintz, who was active in Italy.  The responsum discusses the upcoming bar mitzvah of Meshulam Kuzi, the deaf grandson of Meshulam Kuzi the printer. Meshulam the younger is referred to by a longer name – Meshulam Kuzi Rafa Katz.

Did one branch of a larger family take the family name Kuzi and the other branch the name Rafa? Or did the families marry together at some point in the late 15th or early 16th century?

Could it be that a member of the Rafa-bat-Asher family bought the copy of the Selihot prayer book directly from the printer, their family friends Meshulam and Devorah Kuzi?

We do not know much more about these men and women, or the Selihot book’s other owners. Yet the book’s wear – as well as the numerous handwritten notes throughout it that re-assert words erased by Christian censors – emphasize the importance the book had for countless cantors and lay readers – including women – who used it following its publication at the very dawn of Hebrew printing some 550 years ago.

A Mobile Feast: Sukkot on Wheels During the Yom Kippur War

Rare photos reveal how IDF soldiers managed to fulfill the commandment to “sit in the sukkah”, even as war raged in the north and south

A sukkah on an IDF vehicle, October 1973. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Yom Kippur War took its name from the sacred fast day on which the deadly conflict broke out and surprised the State of Israel. The sirens wailed on Saturday, October 6, at 1:55 pm. However, it is worth remembering that the war was still underway during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot which took place soon after. Thus, enlisted and reserve soldiers found themselves “celebrating” the harvest festival on the frontlines in both the Sinai Desert in the south and the Golan Heights in the north.

An improvised sukkah on an armored personnel carrier. October 17, 1973. Photo: Eli Landau, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“IDF soldiers are exempt from the sukkah commandment,” the chief military rabbi, Brigadier-General Mordechai Piron stated in a special proclamation on Sukkot in the midst of the Yom Kippur War. “Their duty at this time is to completely defeat and destroy the enemy,” the rabbi stated, “and whoever is unable to perform the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah is exempt from it.”

Despite this unequivocal declaration, there were soldiers who nevertheless tried to observe the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah, even at the front. What probably drove the battle-weary soldiers was their desire for even a little of the holiday atmosphere, a brief respite.

A reporter for the Al HaMishmar newspaper who accompanied the soldiers in the difficult battles along the Suez Canal in the south reported in Hebrew: “Despite the bitter fighting, there is no forgetting that civilian life goes on. On the frontline we discovered an improvised sukkah: a half-track vehicle decorated with branches, completely kosher.”

In the collections of the National Library of Israel we found several rare photographs documenting soldiers erecting improvised sukkot on jeeps and other military vehicles. It’s unclear if all of these creative sukkah booths fulfill the  requirements according to Jewish law, but it is very possible that for the soldiers at the front, they provided some joy and a sense of home during difficult days.

A sukkah on an army vehicle in the Golan, 1973. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Among the photos that stand out in particular are those taken by the photographer Nathan Fendrich. The 39-year-old Jewish-American tourist had come to Israel to document historical and archaeological sites. Finding himself “stuck” in Israel at the outbreak of the war, he decided to travel between the various fronts armed with his camera. Among hundreds of fascinating photographs, we found a handful documenting some improvised sukkot.

A sukkah on an army vehicle in the Golan Heights. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
A sukkah on an army vehicle. The Nathan Fendrich Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Sukkot holiday of 1973 began under the shadow of desperate battles on both fronts, with real concern for the survival of the Jewish state, but by the end of Sukkot the turning point had come, and IDF forces moved from defense to offense. A journalist for Maariv reported on October 17 from deep in Syrian territory:

“On the main road approaching Hushniya—in between two damaged tanks, a yellowing thatch blows in the wind covering an improvised sukkah. A soldier from the Combat Engineering Corps tells us: ‘The guys from the armored division set up the sukkah. Yes, they managed to fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in it, before they were called to destroy the last enemy pocket at the Hushniya junction.’”


The Nathan Fendrich Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.