This miniature Torah is just 6 centimeters (2 1/3 inches) in height! (Photo: Amit Dekel Productions)
For thousands of years, Jewish communities across the globe have treasured one object above all others: the Torah scroll – the five Books of Moses meticulously handwritten on parchment.
The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem safeguards numerous Torah scrolls among millions of other treasures. Their letters are largely identical, yet as historical objects some are certainly more interesting and significant than others.
Due to their invaluable nature and fragile state, these treasures are very rarely ever removed from the National Library vaults, but – with the approval and oversight of our experts – we managed to take a few of them out briefly in order to to give you a glimpse and share their stories!
Yemenite Torah Fragments from 1,000 Years Ago
These fragments from an approximately 1,000 year-old Yemenite Torah scroll were found in a bookbinding, for which they were used as raw material long after the scroll was originally written:
The Rhodes Torah
This Torah scroll was used at the Kahal Shalom Synagogue in Rhodes for centuries. The local mufti is said to have hidden it from the Nazis under the pulpit of a local mosque, where it subsequently survived the war, even though the vast majority of the Rhodes Jewish community did not:
The Saul Wahl Torah
Legend has it that in the late 16th century a Jewish merchant and adviser to royalty served as King of Poland for just one day. Some believe that this was his personal Torah scroll:
These clips were created for the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, as part of A Look at the Jewish Year, a journey through the Hebrew calendar via the peerless collections of the National Library of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.
The project is part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.
The Crown of the “Giant” Queen of Tonga and the Star of David
How did a glittering Star of David become the centerpiece of the royal crown and state symbol of a Pacific island nation? What does the Kingdom of Sheba have to do with circumcision? Join us on a journey around the globe as we follow the six-pointed star to the most unexpected of places…
Queen Sālote Tupou III wearing her crown adorned with the Star of David, source: Wikimedia, colorization: MyHeritage
Tonga, a small island kingdom in the southwest Pacific Ocean made headlines in early 2022, when an underwater volcano erupted near its shores causing a tsunami. This was followed by a strong earthquake less than two weeks later. As sometimes happens when a faraway place suddenly appears in the news, our curiosity was piqued, and we wanted to learn more.
What do we know about Tonga? Well, not much. We know it’s an island nation in the South Pacific; that at the Olympic opening ceremony, the flagbearer tends to wear a straw skirt; and that the Disney movie Moana takes place in that general area. The Tonga Islands – there are about 150 of them – are sometimes known as the “Friendly Islands,” a name given to them by Captain James Cook, who chose it, allegedly after having been received on the islands with kindness when he landed his ship there during a major local festival.
The inhabitants belong to the Polynesian peoples that stretch across the islands of the vast Pacific Ocean from Fiji to Hawaii. Admittedly, Polynesian culture, rich with demi-gods and folk tales about such things as the creation of the coconut, is very far from Jewish and Israeli culture. Which is why I was very surprised when shortly after beginning my search for information about this distant kingdom, I came across a very familiar symbol.
A coronation photograph of Tonga’s revered Queen Sālote Tupou III, who ascended to the throne in 1918, shows her wearing a white gown with a ribbon sash across her chest and an ermine fur-trimmed robe in the best European tradition. Around her neck is an elaborate necklace with a pendant in the shape of a cross. However, the most surprising detail of all is her crown, which features at its center the six-pointed Star of David, an ancient symbol not usually associated with the Pacific Islands.
Queen Sālote Tupou III’s 47-year reign (she died in 1965), is the longest of all of Tonga’s monarchs. One could say she was their “Queen Elizabeth.” Yet, unlike Queen Elizabeth II of England, Sālote was famous for her height – she was 6 foot 3 inches tall (1.91 m) – and was dubbed “The Giant Queen” by the world media.
Her fame reached as far as Israel, when in 1953, she told reporters while attending the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London that her grandmother had been present at the coronation of Queen Victoria. Tonga’s queen won over the masses at the coronation when during the heavy rainfall, she refused to close the roof of her carriage and rode through London while smiling and waving to the crowds lining the streets despite the downpour.
We cannot conclude this episode without relating this little anecdote: During her visit, journalists asked how she came to acquire her perfect English accent, to which Queen Sālote smiled and replied, “What is so surprising? English blood flows through my veins, for, back in the day, my grandfather devoured two English missionaries who had come to our island to spread the Christian faith.”
Returning to Queen Sālote’s coronation photograph, how did this allegedly Jewish symbol find itself in Polynesia, and particularly in a country known to be devoutly Christian since the 19th century? In my quest to find out, I realized that the six-pointed star also appears several times on Tonga’s national coat of arms! At the center is a large white Star of David overlaid with a red cross, while three smaller Stars of David appear at the top left. Some say the group of three stars symbolizes the three main island groups that make up the kingdom. Others say they stand for the three royal dynasties that comprise the current monarchy. The same design also appears on Tonga’s royal flag. What’s more, the Star of David has occasionally appeared on the kingdom’s official stamps and coins.
I wanted to know why Tonga’s people use this particular symbol, but it turns out that in Israel there aren’t many historians who are experts in the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. I tried a different route. I sent my question to the Israeli ambassador to New Zealand who is also responsible for Israel’s relations with Tonga and who just happened to be visiting the islands at the time, but even when he asked his hosts, he couldn’t get a precise answer.
In fact, the six-pointed star appears in many cultures, and is not necessarily related to the Jewish Star of David. The symbol is often displayed as two superimposed triangles, like on the Israeli flag, and it has been known in Eastern cultures for thousands of years, being adopted by the Jews only at a relatively late stage. The historian Dr. Ian C. Campbell, who researched the history of Tonga, told me that the Rev. Shirley Waldemar Baker, a Christian missionary who lived in the Kingdom of Tonga for some thirty years in the late 19th century, was the designer of the above-mentioned coat of arms. Other sources claim a local prince as its creator. In any case, the symbols on it are clearly Western, and likely originated under the influence of external factors, most probably Christian missionaries.
It would appear that the story doesn’t end with the coat of arms. The rose window of the Free Church of Tonga in Nuku’alofa, the nation’s capital, also features a large Star of David, while the highest peak in Tonga is called “Mount Zion.” It turns out that the same missionaries probably introduced additional stories connecting the people of Tonga to the ancient peoples of the Near East, as a way to foster an emotional connection among the islanders with the stories of the Bible.
An English priest by the name of James Egan Molton, who served as head of the Methodist Church in Tonga in the early 20th century, wrote an article claiming that the people of Tonga originated in the Persian Gulf. According to historian Dr. Paula Latu, a native of Tonga, Molton wrote another text that featured the interesting claim that the king of Sheba and his subjects settled in Tonga, Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Samoa. The kingdom of Sheba is believed to have been located in the Gulf of Aden, in Yemen or Ethiopia. However, the missionaries who came to the Tonga Islands, “with the Bible in hand,” likely based their improbable claim of the connection between Tonga and the kingdom of Sheba on Psalm 72, verse 10, in which it is written: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall render tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.” The Christian missionaries’ imaginations were probably aroused by the mention of the islands in connection with the kings of Sheba and Seba.
The local theologian Dr. Ma’afu Palu expanded on this point. He claims the verse from Psalms deals with gifts that the kings will give to the Messiah. “These are qualities that characterize Tongans everywhere. They are known for their generosity,” he says of the people who, as we recall, inhabit the “Friendly Islands.” “According to this theory, the son of the queen of Sheba abdicated the throne and set sail from the Mediterranean Sea, arriving at last in Tonga,” he says.
According to Palu, the missionaries found additional similarities between the Bible stories and the reality they encountered in Tonga. “The first book of Kings, chapter 22, tells of pagan leaders, whose worship was similar to ours here in Tonga before the spread of Christianity in the 19th century. Furthermore, male circumcision was customary in Tonga from ancient times. The belief was that the same prince of Sheba who – allegedly – started the settlement in Tonga brought these customs here.” On the common local custom of circumcision, Palu adds that the bodies of the kings of Tonga were considered sacred, so they were the only men in the kingdom who were not circumcised.
Clearly, these stories and the Star of David all derive from Christian missionaries who sought to convert the locals by connecting them to the stories in the Bible. The island state enthusiastically adopted these, along with an affinity to the ancient Hebrews, the Star of David, and the name Zion. Nevertheless, besides the mysterious connections to biblical symbols, Tonga and Polynesia also have their own fascinating ancient local traditions with a wide pantheon of gods and myths.
And what of Queen Sālote’s beautiful crown? We still have many questions for which we could not find any answers. We were unable to find any mention of the crown that appeared in the coronation photograph, or when or where it was made. We weren’t able to find out if other kings used it before or since or where it is located today. Perhaps our readers can shed light on additional threads linking the Middle East to the peoples of the Pacific.
Why Does Elijah Visit Us on the Eve of Passover?
The story of how the most zealous of the biblical prophets ended up becoming everyone’s most anticipated Passover dinner guest
Elijah ascends to the heavens, in a chariot of fire. From a copy of Sefer Evronot, 1716, the National Library of Israel collections
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD,
We know him as the secret guest of the Seder feast…
Some say that he celebrates alongside the rest of the festive meal’s participants – present, yet unseen. Others swear that he arrives in the dead of night and tastes from the remaining cup of wine when everyone is already fast asleep, after having drunk their four cups. Truly, there is none better suited for the role of guest than the prophet Elijah. The biblical book of Malachi describes the prophet as the herald of redemption. He is also one of the only biblical figures whose death is not related in the Bible. Like Enoch, he ascends to heaven before death.
Elijah’s debut on the biblical stage is as dramatic as his departure: He first appears while prophesying a drought that will cease only when he himself calls for the rains to fall. His prophesy immediately follows a listing of the sins of King Ahab. The severe drought that Elijah inflicts on Israel lasts for three years. When King Ahab attempts to undo it, Elijah challenges him, defeating and even killing the prophets of Baal, causing King Ahab at last to repent and abandon idolatry. When Ahab’s son Ahaziah succeeds him to the throne, the new king is quick to restore idol worship. Ahaziah sends two groups of soldiers to kill the aged Elijah, one after another, yet both missions end in disaster – Elijah summons fire from the heavens to consume the soldiers. The third time, the soldiers kneel before the prophet, begging him to spare them. The king dies as a result and his brother Yoram succeeds him.
After the death of the sinful king comes the denouement in the story of the prophet—his ascension to heaven in the presence of his disciple Elisha:
“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:11)
Among the Hebrew prophets, Elijah stands out as a strict and stubborn figure who is not afraid to confront the kings of Israel or its God. He is also the only prophet who seeks a tangible and severe punishment for the sinful people of Israel. All of which makes it puzzling that this is the very same kindly old man who comes to visit us on the night of the Seder, and whose chair is reserved in the synagogue for use during the Brit Milah or Bris (circumcision) ceremony.
So why did Elijah, specifically, inherit these roles in Jewish tradition? It seems that his religious zeal for the strict adherence to God’s laws was what secured him the role of guardian and guest. Moreover, his Passover role is predicated on the special chair in the synagogue bearing his name.
The tradition of Elijah’s chair being used during the circumcision ceremony began in the Middle Ages, when a tale developed of an agreement made between God and the zealous Elijah, that a Jewish baby’s circumcision could not be held without the prophet’s presence. In Pirkei Derabi Dliezer, it is written – “By thy life! They shall not observe the covenant of circumcision until thou seest it (done) with thine eyes. Hence the sages instituted the custom that people should have a seat of honor for the Messenger of the Covenant” (chap. 29, 213-214).
The most zealous of God’s prophets, who asks that the sinful people of Israel be stricken (usually, it’s the other way round, with God signaling his wrath against his sinning people through one of his prophets), is naturally also considered the strictest when it comes to following rules. That is why he was also given this role, to oversee the circumcision, to ensure that it be carried out to the letter of the law.
We’ve already mentioned that Elijah is considered the herald of redemption—who wouldn’t want a guest bearing such good tidings? Elijah, having already proved himself in his Brit Milah ceremony role, was recruited to serve as the guest of honor at the Seder feast, one of the holiest nights of the Jewish year. Passover is also called the Festival of Redemption, and who better than the herald of redemption to be the special guest at our Seders?
Elijah is also the bringer of peace. With redemption not quite upon us yet, the peace that Elijah brings on the eve of the Seder is first and foremost for the celebrants, and is directly related to the terrible persecution experienced by the Jews of Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages. The figure of Elijah served as a shield from antisemitic persecutions which would tend to escalate before Passover due to false claims about Jews murdering Christian children and using their blood to bake matzah bread.
It’s worth noting that, despite his obvious zeal and enthusiasm, the figure of Elijah is quite separate from that of the Messiah – Elijah serves to herald redemption, he does not bring it himself. If Elijah the prophet does visit our home, this is not evidence that heaven on earth has been declared, only that we have again been granted a measure of peace and security for this year. A lower bar, certainly, but still one we are happy to accept.
Over time and with the growing sense of security among the world’s Jews, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel, the peace that Elijah brings is understood in more narrow terms; that is – between parents and children. Already in the Talmudic literature and within the framework of his role as the messenger of peace, Elijah is considered Judaism’s supreme arbiter. Hence, he was recruited to settle the great Seder controversy: the fifth cup. A heated debate took place among the sages over how many cups of wine to drink at the Seder meal. The generally agreed-upon answer is four, but some argued for five. Therefore, a compromise was reached: We pour five cups of wine, but drink only four. And when Elijah returns he will solve the problem, once and for all!
Eventually, Elijah was called upon to settle more serious disputes, and in case you didn’t know, dear readers, there is a belief that our Elijah is the deciding vote even in soccer matches. The Hebrew term teiku (the equivalent of “tie” or “draw”), appears in Talmudic literature as a term that indicates a discussion among the sages that ends in indecision. The word is interpreted as an acronym for: Tishbi yitaretz kushiyot uba’ayot (literally, “[Elijah of] Tishbi will decide questions and problems”), meaning, the question will stand until such time when the prophet Elijah of Tishbi will arrive and decide it.
Jewish tradition loves innovations, but only those that are rooted in the Jewish sources. The prophet Elijah is the herald of redemption, bringer of peace, the prophet who escaped death, and also – and this explains his miraculous visiting abilities – a teleporter of the highest order. The term kfitzat haderekh (lit. “contraction of the road”) appears in the Talmud as a journey that is miraculously shortened. After all, Elijah of the book of Kings is already unique in his ability to launch himself from one location to another. Before ascending to heaven, he was known for his sudden appearances. One moment he is in Tsarfat, (no, not the Hebrew name for France, but the ancient Phoenician city Sarepta, Sarafan in modern-day Lebanon) and the next he is standing in front of Obadiah, a court official in charge of King Ahab’s household in the Kingdom of Israel. Even those to whom Elijah suddenly appears are not too shaken, as Obadiah says to the prophet, “And it will come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the spirit of the LORD will carry thee whither I know not” (1 Kings 18:12)
The traditions of the prophet Elijah that began in Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages are preserved to this day among all the Jewish communities of the world. Most of us still leave an empty chair and a full cup of wine for the prophet Elijah, just in case. And, if and when the time comes to announce the redemption and peace on earth, who are we to argue?
Thanks to Dr. Chana Shaham-Rozby for her help with this article.
Pirkei de rabbi eliezer (“The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer the Great, According to the Text of the Manuscript Belonging to Abraham Epstein of Vienna”), translated and annotated by Gerald Friedlander (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1916)
‘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)”.
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:
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).
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:
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 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.
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.