The Ramban’s Prayer Unearthed and in English for the First Time

"Guide me in your truth and fulfill me from its delights"

The Iberian Peninsula was in many ways the center of the Jewish world in the Middle Ages, leaving a sustained literary, religious and cultural legacy. Catalonia alone was home to some of the most significant figures of the period, perhaps most prominent among them being Rabbi Moshe son of Nachman, more commonly known as the Ramban or Nachmanides.

An intellectual giant whose commentaries on the Bible, the Talmud and countless other texts complemented an array of original works, the Ramban’s writings, composed in the 13th century, are widely studied and cited to this day.

The Old Jewish Quarter (El Call) in Girona. (Original photo: Georges Jansoone; CC-BY-3.0)

He was also a leading Kabbalist, a persecuted defender of his faith, and (to use a modern term), an active Zionist. In his eighth decade of life, Rabbi Moshe was banished from his home following a religious disputation and decided to move across the world to the Land of Israel, where he helped rebuild Jewish communities and scholarship decimated by the Crusades, the Mongols and the passage of time. The Rabbi’s arrival in Jerusalem in 1267 CE marked the beginning of hundreds of years of uninterrupted Jewish settlement in the city, and the synagogue he established still stands.

The Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, 1968. Photo: IPPA Staff; from the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

A famous letter written from the Land of Israel to his son in Catalonia teaches that humility and constantly maintaining composure are key to leading a good life and continual spiritual growth. This letter, known as Iggeret HaRamban appears in many modern prayer books and certainly reveals something deeply personal about the sage’s inner thoughts and worldview.

Just last year, a prayer attributed to the Ramban was printed for the first time, appearing in Dr. Idan Perez’s Sidur Catalunya (see transcription in the comments section below). Perez’s work presents the first ever printed prayer book of the Catalonian liturgy and ritual used by the Ramban and the once thriving Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca, which were ultimately extinguished by the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion over 500 years ago.

The monumental project was completed by piecing together manuscripts and other source materials from institutions across the globe. The prayer attributed to the Ramban was found in a manuscript written just after the Expulsion, which was likely used by Catalonian exiles living in Provence. It is now held in Rome’s Casanatense Library, and is available online as part of “Ktiv”, the National Library of Israel-led initiative to open digital access to all of the world’s Hebrew manuscripts.

Prayer attributed to the Ramban. Casanatense Library, Rome, Italy, Ms. 2741; available via the National Library of Israel’s Digital Collection. Click images to enlarge

According to Perez, these types of prayers – referred to as “bakashot”, or “supplications” – were quite common among Iberian Jews of the period. Catalonian communities apparently recited them after the regular daily prayers, while other communities across the peninsula would say their bakashot before prayers.

“The text’s content and style, along with the fact that the manuscript’s author prefaced it with the words ‘A Bakasha of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman’, all seem to indicate that this bakasha was, in fact, written by the Ramban himself,” says Perez, who heads the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Israel.

Illustration of the Ramban. Publisher: Sinai, from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

To the modern Hebrew speaker, the Ramban’s poetic prayer – written some eight centuries ago – is surprisingly clear. It appears here in English for the first time, with a few notes and sources added in parentheses for clarification purposes:

Please, O Lord who creates without having a creator∙

And who conceived a thought and power from potential to action, brought forth light which illuminates all of the lights from the beginning until the end, for all of the illuminations∙

The words of God are pure words (Psalms 12:7)∙

Please, with your unseen, refined and pure power, establish my thoughts in your service, in awe, in trembling and in reverence∙

You have brought to light every mystery∙

Make me wise to know your commandments, and as a hawk soars over its prey (Job 29:36), allow me to understand and guide me in the path of your commandments∙

And in the ways of repentance (teshuva) instruct me∙

Because you are a God who desires the repentance of the wicked∙

And the spirit of grace flows forth onto those who know and those who do not know, and in the attribute of your beloved ones from ancient times, bless me with sublime favor, as my absolute light∙

And this is your favor that you shall do for me∙

And may I not tremble in fear of you (Job 13:21)∙

And raise me up on the balance of grace∙

And guide me in your truth and fulfill me from its delights∙

And from their great light, enlighten me∙

And like the mountain of your inheritance (Jerusalem), bring me and plant me∙

And between two cherubs, may your word come and console me∙

And desire me and receive me∙

And may the foundation of your world establish my soul and may it be bound up in the bundle of life, the pure soul you have placed within me, and in the great all-encompassing crown, may it be included∙

Include me in your exalted attribute of goodness, with every blessing and splendor∙

Please, with these crowns, which are ten in number∙

And in them lay the secret to everything∙

May my supplication come before you∙

And may your ear be inclined to my joy∙

And may my prayer come before the sanctuary of your holiness∙

And from the good oil of the two olives and the wellspring, pour upon the seven candles of the entirely gold menorah (Zechariah 4:3)∙

And shower upon he who longs for your kindness and sees your goodness through spiritual channels from higher wellsprings and lower wellsprings (Joshua 15:19)∙

And you are the one who knows that I do not unburden my plea before you due to my righteousness, but rather by the merit of my forefathers I have based it, and by the greatness of your mercy and your humility and the memory of your thirteen attributes∙


Many thanks to Dr. Idan Perez and colleagues at the National Library of Israel and the Ezra Fleischer Institute for the Research of Hebrew Poetry in the Genizah for their expertise and assistance with the translation. This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Mehitza and Separation in the Age of #MeToo

Photographer Myriam Tangi on her ground-breaking photographic essay, "Mehitza: Seen by Women", which began in 2003 and spanned multiple continents

New York, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

When I began my photographic essay, “Mehitza: Seen by Women” (a mehitza is the physical partition placed between men and women in a synagogue), I was well aware of being a female photographer in a Jewish sacred space and I was filled with enthusiasm. Women are only rarely permitted to examine and reveal the inner workings of a synagogue. It was revelatory to me and perhaps revolutionary to worshippers to dare to take a camera into the inner-sanctum of Jewish women’s devotion.

Morocco, 1985, photograph by Myriam Tangi

This project began in 2003, in response to an emotional shock I received when viewing a series of six photos, taken from 1982 onwards. I suddenly realized how physically distant I was from the centrality of worship, traditionally led and directed by men. In that moment, I decided to explore the female perspective – a point of view and experience unknown and, often unrecognized and undervalued by men. The aesthetic challenge was how to photograph this separation architecturally, ritually, and emotionally – a photographic essay as an artistic vision, not a documentary project. I set out to ask the question: In what ways do distance and a limited view of the central point of worship influence women within the synagogue structure, spiritual experience, and community?  How could my camera provide a window into the feelings and experiences of women standing behind the mehitza? In its essence, “Mehitza: Seen by Women” offers a new perspective and contributes to studies on religion and gender by questioning male and female territories while unveiling another layer in the complexity of contemporary Judaism.

USSR, 1985, photograph by Myriam Tangi

The project also represents a spiritual photographic journey that has been ongoing for seventeen years now and is still a work in progress. Below are a number of questions I would like to put forward which were raised after the exhibition went on display at the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism (MAHJ) in Paris and after a book was published in 2016 in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, 1991, photograph by Myriam Tangi

First, however, I would like to clarify my position as a Jew – born in Paris, I grew up in a Sephardic and traditional family – I do not consider myself orthodox, nor reform, nor conservative, but rather a Jewish woman who follows halacha (Jewish law) while questioning preconceived notions and giving expression to my own creative vision as an artist who is deeply invested in the subject. “Mehitza” gave me the opportunity to investigate the roots of Judaism, in an attempt to reconnect to its Hebrew origins, as well as to explore the new Jewish identity being developed in Israel, all the while maintaining the centrality of the principle of Torah as a revelation (Written and Oral), the essence and heart of Judaism.

Paris, 2004, photograph by Myriam Tangi

And now, to the questions. How do we avoid extremism when considering and reconciling the eternal nature of Jewish Law and the reality of women’s place in modern society? Men must also reconsider their own place in this respect, and allow women to find a place of their own, in which they are treated fairly. This is not only a question for women, of course.

Paris, 2007, photo by Myriam Tangi

Why do men and women come to the synagogue (“the little temple”, “the gathering house”)? How do we create a place where the dualistic desires, that of God and that of the human being, meet, where we voluntarily offer the best of ourselves, echoing the essence of the divine order, for Him?

Outskirts of Paris, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Another question raised by “Mehitza”: Why were women forbidden from leading services in the time of the Temple? From a certain perspective, this is not only a question of gender since most Israelite men (aside from the Kohanim and the Levites) were forbidden from performing the priestly services as well. So what was the core reason for the barring of women from leading services in the Temple?

Outskirts of Paris, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Was it the matter of the female voice (kol isha)?

The issue of women mixing with men? (Tradition claims that the first mehitza was installed during the Second Temple era because of inappropriate behavior inside the Temple during the celebrations of Simchat Beit HaShoeiva).

Paris, 2007, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Is it that women have no need of this function in order to maintain a connection with the community? – Perhaps a lack of time, due to the demands of domestic duties and children ?

There is no prohibition on women holding Torah scrolls during menstruation, so it seems this is not a question of purity/impurity.

Paris, 2007, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Is the beit knesset (synagogue) a special place, with a different status than other gathering places such as theaters or public halls? If this is so, what is the purpose of the synagogue? Is it a place for social interaction? A place to connect with the divine? (The two are not necessarily contradictory…) What does this connection require?

Paris, 2007, photograph by Myriam Tangi

A few years into my photographic essay, it became clear that the concept of the mehitza (in order to be clearly understood) should be divided into two main aspects: the notion of separation (which is linked to the concept of kedusha – “holiness”) and the place of this separation.

New York, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

The Hebrew root k-d-sh is the source of the words kedusha, kaddish (a hymn of praises to God) and kiddush (the blessing recited over wine), among others. The different variants of the root are mentioned 648 times in the Torah and 4180 times in the Zohar.

Paris, 2007, photograph by Myriam Tangi

The link between the concepts of separation and kedusha is mainly rooted in Leviticus 19:2 – Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy” – God, through His absolute transcendence (and immanence), is separated. His “separation” is seen as an example to follow, with the goal of achieving holiness, and becoming more like Him. After all, Genesis 1:27 repeats how man was made “in the image of God”, twice: “And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Paris, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Regarding the place of the separation: It is important to remember the basic halacha concerning the mehitza: men are forbidden from seeing women – but women are supposed to see everything. When considering the state of many synagogues since the destruction of the Second Temple, it seems evident that the second half of this halacha has not been properly implemented. For some 2000 years, these halachic instructions were disregarded.

Paris, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

How can we thoroughly re-imagine the ezrat nashim, the women’s section of the synagogue, as this place is perceived by many women as a place of inequality and discrimination?

Today, more and more orthodox synagogues in both Israel and the United States separate the synagogue with a mehitza perpendicular to the axis of the heikhal and the bimah, so that the congregation’s women are hidden from the men’s view, while the women are able to see and hear the entire service – in equal proximity.

Paris, 2005, photograph by Myriam Tangi

During my exhibition at the MAHJ (which ended in January 2016), many visitors told me that because today’s men are different, due to progressive trends in modern society, we shouldn’t have any more need of a mehitza…Then, in 2017, #MeToo came along.

New York, 2008, photograph by Myriam Tangi

The effects of this movement have swept across our modern world like a tsunami, bringing necessary changes and a greater sense of “equality” between men and women – But what have we (re)discovered since #MeToo? Today’s men are perhaps not as different as we thought when it comes to questions of desire and sexual relations, which are relevant throughout the various sections and levels of society.

Jerusalem, 2012, photograph by Myriam Tangi

As a consequence, perhaps we need a solution which provides a fair and equal separation in the synagogue. The “Mehitza” project serves as a platform to rethink and renew  the question of a space in which both men and women can feel comfortable, equal, and free from distractions of a sexual nature – a place to which we come specially, to gather together for a moment in God’s holy presence.

Jerusalem, 2010, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Why not restore some equality in light of God’s will regarding kedusha (holiness)?  Modern-orthodox synagogues have begun to take on this challenge.

Jerusalem, 2010, photograph by Myriam Tangi

Judaism contains all the answers which can enable a harmonious reconciliation of both modern and eternal values when it comes to questions concerning the complementary equality of men and women.

Self-portrait, Paris, 2004, by Myriam Tangi


If you liked this article, try these:

A Memory of the Last Jews of Yemen

In Color: Photos of Libyan Jews Brought to Life

In Color: Amazing Photos of Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land From 1900

The Mysticism Behind the Counting of the Omer

A look at the Kabbalistic significance of the Counting of the Omer, which culminates in the festival of Shavuot

"The Counting of the Omer by Way of the Kabbalah", Italy, 1782, the National Library of Israel collections

The Counting of the Omer (Sefirat HaOmer) – the commandment to count the 49 days from the second day of Passover until the festival of Shavuot – was just one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), and over history was performed, more or less, according to the particulars of Jewish law. In the Biblical text, the idea behind this mitzvah was to focus on the critical period between the barley and wheat harvests and the bringing of seasonally appropriate sacrificial offerings.

Yet quickly, over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the commandment became especially significant as a result of the great influence of Lurianic Kabbalah and the influence of the Kabbalistic circle in the city of Safed. As a result, new elements were added to the prayers recited during the Counting of the Omer, additions that focused on the mystical meanings attributed to the seven-week cycle of seven days each. Through the performance of this seemingly minor mitzvah, worshippers were not only able to purify and sanctify themselves; they were also given the opportunity to assist in bringing forward the Messianic Era and redeeming the entire cosmos.

An Ashkenazic rite siddur (prayer book) from Bratislava, 1734, the National Library collections; click on the image to browse through the book

The new mystical focus that Lurianic Kabbalah brought to Jewish prayer caught on rapidly and reached circles far beyond those adept at the study of the secrets of Kabbalah. Very soon, special editions of prayer books were printed specifically for the Counting of the Omer, while exquisitely illustrated manuscripts were also inscribed, all for the purpose of beautifying the performance of the mitzvah and helping the worshiper to focus on the Kabbalistic meaning of the Counting.

Lurianic Kabbalah was often the impetus for attributing new mystical meanings to existing Jewish rituals, especially in relation to the desire to unite and join the disparate and separated elements of the spiritual worlds of Jewish mysticism. While performing the mitzvot, the believer can focus his or her attention on uniting and connecting the Kabbalistic sefirot (the mystical powers or elements of the Godhead) in order to achieve unity, cohesion and coordination in a broken and disjointed universe. Despite the opposition of certain circles to the spreading of Kabbalistic customs to the masses, Lurianic Kabbalah also played a popularizing role, creating rituals and prayers shared by both learned sages and less knowledgeable Jewish worshippers. Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, which quickly became an integral part of the Jewish Shabbat prayer routine around the world, are a clear example of this.

The Counting of the Omer by Way of the Kabbalah, Italy, circa 1850, the National Library collections; click on the images to browse through the book

With the internalization and acceptance of the ideas of the Kabbalah, believers began to understand the concept of seven-week cycles and each of the seven days of the week as parallel to the seven lower sefirot of the Kabbalah, which were perceived as a more accessible unit in the heavenly spheres. Thus, the words Sefirat HaOmer, (The Counting of the Omer), also stimulated a connection to the Kabbalistic sefirot. One of the central concepts of Lurianic Kabbalah is that of tikkun – the ability of a person, through actions made with special intentions, to bring about harmony in the heavenly realms. The special prayers of the Counting of the Omer envision seven internal sefirot within the seven lower sefirot so that each week is dedicated to the tikkun of one sefira, while each day of the week is dedicated to the tikkun of one internal sefira.

In honor of the festival of Shavuot, the National Library is unveiling several examples of these prayer books, which clearly reflect a growing enthusiasm for the fulfillment of the Counting of the Omer.


If you liked this article, try these:

Torah, Raki and Yogurt: Shavuot on the Aegean Sea

How a Man Named Saul Became King for a Day in Poland

How to Buy a Jewish Manuscript in Four (Not So) Easy Steps


Is “Chad Gadya” the First Children’s Song in Recorded History?

Parents have probably been singing songs to their children since the dawn of history, but “Chad Gadya” – composed specifically to help children stay awake until the very end of the Passover Seder – may be the first song ever printed specially for children


From a Passover Haggadah, Amsterdam, 1796; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

For most modern secular readers not well versed in the enigmatic midrashic style of our Sages, the Passover Haggadah is a rather abstruse text. The decision to conclude the work with an obscure liturgical poem about a strange little goat perhaps only increases the sense of confusion amongst readers. It is possible that the source of this odd song lay in the desire to hold the interest of the youngest participants until the very end of the Seder, which is traditionally a lengthy affair.

Detail from the Passover Haggadah, copied by Nathan Ben Shimshon of Mezeritsch, 1730; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

The purpose of the Haggadah is to fulfill the important commandment “and you shall tell your son” (and your daughter, we might add) the story of the Exodus. Thus, young boys and girls are the focus of the Passover Seder text and the Haggadah is full of various rituals and passages aimed at keeping the Seder’s youngest participants alert and interested: It is the children who ask the four traditional questions inquiring about the strange customs of the evening. They are the ones who search for the Afikoman and keep an eye out for the arrival of the Prophet Elijah. Chad Gadya, the concluding song, with its animals and other fantastic figures, represents something for the children to look forward to.

Chad Gadya with Yiddish translation, from a Passover Haggadah copied by Nathan Ben Shimshon of Mezeritsch, 1730; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

For this reason, some scholars have crowned Chad Gadya as the earliest known children’s song – or at least one of the earliest. We obviously have no information about songs which were not set down in writing and which were sung by parents to their children over the course of the thousands of years of human history – there must have been many. But in “Chad Gadya,” we encounter, probably for the first time, a song that was specifically written and put into print for the sake of the edification of children.

Chad Gadya with Yiddish translation, from a Passover Haggadah, 1738; Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You may very well know the song by heart and perhaps you’re even humming along as you read, but let’s take a closer look at its attributes. Chad Gadya is what’s known as a cumulative song, meaning that in each progressive verse a new element is added to the list of elements from the previous verse. You are probably familiar with songs of this type. For example, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and the song that precedes “Chad Gadya” in the Haggadah, “Echad Mi Yodea?” (“Who Knows One?”). The repetition and familiar refrain make these kinds of songs especially popular with children.

What else can we learn from a quick look at the song? Although the language appears to be Aramaic, the song is in fact full of grammatical mistakes, and there are Hebrew words embedded in it as well, suggesting that the author wasn’t fluent in Aramaic and that at the time of its writing, Aramaic was no longer a spoken language.

An early version of Chad Gadya from a siddur from the Jewish community of Provence, ca. 13th–14th century

This is also perhaps a clue as to when the song was written. The song’s appearance in the Haggadah dates to the 15th or 16th century, and earlier versions of it may have been written as early as the 14th century. The song first appeared in print in the 16th-century Prague Haggadah. An early version of the liturgical poem (piyyut), in impeccable Aramaic, has been located in a manuscript which was subsequently added to the prayer book of the Provence community in France. The wording is somewhat different than the version we sing today (for example, a mouse appears in some of the versions found in the region of modern-day France). It is assumed that the Jews who fled France after the great expulsion of 1306, brought the liturgical poem with them to communities in the region of Ashkenaz (modern day Germany and northern Europe), and from there it found its way into the Haggadah. Only later did the song also reach the Haggadot of the Sephardic communities in Spain and the Middle East.

Hand-written copies of the liturgical poems “Echad Mi Yodea” and “Chad Gadya” added to the Prague Haggadah, 1527

But what is the origin of the poem? Are the motifs in it a Jewish invention? As one might expect in the case of an ancient folk song, we have no definitive answer to these questions. Similar motifs appear in many songs from around the world. In his article on Chad Gadya, Uriel Ofek mentions similar motifs in stories from Japan, Greece and as far as South America. One can find comparable tales in Russian and French, and some German-language versions even use the “Chad Gadya” formula. Interestingly, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale song, “The Pear Does Not Want to Fall,” bears a remarkable resemblance. In this song, a landowner sends a peasant boy named Jockli to shake a pear from a tree. After Jockli refuses, a dog is sent to bite him. When the dog refuses, a stick, water, a bull, and a butcher are sent in succession, with each refusing to carry out the task, until the intimidating executioner arrives, causing the rest of the characters to fall in line.

The song’s English equivalent is “The House that Jack Built,” with the chain beginning with malt (grain) that is eaten by a rat. The song’s characters are radically different and progress from a rat to a cat, a dog, a “cow with the crumpled horn”, a “maiden all forlorn”, a “man all tatter’d and torn”, a “priest all shaven and shorn”, a “cock that crow’d in the morn” and a “farmer sowing his corn”. Not everyone eats each other, but some scholars have insisted on the connection between the songs and have argued that Jack’s tale originated from the song about the Jewish goat. As mentioned, there is no way to determine for sure which came first. Uriel Ofek speculates in the article mentioned above that “it would not be an exaggeration to claim that there isn’t a nation or language that does not have a fable, rhyme or folktale with some Chad Gadya-like format or content.”


Jewish scholars over the years, not content to leave “Chad Gadya” as just an endearing tale in the Passover Haggadah whose sole purpose is to entertain the children, have layered it with interpretations. The cumulative chain of episodes, which can easily be read as nothing more than a humorous fairy tale, has been weighed down with theological import about God’s role in the world. One commentary, for example, suggests that the goat is a symbol of the Jewish people, and the other characters are the nations that have plotted to destroy it: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Muslims, the Crusaders and the Turks. Finally, the Holy One will come and redeem the Jewish people.

A Passover Haggadah from Amsterdam, copied by Chaim Mordechai Binger, 1796; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

Much has been written about this intriguing song that begins with a little goat and which concludes the Passover Haggadah. The mysterious piyyut has aroused the interest of researchers of folklore and liturgical poetry over the years who have tried to locate its origin and connection to similar folk songs in different languages. Perhaps around the Passover table this year you can also share something about the song, which may very well be the first recorded children’s song in history.



We did not forget that preceding “Chad Gadya” in the Haggadah is another song of similar structure, also intended for the enjoyment and edification of children. The story of “Echad Mi Yodea” deserves a separate article, but we can already tell you that it too appeared for the first time in print in the same 16th century Prague Haggadah, and that it was known in Europe perhaps from the 15th century. “Echad Mi Yodea” also has parallels in European languages, but unlike “Chad Gadya,” it spread much earlier to the communities of Spain and Portugal and even reached the Cochin community in India. Hence, the question of its origin is even more complicated, but we will tell you more about that in the future.


You can listen to a range of different performances of Chad Gadya which are preserved in the National Library of Israel’s National Sound Archive, here.


If you liked this article, try these:

These Passover Haggadot Will Leave You Speechless

The Chad Gadya Melody That Survived the Holocaust

What Would You Serve at a Passover Seder During the Korean War?