The Forgotten Legacy of a Cantor Who Lost His Voice

Years after Zalman Pollack was a star of the Jewish world, his life's work was rediscovered...

Zalman Pollack and some of his invaluable notes, now part of the National Sound Archive and Music Department at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem

A couple of regular folks are walking down a Jerusalem street one balmy evening in the 1990s, when they notice a number of abandoned cartons on the sidewalk, undoubtedly on their way to the municipal garbage dump. Their interest piqued, they look inside and to their great surprise find hundreds of original handwritten sheets of musical notes, each signed, “Rights reserved by Zalman Pollack.”

Pollack’s notes on a traditional High Holiday prayer. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

There are also old photographs, as well as other memorabilia. Understanding that these documents may have great value, they take them to the National Library of Israel. These kindly folks may not understand the full extent of their actions, but they have just saved a unique musical jewel from destruction.

Zalman Pollack was an unusual man who lived a somewhat tragic life. He was born in 1901 in Ptrovo Selo, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), a city that was well known for its abundance of competent cantors. His early years were characterized by the roaming of a Jewish nomad. In 1919 he made aliyah, immigrating to the Land of Israel with his mother. Shortly thereafter he was injured in the Arab riots of 1921. In 1922, despite being offered a cantorial position in the synagogue of Rishon LeZion, he returned to Europe. There he continued his studies and then served as cantor in Sarajevo and Vienna from 1926, finally returning to the Land of Israel in 1934, where he lived until he passed away in 1985, aged 84.

Zalman Pollack’s High Holiday service performance was billed as a “traditional, authentic prayer” from the “former chief cantor of Sarajevo and Vienna”. Published in Ha’aretz on September 4, 1942; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

From 1934 to the end of the 1940s, Pollack flourished as a well-known cantor in the Land of Israel, appearing in synagogues around the country. Unfortunately there are no known recordings of Pollack at the height of his cantorial career.

He was among the founders of Israel’s Cantors’ Association in 1937, remaining active in the organization for many years. At the age of 47 he married Margalit Agassi. The couple remained childless.

Then quite tragically, around 1949, his voice inexplicably cracked and he could no longer sing, except in an indistinct high pitched voice. Zalman Pollack had lost the tool of his art – his voice, permanently.

For the rest of his life, he devoted his energies to notating music, both traditional modes and his own compositions, and educating budding cantors and prayer leaders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Zalman Pollack. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge
Pollack’s notes on the traditional Ne’ilah service for the conclusion of Yom Kippur. From the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

Using his manuscripts, as well as recordings of himself singing the entire traditional prayer service (in falsetto voice), he founded a one-man school, which he named after King David, the “sweet singer of Israel.” He operated classes for beginners as well as for advanced students, and wrote different versions of tunes, those appropriate for expert cantors and simpler ones for amateur practitioners. His graduates can be heard to this day, singing in houses of prayer around the Ashkenazi world. Amongst his noted pupils were cantors Dudu Fisher, Binyamin Muller, Asher Hainowitz and Yehoshua Lerrer.

One of his students, Gabi Lindenberg, describes lessons at Pollack’s home on Harlap Street in Jerusalem in the 1960s:

“He was an extremely modest man and charged a lowly fee for his services. His wife, who was a sickly woman, would serve tea and cookies. As he could not sing, he would play tapes that he had recorded, in his barely audible raspy voice and give me verbal instructions and comments. He demanded a high level from his students. He cared for them deeply and, being childless, saw in them a chain of continuity, the bearers of his legacy.”

Contemporary to Pollack’s teaching career, other cantorial schools led by Shlomo Zalman Rivlin, Shlomo Ravitz and Leibele Glantz were operating. These men had the big advantage of being active cantors and were better connected to specific synagogues and institutions. It is therefore poignant to read Pollack’s self-written “PR” notices, alongside many newspaper clippings he collected, attesting to his previous greatness as a cantor and prayer leader.

Zalman Pollack as a young cantor in the Land of Israel. Newspaper clipping from the Zalman Pollack Archive at the National Library of Israel
Newspaper clipping Pollack saved of an advertisement for one of his performances, which appeared in the December 21, 1934 edition of Ha’aretz. Click image to enlarge; the issue is also available online

And indeed, he succeeded in attracting many students, yet still lived in relative poverty, which probably explains why he desperately tried to prevent the pirated use of his precious materials without due remuneration. Pollack never fulfilled his aspiration of publishing his works.

Researching Pollack’s archive at the National Library, the late Binyamin Glickman, a cantor, choir master and educator, attempted to produce a volume of Pollack’s musical notations for Shabbat services. One of the challenges he faced was the fact that Pollack often wrote the notes but omitted the staves (the “sticks”), which indicate the length of each note. Any musician will tell you that without the staves, you cannot fathom the rhythm of the piece.

But, as it turned out, another small miracle had occurred.

As a youngster, Johannesburg native Rafi Barnett, a distinguished prayer leader in his own right, had first been invited to serve a community over the High Holidays in 1974. He asked the noted cantor Binyamin Muller of Antwerp, officiating at the time in Johannesburg, for his advice as to the appropriate melodies. Muller told Rafi that he had been a pupil of Zalman Pollack and had in his possession some extremely rare recordings.

Those precious recordings of that barely audible high pitched voice actualized the copious written notes that Pollack had transcribed by hand, and in fact at least 13 hours(!) of recordings were subsequently found.

To explore rare recordings of Pollack and his students, click the image above!

Years later, Barnett, now living in Jerusalem, chanced upon Gabi Lindenberg, who had recordings of himself singing under Pollack’s instruction. Together they approached Dr. Amalia Kedem, a musicologist and cataloger of the music archives at the National Library, who had already been deeply involved in sorting Pollack’s manuscripts and collecting his recordings. And so it was that the written notations found on the street and vocal renditions which emerged in South Africa were unified to complete the puzzle of Pollack’s music.

Pollack possessed a deep knowledge of the nuances of customs of various European communities, thus for example notating the similar but different tunes for the High Holidays of the “Eastern European” and “Hungarian” traditions. His archive is therefore an invaluable historical testimony of a tradition destroyed in the flames of the Holocaust.

Cantor Moshe Nordheim, featured in these clips singing tunes he learned from Zalman Pollack, donated a number of rare recordings of Pollack to the National Library of Israel:

Pollack also notated the prayer rites prevalent in Israel, providing important input regarding the scarcely documented oral tradition of Ashkenazi synagogue music in Mandatory Palestine and the early years of Israeli statehood.

His contribution to the rebuilding of the European cantorial traditions in Israel may have remained relatively anonymous, but thanks to the efforts of Amalia Kedem and the National Library of Israel, it is secure and his treasure trove is available on the Library’s website. He may not have left children, but Zalman Pollack’s students continue to give voice to his musical legacy.

Lindenberg remembers Pollack saying, “Classical music is pleasant to the ear, but chazzanut [cantorial singing] is pleasing to the soul.”

The Zalman Pollack Archive is part of the National Sound Archive and Music Department at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Dozens of recordings of Pollack and his students are available online, including this particularly moving recording of him and his student, Zelig Braverman.

The author thanks Amalia Kedem for her kindness.

A version of this article was previously published in The Times of Israel. 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.

A Peek into Paradise: What Can Medieval Manuscripts Teach Us about Adam and Eve?

Was the serpent originally a form of ape? What fruit did the first sinners eat? And how does Lilith figure into the story? These intriguing questions have stirred the imaginations of illustrators of Hebrew manuscripts throughout history

The Temptation of Adam and Eve, an illustration from the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6–7)

The year was 1296. Maimonides had been dead for nearly a century, but his groundbreaking writings were still making waves, his unique voice echoing across the Jewish world. In northern France, one of the greatest works in the history of Hebrew manuscript illumination was being copied and illustrated: a manuscript of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ great halakhic work, also known as Sefer Yad ha-Hazaka (“Book of the Strong Hand”). In the 19th century, Prof. David Kaufmann, the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest, purchased the manuscript, which is today preserved, together with his entire library, at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.

The title pages of each of the manuscript’s 14 sections are adorned with delicate floral ornaments as well as a rectangular cartouche featuring the opening word of the text in large letters. Some of the pages’ lower margins are decorated with drawings related to the text. Most of the illustrations in the manuscript depict familiar biblical scenes. For example, Samson killing the lion, David and Goliath, the binding of Isaac and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Aside from these, there are also illustrations of medieval knights and hunters. The prevailing hypothesis is that the illustrator was Christian.

A knight, decorated with gold leaf, the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

The manuscript’s final illustration (Book 13, vol. IV, fol. 70) shows Adam and Eve standing on either side of the Tree of Knowledge. Most intriguing is the shape of the snake, which has arms! What’s more, the snake bears more than a passing resemblance to… a monkey.

The final illustration in the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah, featuring Adam and Eve

Another question with regard to the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah illustration is why Adam and Eve are already depicted covering themselves with fig leaves if they are only now eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. How are they already aware of their nakedness?

Detail, the Temptation of Adam and Eve, the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah

The four chapters of the Bible dedicated to the story of Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden left future generations with much material for thought and creative expression. While the Jewish sages and later commentators repeatedly discussed various and bizarre questions related to humanity’s original ancestors, the illustrators of Hebrew manuscripts over the generations concentrated almost exclusively on a particular dramatic moment in the story: the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and the destructive consequences of violating the divine proscription.


The Comic Strip in the Sarajevo Haggadah

Several decades after the decoration of the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah, Adam and Eve appear again, this time in the work known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Today, this Haggadah is displayed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, hence its name. However, it is thought that the magnificent Haggadah was actually written and decorated in Barcelona, around the year 1350.

Unlike the usual focus on the scene of the Temptation, the Sarajevo Haggadah actually shows Adam and Eve in a variety of scenes. After two pages of illustrations depicting the creation of the world, we are introduced to the couple. The panels are reminiscent of a comic strip that reads from right to left and top to bottom. We first see Eve being formed from Adam’s side (or rib) and immediately after, Adam and Eve are seen eating from the forbidden tree while the snake watches them. In the bottom illustration on the right, the couple realize they are naked and cover themselves with fig leaves, and at the left, we see them banished from Paradise. Both are now clothed and Eve is spinning wool while Adam works the land by the sweat of his brow.

Four scenes featuring Adam and Eve in the Sarajevo Haggadah

Now let us return to one of the most intriguing details in any illustration of Adam and Eve – the shape of the serpent. In the Sarajevo Haggadah, the serpent appears in its familiar form, according to the biblical curse: “Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” (Genesis 3:14). In the illustration at the top, the limbless snake coils around the Tree of Knowledge, and in the illustration below it is slithering on its stomach. Eve, apparently having learned to be wary of it, looks as if she might use her spindle to rap the snake on its head.

In the bottom right scene, rays of light appear over the tree on the left. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve “heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day.”  “Where art thou?” God asks Adam, who immediately justifies himself and explains: “I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Why? “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” (Genesis 3:7–12). The anonymous illustrator of the Sarajevo Haggadah imagined God as rays of celestial light, a familiar visual tactic for representing the image of God, and especially the divine voice.

“The voice of the LORD God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day,” the Sarajevo Haggadah

The Image of God in the Golden Haggadah

Some 30 years before the writing of the Sarajevo Haggadah, around 1320, another Passover Haggadah was written and illustrated in Barcelona. Named the “Golden Haggadah” for the gilded backgrounds adorning the 128 illustrated pages out of the 322 pages in total in the manuscript, this Haggadah also opens with illustrations of biblical scenes. However, the first illustration does not present the creation of the world. Instead, it shows Adam naming all the animals in Paradise, according to a nearby inscription.

Illustration from the Golden Haggadah: Adam naming the animals

The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah contains two scenes familiar from the Sarajevo Haggadah: the creation of Eve from Adam’s side and the pair eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The startling innovation here concerns the portrayal of the image of God, who appears from a cloud to scold the three sinners—Adam, Eve and the serpent. Though the artist may have intended to portray an angel and not God himself, many might consider this illustration a violation of the second commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness” (Exodus 20:2–3). The inscription above the illustration reads simply: “Adam and his wife naked.”

Second illustration in the Golden Haggadah: the image of the watchful God appearing from a cloud

Similar to the Sarajevo Haggadah, the illustrations in the Golden Haggadah are separated into four panels. On the opening page, below the illustrations of Adam and Eve, we see the murder of Abel by Cain and next to this, Noah and his wife and sons leaving the ark. Here, too, the figure of the watchful God appears above.

The four panels in the Golden Haggadah

Between Judaism and Christianity

The story of Adam and Eve was naturally embraced by Christian tradition. The Western Church even preserved one of the apocryphal books, “The Life of Adam and Eve”, which recounts their story after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Influences in the opposite direction also exist – Hebrew manuscripts from Europe often show the adoption of Christian motifs, methods of copying and illustration styles. The Frankish knights from the Kaufmann Mishneh Torah are but one of many examples.

Another example of the inter-religious influence associated with Adam and Eve can be found in the Schocken Bible. This manuscript, originating in southern Germany, is preserved at the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem, and dates to around 1300. The beautiful title page features 46 miniatures in medallions, each depicting a scene from Genesis. The blue and red color scheme was common in stained glass windows in Gothic churches as well as Christian manuscripts from the period.

The first two medallions are dedicated to Adam and Eve. The first shows the Temptation, and the second, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Note that in the Schocken Bible, the couple is depicted naked even after the expulsion. Clearly, even after the sin, “man … shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Title page of the Schocken Bible


Detail of the two medallions showing Adam and Eve, the Schocken Bible

Romantic Icons

Indeed, Adam and Eve’s devotion to each other did not go unnoticed in the Jewish artistic community over the ages. We find a hint of this in many Jewish marriage contracts (Ketubbot) adorned with the figures of the first couple. For example in a Ketubbah dating back to 1629 from Mantua, Italy, Adam and Eve are depicted reaching out their hands and holding what appear to be golden apples. The illustration raises another question that challenged the Jewish sages: What kind of fruit grew on the Tree of Knowledge? The most popular candidate is the apple of course, but the biblical text offers no evidence to support this claim.

Adam and Eve, from a Ketubbah. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

We also found a unique manuscript that contains illustrations of Adam and Eve without mention of the Temptation or the Fall. A manuscript picture bible from Warsaw features illustrations of the major events in the Bible, with the relevant quotations from the biblical text written above each scene. The first illustrations show the creation of the world and the creation of the flora and fauna.

Creation of the World, the Warsaw Bible. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art, in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

Two illustrations are devoted to the story of Adam and Eve. The first, on the right, shows Adam naming the animals. Next to it, on the left, is the creation of Eve. Notice how in both illustrations, the artist took care to preserve Adam’s modesty by adding a large-leafed plant to cover his loins.

Adam and Eve, the Warsaw Bible. Courtesy of the Bezalel Narkiss Index of Jewish Art, in the Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University

Illustrations of the first couple can be found in bibles,  halakhic books, Haggadot and Ketubbot. The purpose of the illustrations varied according to the type of text. In Ketubbot, their appearance was meant as a living example of romantic love; in Haggadot and illustrated bibles, their story was intended as a landmark in the historical continuum from Creation to the giving of the Torah and the birth of the Jewish people; and in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah they are a purely decorative ornament.


In the World of Demons and Spirits

We conclude with a more modern illustration of Adam and Eve—taken from a Jewish mystical amulet. Apparently, the most common Jewish amulets were intended for the protection of new mothers. These amulets cited the names of Adam and Eve, as well as three angels who were called to protect the mother and her newborn.

An entire tapestry of Jewish legends has been woven into the origin story of this particular type of amulet. Some of these legends describe the Jewish mythological figure of Lilith as Adam’s first wife, who was banished before she could bear him sons. In a desperate attempt to take revenge on Adam and all his offspring, the demonic Lilith devotes herself to harassing newborns and their mothers. She strangles babies in their sleep, seduces men and becomes pregnant with the wasted sperm, giving birth to demonic stepchildren.

According to Jewish folklore, three angels—Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof—were sent to stop Lilith and return her to Adam. But she claimed that she was now the partner of the great demon Samael and could no longer return to her former husband. The angels managed to extort a promise from her that she would not harm the descendants of Adam from his second wife Eve, which would explain the appearance of their names next to Adam and Eve on the amulets.

The earliest known printed Jewish amulet is a birthing amulet of this sort, featuring a depiction of Adam and Eve and published in Amsterdam around 1700. Suffice it to say, the scene is a familiar one, featuring a notoriously untrustworthy serpent…

A birthing amulet featuring an illustration of Adam and Eve. The names of the angels Senoy, Sansenoy and Samengelof also appear, as do the names Lilith and Satan. This is the earliest Jewish amulet to appear in print. Source: Angels and Demons: Jewish Magic Through the Ages, edited by Filip Vukosavovitch

Revealed: Stirring Words from the Victims of the Mexican Inquisition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Stars in the heavens

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

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

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

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

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

There is wisdom here for us all.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women of the Book

At least three women are linked to this copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Connection, surprises and questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was she actually called up to the Torah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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