‘Bitter’ Women at the Seder Table and the Men Who Pointed at Them

This long-forgotten Passover custom was dealt a bitter blow by a sharp wife in a 15th century Haggadah...

The wife in the 14th century "Brother Haggadah" doesn't look too pleased with her husband's custom. From the British Library collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Pesach, matza, maror. Father lifts the matza, symbolizing our speedy exit from Egypt. Then, the maror (bitter herb) reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, the bondage and subjugation, so father points at… mother!

This long-forgotten custom, which apparently was never mentioned in any Rabbinical codes or books of traditional practices (yet in recent history has been discussed on the Seforim Blog), is depicted in many medieval illustrated Haggadot going back to 14th century Provence.

It is based upon Bible and Talmud (Yev 63b):­ “A bad woman is so terrible. ‘I have found a woman to be worse (mar) than death’ (Ecclesiastes 7:26)”.

The Maror page of the “Brother Haggadah“, produced in Provence or Catalonia in the 14th century. From the British Library collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. On the type of Maror depicted, see here.
Closeup of the man pointing at his “bitter” wife in the “Brother Haggadah

Since antiquity, lettuce was used at the Passover Seder as maror, the bitter herb. The Talmud, already bothered by the fact that lettuce is not bitter, says that it is sweet at first, when young, when normally consumed, but at the end of its growth, as the leaves wither, lettuce becomes extremely bitter, just like our servitude in Egypt was sweet when Joseph and his brothers arrived and only became bitter under the new Pharaoh (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 2:5). So too, the medieval custom hints that at first a woman is sweet, during the courting period, but eventually, after years of marriage, she becomes bitter, mar, “worse than death”.

In the 15th century, the custom spread to Germany and Italy, where it was depicted in several illustrated Haggadot, for example:

The Maror page of the “Tegernsee Haggadah” produced in, Bavaria in the 15th century. From the collections of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munchen; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Closeup of the man and his “bitter wife” in the “Tegernsee Haggadah
The “Washington Haggadah“, produced in Italy in the 15th century. From the Library of Congress collection
Closeup of the man and his wife, depicted as even “more bitter than death” as she wields a sword in the “Washington Haggadah

By that time, many Ashkenazi Jewish communities had begun to replace lettuce with horseradish as maror (Yiddish: Khrain; German: Meerrettich). This transition is shrouded in mystery. In the Mishna, something called “tamkha” is listed as one of the plant species that can be used for maror. Based upon Arthur Schaeffer’s research, I propose that Rabbi Meir ha-Cohen (author of Hagahot Maimoniot and a disciple of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, c. 1215-1293) identified “tamkha” as horseradish because “meer” sounds like the Hebrew word “mar” (bitter) and the first syllable of the French/Italian marubia (horehound, which is the identification of Rashi, as well as an opinion in the Arukh, the important medieval dictionary of Talmudic and Midrashic words).  Marubia itself was possibly selected because it also sounds like the Hebrew mar (or vice-versa, the vernacular name following the Hebrew).

Maror was identified as “Meerrettich” in Hagagot Maimoniot, the earliest Ashkenazi gloss on Maimonides. From the Frankfurt a. M. Universitätsbibliothek (Fol. 15 – 227v); available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click image to enlarge

In addition to the phonetic similarity between the Old French and the German, there are also physical characteristics shared by horehound and horseradish, especially small white flowers:

Marrubium vulgare (horehound), from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen (Public domain)
Horseradish (Photo: Pethan)

Interestingly, at first, the bitter leaves of the horseradish plant were used for maror, not the sharp roots.

One can only imagine that Jewish women did not take kindly to the “bitter wife” custom, and we find that they ultimately struck back at the men with literary flair as sharp as the horseradish itself. This is attested to in the late 15th century Hileq and Bileq Haggadah.

The wife responds to her husband’s pointing in kind, pointing back at him dominantly from the left. The knives on the table, easily available to the wife only add to her power in the scene.

The “Hileq and Bileq Haggadah“, produced in Germany, 1450-1500. From the National Library of France collection

The man states the following, which rhymes in the original Hebrew:

“מרור זה קולי בְּהָרֵם, בזה וזה גורם”

“I raise my voice about this bitter maror, it is caused by both this and that.”

Both the herb and the wife are causes of bitterness, referencing the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 27a) on dual causes.

The wife retorts:

“הלא חשבתיך כאחד מהם, ויבוא השלישי ויס’ריח ביניהם”

“Well, I consider you one of them; let the third one in to stink between them!”

The wife’s response cleverly paraphrases the last rule of the famous 13 homiletical methods of Rabbi Ishmael, which is found in Jewish prayer books and was presumably familiar to the Haggadah’s readership:

“When two Biblical verses contradict each other, we require a third to decide (yakhria’) between them”.

The wife poetically states that the maror will stink (yasriakh) between us, meaning that both husband and wife are equally bitter. Alternatively, she signals that it’s stink will also decide:

“That’s what you think, but I say that you are the bitter one! [How can we decide who is right?] Let’s consult a third opinion to decide between us, [the maror itself. Smell it. It stinks like you, so you must be the bitter one!]”

The men apparently began dropping the custom in the late 15th century. Perhaps they were devastated by this witty reply.

The last known description of the custom to point at the wife is found in one of the first printed illustrated Haggadot, the Prague Haggadah from 1526. Nonetheless, according to scholar Israel Peles, in that example it is simply a textual relic of an already dead custom copied from an earlier source, and the wife is not even depicted in the illustration.

Explanation of the custom appearing in the early 16th century Prague Haggadah


In the spirit of the popular book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, perhaps the Passover version could be: “Men are Meerrettich, Ladies are like Lettuce”.


This article was written in memory of the author’s mother, Bruria Jacobi, of blessed memory. An earlier version of the article was originally published in Új Kelet, in a Hungarian translation. It appears here in English for the first time, 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.



“Art of the Washington Haggadah” by Bezalel Narkiss, appearing in The Washington Haggadah: A Facsimile Edition of an Illuminated Fifteenth-century Hebrew Manuscript at the Library of Congress 

Controversies Regarding Customs That Can Be Gleaned from Haggadot” (in Hebrew) by Yisrael Mordechi Peles

The History of Horseradish as the Bitter Herb of Passover” by Arthur Schaffer

The Last Will and Testament of Rabbi David Friesenhausen

Published in 1820, the work contains some surprising, candid views on science, faith, women, and more...

"My children and your descendants through the last generation! Place the book of the Will in the bookcase..." (Image: Moritz Daniel Oppenheim's "The Examination". From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

In Vienna 1820, Rabbi David HaKohen Friesenhausen (ca. 1756-1828) published a work in Hebrew entitled Mosdot Tevel (Foundations of the Universe). Friesenhausen procured rabbinic letters of recommendation which he printed in Mosdot Tevel, including such a letter from the illustrious Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the “Ḥatam Sofer”, 1762-1839), who, together with other rabbinic personalities in Hungary and Moravia, was even a prepaid subscriber to the book.

Title page of Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

On its title page, Friesenhausen tells us that his work contains three sections that heretofore had not appeared in Hebrew. The first section deals with the heliocentric cosmology as formulated by the Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and the second section is a discourse with the geometry of the Alexandrian Greek, Euclid (ca. 300 BCE). In addition to the rabbinic recommendations, Friesenhausen mentions that his mathematical work could also be vouched for, though not by rabbinic personalities.

The third section of the work, entitled “The Book of the Will: Instructions of the Author to his Children after Him,” contains Friesenhausen’s own Ethical Will.


The Book of the Will: Instructions of the Author to his Children after Him
Friesenhausen’s Ethical Will is lengthy, containing 43 detailed instructions spread over 74 pages. Though it would be rightly classified as an Ethical Will, most of the instructions do not focus explicitly on ethical behavior – the ethical guidelines in Mosdot Tevel are often subtle. Thus, Mosdot Tevel begins with matters of a theological nature, including detailed principles of faith, his understanding of central themes in Jewish thought, and fidelity to Torah. He even included a harsh critique of maskilim (followers of the Haskalah movement, sometimes called the “Jewish Enlightenment”) who he saw as having forsaken tradition, as well as an honest appraisal of the failings of traditional rabbinic Judaism in his day.


The Intended Readership
At the beginning of his Ethical Will, Friesenhausen turns to God, stating the purpose of his writing:

“My entire salvation and my desire in this written will is to instruct my descendants in Your good ways which they should follow, and to help them cleave to You so that they will be in awe of You out of love, and so that they will keep Your statutes and Your commandments that You have bequeathed to our forebears… and in order that they will straighten out their deeds in Your eyes and they will attain happiness and true success for all time and for eternity.”

Throughout the treatise, Friesenhausen specifically turns to his descendants whenever he wants to emphasize a particular point. The final page of the Ethical Will is adorned with a poem and here too Friesenhausen implores his descendants to preserve the document for posterity:

Poem at the end of David Friesenhausen’s Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

“My children and your descendants through the last generation!
Place the book of the Will in the bookcase
Guard it, please, more than the treasure of kings
For it will renew its youth for lengthy days to come
[I] authored it so that you will serve your God
David the son of Meir the Kohen, your father.”

Yet printing an Ethical Will in a book with prepaid subscribers indicates that the author believed the message to be relevant to a wider readership. Indeed, in some passages, Friesenhausen addresses both audiences:

“And now, you my children! And every reader besides you! Know…”

Perhaps Friesenhausen’s decision to publish his Ethical Will addressed primarily to his children can be understood in light of his view on the success of others:

“And since for every person who truly loves people, he does not suffice with his own success and that of his children and generations who come after him, rather, he will seek and greatly desire the success of everyone else.”

The dual nature of Friesenhausen’s audience remains apparent throughout the work.


Pursuit of Knowledge
Another aspect of Friesenhausen’s legacy is the importance he places on the need to pursue both Torah study and “Ḥokhmah“, literally wisdom, a reference to scientific inquiry. In one place, he talks of his unparalleled achievement in attaining mastery in both fields:

“And you, my descendants, know that I myself, your father, studied much Torah, more than most of those who know science in our day. Neither did I neglect science, more than most and almost more than all the masters of Torah in our time.”

Aware that these words may sound a bit arrogant, he offers a parenthetical explanation reminding the reader of his primary intended audience:

“I cannot protest the dear reader who will consider me haughty, but he should consider that I address [primarily] my children and not strangers, who may or may not believe.”

He nonetheless goes on reinforcing his self-appraisal, adding that his wide travels justifiably led to such bold assertions:

“And apart from this, what can I do if I have traversed almost all of Germany, Bohemia, Moravia and Hungary, and I have not found a person who knows sciences yet has studied Torah properly, nor someone who has studied Torah properly and has also sufficiently delved into science.”

When Friesenhausen discussed Haskalah and those maskilim whose scientific pursuits led them away from Torah, he insisted that the two – Torah and science – are complementary, and those who make a claim to the contrary are merely revealing their own inadequacy in one of the disciplines.

Though studying natural sciences was important to him, time was not to be divided equally between the two topics. Friesenhausen felt that minimal time investment was sufficient for an understanding of science, while the bulk of one’s time should be dedicated to studying classic Jewish texts, explaining:

“There is no need to study the aforementioned works of sciences for great amounts of time of the days of his life, for even if he will delve into them for only an hour or two a day, he will reach his goal. To recognize the greatness, wisdom and exaltedness of the Creator, may He be blessed, it is not necessary to know the aforementioned sciences in their entirety, rather it is sufficient to know the main ideas of each.”

Friesenhausen was aware that the study of the natural sciences could not be done effectively from books written in Hebrew, and so he offered a form of annotated bibliography of the few recommended books in Hebrew and supplemented this list with recommended books in German.


A further aspect of the intended audience, is the choice of language – not so much the language of the Ethical Will but more so the language of the scientific portions of the book. Friesenhausen was well aware that a scientific work in Hebrew would not appeal to all. It was in this vein that Friesenhausen offers an insightful comment on the book’s sales potential to the list of prepaid subscribers, and later laments the lack of available scientific literature in Hebrew:

“Indeed most lovers of science seek it not in the Hebrew tongue, and most lovers of the Hebrew tongue, seek not science.

For indeed they will not find the sciences written in a book in the Hebrew language, save for a miniscule amount. Moreover those that are to be found, the majority are unsatisfactory for what is needed.”

Further on Friesenhausen suggests that if he had the requisite funds he would start a biennial competition for family members to author beneficial books – either in the field of Torah or in the field of science – in the Hebrew language. Alas, Friesenhausen’s financial situation did not allow him to realize this vision, but he did instruct his descendants to carry out his plan should one of them merit sufficient wealth.

The first two stanzas of the poem printed at the end of Mosdot Tevel passionately describe the tribulations and tenacity of the Hebrew language, yet for Friesenhausen learning Hebrew was a functional necessity, not an ideological priority. This is apparent when he talks about education, emphasizing the importance of teaching the Hebrew language at an early age:

“And since it is necessary for the Israelite Nation to know the Hebrew language, not only for the boys to study Torah but also for girls to at least understand the prayers and supplications which we pray and beseech as prescribed for each day, it is, therefore, appropriate to train the children in verbs and nouns of the Hebrew language, and to explain to them all the prayers so that they have the ability to understand them.”

The same utilitarian outlook led Friesenhausen to encourage parents to instruct their children in the local vernacular, as well as a third language that could grant them access to scientific texts:

“Do not be negligent to teach your sons or your daughters the language of the local nation in which you dwell, for as long as the Israelite Nation will not dwell in its own land, and as long as God will not ingather His banished ones, there is an extremely great need that one should understand the language of each nation amongst whom he dwells.

Since I have already let it be known that knowledge of sciences is beneficial for perfection of the soul, yet you will not find the sciences well explained except in one of the following three languages, namely German, French and English, therefore the person with a broad spirit should know at least one of these languages.”


Friesenhausen dedicates one lengthy section of his Ethical Will to the topic of raising children, beginning by explaining the centrality of this pursuit:

“Training the children and accustoming them to the path of Torah and uprightness, and to be diligent in their work and pleasant to human company, is a supreme principle in human success, all the days of his life on this earth, and to inherit the eternal world after his soul separates from his body.”

He warned that available literature on child rearing was inappropriate, since Jewish education was distinctly different from the education offered by non-Jews. Nonetheless, Friesenhausen granted that one can consult these works, but only if his own advice takes precedence. Some of the directives he offers for taking care of babies includes: being extra careful to ensure that the baby does not catch a cold during the first three days after birth; emphasizing that the baby is in danger of being suffocated if it sleeps in the mother’s bed; promoting vaccination as opposed to variolation (an older practice of inoculating someone with the virus of smallpox to produce immunity), along with support for this position rooted in Jewish law; encouraging mothers to breastfeed; and warning against goading children to overeat.

Friesenhausen moves on to early childhood education, stressing instruction in the Hebrew language from a young age and continuing with a detailed educational program. He touches on a gamut of pedagogic issues, including reviewing material studied and rote learning; details regarding different forms of Bible study; the study of Hebrew grammar; prudence in Talmud instruction along with an acknowledgment that not every student will succeed in Talmud study; the need to teach a trade aside from Torah; and women’s education. The section on women’s education notably includes a warning to fathers not to hastily and inconsiderately marry off their daughters:

“Also be careful, my sons, not to give your daughters to a man whom she desires not. Therefore do not hasten to give her to a man while she is still without knowledge to choose for herself according to her will. And do not focus on money, rather on qualities and level of perfection of the soul and the body, according to which a person is called by the title ‘human’.”

Friesenhausen also includes an impassioned plea to his descendants, should they be conscripted to the army. He emphasizes that they remain loyal to the commandments of the Almighty so that the merit of good deeds will stand by them in battle, yet he also stresses both practical and spiritual matters should they find themselves on the battlefield:

“Furthermore, do this and live: Learn well the rules and tactics of battle, perhaps they will be to the help of God against mighty warriors.

And you should know that you are priests of God your Lord, who has distinguished you for the army of [holy] service, to go out and come forth before the nation of God to be scouts for them.”


One of the most interesting aspects of the Ethical Will is how Friesenhausen portrays Hasidism, and specifically the portrait of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841). Rabbi Teitelbaum, commonly known by the title of his posthumous work Yismaḥ Moshe, served as Rabbi and Hasidic master in Sátoraljaújhely, the Hungarian town where Friesenhausen served as a Dayan from early in the nineteenth century.

Document confirming that following its publication and after he completes payment, one Rabbi Zalman is entitled to receive a copy of Mosdot Tevel; the document was signed by Friesenhausen while he was a judge in Sátoraljaújhely. From the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection, National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Without mentioning Rabbi Teitelbaum by name, Friesenhausen includes a scathing attack against him in his Ethical Will. The facts detailed by Friesenhausen – the origins of the anonymous protagonist, his fame before reaching Hungary, his use of amulets to cure ailments, his popularity, as well as other historical tidbits mentioned – fit the biography of Rabbi Teitelbaum perfectly. The assault was similar, though not as harsh, as the critique of many other opponents of Hasidism, with one significant difference: Friesenhausen’s attack was personal.

Friesenhausen begins by describing the contemporary Hasidic milieu and then instructing his children not join the ranks of the Hasidim without being certain of the righteousness of the particular Hasidic leader they were about to follow. Friesenhausen’s instruction was a result of his own encounter with the anonymous protagonist:

“When he arrived, I too was amongst those who respectfully greeted him, and I immediately recognized from his words and his actions that he was a conceited person who exceedingly sought honor: All the greats of our time were considered by him to be as naught and nothingness.”

This first impression, however, did not deter Friesenhausen, for he saw other qualities in the anonymous Hasidic leader:

“And since many a time I heard from his mouth halakhah [Jewish law] and aggadah [Jewish lore], deep matters that were pleasant to the listener, and also in fear of God and love of peers, I considered him to be a wholesome person, also in worldly matters and human conduct I saw him to be knowledgeable and erudite: Because of all these qualities he was esteemed and exceedingly worthy in my eyes, and I did not avoid coming to him twice or three times a week.”

Alas, as time passed Friesenhausen became disenchanted with the behavior of the local leader, seeing him as unethical:

“And after doing thus for many days, his actions proved themselves that he was not wholesome in fear of God and love of peers. And his inner self is outward appearance. For I recognized him to be a bad-tempered person, who reaps honor from the degradation of his friend: He boasts before the masses about his piety and asceticism and his great wisdom, and is not afraid to denigrate and embarrass others in public. He shows himself to be disdainful of profit, yet in truth he loves silver and gold in order to amass them for himself, his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”

Friesenhausen had no doubt in his mind: The more he observed the Hasidic leader’s behavior, the more he became convinced of his unethical conduct and his corrupt character. Friesenhausen chose to distance himself, though his local rabbinic duties sometimes required almost daily contact. These interactions led Friesenhausen to the conclusion that the Hasidic leader did not have an impressive command of Torah – not Talmud and halakhah, nor Kabbalah – though Friesenhausen did acknowledge that he had unrealized potential.

He ends this portion of the book with a clear instruction to his readership:

“And this matter has brought me to instruct you not to join people like this, unless you clearly know by repeated observation that he is [indeed] holy.”

Given the identification of the anonymous protagonist, this attack has a surprising twist: Rabbi Teitelbaum headed the list of prepaid subscribers at the beginning of the work. Moreover, in 1816, when Friesenhausen embarked upon a journey to raise funds for publishing his work, Rabbi Teitelbaum issued him with a letter of recommendation filled with praise!

Subscribers’ page at the beginning of Mosdot Tevel, Vienna, 1820. Moshe Teitelbaum is the first one listed. From the National Library of Israel collection. Click image to enlarge

It appears that Rabbi Teitelbaum increased his activities in the latter part of 1815, following the death of influential Hasidic masters in Poland and Galicia. According to one scholar, this was too much for Friesenhausen, who consequently decided to embark upon a journey.

While Friesenhausen was traveling, Rabbi Teitelbaum ruled in absentia to his disadvantage when he awarded Friesenhausen’s wife a higher weekly stipend from the capital Friesenhausen had left behind. When Friesenhausen returned to Sátoraljaújhely and saw his dwindled funds, he was angered by Rabbi Teitelbaum’s ruling. This ruling was certainly not the main source of contention between the two, as Friesenhausen’s distaste for the city’s rabbi centered on the latter’s Hasidic activity and his comments focused on his personal conduct. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder how much the ruling in his absence affected Friesenhausen’s general attitude not only towards the “anonymous” Hasidic leader, but regarding Hasidism in general.


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.

Automated Food Distribution and Hi-Tech Plumbing: Noah’s Ark Re-Envisioned

A 10th-century Karaite scholar was somehow able to conceive a vision of Noah’s Ark that made use of advanced technology that was unknown in his time

The fictional submarine Nautilus, featured in a Hebrew poster advertising the film 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, based on the book by Jules Verne

Take a moment and imagine Noah’s Ark. Chances are, you are probably picturing a wooden ship of some sort, perhaps with an elephant or a giraffe peeking out of one of the portholes.

But according to the view of a 10th-century Karaite scholar who composed a commentary on the Torah in Judeo-Arabic, Noah’s Ark was much more than a simple wooden vessel filled with animals.

The Book of Genesis devotes only a brief description to the Ark’s construction, consisting of only three short verses (Genesis 6: 14–16). Yet Ya’qub (Jacob) al-Qirqisani, the Karaite scholar in question, goes much further than that. In his lengthy Judeo-Arabic commentary on the Torah, titled Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq, he devoted page after page, in manuscript, to what he imagined was the complex and sophisticated structure of Noah’s Ark.

According to Qirqisani’s interpretation, the Ark incorporated extremely advanced technological innovations, even for his time, including a motorized food distribution system that was able to rotate autonomously (remember, this was the tenth century CE, electricity was nowhere on the horizon!). This system was , in his conception, used to automatically fill the animal troughs. Qirqisani’s Ark was also installed with a sophisticated plumbing system of pipes and waterworks that managed to satisfy the diverse needs of all the various occupants in all three of the Ark’s levels. The commentator also claims that the Ark featured unique methods for allowing in light, but also for preventing water from entering the craft, by means of hundreds of specially glazed windows and doors, some of which even allowed air to enter while still keeping water out.

A copy of Qirqisani’s work, Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq, is preserved at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. A digitally scanned version of it can be accessed online via the National Library of Israel website, here.

Kitab al-Riyad wa-l-Hada’iq (Parashat Noah) by Ya’qub al-Qirqisani, the National Library of Russia
Image: RNL Evr.-Arab. I:4529, folio 1v – 2r


This is just one example of the new, revolutionary approaches to traditional Jewish texts that we find in Judeo-Arabic works of the tenth century. From around the ninth to the twelfth century CE, most of the Jewish population in the world spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. These Jews, lived in the heart of one of the greatest civilizations of the time, which was a center for innovation in philosophy, theology, science, linguistics, and more. Living in the midst of a rapidly developing scientific world dramatically influenced how they saw and wrote about the Bible. The treasures preserved in Judeo-Arabic Bible exegesis, as well as the fields of exegesis that sprang from this Judeo-Arabic font in later centuries, in places like Iberia, stand witness to this fascinating revolution.

The Lost Story of Hebrew’s First Female Author, Now Discovered

Sarah Feiga Foner's story is found in an obscure handwritten text inscribed in Solitreo script from Ioannina, Greece...

Sarah Feiga Foner née Meinkin (Zager, 1954 – Pittsburgh, 1937) was, as far as is known, the first woman to publish original Hebrew fiction. Between the years 1881 and 1903 she published a novel, two historical-national stories and a memoir about her childhood town Dvinsk in Latvia. In addition to her Hebrew writing, she also wrote a novella in Yiddish, titled Der Froyen Bunt (“The Women’s Revolt”), which she printed on her own, without a date, though she did note the printer’s address in London. On the front cover of Der Froyen Bunt there is a list of the author’s Hebrew publications, which include, in addition to her four known works, an additional story titled “The Annals of the Holy Sh’lah”. This story, which revolves around the Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz (often referred to with the Hebrew acronymn – “the Sh’lah” – after his main composition, Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit [“The Two Tablets of the Covenant”]), was never found. The assumption was that the author printed it on her own, like the Yiddish novella.


This – until in November 2021 a Hebrew manuscript written in Solitreo (the cursive form used in Ladino) from Ioannina, Greece, arrived at the Manuscripts Department of the National Library in Jerusalem. The manuscript included three copied pieces: one is titled “On the Counting of Years” and consists of a dispute between Yosef Halevi of London and Menashe Grassberg of Trzcianne (near Bialystok, Poland); another includes a story about Rabbi Gershom ben Judah’s boycott of polygamists – this work omits the author’s name, and the third is titled “The Holy Sh’lah” and is attributed to “Sarah Feiga Foner”.

Dr. Yacov Fuchs from the National Libraryof Israel’s Manuscripts Department, who received the manuscript from Ioannina, searched for information about Sarah Feiga Foner and contacted me since I had written a dissertation about her. I was excited to hear about the discovery, but could not read the story since I am not familiar with Solitreo. I hoped to find the source from which the story was copied. The manuscript indicated that the three pieces were copied from “Ha-Yehudi”. A search of the Serials catalog of the National Library of Israel pointed to “Ha-Yehudi: a periodical letter concerning all matters of Jews and Judaism in all the countries,” which was published in London between 1897-1913, under the editor Yitzhak Sovalski. The newspaper’s geographic location and time period fit Foner’s biography, since during the first decade of the 20th century she immigrated from Lodz to London, lived there for a while and in 1909 immigrated to the U.S. with her son Noah.


The National Library of Israel is in possession of the “Ha-Yehudi” back issues, but the newspaper has not yet been digitized for the Historical Jewish Press project. As a result, it is not possible to conduct a quick search for the keywords “Holy Sh’lha” or “Sarah Feiga Foner”. I had to conduct a manual search for the story, page after page. I began the search in 1905, the year when I estimate Foner arrived in London, following the pogroms in Lodz after the failed Polish revolt against the Russian regime. At first I found the dispute over the counting of the years between Yosef Halevi and Menashe Grassberg, which began in late 1906 and lasted well into 1907. Then I found the story about Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, which turned out to be a translation from German by Aharon Leib Bisko for a story by Marcus Lehman. Finally, I located the story “The Holy Sh’lha” which appeared in five installments during 1907.

From the first installment of “The Holy Sh’lah”


The content of “The Holy Sh’lah” fits well into the transformations which are apparent in Foner’s writing – from an Enlightenment (Haskalah) novel advocating integration into European society and culture to historical-national stories in the spirit of the Revival (Techiya), to childhood memories of daily life in the traditional Jewish community in Eastern Europe. The author’s preference of highlighting a rabbi and Kabbalist who settled in the Land of Israel in the 17th Century and is buried there, confirms her return to the Orthodoxy of her family in her childhood, and her shift to religious Zionism in the vein of the Mizrahi movement.

The search for Foner’s story ended on a pleasant note when I found two ads which appeared in “Ha-Yehudi” early in 1908. In those ads Foner announced that she printed the first part of a story in Yiddish titled Der Froyen Bunt, which she offered for sale from her address in London. As said, in 1909 Foner immigrated to the United States, and no additional ads were found in the newspaper about the subsequent parts of the story.

I am grateful to Dr. Yacov Fuchs and all those who took part in discovering the manuscript from Ioannina and sending it to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People near the National Library of Israel. Thanks to their conscientious work a new Hebrew story has been added to the corpus of the first Hebrew woman writer. The search for other lost writings by Sarah Feiga Foner still continues. At the top of the list is the second part of the novel “Ahavat Yesharim” which was not published due to lack of funds, followed by a historical story about Don Isaac Abravanel, as well as additional stories in Yiddish.

For further information about Sarah Feiga Foner see the Encyclopedia for Jewish Women.


Michal Fram Cohen works as a seminar paper supervisor at the Open University of Israel. Her book about Sarah Feiga Foner (in Hebrew) is in print by Resling Publishing, Israel.