Did the Ben Ish Hai, Great Sage of Baghdad, Have an Alter Ego?

On a few occasions, the illustrious Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad cited a mysterious source whose name and work had never appeared anywhere else...

Many examples of Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad's handwriting and signature have survived, including manuscripts and letters in the National Library of Israel's collection

In 1973, a curious collection of answers to questions of Jewish law was published for the first time. The answers, known collectively as “responsa”, were attributed to the unknown Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, and the collection was titled Torah Lishmah, “law for its own sake.” It covered a gamut of subjects ranging from practical Jewish law to esoteric lore. According to the publisher, the volume was printed from a manuscript transcribed by the legendary Baghdadi scholar Rabbi Yosef Hayim, better known as the “Ben Ish Hai”, the name of his most famous book.

The Ben Ish Hai passed away in 1909, and the manuscript had come into the possession of his grandson, Rabbi David Hayim, who brought it with him when he immigrated to Israel from Baghdad in 1972. The original collection supposedly contained 622 responsa, of which only 524 questions and 523 answers survived. In his introduction, the author, Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, wrote that he began writing responsa in the year 1682 – almost three hundred years before the collection was published.

No other copy of this manuscript had ever been produced, and despite his apparent prolific output, no one had heard of “Yehezkel Kahali” before 1903, when his name first appeared in print.


First citings

Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad was one of the premier authorities on Jewish law in the 19th and very early 20th centuries, a popular public speaker, and an acclaimed mystic. In 1898 he published his Ben Ish Hai, which included ten references to an unknown work entitled “Torah Lishmah.” The references were all rather pale – the title of the book was mentioned without more detailed citation, the legal positions cited were not particularly controversial and there was little discussion about them. The author of Torah Lishmah was never mentioned. In one instance, Rabbi Yosef Hayim acknowledged that the work was in manuscript form.

Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, the “Ben Ish Hai” (Public domain)

Three years later, in 1901, Rabbi Yosef Hayim began to publish his responsa, which he titled Rav Pe‘alim. The second responsum printed in this collection included a passage from Torah Lishmah and identified the author as “Y. Kahali.” Two years later, Rabbi Yosef Hayim published the second volume of Rav Pe‘alim, this time referencing Torah Lishmah a further four times. One of those citations nonchalantly revealed the full name of the author of Torah Lishmah – “Yehezkel Kahali.” All told, Rabbi Yosef Hayim cited the unidentified Torah Lishmah seven times in his four-volume Rav Pe‘alim.

Prior to the 1973 edition, Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali and his Torah Lishma collection were known solely from the writings of Rabbi Yosef Hayim. No one before the great Baghdadi rabbi had ever cited this scholar or his responsa.


Gematria proof

After the second volume of Rav Pe‘alim was published in 1903, Rabbi Avraham Hayim Ades, a scholar from Aleppo who had moved to Jerusalem in 1896, was intrigued by the faceless Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali whose name had just appeared in print for the very first time. After pondering the matter, he suggested that “Yehezkel Kahali” was a pseudonym through which the real author had left a hint as to his identity.

Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value. In turn, the sum of the values of the letters in a word give that word its own numerical value. Connections are sometimes drawn between words with identical numerical values. These types of calculations are known as gematria. The Hebrew names “Yehezkel” and “Yosef” have the same numerical value of 156, and the surnames “Kahali” and “Hayim” have the same numerical value of 68.

Thus – argued Rabbi Ades – “Yehezkel Kahali” is none other than the great Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad!

To test his theory, Rabbi Ades sent a number of halakhic questions to Baghdad to Rabbi Yosef Hayim and appended an extra question: Who is the author of Torah Lishmah? Rabbi Yosef Hayim duly answered each inquiry… except for the last question!

Rabbi Ades saw this as proof that indeed the work was from the pen of Rabbi Yosef Hayim.

Can we identify authorship on the basis of such calculations? Was Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s silence sufficient supporting evidence of authorship? Alas, the trail linking Torah Lishmah to Rabbi Yosef Hayim went cold …


A lost manuscript

Over forty years later, as the British Mandate in Palestine waned, a student by the name of Yosef Kachuri asked the director of the Yeshivat Porat Yosef religious seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem to send a letter to Baghdad and ask Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s grandson to forward some of his grandfather’s writings.

The dome on the right is the roof of Yeshivat Porat Yosef shortly after its completion in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, ca. 1924. Part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN), made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Porat Yosef’s director, Rabbi Ben Zion Mordekhai Hazan, had been a student of Rabbi Yosef Hayim, and was diligently publishing manuscripts of his esteemed teacher in addition to maintaining Porat Yosef. Rabbi Hazan acquiesced to Kachuri’s request and wrote a letter to his deceased teacher’s grandson. In reply, Rabbi David Hayim sent six notebooks which included 120 responsa. The responsa had been copied by Rabbi David Hayim from his grandfather’s Torah Lishmah manuscript.

Kachuri and his peers were overjoyed, and they began to make plans to publish the manuscript. Sadly, their joy was short lived. During the 1948 Battle for Jerusalem, the notebooks were destroyed by the Arab Legion – together with other books and manuscripts held in Porat Yosef’s valuable library.



In 1972, Rabbi David Hayim arrived in Israel. Perhaps following up on his prior relationship with Kachuri, Rabbi David Hayim gave the Torah Lishmah manuscript to Kachuri for publication. The work was printed a year later and in the foreword to the volume Rabbi David Hayim announced with no hesitation that there was no scholar by the name of “Yehezkel Kahali.” Rather, “Yehezkel Kahali” was a pseudonym for his grandfather. The proof – according to the grandson – was in the numerical calculation of the pseudo-author’s name.

But why did Rabbi Yosef Hayim use a pseudonym? The grandson seemed to be at a loss – undoubtedly his illustrious grandfather had reasons that he chose not to share. Nevertheless, the grandson speculated: In Jewish tradition there is a dispute regarding authors’ names. Some scholars advocated hiding authors’ names, while others encouraged authors to publish their names clearly. Rabbi Yosef Hayim published some works under his own name, and others without self-attribution – presumably trying to satisfy both opinions.

Many manuscripts by Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad, like this one in the National Library of Israel collection, have survived, making it easy for scholars to identify the Ben Ish Hai’s handwriting

Immediately after the publication of Torah Lishmah, in December 1973, the rabbinic authority of Tunisian Jewry in Israel, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, jotted down notes about the authorship of Torah Lishmah. Rabbi Mazuz, it appears, was the first scholar to publish an article addressing the issue and his conclusion was decisive: Torah Lishmah was truly the work of Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad.

Three years after Torah Lishmah was first released, a second edition was printed in 1976. In his foreword to this edition, Rabbi David Hayim added a remark about the mystical valence of the number 622, as explained by Rabbi Yosef Hayim in one of his earliest writings. Since the original manuscript allegedly contained 622 responsa, it would appear that Rabbi David Hayim was trying to muster further evidence to link the manuscript to his illustrious grandfather.

New doubts

Rabbi Shalom Messas was the doyen of Moroccan Jewry. He came from an illustrious rabbinic family, and served in the Casablanca rabbinate and later as Chief Rabbi of Morocco. In 1978, he left Morocco to fill the position of Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Jerusalem. Four years later, Rabbi Messas responded to a question about Jewish purity laws. The question has not survived, but from the answer it is apparent that the questioner sent a detailed legal analysis for Rabbi Messas’ approval. Inter alia, the questioner asked Rabbi Messas whether Torah Lishmah was written by Rabbi Yosef Hayim.

In a succinct paragraph, Rabbi Messas responded by citing a few textual features of the collection and stating that Torah Lishmah could not be the work of the great Baghdadi scholar. Regarding the claim that Rabbi Yosef Hayim had piously hidden his name, Rabbi Messas pointed out that Rabbi Yosef Hayim had published numerous works under his own name, so why would he opt for a pseudonym in the case of Torah Lishmah.

Rabbi Messas’ analysis was brief and accurate, though misguided. Indeed, the paratext – or surrounding textual features – of Torah Lishmah speaks in no uncertain terms. The work is clearly presented as the writings of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, with a copyist serving as the intermediary. Though Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s name does not appear anywhere in the work, the handwriting of the copyist has been undisputedly identified as that of Rabbi Yosef Hayim, and by his own admission elsewhere in his published writings – the Torah Lishmah manuscript had been in his possession.

Rabbi Shalom Messas (CC BY 2.5)

The title page – written in rhyme by the copyist – refers to another person as the author of the work who named the collection Torah Lishmah. Following the title page there is an introduction signed by Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali, where the author states that he began writing responsa in the Hebrew year 5442; that is, 1681/2. The author’s name and the year he began writing appear again as a heading before the first responsum of the collection.

When preparing the manuscript for print, Kachuri the publisher made two emendations in an attempt to link the work to Rabbi Yosef Hayim. First, he placed the year 1681/2 in parentheses and added an alternative in bold brackets – following a rabbinic printing practice of using parentheses to indicate unwanted text and brackets to indicate the desired text. The correction gave the Hebrew year as 5642 – that is 1881/2, when Rabbi Yosef Hayim was forty-eight years old. The second reference to the year was omitted. We might ponder the publisher’s decision to retain part of the original and honestly indicate to readers that he changed the text. While revealing the change reflects the publisher’s integrity, the basis for the emendation is unstated and the right to change what appears in the original manuscript is dubious. Subsequent editions of Torah Lishmah reverted to the original year with no emendation and did not excise the second reference to the year. Thus the original manuscript dates the work long before Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s era.

Kachuri also presided over a further attempt to broadcast that the responsa were written by Rabbi Yosef Hayim by dividing the collection into a five-part division that mirrored Rav Pe‘alim. This division was not present in the original manuscript.

Following the author’s forward, there are additional introductory remarks under the heading “The Words of the Copyist” – once again distinguishing between the role of Rabbi Yosef Hayim the copyist and that of the author:

“The Copyist said: Miraculously this work has reached me, in an old manuscript, and the writing was difficult to read, and I vowed to copy it in my handwriting in order to do kindness for the author, of blessed memory, for it is likely that there is no other copy in the world except for this one. … And certainly this worthy deed [mitzvah] of copying that I have done for this book will be considered like the positive commandment of returning a lost article.”

If the copyist was the pseudonymous author then he might have declared unequivocally that there was no other copy of the manuscript in the world. The copyist, however, only presumed that it was likely that there was no other copy, thus distancing himself from privileged information.

Some of the responsa in Torah Lishmah begin with words like “The copyist, may God guard him and save him, said …” There are thirteen such additions scattered throughout the volume. Once again, the copyist is clearly distinguished from the author.

Each one of the responsa in the volume is signed with the name Yehezkel Kahali, presented in a standard rabbinic form: “Thus the words of the insignificant one, Yehezkel Kahali, may the Merciful One guard him and save him.”

The sum of the manuscript’s paratext is clear, as Rabbi Shalom Messas had declared: Rabbi Yosef Hayim was not the author of the Torah Lishmah responsa.

The paratext is indeed an important source of information that should not be overlooked by scholars. Yet a pseudonymous or pseudepigraphous author would presumably expend every effort to mask his or her identity and the paratext would be the starting point for the ploy. This makes the paratext – so important in other contexts – a possible tool of deception.

It couldn’t be!

A number of leading scholars found a further reason to reach the conclusion that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was not the author of Torah Lishmah, including the great Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in a responsum entitled: “Regarding the author of the book Torah Lishmah, is it the G[aon] R[abbi] Y[osef] H[ayim]?” The responsum is dated 1947, though the text was not published until over fifty years later, in 2002. In fact, the responsum contains information that indicates that at least part of it was written after 1947. The printed version therefore reflects the evolution of Rabbi Ovadia’s position over half a century.

Rabbi Ovadia flatly rejected the numerical correlation as evidence that the Ben Ish Hai was the true author of Torah Lishmah. This conclusion was buttressed by the paratext of the manuscript that clearly indicated that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was simply the copyist and not the author.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, 1972 (Photo: IPPA Staff). The Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Yet Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had a further reason to reject the identification. In his mind, it was incongruous that the great Rabbi Yosef Hayim could be behind such a ruse:

“It is extremely difficult to say – Heaven forefend – that [Rabbi Yosef Hayim] would lie in order to hide the name of the author.”

Alas, Rabbi Ovadia’s confidence unraveled when he heard from Rabbi Efrayim Zilka Hakohen about the Baghdadi tradition linking Torah Lishmah to Rabbi Yosef Hayim. In a postscript that may have been added as the volume was being prepared for print, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef noted two scholarly assessments of Torah Lishmah – one that accepted Rabbi Yosef Hayim as the author and the other that continued to deny his authorship. The case was not closed. 


A source that hadn’t yet been written

According to the author’s introduction, Torah Lishmah was written beginning in 1682, meaning that anything written after the lifetime of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali could not be cited.  Examining the sources cited in Torah Lishmah demonstrates that this logical rule was maintained with a three-pronged approach. First, no contemporaries are mentioned by name, ensuring that Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali would not be bound to an era, a location, or an intellectual community. Second, works that were written before 1682 but first published later were purportedly cited from manuscripts. Third, works written after the estimated lifetime of Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali were cited in the copyist’s notes.

While this method of masking the author’s time period was theoretically sound, there were a few hiccups. For instance, in one responsum the author cited Kanfei Yonah by Rabbi Menahem Azariah of Fano. This work was first published in 1786, hence we would expect Rabbi Yehezkel Kahali to note that he had seen the work in manuscript. No such note exists. Alas a lone case of a few missing words could be chalked up to a scribal or copyist’s error, and is hardly conclusive evidence.

Manuscript of Kanfei Yonah, 17th century. From the National Library of Israel collection

Yet the “copyist” came unstuck with a citation of a manuscript that he could not possibly have seen in the late seventeenth century: a forgery from the second half of the eighteenth century.

Twice in Torah Lishmah, the author cites from a manuscript collection of responsa written by the medieval scholar Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel. These citations appear in a collection that was first published in 1793 and entitled Besamim Rosh.

Original publication of Besamim Rosh, 1793. From the National Library of Israel collection

It is now clear that the entire Besamim Rosh collection is a forgery perpetrated by Saul Berlin, an eighteenth century German Jewish polemicist. The theoretical seventeenth century author of Torah Lishmah could not possibly have known about responsa that had yet to be forged!

The citation of a famous forgery exposes Torah Lishmah as pseudepigraphy – a falsely attributed work. It does not, however, prove that Rabbi Yosef Hayim was the author. Perhaps the great Baghdadi scholar was indeed just the copyist? Perhaps he had been misled by an “ancient” manuscript? No scholar to date has suggested this possibility. Moreover, textual scrutiny has provided incontrovertible proof of Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s authorship.


Bringing the mystery to the lab

Rabbinic scholars who analyzed Torah Lishmah pointed to similar language and turns of phrase in the two collections of responsa – the puzzling Torah Lishmah and Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s Rav Pe‘alim. These unscientific remarks are hardly proof of authorship. It is possible that Rabbi Yosef Hayim used similar turns of phrase, intentionally or unintentionally, as those that appeared in the seventeenth century manuscript he was copying.

With the development of digital analysis tools, these anecdotal observations could be precisely tested.

In 2004, a team led by Professor Moshe Koppel from Bar Ilan University’s Computer Science Department, put Torah Lishmah to a digital test of text categorization based on computerized statistical analysis. Using machine learning techniques, the team compared the two collections of responsa – Rav Pe‘alim and Torah Lishmah – in an attempt to ascertain whether the second corpus was written by the same author as the first corpus. Furthermore, the team contrasted these works with other collections of responsa, to determine whether the similarities between Rav Pe‘alim and Torah Lishmah were standard for the corpus of responsa literature.

It is beyond the current scope to detail the team’s method for authorship verification. Suffice it to point out that they convincingly concluded that Torah Lishmah was indeed written by the author of Rav Pe‘alim. No one disputes Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s authorship of Rav Pe‘alim, so he must also be the author of Torah Lishmah.

The research demonstrated that stylistic differences between the two works are minimal and according to the researchers, they were “possibly deliberately inserted as a ruse or possibly a function of slightly differing purposes assigned to the works.”

Thus, this literary conundrum seems to have been laid to rest: Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad wrote Torah Lishmah.


Troubling questions

While identification of the author solves one problem, it opens up a host of other issues: What is the historical value of the collection? Do authors have a right to anonymity?

On the legal front there are also questions to be asked: What is the weight that should be accorded to Torah Lishmah responsa in Jewish law? Are they valid sources? To what extent is it ethically malfeasant to present one’s own work as a two-hundred-year-old manuscript? While Jewish law does not have a strict doctrine of binding precedent, a two-hundred-year-old responsum would presumably carry significant weight.

Perhaps the most perplexing question is that of motive: Why would a respected jurist and prolific writer publish his own ideas using a pseudonym?

While we know who wrote Torah Lishmah, we still do not know why it was written.

These questions continue to resound.

A version of this article was originally published in Jewish Educational Leadership. It appears here 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.

Out of the Vault: Incredible Torah Scrolls Revealed

Check out these clips featuring four of the most stunning and interesting Torah scrolls from the National Library of Israel collection

This miniature Torah is just 6 centimeters (2 1/3 inches) in height! (Photo: Amit Dekel Productions)

For thousands of years, Jewish communities across the globe have treasured one object above all others: the Torah scroll – the five Books of Moses meticulously handwritten on parchment.

The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem safeguards numerous Torah scrolls among millions of other treasures. Their letters are largely identical, yet as historical objects some are certainly more interesting and significant than others.

Due to their invaluable nature and fragile state, these treasures are very rarely ever removed from the National Library vaults, but – with the approval and oversight of our experts – we managed to take a few of them out briefly in order to to give you a glimpse and share their stories!


Yemenite Torah Fragments from 1,000 Years Ago

These fragments from an approximately 1,000 year-old Yemenite Torah scroll were found in a bookbinding, for which they were used as raw material long after the scroll was originally written:


The Rhodes Torah

This Torah scroll was used at the Kahal Shalom Synagogue in Rhodes for centuries. The local mufti is said to have hidden it from the Nazis under the pulpit of a local mosque, where it subsequently survived the war, even though the vast majority of the Rhodes Jewish community did not:


The Saul Wahl Torah

Legend has it that in the late 16th century a Jewish merchant and adviser to royalty served as King of Poland for just one day. Some believe that this was his personal Torah scroll:


The Tiny Torah

This may not be the world’s smallest legible Torah scroll, but at just 6 centimeters (2 1/3 inches) in height, it’s certainly one of them:


These clips were created for the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, as part of A Look at the Jewish Year, a journey through the Hebrew calendar via the peerless collections of the National Library of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.

The project is 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.

Haircuts on Lag BaOmer: The First Printed Documentation!

A beautiful illustration from a book printed in 1601 for the Jewish community in Venice contains the first-ever printed documentation of the Lag BaOmer holiday haircut tradition

The earliest known documentation of the custom of haircutting on Lag BaOmer. From: Sefer HaMinhagim, 1601, the National Library of Israel collections

In 1601, a unique manual was printed in Venice for the benefit of members of the Jewish community, with the intended audience including adults and children alike. The Sefer HaMinhagim (“Book of Customs”) was printed in Yiddish—a language we would not necessarily associate with Italian Jewry. Although Yiddish was not widely used in the rabbinic literature of the time, Judeo-German was one of the most commonly spoken languages ​​among Italian Jews.

The book’s authors took into account the difficulty of some of its readers in deciphering the written commandments and therefore included woodcut illustrations to make the religious laws, commandments and customs more accessible. The use of illustrations that dramatized the various laws and traditions was apparently intended to allow readers of the book to clearly understand the practicalities of Jewish life and customs in simple, direct fashion.

The book contains the first known documentation of the Lag BaOmer custom of cutting one’s hair, an act that symbolizes the end of the historical period of mourning dedicated to the disciples of Rabbi Akiva. According to Jewish tradition, the Rabbi’s 24,000 disciples were stricken with disease as punishment for not treating each other with respect. Some scholars believe that the Rabbi’s followers in fact perished during the events of the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

“The more detailed the illustration in the books, the easier it was to clearly explain the religious laws relating to the haircutting custom,” explains Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Men receiving haircuts on Lag BaOmer, a woodcut illustration from the Sefer HaMinhagim, 1601, the National Library of Israel collections

The Crown of the “Giant” Queen of Tonga and the Star of David

How did a glittering Star of David become the centerpiece of the royal crown and state symbol of a Pacific island nation? What does the Kingdom of Sheba have to do with circumcision? Join us on a journey around the globe as we follow the six-pointed star to the most unexpected of places…


Queen Sālote Tupou III wearing her crown adorned with the Star of David, source: Wikimedia, colorization: MyHeritage

Tonga, a small island kingdom in the southwest Pacific Ocean made headlines in early 2022, when an underwater volcano erupted near its shores causing a tsunami. This was followed by a strong earthquake less than two weeks later. As sometimes happens when a faraway place suddenly appears in the news, our curiosity was piqued, and we wanted to learn more.

The town of Neiafu in Tonga, source: Wikimedia

What do we know about Tonga? Well, not much. We know it’s an island nation in the South Pacific; that at the Olympic opening ceremony, the flagbearer tends to wear a straw skirt; and that the Disney movie Moana takes place in that general area. The Tonga Islands – there are about 150 of them – are sometimes known as the “Friendly Islands,” a name given to them by Captain James Cook, who chose it, allegedly after having been received on the islands with kindness when he landed his ship there during a major local festival.

The inhabitants belong to the Polynesian peoples that stretch across the islands of the vast Pacific Ocean from Fiji to Hawaii. Admittedly, Polynesian culture, rich with demi-gods and folk tales about such things as the creation of the coconut, is very far from Jewish and Israeli culture. Which is why I was very surprised when shortly after beginning my search for information about this distant kingdom, I came across a very familiar symbol.

A coronation photograph of Tonga’s revered Queen Sālote Tupou III, who ascended to the throne in 1918, shows her wearing a white gown with a ribbon sash across her chest and an ermine fur-trimmed robe in the best European tradition. Around her neck is an elaborate necklace with a pendant in the shape of a cross. However, the most surprising detail of all is her crown, which features at its center the six-pointed Star of David, an ancient symbol not usually associated with the Pacific Islands.

Queen Sālote Tupou III’s 47-year reign (she died in 1965), is the longest of all of Tonga’s monarchs. One could say she was their “Queen Elizabeth.” Yet, unlike Queen Elizabeth II of England, Sālote was famous for her height – she was 6 foot 3 inches tall (1.91 m) – and was dubbed “The Giant Queen” by the world media.

“The New York papers tell of the world’s largest queen, though ‘her country is one of the world’s smallest'” – The Hebrew press reports on the New York press’ coverage of Tonga and its queen, Davar, March 27, 1932


Her fame reached as far as Israel, when in 1953, she told reporters while attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London that her grandmother had been present at the coronation of Queen Victoria. Tonga’s queen won over the masses at the coronation when during the heavy rainfall, she refused to close the roof of her carriage and rode through London while smiling and waving to the crowds lining the streets despite the downpour.

We cannot conclude this episode without relating this little anecdote: During her visit, journalists asked how she came to acquire her perfect English accent, to which Queen Sālote smiled and replied, “What is so surprising? English blood flows through my veins, for, back in the day, my grandfather devoured two English missionaries who had come to our island to spread the Christian faith.”

Queen Sālote Tupou III wearing her crown adorned with the Star of David, source: Wikimedia


Returning to Queen Sālote’s coronation photograph, how did this allegedly Jewish symbol find itself in Polynesia, and particularly in a country known to be devoutly Christian since the 19th century? In my quest to find out, I realized that the six-pointed star also appears several times on Tonga’s national coat of arms! At the center is a large white Star of David overlaid with a red cross, while three smaller Stars of David appear at the top left. Some say the group of three stars symbolizes the three main island groups that make up the kingdom. Others say they stand for the three royal dynasties that comprise the current monarchy. The same design also appears on Tonga’s royal flag. What’s more, the Star of David has occasionally appeared on the kingdom’s official stamps and coins.

Tonga’s national coat of arms, source: Wikimedia

I wanted to know why Tonga’s people use this particular symbol, but it turns out that in Israel there aren’t many historians who are experts in the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. I tried a different route. I sent my question to the Israeli ambassador to New Zealand who is also responsible for Israel’s relations with Tonga and who just happened to be visiting the islands at the time, but even when he asked his hosts, he couldn’t get a precise answer.

In fact, the six-pointed star appears in many cultures, and is not necessarily related to the Jewish Star of David. The symbol is often displayed as two superimposed triangles, like on the Israeli flag, and it has been known in Eastern cultures for thousands of years, being adopted by the Jews only at a relatively late stage. The historian Dr. Ian C. Campbell, who researched the history of Tonga, told me that the Rev. Shirley Waldemar Baker, a Christian missionary who lived in the Kingdom of Tonga for some thirty years in the late 19th century, was the designer of the above-mentioned coat of arms. Other sources claim a local prince as its creator. In any case, the symbols on it are clearly Western, and likely originated under the influence of external factors, most probably Christian missionaries.

The Free Church of Tonga, in the capital city Nuku’alofa. A Star of David adorns the central rose window, source: Wikimedia

It would appear that the story doesn’t end with the coat of arms. The rose window of the Free Church of Tonga in Nuku’alofa, the nation’s capital, also features a large Star of David, while the highest peak in Tonga is called “Mount Zion.” It turns out that the same missionaries probably introduced additional stories connecting the people of Tonga to the ancient peoples of the Near East, as a way to foster an emotional connection among the islanders with the stories of the Bible.

An English priest by the name of James Egan Molton, who served as head of the Methodist Church in Tonga in the early 20th century, wrote an article claiming that the people of Tonga originated in the Persian Gulf. According to historian Dr. Paula Latu, a native of Tonga, Molton wrote another text that featured the interesting claim that the king of Sheba and his subjects settled in Tonga, Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Samoa. The kingdom of Sheba is believed to have been located in the Gulf of Aden, in Yemen or Ethiopia. However,  the missionaries who came to the Tonga Islands, “with the Bible in hand,” likely based their improbable claim of the connection between Tonga and the kingdom of Sheba on Psalm 72, verse 10, in which it is written: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall render tribute;  the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.” The Christian missionaries’ imaginations were probably aroused by the mention of the islands in connection with the kings of Sheba and Seba.

The local theologian Dr. Ma’afu Palu expanded on this point. He claims the verse from Psalms deals with gifts that the kings will give to the Messiah. “These are qualities that characterize Tongans everywhere. They are known for their generosity,” he says of the people who, as we recall, inhabit the “Friendly Islands.” “According to this theory, the son of the queen of Sheba abdicated the throne and set sail from the Mediterranean Sea, arriving at last in Tonga,” he says.

A portrayal of the biblical Queen of Sheba. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

According to Palu, the missionaries found additional similarities between the Bible stories and the reality they encountered in Tonga. “The first book of Kings, chapter 22, tells of pagan leaders, whose worship was similar to ours here in Tonga before the spread of Christianity in the 19th century. Furthermore, male circumcision was customary in Tonga from ancient times. The belief was that the same prince of Sheba who – allegedly – started the settlement in Tonga brought these customs here.” On the common local custom of circumcision, Palu adds that the bodies of the kings of Tonga were considered sacred, so they were the only men in the kingdom who were not circumcised.

Clearly, these stories and the Star of David all derive from Christian missionaries who sought to convert the locals by connecting them to the stories in the Bible. The island state enthusiastically adopted these, along with an affinity to the ancient Hebrews, the Star of David, and the name Zion. Nevertheless, besides the mysterious connections to biblical symbols, Tonga and Polynesia also have their own fascinating ancient local traditions with a wide pantheon of gods and myths.

And what of Queen Sālote’s beautiful crown? We still have many questions for which we could not find any answers. We were unable to find any mention of the crown that appeared in the coronation photograph, or when or where it was made. We weren’t able to find out if other kings used it before or since or where it is located today. Perhaps our readers can shed light on additional threads linking the Middle East to the peoples of the Pacific.