The Origin of the Jewish Hat

How did the pointed hat of European aristocracy become an anti-Jewish Symbol? And was it the forerunner of the modern skullcap?

The yellow badge is undoubtedly the most infamous item of clothing in Jewish history. The practice of forcing Jews to wear this piece of cloth on the lapel of their clothing first appeared in parts of Western Europe during the 13th century. With their invasion of Poland, the Nazis revived the use of this insidious custom. In this article, we look at another article of clothing, the pointed hat, Pileus Cornutus in Latin, which some consider to be the precursor of one of the most recognizable Jewish symbols today.

Exactly when and where the pointed hat made its debut atop the heads of Jews in Europe is difficult to pinpoint. We know what the “Jewish hat” may have looked like mainly from images which appear in illuminated manuscripts.

One of the earliest illustrations of such a hat perched atop the head of a Jew is found in the early 14th-century Codex Manesse. In the image, we see the figure of Süßkind von Trimberg, a Jewish poet and troubadour, wearing just such a hat. In this medieval German poetry anthology, Süßkind is credited as the author of six of the poems inscribed in its pages. He happens to be the first German-Jewish poet whom we know by his full name.

Codex Manesse, Bibliotheca Palatina of Heidelberg

Interestingly, the pointed hat was not always identified with Jews. This style could be found in various places in medieval Europe and was worn by aristocrats and high-ranking officials, among others. Before the 12th century, even English peasants would wear the hat in imitation of the upper classes. How then, did this popular hat eventually come to be associated uniquely with Jews?

At the height of its fashion, at the turn of the 12th century, the pointed hat suddenly fell out of favor, around the time of the tragic and violent encounter between West and East during the First Crusade. Before making their way to Constantinople and the Holy Land, some crusaders led pogroms against German Jewish communities. These fueled anti-Jewish sentiment and imagery, which featured negative depictions of Jews wearing the pointed hat. Thus the item began to be associated in the medieval European mindset with the “killers of Christ” and with treachery in general. What self-respecting Christian would want to wear such a hat after that?

Jews’ lives and dress changed dramatically following the decisions of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which decreed that Jews living in Christian lands must dress in a manner that distinguished them from the Christian population. This may also be the reason behind the change in the design of the Christian clergy’s headdress. As you can see in the illustration below, a second point was added to the traditional single-pointed miter.

The Fourth Lateran Council, a 13th-century illustration

England was the first among several Western European regions to adopt the identifying badge. The German-speaking cities added to this also the pointed hat. In 1266, the city of Breslau, now Wroclaw, located in western Poland, became the first to adopt the pointed hat as an indicator of Jewish ethnicity. City legislators ruled that the Jews must wear the badge, and “return to wearing the pointed hat (Pileus Cornutus) identified with the Jews in these areas, which in their impudence they have ceased to wear.”

As opposed to the badge, which was clearly defined by size, shape, and the motif at its center, the shape of the pointed Jewish hat was not. As a result, several types of “Jewish hats” appeared in German areas. Some were immediately prohibited, while others were permitted to be worn. However, any attempt to enforce a single agreed-upon form failed.

As was often the case throughout history, rather than object, the Jewish communal leaders chose to view the decree as a positive commandment. Thus, various rabbis, from Menachem Hameiri (1249–1310) in Spain to Yosef Karo (1488–1575), author of the Shulhan Arukh, in Safed, ruled that a believing Jew may only utter the name of the Lord or pray when his head is covered. Some, like Rabbi Yaakov ben Rabbeinu Asher (1270–1340), recommended that Jews not leave their homes with their head uncovered. Thus, one can view the modern yarmulke or kippah as the direct descendant of the attempt to transform the “Jewish hat” into something to be proud of – an integral part of their religious life.

Below are a few examples of pointed hats in Hebrew and other manuscripts:

Mahzor of the Western Ashkenazi Rite, 13th Century, Bibliotheca Palatina of Heidelberg


Bird’s Head Haggadah, 13th Century, the Israel Museum


Tripartite Mahzor, early 14th century, the British Library


Depicted here is a religious debate between Christian scholars (left) and Jews (right), in a woodcut from 1483 by Johann von Armsheim:


In this Yiddish ad from the early 20th century published by Yefet in Jaffa, we see various types of Jewish hats from Ashkenazi communities. The headline reads: “Jewish hats from different periods.”


Lastly, in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a 15th-century Christian Book of Hours, we see the Magi arriving to worship the newborn Jesus in the manger. They too wear the pointed hat.

For further reading:

Naomi Lubrich, The Wandering Hat: Iterations of the Medieval Jewish Pointed Cap, Jewish History, Vol. 29, No 3/4 (December 2015), pp. 203-244

Raphael Straus, The “Jewish Hat” as an Aspect of Social History, Jewish Social Studies , Vol. 4, No. 1 (January, 1942), pp. 59-72

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please, O Lord who creates without having a creator∙

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

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

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

You have brought to light every mystery∙

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

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

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

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

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

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

And raise me up on the balance of grace∙

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

And from their great light, enlighten me∙

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

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

And desire me and receive me∙

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

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

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

And in them lay the secret to everything∙

May my supplication come before you∙

And may your ear be inclined to my joy∙

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

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

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

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


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

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!