The Life of Abraham: Scenes from Hebrew Manuscripts

The trials and tests of Abraham the Patriarch have been explored time and again in Western art and literature

Abraham reaches for the boy, from Yehiel Ben Moshe David's Pinkas HaMohel, 1844, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, USA, 18th and 19th centuries

Since the completion of the ‘Book of Books’, its countless readers have derived inspiration from the great struggles, tests and challenges its heroes faced. It is therefore no surprise that the numerous challenges experienced by one of the Bible’s most renowned and beloved heroes – Abraham the Patriarch – are explored again and again in Western art and literature.

One of the themes most commonly adapted by medieval illuminators of Jewish manuscripts was the sentencing of Abraham to death by Nimrod, King of Ur of the Chaldees, by having him cast into a burning furnace. This story does not appear anywhere in the Bible but in Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, an ancient midrash comprised by Jewish sages to complete the missing pieces of the story of Abraham.

In the famous story, Abraham is cast into a burning furnace for rejecting idolatry and miraculously survives at the hand of divine intervention. In three manuscripts written during the 14th century, the heavenly intervention is illustrated in different ways: The Carpentras Passover Mahzor, held in the British Library, shows Abraham surrounded by flames, as two angels (distinguishable by their wings) enter the furnace to rescue him.

The Carpentras Passover Mahzor | The British Library, London, England, 14th century

The second depiction of Abraham being thrown into the burning furnace is found in the Leipzig Mahzor which was composed sometime around the year 1320. The Mahzor, located at the Leipzig University Library, shows the hand of God himself rescuing Abraham from the burning furnace.

The Leipzig Mahzor | Leipzig University Library, Leipzig, Germany, 14th century

The third depiction appears in the Barcelona Hagaddah, a Passover Haggadah composed in Barcelona around the year 1320: King Nimrod is again shown ordering his subjects to throw Abraham into the burning furnace. Once more, winged angels intervene to ensure Abraham is not consumed by the flames.

A Passover Hagaddah, Nusach Sefard | The British Library, London, England, 14th century

Abraham’s rescue from the burning furnace is not the only scene to be illustrated by these medieval artists. A few hundred years later we find an even more notable scene, perhaps the most famous episode in the the Hebrew Bible – the Binding of Isaac.

The Italian mohel, Matsliah Yehiel Ben Moshe David, maintained a register of his work for over fifty years. The first entry in this register, known as a Pinkas HaMohel, was logged during the Hebrew calendar year 5552 (corresponding to the year 1792 in the Gregorian calendar) and the last is dated 5604 (1844). Most of the register is dedicated to recordings of the circumcision ceremonies he conducted over this period lasting more than fifty years.

The register entries are consistent and contain the dates on which the mohel circumcised the eight-day-old infants; the names of their fathers; each child’s place of birth (e.g. ‘Parme’ – the Italian city Parma); who held the baby on his lap during the circumcision (the godfather or sandak); and who served as kvatter (the person appointed to carry the child to be circumcised). The mohel then recorded the baby’s name, add the blessing: “May he enter into Torah, into marriage, and into good deeds, and so may it be Your will, let us say, Amen.”

Aside from these records of his work, referred to by the register’s owner as Peratim (particulars), the register also consists of a few songs and prayers for the circumcision ceremony, pictures of scenes from the Bible and an “Introduction to the particulars”. The first picture in the register is of the Binding of Isaac. The association here is a curious one: In the Book of Genesis, the Binding of Isaac appears after the covenant between God and Abraham had already been made. Isaac should have already been circumcised by that time.

A register of circumcision | The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, USA, 18th and 19th centuries

This mohel illuminator wasn’t the only one to confuse the Binding of Isaac with the circumcisions of Abraham and Isaac which took place during the covenant between God and Abraham in the earlier Torah portion ‘Lech-Lecha‘ (Genesis 12:1–17:27). In another illustration, which appears in a copy of Sefer Evronot, an even clearer allusion to circumcision is made in the depiction of drops of Isaac’s blood. This work was written and illustrated in Prussia in the Hebrew year of 5476 (1716). Staff members from the National Library’s manuscripts department hypothesized that the illustrations were mainly influenced by what the illustrator may have seen in his own environment, and likely also by various illustrated plaques which would have been common in nearby Christian communities.

Sefer Evronot | The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel, 18th century


If you liked this article, try these:

How a Handwritten 12th-Century Manuscript by Maimonides Ended Up at the National Library

Spotting a Fake: The Flourishing Industry of Jewish Manuscript Forgeries

The Package is Secure: How Jewish Women Were Smuggled to Safety in 19th Century Italy

Asking Forgiveness from Baruch Spinoza

One of the greatest Jewish philosophers of all time? Or a heretic? The story of Baruch Spinoza


A postcard featuring the painting "Spinoza" by the Jewish painter Samuel Hirszenberg, 1907. Spinoza is pictured walking away dejectedly after the expulsion from the Jewish community was imposed on him

On July 27th, 1656, an unusual entry appeared in the community ledger of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews – a decree announcing the excommunication of a 24 year-old Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza. The writ of expulsion read:

The Senhores of the Mahamad make it known that they have long since been cognizant of the wrong opinions and behavior of Baruch d’Espinoza, and tried various means and promises to dissuade him from his evil ways. But as they effected no improvement, obtaining on the contrary more information every day of the horrible heresies which he practised and taught, and of the monstrous actions which he performed… they decided… that the same Espinoza should be excommunicated…

After the judgment of the Angels, and with that of the Saints, we excommunicate, expel and curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of all the Holy Congregation, in front of the holy Scrolls with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts which are written therein, with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys, and with all the curses which are written in the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not pardon him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law, and the Lord will destroy his name from under the Heavens, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the firmament, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that nobody should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favor, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

(Translation: Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University)


Baruch Spinoza – The Quintessential Heretic

It is not clear when exactly the young Baruch Spinoza decided to begin questioning the religion of his forefathers, but it likely happened at an early age. While regularly attending synagogue and keeping the mitzvoth, Spinoza developed his philosophical and theological ideas through an intense study of the Torah. The more he read, the more aware he became of the many contradictions contained within the holy text. As described in his Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza concluded that the Torah’s laws were valid, but only in the political framework established by the ancient Hebrews in the Land of Israel. He claimed that these laws often contradicted the laws of nature as they were understood in Spinoza’s time.

Baruch ‘Benedict’ Spinoza, 1632-1677

Spinoza did not abandon faith in the Eternal, but rather placed the Eternal (that which is divine) within the realm of this world. Spinoza’s God (in contrast to the Judeo-Christian view of God) is not an independent entity, separate from the universe. Spinoza’s God is the universe. In this philosophy, Spinoza developed the foundations of a discipline that would later come to be called “Biblical Criticism.” He created (perhaps for the first time in history) a critical and historical interpretation of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. His interpretation abandons many traditional understandings in favor of using logical and scientific methods to understand the text.

Even in the relatively liberal and enlightened atmosphere of Amsterdam, Spinoza (a descendant of the Portuguese conversos) was disowned by his community. These victims of the Inquisition, descendants of forced converts to Christianity, were now working to bring those of Jewish descent back to their original faith. They saw the words and actions of Spinoza as a threat the delicate fabric of life they had worked so hard to cultivate for themselves. Baruch Spinoza was forced to find a new place in society as a faith-less citizen and philosopher. Historians would later come to refer to him as “the first secular Jew.”

ציור ביתו של שפינוזה
A drawing of Spinoza’s house, from the Avraham Schwadron collection

Throughout the generations, the Jewish people have had a complex relationship with the figure and writings of Baruch Spinoza. In his lifetime, he was forced to communicate his teachings to his few students in abbreviated, discreet form. He published his public writings anonymously, but his most far-reaching book, Ethics, was discovered in a drawer in his home following his death.

For hundreds of years, Jews continued to reject Spinoza and his ideas. Even after he died and his offenses against the Portuguese Jewish community were long forgotten, his ideas were regarded as heresy and an intentional harassment of the basic tenets of Judaism. For more than a century Spinoza’s name was shunned, not to be mentioned in public circles. It was the great thinkers of the Enlightenment who first began to turn the tide in favor of some of the ideas of the “heretic”.


The First Signs of Support for Spinoza

With the rise of European Enlightenment, Judaism came under assault from an unexpected direction. In addition to the traditional Christian condemnation, which denounced the Jews for rejecting their Messiah and continuing to adhere to an outdated set of religious edicts, the Enlightenment philosophers also began to condemn the Jews for refusing to abandon their religion and integrate into the modern, rational world that the Enlightenment sought to establish.

Spinoza was rebranded by these thinkers as a martyr of the Enlightenment, a victim who had bravely defied the rabbinical establishment of his time in an attempt to bring about change from within. Most chose to ignore his overall undermining of the fundamentals of religion: the abandonment of the idea of revelation, the belief in the statute of limitations of religious law and his identification of the universe itself with God. But as stark opponents of the Hasidic movement, they strongly embraced Spinoza’s rejection of the mystical dimension of Judaism.

The well-known Hebrew writer and intellectual, Mordecai Zeev Feuerberg, treated the rejected Jewish philosopher with great respect and harshly denounced his own people for Spinoza’s poor treatment at their hands. He even went on to draw parallels between Spinoza and Immanuel Kant.


מרדכי זאב פיאברג
Mordecai Zeev Feuerberg, the Avraham Schwadron Collection, the National Library of Israel


Spinoza’s Place in the New Jewish Narrative

The image of a rogue rebel who stands for what he believes is right, even in the face of immense pressure, was precisely the example that the Zionist movement sought out for its leaders and messengers. Spinoza fit this narrative well.

In a lecture marking the 250th anniversary of his death in 1924, the historian and scholar of Hebrew literature, Joseph Klausner, rescinded the excommunication of Spinoza. “To Spinoza the Jew we call out . . . from atop Mount Scopus, out of our new sanctuary—the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—the ban is rescinded! Judaism’s wrongdoing against you is hereby lifted, and whatever was your sin against her shall be forgiven. Our brother are you, our brother are you, our brother are you!”

It seems this was the declaration many had been waiting for in the Land of Israel. Spinoza began to appear as a subject of research and debate in dozens of articles and books. In 1932, Yehoshua Yehuda Cohen wrote in the pages of Doar Ha-Yom that “it is impossible to say that we do not now relate to Spinoza with all due respect.” Cohen tried to make clear that even though Spinoza had come to be regarded with far greater acceptance than was afforded to him by the Converso community in Amsterdam, his writings should still be read in a critical and careful fashion – just as Spinoza himself had read the Jewish scriptures.

In 1951, a handwritten, original copy of Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise was brought to Israel. It was Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion who took the importance of Spinoza’s contribution to new heights when he wrote an article in Davar in 1953, stating that it was the duty of Israeli citizens to return “to our Hebrew language and culture the original writings of the most profound philosopher to have risen up among the Hebrew people in the last two-thousand years.”

“We Will Fix the Mistake,” an article by David Ben-Gurion, published in Davar on December 25th, 1953

Today, no work that aims to survey the history of Jewish thought can be considered complete without a mention of “The Philosopher’s Philosopher” – Baruch Spinoza.


If you liked this article, try these:

The Jewish Gangster Who Founded a Gambling Desert Paradise

When Heinrich Heine Revealed His Thoughts on His Conversion to Christianity

An SS Man, an IDF Officer and a Spy: The Story of Ulrich Schnaft

The Jewish Connection of a Jamaican Almanac

An almanac published in Jamaica in 1798 containing a special page dedicated to Jewish holidays is preserved in the National Library collections – a glimpse of a forgotten Jewish island community


Towards the end of the 18th century, an almanac intended for traders was published on the island of Jamaica. It contains a special page dedicated to the holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar. The Hebrew years 5558 and 5559 are cited near the top of the page, with the line “Every Shabbat throughout the year” appearing just below and alluding to the fact that every Shabbat is a holy day observed by those of the Jewish faith. Further down the page, the Jewish months, holidays, and festivals are noted: Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Chanukah. Fasting holidays are also included: the Fast of Esther, the Fast of Tamuz, the Fast of “Guedalya”, and the Fast of “Tebeth”.

Jewish holidays and festivals, Jamaica, 1798

The British had captured the Caribbean island from the Spanish crown some 140 years before the publication of the rare almanac. The island’s Jews played an important role in the early stages of local British rule.

A small Portuguese minority lived on the island whose members were hated by the Spaniards, largely due to the fact that many of them were in fact Conversos (Sephardic Jews forced to convert to Christianity) who had immigrated to the New World in an attempt to escape the grip of the Spanish Inquisition. Thus, the Converso Portuguese were only too happy to help the British capture the island by feeding them valuable intelligence.

Jamaica Survey, 18th century

As fate would have it, in the same year that the British captured Jamaica (1655), Oliver Cromwell granted the Jews permission to resettle in England. This important development meant that Jews could now immigrate freely and openly to the English colony of Jamaica while the local Coversos could return to the free practice of Judaism without fear of persecution by the authorities.

Prior to the English seizure of the island, Jamaica was already an economic success story. The island produced copious amounts of sugar and its derivatives (relying, of course, on African slave labor, forcibly imported to the island). Over the years, as British rule took hold, Jamaica became an important commercial center for gold, silver, and precious gems. It was also a hotbed for piracy against Spanish ships crossing the Caribbean Sea on their way to Spain.

But let’s get back to the rare almanac acquired by the National Library:

Almanacs of the day were usually thick journals or small books that contained useful information for the calendar year. This almanac is entitled The New Jamaica Almanack and Register, and its content indicates that its target audience consisted of merchants who were involved in the maritime trade in Jamaica at the time. To this end, many of the almanac’s pages contain information about celestial bodies that were essential for navigation at the end of the 18th century.

The almanac’s title page

It is quite evident that the printer who composed the almanac was not overly familiar with Hebrew. There are several glaring errors, presumably originating from the laying of individual letters one by one. Some of the letters appear out of order and some are altogether incorrect. For example, the nonsensical phrase “רח פכת” appears in place of “רח טבת” (meaning “The first of the month of Tevet”). In the case of the festival of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה), the printer completely confused the order of the letters, resulting in the non-existent word “אשנההשר-” (“Ashanahhashar-“). The printer also apparently lacked the letter “י” (“yud”) in his collection, and opted to use an apostrophe in its stead – similar perhaps, but noticeable.

The Jamaican almanac’s curiosities extend beyond the page dedicated to Jewish holidays and festivals. This almanac was designed as an ever-evolving composition, a collection of information gathered over decades. We can track the life of the leather bound book by flipping through its pages: the dedication written by a man who gifted the book to his brother, documentation of its receipt in 1799, as well as various drawings and notes scrawled on the blank pages that were intentionally left at the end of each month. Different hands recorded events that occurred in the years following the printing of the almanac: the death of a beloved servant, repairs on ships in the harbor, and the strange remark – “I heard the cuckoo” – recorded twice in the same handwriting, in the month of April, in different years. May’s page is empty, perhaps because it is a month typified by rough seas and fierce storms in the Caribbean. Toward the end of the almanac, more pages were initially left blank but were later filled with fragments of Christian literature and hymns by the various owners of the almanac. One of the pages features a quote from Voltaire in French. The handwritten additions were all recorded in a beautiful cursive script, still easily readable today.

February, 1799

If you liked this article, try these:

How Capt. Isaac Benkowitz Saved a World of Jewish Books

“Tropical Zion” Revealed

The Ten Lost Tribes and the Return of the Jews to England

The Strange Correspondence Between Albert Einstein and a Lawyer from Bnei Brak

“I am neither a mathematician nor a physicist, but I have, nevertheless, discovered a fantastic philosophical method that I will soon be publishing under the title 'The Logic of the World.'”

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna, 1921

By Chen Malul

It was in the year 1947 that Professor Albert Einstein first encountered the name of Dr. Eliezer Goldwasser, when a letter appeared in his mailbox at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Upon reading the first few lines, a warning light must have gone off in his head. “Yet another letter from an amateur physicist…” he may have told himself.

Dr. Goldwasser sought financial assistance for his own unorthodox research in the field of physics, and this underlying motivation for did not go unnoticed by the renowned physicist. However, many of the abstract ideas in the letter were incomprehensible, even to Albert Einstein, who sent no reply.

The first two pages of the four-page letter Dr. Goldwasser sent to Professor Einstein. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Abandoning Religion, Abandoning Homeland

Just weeks before his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the 13-year-old Einstein had lost the religious drive that had characterized his childhood. Max Talmey, a medical student who often visited the Einstein family home and who served as young Albert’s mentor, gave him a number of books on science. These books led the the curious boy to the conclusion that most of the stories of the Bible were false.


14-year-old Albert Einstein, 1894

The poems he had composed and dedicated to the greatness of God all of His creations were now replaced by mathematical formulas. This was the inception of young Albert’s attempts to understand the principles of mathematics and physics and eventually the secrets of the universe itself.

Albert Einstein’s revolutionary research would reshape humanity’s concepts of of time, space, mass, motion, and gravity and would make him famous the world over. It would also make the Jewish physicist a target of the Nazi regime.

At the time of Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Einstein was already residing in the United States. The news of what was happening in Germany and the venomous attacks published against him in the German press convinced him to renounce his German citizenship. He also resigned from the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He would never again set foot in Germany.

Einstein received many proposals from academic institutions across the world, including universities in Europe, the United States, and even Mandatory Palestine. In the end, Einstein chose the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey. Though Einstein never forgave the Germans, he continued to use the German language as his main method of communication. This was also the language in which Dr. Eliezer Goldwasser wrote to Einstein. Goldwasser was also a Jewish expatriate from Germany, who, unlike Einstein, chose to settle in the Land of Israel.


Albert Einstein, 1947


Reconciling Religion and Science

Goldwasser resent his letter in January of 1948. This time, Einstein took the time to reply:

“I received and read the first letter. Because the content was unclear to me and because I was inundated with letters from amateur physicists, I was unable to reply to your letter, as well as many others.

I apologize and appreciate your understanding.

-Albert Einstein”


Professor Einstein’s reply to Dr. Goldwasser, January 1948


The curt answer from the great 20th century physicist did not dissuade Goldwasser who had fled from Germany to Mandatory Palestine in 1939. In 1941 he arrived in the town of Bnei Brak, known as a center of Hasidic Judaism. Goldwasser held a doctorate in the field of law and ran a full-time law practice, conducting his research of physics in the little spare time he had left. After reading Einstein’s letter of reply, he set about writing yet another letter describing the research he was working on to Einstein – work that he believed was of great importance.

Goldwasser began this letter by stating “I respect your principles of not answering letters from amateur scientists.” He went on to apologize for sending the letter, “I wrote to apologize to you for venturing to contact you, in light of my 25 years of experience of matters of space, with the purpose of suggesting ideas that in my non-expert opinion can improve your research, and bring you closer to the solving the problems with which you are struggling.

Goldwasser added that if such a renowned scientist as Einstein did not understand his groundbreaking ideas, this must mean that standard scientific thought had not yet caught up to the theory he developed – a theory that would “revolutionize the study of space.” He finished the letter in an enigmatic tone, “The last word has not yet been said.”

The quick response letter drafted and sent by Dr. Goldwasser to Professor Einstein, January 1948

Indeed, as Goldwasser predicted, the last word – his, that is – had not yet been uttered. Four years later, Goldwasser sent another letter. This time, it was addressed to Einstein’s team of researchers at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study:

“I know that Professor Einstein is bombarded by letters from people who ish to offer him ‘scientific advice’. Therefore, I turn to you, the scientific team, and ask you to thoroughly read my letter. If you reach a positive conclusion please bring it to Prof. Einstein’s attention.

I am neither a mathematician nor a physicist, but I have, nevertheless, discovered a fantastic philosophical method that I will soon be publishing under the title The Logic of the World. I am currently writing my theory in a methodical manner and this work will keep me busy for some time yet. At best, it will be complete in a year or two. I can only work on it at night.

My theory, as opposed to common philosophy, is based on proof of God’s existence through a clear, scientific method. I believe that as soon as the book is published, I will be able to prove His existence, His divine essence, and His ability to manipulate the world without effort.


I am not saying this merely to shower praise on myself. Anyone with an interest in your field of study would understand and appreciate the work I have already done.

I see the mission of my life in the scientific reconciliation of humanity with God.”

It is unknown who received the letter at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, or whether the letter was actually read and the requested experiments conducted. Goldwasser received no reply to his third and final letter.


The final attempt? The letter Dr. Goldwasser sent to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, October 1952

The Story of the Book that Never Was

A search of the National Library catalog, and catalogs of other libraries, showed no evidence that the book Goldwasser promised to publish ever saw the light of day. The correspondence between Einstein and Goldwasser was recently discovered in Dr. Eliezer Goldwasser’s personal archive, and is now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

In conclusion, we would have loved to explain the revolutionary theory that Dr. Eliezer Goldwasser (later Mei-Zahav) conceived – a theory which (as he promised to Professor Einstein’s team) was intended to reconcile science and God. But, if this theory left one of the most brilliant minds in history perplexed, what chance do we really have?

The article was compiled with the help of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, archivist Inka Arroyo Antezana Martinez, and Franka Metz.


If you liked this article, try these:

Maria Sibylla Merian: The Scientist and Painter Who Refuted Aristotle’s Theory

Why did Marie Curie Decide to Go to Stockholm?

Emmy Noether: The Jewish Mathematician Who Changed the World