Eating by Example on Yom Kippur, an Epidemic Story

When cholera ran rampant, saving lives superseded all else

"Yom Kippur" by Jacob Weinles. Publisher: Levanon, Warsaw; from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem via the National Library of Israel Digital Library

It once appeared in an Israeli newspaper and had the elements of a good story.

An epidemic.  A famous rabbi. Public eating on Yom Kippur to prove a point.

The epidemic took place somewhere in Europe, sometime in the 19th century.

The protagonist was Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as “The Malbim”, the scholar, biblical commentator and crusader against non-traditional Judaism who was once imprisoned and exiled from Romania following particularly heated ideological disagreements with his co-religionists. Formerly chief rabbi of Bucharest, the aged scholar spent much of the end of his life on the road, including stops in Istanbul, Paris, Prussia and the Russian Empire.

Sketch of the Malbim, possibly drawn by the noted Polish Jewish artist, photographer and writer Haim Goldberg (also known as “Haggai”). From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

According to the story, this staunch advocate of Orthodoxy commanded the normally forbidden act of eating on the holiest day of the year due to the dangers posed by an epidemic. The preservation of life, after all, supersedes virtually all other considerations and rules according to Jewish law.

When he realized that those attending synagogue had not listened to his instructions and were clearly fasting in any event, he had a bowl of grits and peas brought up to him. He made a blessing over his food and finished off the portion in front of his congregation, declaring:

“I said there is no obligation to fast at this time. ‘Preserving your lives’ overrides many commandments in the Torah, but I was nonetheless concerned that you would close your hearts and put your lives at risk, and so I had to serve as an example so that you would see me and do so yourselves…”

The problem?

The story doesn’t seem to have been about the Malbim at all.

While a number of epidemics plagued Europe during his lifetime, a survey of works ranging from children’s stories about him to doctoral theses and scholarly books revealed no clear mention of this perhaps apocryphal story.

A nearly identical – and better documented – tale is told of another famous rabbi of the period, Yisrael ben Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin, better known as Israel Salanter, the father of the modern Mussar Movement, which emphasizes the centrality of ethics and personal morality and growth to Jewish practice.

Accounts of the Rabbi Salanter story, which took place in Vilna in 1848, differ.

Some closely mirror the very public display recounted above, with an additional element of the rabbi making blessings over wine and cake before partaking of both on the dais.  Though he doesn’t mention Rabbi Salanter by name, the well-known Hebrew author David Frischmann dramatized this version decades later in his short story “Three Who Ate“. Other accounts over the years, some first-hand, offer a more nuanced take on events where the rabbi encourages the infirmed to eat virtuously, but does not command everyone to eat, nor make a spectacle of it himself.

Cholera ran rampant in those years, killing some one million people throughout the Russian Empire in 1848 alone. In addition to the Yom Kippur ruling, Rabbi Salanter physically and practically helped those in need, instructing his many students to do the same.

Outside the Old Synagogue of Vilna. Publisher: J. Ch, W. Verlag, from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

While his story may be the most well-known and provocative, Rabbi Salanter was certainly not the only major rabbinic figure of the period to condone and even encourage eating on Yom Kippur by those at risk during the seemingly constant cholera epidemics of the 19th century.  They were, of course, not arbitrary decisions, but ones often made after intensive consultations with leading physicians and based on thousands of years of Jewish legal precedent emphasizing the preservation of life over pretty much everything else.

That precedent is clearly laid down in the Talmud – the seminal work of Jewish law, philosophy and lore – which also includes many cases of stories for which the sages themselves debate the protagonist’s identity.

Ultimately, some would argue, it often doesn’t really matter who did what, as the story itself and the accompanying lesson are what’s truly important.

It is possible that, like Rabbi Salanter, the Malbim once ate in front of his congregation on Yom Kippur.

Perhaps he did it in a less provocative and less memorable way.

Perhaps it never happened at all and perhaps that doesn’t really matter.


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.

How Tishrei Became the First Month of the Hebrew Calendar

How did we come to celebrate the New Year in the fall when in the Bible it was celebrated in the spring? And what is the origin of the first month’s peculiar name?


The Hebrew month of Tishrei begins with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah – the festival of the Jewish New Year. Yet many of you will be aware that Tishrei was not actually the first month in the calendar of the ancient Hebrews chronicled in the Bible. So what of the many holidays we associate with Tishrei today? Tishrei originally had at the very least one festival—Sukkot—during which the faithful were expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a feat that was considerably more challenging than the typical holiday traffic nowadays. What’s more, the ancient Hebrews didn’t call this month Tishrei.  In this article, we will learn a bit about this month, its unique name, and how it came to be the first month of the Jewish year.

According to tradition, the patriarch Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac in the month of Tishrei. Above – The Binding of Isaac, as depicted in a copy of Sefer Evronot, a treatise on the Jewish calendar from the 18th century, the National Library of Israel collections

Let’s start with the name. As is well known, the names of the months of the Hebrew calendar derive from the Babylonian calendar, which was in Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language spoken mainly in Assyria and Babylonia. Given that the Babylonians were the leading astronomers in the region, it’s not surprising that their language had such a profound effect on the Hebrew calendar.

The month’s name—Tishrei – in fact stems from the Akkadian word tašrītu which means “beginning.” But the beginning of what?  Similar to most ancient peoples of the region, the Babylonians began counting the new year in spring, in the month of Nisan (another name of Akkadian origin). It could be that the Babylonians marked the beginning of the second half of the year with an additional festival in Tishrei—the seventh month, if one begins counting from Nisan. The Babylonian-Akkadian name also made its way into Arab dialects in the region of Mesopotamia and the Levant: the Gregorian months of October and November are called Tishrin al-Ul and Tishrin a-Thani, meaning – first and second Tishrei.

Illustration for the month of Tishrei from Tsurot Sidrei Olam, a scientific treatise from the 17th century, the National Library of Israel collections

In the Bible, it is customary to call the months of the year by their number. Therefore, when the Israelites are commanded to celebrate Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and the mysterious holiday on the first of Tishrei (“a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts”, Leviticus 23:24), the month is simply called the “seventh month.” However, the seventh month is also one of the only months whose local-Canaanite name appears in the Bible. 1 Kings 8 tells of the people who gathered in Jerusalem for the dedication of the Temple by King Solomon: “… at the time of the festival in the month of Ethanim, the seventh month.” The Jewish sages offered various interpretations for the meaning of the “month of Ethanim,” but it is likely that it derives simply from the beginning of the rains, when the rising waters of the rivers and streams generated a strong current (ethan/eitan means “strong” in Hebrew).

A poster inviting the public to a lecture on “The Month of Ethanim [Tishrei] and its Festivals“, 1968. “It is recommended to bring a Bible“, the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

We won’t delve into the intricacies of the theories surrounding the origin of the Tishrei holidays, though journalist and linguist Elon Gilad has discussed these at length in a number of very interesting columns (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot) for Haaretz. Here, we will discuss the change that took place in the calendar, after which Tishrei became the first month of the Jewish year.

According to Gilad, most of the books of the Bible do not mention a festival on the first day of Tishrei. In fact, certain passages even mention other holidays which took place on or near this date. Aside from a number of commandments pertaining to the mysterious festival that appear in Leviticus and Numbers, the first mention of a festive event occurring on this date is in the Book of Ezra, which recounts the reading of the Torah on the first day of Tishrei. The sages were the first to assert this festival’s significance as the New Year, in the Mishna and Tosefta.  These writings date to around 200 CE, but it is possible that they document an earlier tradition.

[May] A New Year and its blessings begin“ – Illustrated title page for a calendar for the year 5678 (1917–1918), written by Wolf Zopnik, who was captured by the Russians and held in Siberia during WWI, the National Library of Israel collections

Thus, according to Gilad’s hypothesis, sometime during the first and second centuries CE, the Jewish sages gave a new meaning to the mystery festival described in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, according it the special status we attribute to it today. They determined that this is the anniversary of the creation of the world, and the day on which human beings are judged for their actions during the past year, and on which their fate for the coming year is determined. Gilad further speculates that the choice of the fall season for the New Year as opposed to spring, which was common throughout the region (for example, the new year in Iran is still celebrated around March), was intended to distinguish the Jewish people from the surrounding nations. We also add that the destruction of the Temple and the severing of the agricultural connection from the religious ritual likely enabled this change in the calendar.

Whatever the case, today we are able to enjoy a very festive and symbolic month, which has become especially significant in Jewish-Hebrew-Israeli culture. We’ll leave you with this Hebrew “Song for the Month of Tishrei” (lyrics and music by Datia Ben-Dor), courtesy of the cast of Parpar Nehmad, a classic Israeli children’s television show. Happy New Year to all our readers!

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