Gershom Scholem’s Mishna Comes Home

About a year after the renowned scholar's Talmud set finally found its way home, his Mishna has too...

A few years ago, after a number of unexpected wanderings, Gershom Scholem’s Talmud set finally came home to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Now, following a somewhat less dramatic though still interesting saga, his set of the Mishna has come home, as well.

When Scholem came to the Land of Israel from Berlin in 1923, he typed up a list of all of the books that he brought with him (more than 1,700!). The list can be found in his archive at the National Library.

His Mishna set appears as numbers 10 and 11 in the category of “Hebraische Literatur” (“Hebrew Literature”). Numbers 2-6 indicate that the Babylonian Talmud he brought was not a complete set from a single publisher, and it seems that he did the same with his Mishna, bringing three volumes (though he didn’t indicate which) from an edition published in Amsterdam in 1685 and one volume, Seder Kedoshim, printed in Fürth in 1814.

He came with only four of the six total Orders of the Mishna.

From there the story becomes less clear.

Shortly after he passed away in 1982, most of his personal library came to the National Library, where it remains largely in the same order as it was in his apartment.

Yet, for years, his Mishna was not to be found in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library. In its place stood another set from the Library’s collections.

It seems that after he passed away, his Mishna – along with other books – remained with his wife Fania in their home.

A few months ago, I was contacted by someone at Midreshet Beer, a women’s seminary in Yerucham, who asked an intriguing question.

She told me that the seminary had recently received a number of donated books and among them was a Mishna set with the ex libris of Gershom Scholem. She asked if we would we like to have it.

Of course I said, “Yes,” and inquired further.

Gershom Scholem’s ex libris

It turned out that the set had belonged to a couple who had lived on Kibbutz Saad in the Western Negev. After they passed away, their children decided to donate many of the books they found in their home to the seminary.

I spoke with the couple’s daughter who had no idea how her parents had gotten the set. She didn’t think that they had had any connection to the Scholems, though it certainly seems possible that perhaps they knew Fania and received the books from her.

Or maybe the volumes had other stops along the way…

In any case, the set, published in Fürth in 1814, is complete (six volumes) and in outstanding condition, though it is clear that not all of the volumes were used by the same people…

I believe that when Scholem got to Jerusalem he sold the three older, more valuable Amsterdam volumes that he had brought with him and purchased the volumes he needed to complete his Fürth set.

He probably even had some leftover change to buy a few more books about Kabbalah…

Many thanks to the staff at Midreshet Beer for contacting us and donating this set to the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library, as well as to Meirav Bigman at the National Library, who helped make the connection.

Gershom Scholem’s Mishna set, after returning hom

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

A Dragon From the Land of Israel?

Stories about dragons usually lead us to dark caves in Europe, but one classic dragon-tale may have its ancient roots right here, in the Land of Israel


Illustration from Musaeum hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum, 1749, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

Did you know that at least one dragon can be linked to the ancient Land of Israel? Usually, the mention of dragons evokes scenes of knights in armor and towering castles; in short: European folktales set in European landscapes. The tales generally feature a maiden in distress, a dragon threatening the locals, and a brave knight who comes to the rescue, slays the dragon and saves the maiden as well as the town and its grateful residents. Occasionally, the knight is also rewarded with a great treasure along the way. While there are many such stories in world folklore, one of the most famous in Christian mythology and Western culture is associated with the Land of Israel. Or more precisely, with the city of Lod (Lydda).

There are many versions of the story of Saint George and the Dragon, a classic dragon tale, with some even contradicting each other. It begins with a man named Geórgios (George), born to a Christian family of Greek descent. His father was from the Cappadocia region of modern-day Turkey, and his mother was born in Lod in the Land of Israel, then known as the Roman province of Syria Palaestina. George’s father died when his son was still in his teens, and so the youth and his mother returned to Lod, where he grew up, until he joined the Roman army. Saint George met his end, as did many Christian saints, when he was beheaded by the Romans, who persecuted him for his Christian faith.

Saint George Slaying the Dragon, Raphael, c. 1506

The legend of Saint George and the Dragon first appeared much later, in the 11th century. Various versions of the story situate the battle with the dragon in Libya or Turkey. But we don’t mind believing the version that places the events in Lod, which is traditionally Saint George’s final resting place. According to the tale, a fearsome dragon terrorizing the region demanded gifts and offerings from the locals as appeasement. According to some accounts, the dragon lived in a lake or swamp, and had the power to poison the water sources. Its hunger was insatiable, and every day the villagers provided it with two sheep. When they had exhausted the supply of farm animals, they turned to human offerings. This continued until one day, the beloved local princess was chosen as the dragon’s next victim. Although her father the king offered all his riches and gold, no one agreed to take her place, quite understandably.

Here is where our hero George enters the story, passing by on his white horse by chance, and armed with his trusty lance which he named “Ascalon”, after the city known as Ashkelon in modern-day Israel. The doomed princess tried to persuade him to flee, but George vowed to stay by her side. When the dragon appeared, he stabbed it with the lance, mortally wounding the great beast. George asked the princess for her sash, which he then used to loop around the dragon’s neck. The dragon was tamed as soon as the sash touched its scales. The princess and the gallant knight then proceeded to march it through the city streets.

A dragon biting its tail, from Musaeum hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum, 1749, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel
Fire-breathing dragon from Elementa Chemiae, by Johannis Conradi Barchusen, the Edelstein Collection, the National Library of Israel

At this point in the story, the various versions cast George’s character in slightly different lights. According to one version he agreed to kill the dragon on condition that the city’s inhabitants convert to Christianity, which they did. Another tells that he killed the dragon, and then distributed the money he received from the king to the poor. The stunned peasants converted to Christianity. In any case, the miraculous story, alongside George’s military career, made him a very popular figure in Christendom as well as a patron saint of soldiers, archers and cavalry, and an ideal exemplar of the myth of the Christian knight.

He is also the patron saint of England (whose flag bears “The Cross of Saint George”), Georgia, Ethiopia, Lithuania, Greece, the Palestinian Authority, the provinces of Catalonia and Aragon in Spain, the cities of Moscow and Istanbul and many other places. The city of Lod has also commemorated his name, naturally. According to tradition, George’s decapitated head was brought to the city, where it is buried in the Church of St. George the Dragon Slayer. Every year on November 16 (according to the Gregorian calendar), a feast is held in the city of Lod to commemorate the transfer and burial of his head there.

Detail from a round World Map, 1543. Dragons roam the coast of Libya. Libya was one of the possible locations of the story of Saint George and the Dragon. From La mer des hystoires, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel]
A sea dragon swims off the coast of the Land of Israel. Map dated 1536, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, the National Library of Israel

And if, on your next visit to Lod, you fail to find any dragons, do not despair! You can find some here at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. We have included a few different specimens from the Library’s holdings throughout this article: dragons that appear on antique maps, dragons in old scientific texts, in illustrated manuscripts and even a three-headed dragon from a book of alchemical secrets. And this is just a small sampling of the many dragons hiding here among the stacks and shelves. Browse through the National Library catalog to find more!

Illustration of “The Three Heads of the Dragon,” symbolizing three metals which when fused together, according to one alchemical theory, create the Philosopher’s Stone. From “The Crowning of Nature”, a 17th century English manuscript by Johann Conrad Barchusen, the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

When Ice Cream Was Forbidden in the Land of Israel

Why were the residents of Mandatory Palestine banned from eating ice cream for three whole years?


Yardena Herzberger enjoys some ice cream. Photo by Hanan Herzberger, the Bitmuna Collection, the National Library of Israel

In the spring of 1942, headlines in all the English, Hebrew and Arabic daily newspapers in Mandatory Palestine announced the local banning of all production, sale and distribution of ice cream beginning on May 1. Residents would no longer be able to enjoy an ice cream cone by the beach or a scoop next to a warm piece of chocolate cake in the local café. They would have to make do with the various “inferior” products – fruit popsicles and sorbets. No more chocolate, vanilla and pistachio. From now on there was to be only lemon, grape and pineapple.

The reasons for this harsh decree were related to World War II, then at its height, with the fighting fast approaching the borders of the Land of Israel. German forces under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” were rushing across the sands of North Africa, threatening to occupy Egypt, where British forces were stationed. In Mandatory Palestine, preparations were underway for the possibility of a Nazi invasion. In the event of such a disaster, the Jewish community even planned to hold a last stand defense on Mount Carmel.

But what does all of this have to do with a frozen dessert? Hadn’t the Jewish people suffered enough? Why did the Nazi threat prevent people in the Land of Israel from enjoying a bit of ice cream? The answer lies in the global shortage of raw materials. In fact, behind the ban was the British Mandate supply department. The large quantities of milk and sugar needed to make ice cream had more basic and pressing uses—at least in the eyes of the authorities. The ban on ice cream production was to remain in place until the end of the war. Bear in mind, in mid-1942 no one knew how long the war would last.

The Palestine Post, April 22nd, 1942

What about the public? It did not take easily to this ban. Despite the media’s attempts to convince citizens that non-dairy substitutes were just as tasty, not everyone agreed. It is true that other food products were also rationed, their production restricted and supervised during the war years, but the ban on ice cream may have just been the final straw. The restriction even caused a stir among the country’s foreign correspondents and journalists who reported on it to their readers back home. One of the reporters wrote of the disaster: “This is one of the worst adversities that the Holy Land has yet to experience.”

An ad for Nifla [“Wonderful”] ice mix. The Hebrew text describes the product as “ice cream powder”, available in vanilla, lemon, pineapple, mocha, chocolate and strawberry flavors. The Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

Others understood the need for belt-tightening in such difficult times. The Yiddish writer Zusman Segalowitch published a column in the newspaper Haboker the morning the ban went into effect. He wrote: “As of today it is forbidden to produce and eat ice cream.  This is an order. A law that we must obey, and especially at a time when such a struggle is being waged in the world. This is not a disaster, one can make do temporarily without ice cream . . . I am personally not a big fan even though I do not shy away from a sweet treat now and then. But in theory I think that ice cream is a very necessary thing, a good, sweet and useful thing, it is also an international thing, the only internationale [a play on The Internationale, the left wing anthem, as the ban took effect on May 1, International Worker’s Day], that has sweetness and peace.” Zusman continued with reminiscences about a café he had known in Poland that served fine ice cream, and about how people happily gather around a serving of ice cream. He tried to end his column on a hopeful note:

It is not a disaster that ice cream has been banned for now. It is just temporary. It is only because of the war, and the war is being waged precisely so that people can eat ice cream peacefully. The war will end and then people will once again find for themselves things that are comfortable and useful, and isn’t that the logic of life? People will have to find the true path of life, each person for himself, the way to beauty and the way to even tastier ice cream.

The earth’s bounty is full of goodness, fruits good to eat and beautiful to behold. Apples, pears, cherries, plums, bananas, grapes, almonds, apricots, and oranges. After all, the best and finest ice cream can be made from all these. And chocolate and cocoa, milk and cream—plenty of delicious ingredients for ice cream. And the wise will finally have to acknowledge, that the good things in the world belong to all, and with good will everything can be shared honestly. Everything for everyone!

The miser will wither like a dry stalk atop the pile of gold he has accumulated. But trees will bloom and blossom, the earth will provide food, the sun warmth. And people will once more taste ice cream… all will be good again.

Contemporary caricature: A family on its way to a café must bring its own sugar. Haaretz, July 24th, 1942

The ice cream shortage evoked not only philosophical reflections but also more practical matters. April 30th, 1942, the last day before the ice cream ban went into effect was a very busy one in cafés and ice cream parlors. “Unusual traffic in cafés,” the newspaper Hamashkif reported, referring to the “lickers” who took advantage of the last chance to bid farewell to ice cream.

“Last Day for Eating Ice Cream” the headlines shouted. Haaretz, April 30th, 1942

Naturally, a measure such as this required a period of adjustment. Various merchants attempted to continue producing ice cream with the meager means at their disposal, in addition to the fruit sorbets, whose production continued as usual. Others apparently engaged in unlawfully profiting from the raw materials used to make ice cream, and some were tried for it in court. Added to these complexities was the fact that the British Army and the other armies that fought alongside were still allowed a constant supply of all types of ice cream.

The Palestine Post, May 6th, 1942

It is worth noting that the prohibition justified itself. According to reports, the authorities predicted that already in the first week of the ban, 400 tons of sugar and about 600 tons of milk would be saved. The amount of sugar was approximately equal to the amount supplied to all of Tel Aviv for five full months.

A woman licking an ice cream cone on Allenby Street, 1950. Photo: Boris Carmi, from the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

Eventually, as everyone knows, World War II came to an end with the Allied victory over the Nazis and their accomplices. The final stages of the war saw the lifting of the draconian ban on the production and sale of ice cream in Mandatory Palestine. Contrary to what one might expect, the return of ice cream was not met with spontaneous dancing in the streets. As early as February 1945, newspaper editors made do with brief reports, consisting of 2 or 3 lines of text, to notify their readers that ice cream could again be consumed in the Land of Israel. A few months later, when Nazi Germany was finally defeated, the Kfar Saba municipal council decided on a fitting celebration, distributing 1,000 free ice creams to local schoolchildren. With peace restored, people could enjoy the taste of real ice cream once more.

Nati Gabbay took part in the preparation of this article.

Golda Meir: A Woman Empowered

Golda Meir, one of the most powerful women in Israel’s history, was the third woman in the 20th century to become a leader of a nation. Though a frequent critic of the feminist movement, Golda herself was the focus of interest and criticism due to her gender. How did she deal with it? Why did she agree to enter a synagogue in Moscow but not in Tel Aviv? And what does this have to do with the Israeli Hatmakers’ Union?

Golda Meir, 1949, the Beno Rothenberg Archive, the Meitar Collection

On March 17, 1969, something momentous happened in Israel: Golda Meir was appointed Prime Minister. She became the first woman in Israeli history to lead the country and only the third in woman to head a national government in the 20th century, preceded by Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Sri Lanka) and Indira Gandhi (India). The appointment of a woman as Prime Minister of Israel, a young, embattled country, only two years after the Six-Day War, was not self-evident; however, the chain of political events following the death of her predecessor Levi Eshkol led to Meir’s appointment, who was preferred over such figures as Yigal Alon, Moshe Dayan and Pinchas Sapir.

Only the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party officially opposed Golda’s appointment, with the head of the faction, Yitzhak-Meir Levin, expressing concern that the appointment of a woman as Prime Minister would harm Israeli deterrence. Other than this, there was no other official or public grievance against Golda’s appointment. Meir, despite her image and role, was herself critical of the feminist movement, though she often spoke out as a woman. Nevertheless, the fact of her being the Prime Minister of the State of Israel was a subject of great interest, drawing both outright and hinted criticism.

Golda Meir and her new government, 1969. Photo: the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Separation of Religion and State?

Golda Meir had a complex relationship with religion, dating back to long before her term as Prime Minister. During an official visit to Moscow in 1949 as Israel’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, Golda visited the famous Moscow Choral Synagogue. Photos of the visit were published in Israel and around the world, and upon her return to Israel, Member of Knesset Benjamin Mintz challenged her to pay a similar visit to a synagogue in Tel Aviv, saying “I invite you to the Great Synagogue for a prayer of thanksgiving. Or do you only visit synagogues in Moscow?” Without skipping a beat, Meir clarified that she had entered the synagogue in Moscow and agreed to sit in the women’s section because she wanted to meet the local Jews. But that as far as Tel Aviv was concerned, she would be happy to attend synagogue as soon as equality was achieved and she was allowed to sit in the main hall alongside the male members of the congregation.

“When Will Golda Myerson Attend Synagogue?” reads the headline of this Hebrew article reporting on Meir’s exchange with MK Benjamin Mintz, Maariv, May 4, 1949

Already in the early 1950s, Golda was seen as a possible candidate for the role of mayor of Tel Aviv, which sparked a discussion over a woman’s ability to serve in such a senior position; a widespread, lively debate on the subject was conducted in the media. Miriam Shir wrote in her column titled “What Say You, Woman?” in the Hebrew daily Davar: “We all need you, Golda Myerson, as “the ‘Head Homemaker’ for the city of Tel Aviv.”

Columnist Miriam Shir supported Golda Meir for the role of mayor of Tel Aviv, Davar, July 26, 1955

After taking office as Prime Minister, senior rabbis in the country expressed differing views on her appointment. The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isser Yehuda Unterman, when asked his opinion on the subject, refused to comment, explaining that as long as officials did not seek his opinion on the matter, there was no reason for him to offer one. Israel Prize winner and head of the Chabad religious court, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, chose to publicly declare his negative opinion, basing his opposition on Maimonides’ Hilkhot Melakhim. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Nissim stated that there was no problem with the appointment, while Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv, was in no hurry to give his opinion, saying only that the matter needed to be studied in detail first.


The Case of the Hat

On Israeli Independence Day in 1973, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the State of Israel, the IDF held its last military parade. It was decided to permanently cancel the custom due to high costs, and this was to be the last hurrah, held in the presence of the Prime Minister who sat on the dais. Shortly after the parade, the Israeli Hatmakers’ Union (it turns out there was such a thing) published an official letter of grievance in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek Maariv article dedicated to the Prime Minister’s sloppy appearance, and the fact that she chose not to wear a hat during the parade. “Mrs. Meir’s bear head, exposed to the sun, served as a negative example to all Israeli women,” the union members wrote, demanding that Meir become a fashion leader and help promote the fashion of hats among Israeli women. The union members even offered to create a special hat model named for Golda, whose sale would compensate for the economic fallout they predicted would be caused by her appearance, which they feared would lead Israeli women to forego hats altogether.

Mrs. Meir’s bear head, exposed to the sun, served as a negative example to all Israeli women” wrote the Israeli Hatmakers’ Union in Maariv, May 9, 1973

Would a male prime minister also have been criticized for his lack of fashion sense?

After the national trauma caused by the Yom Kippur War which broke out later that year, and despite the fact that the Agranat Commission did not find her directly guilty, Golda was blamed for the outcome. She eventually resigned from her role as Prime Minister in 1974.

Prime Minister Gold Meir resigns. April, 1974. Photo: the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Golda Meir became famous in Israel and around the world for shattering a glass ceiling as well as for her lengthy political career. In Israel, her legacy and image, while very well known, are sometimes the subject of controversy, linked mainly to the outcome of the Yom Kippur War and the complacency that had preceded it. Outside of Israel, however, Golda was the subject of great admiration and respect, even during her lifetime. She was named “Most Admired Woman” by a Gallup poll in both 1973 (when she received twice as many votes as First Lady Pat Nixon) and 1974. After her death, New York City named a square after her and a Hollywood movie, A Woman Called Golda, starring Ingrid Bergman, was made about her life.

Recently, it seems that the historical figure of Golda Meir is experiencing something of a revival. Last month it was announced that the Oscar-winning Israeli director Guy Nativ is working on a new film about Meir, who will be played by award-winning actress Helen Mirren. Another project currently taking shape is a television series about the Israeli leader produced by Barbara Streisand and starring actress Shira Haas. The series, titled Lioness and based on Francine Klagsbrun’s biography of Golda Meir, will focus on the former Israeli Prime Minister’s role during the Yom Kippur War.

On the National Library of Israel’s various online platforms, Golda Meir is more frequently searched in English than in Hebrew. It is clear that her past in Israel is perceived differently than in the rest of the world, but as she herself said, “One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.”