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

The original manuscript of Maimonides' "Commentary on the Mishnah", including mistakes and corrections made by the master himself, can now be viewed by the public

דיוקנו של הרמב"ם על רקע כתב ידו המקורי של ה"משנה תורה" השמור בספרייה הלאומית

A portrait of Maimonides and text from his original manuscript kept at the National Library.

By Daniel Lipson

The “Commentary on the Mishnah” (Pirush HaMishnah LaRambam) is considered Maimonides’ first complete and mature work. The great Jewish rabbi, philosopher and doctor began working on it when he was only 23 years old, and completed the text at the age of 30 in the year 1161. Maimonides’ work most likely began when he was living in Morocco. He and his family soon fled east, shortly after the Almohad conquest of Southern Spain, and the Commentary was completed while Maimonides served as rabbi and leader of the Jewish community in Egypt.

The Commentary seeks to explain the intricacies of the Mishnah with reference to Halakhic law. Parts of it are considered to be important philosophical texts in the realm of Jewish thought, like the introduction to “Pirkei Avot” (Chapters of the Fathers) and the introduction to the chapter known as “Helek”, part of the Tractate Sanhedrin.

Maimonides quoted the Mishnah itself in the original language (Hebrew or Aramaic), while the commentary was written in Arabic using Hebrew letters. It was translated into Hebrew several times and often appears in print alongside the Mishnah and in most editions of the Gemara.

Maimonides’ family preserved the Commentary manuscript (along with other writings by their father) and even added their own notes to it. On most of the pages of the manuscript kept at the National Library of Israel we can see the handwritten notes of Rabbi Abraham, the son of Maimonides, as well as those of another descendant, Rabbi David Hanagid. This same David eventually immigrated to Syria, taking the manuscript with him. His family settled in the city of Aleppo.

The manuscript is mentioned as residing in Aleppo in Rabbi Yosef Karo’s book “Avkat Rochel” from the 16th century. At some stage Maimonides’ family apparently split apart. It is likely that the famous patriarch’s relatives all wanted a souvenir of his, and it was decided to divide the manuscript into six sections, in accordance with the six orders of the Mishnah on which the Commentary is based.

Later on, at the beginning of the 17th century, at least one segment of the manuscript – the “Nezikin” section that deals with civil and criminal law (and apparently the “Kodashim” order as well, dealing with sacrificial rites and dietary laws) – ended up in the hands of the wife of Abraham HaCohen Diknis. On the manuscript’s last page, she dedicated the text to the memory of her husband and their son Itzhak.


כתב יד הרמבם
Abraham Hacohen Diknis’ wife dedicated the “Nezikin” section of the Commentary to her husband and their son on its last page. Kept at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

We know that same Abraham lived in the 17th century as he is noted as the owner of an unrelated manuscript from 1611 which is kept at the Bodleian Library at the  University of Oxford. We also know that he was dead by the 1730s, as the manuscript had changed hands by then.

In an introduction to the first part of the Commentary manuscript, Rabbi Solomon, one of Maimonides’ great-grandchildren, dedicated the text to the Heavenly Name and to the past and future generations of his family, up until the coming of the Messiah.

The dedication by Rabbi Solomon, a grandson of Maimonides, found in the “Commentary on the Mishnah” manuscript kept at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library .

Rabbi Solomon noted that all who wished to read the text were welcome to do so, as that was the wish of the author, but “he who commits the offense of selling or loaning with deposit, will be damned by the G-d of Israel”.

"ארור הוא לאלוקי ישראל"
“..damned by the G-d of Israel” – found in the “Commentary on the Mishnah” manuscript kept at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library .

We don’t know exactly who was cursed with eternal damnation, but one thing is certain: the manuscript was sold. Edward Pococke served as the priest of the English community in Aleppo during the years 1630-1634. While there he purchased the “Nezikin” and “Kodashim” (Holy Things) sections of the manuscript, taking them with him when he returned to England. He would later publish some of the material in a book in 1655.

Robert Huntington served in the same role as Pococke in Aleppo later that century. He managed to acquire the “Zeraim” (Seeds) section of the Commentary dealing with prayer and agricultural laws. Huntington sold this segment to the University of Oxford in 1693, which also purchased Pococke’s collection during the same year, meaning the university was now in possession of three of the six orders of the Mishnah with commentary by Maimonides in his own handwriting. We know nothing of the “Tohorot” (Purities) section of the manuscript, which vanished somewhere in Syria and was lost to the mists of time.

In the early 20th century, Rabbi Ya’akov Moshe Toledano purchased the “Moed” (Festival) and “Nashim” (Women) sections of the manuscript from a “simple Jew” in Damascus. He sold them in 1908 to the famous collector David Solomon Sassoon. Sassoon’s impressive collection of Jewish manuscripts and books gained fame throughout the research world. In the 1970s his descendants decided to sell parts of the collection and in 1975, the two Commentary sections were put up for sale at a Sotheby’s auction in Switzerland. While the National Library had great interest in the purchase, the set price was too high. The Israeli Minister of Education at the time, Aharon Yadlin, called on volunteer groups, philanthropists, Jewish representatives from abroad and the general public to contribute to the purchase of the manuscripts from the Sassoon collection. Eight items were purchased, among them the handwritten Maimonides Commentary sections which were transferred to the National Library of Israel for safekeeping.

So how do we know that the manuscript was written by Maimonides himself? Perhaps it is a later copy made by a student or relative?


Maimonides’ handwritten “Commentary on the Mishnah” (The “Moed and “Nashim” sections”), kept at the National Library.

First of all, the handwriting in the manuscript is identical to examples of Maimonides’ handwriting which appear in the famous Cairo Genizaי. Another clue is the fact that the text is full of erased words and corrections. Who is the one person in the world who would dare to correct the words of Maimonides? That would be Maimonides himself, of course.

תיקונים בכתב היד של הרמב"ם
Corrections in Maimonides’ handwriting from the manuscript kept at the National Library.

Therefore, it must be Maimonides’ personal first version. It includes corrections on almost every page.

תיקונים בכתב ידו של הרמב"ם מכתב היד השמור בספרייה הלאומית
Corrections in Maimonides’ handwriting from the manuscript kept at the National Library.

Over the years Maimonides updated the manuscript many times. After studying various sources he chose to erase certain parts and make corrections. He even added bibliographic references to external texts that he had written himself. In a letter to one of his students, Rabbi Yosef Bar Yehuda, Maimonides admitted that he was capable of mistakes and always sought to correct his own thought and work once new knowledge was gained.

In another case, a group of students pointed out a certain contradiction between the text of Maimonides’ Mishnah Commentary and his later work, the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides responded by noting that the students had seen one of the earlier versions of the Commentary and that he himself had changed his mind and corrected the text later on. Now that this very text is kept at the National Library, we can see Maimonides’ own internal deliberations and decisions as they are expressed in the manuscript.

Maimonides’ handwritten Commentary on the Mishnah (The “Moed and “Nashim” sections), kept at the National Library.


This treasure is today preserved in the National Library’s rare book collection, its long journey home now complete.


Click here to view Maimonides’ original manuscript, preserved at the Naitonal Library of Israel


and click here to take a journey around the world with Maimonides!


The Story of the Chanukah Classic “I Have a Little Dreidel”

The classic song about the traditional four-sided top has become a staple in early childhood Jewish education.  

Illustration by Iza Hershkovitz

For those who grew up within Jewish tradition or for those familiar with Jewish music, there are several songs that seem to have been around forever. Included on that list is one song that is often taught to children ahead of the holiday of Chanukah to get them into the spirit of the season.

The song “I Have a Little Dreidel” describes the creation of the four-sided spinning top that is used to play the traditional game of dreidel during the Festival of Lights. With its catchy, cheerful and spirited tune and simple to remember lyrics, the song quickly became a holiday classic.

The Lyrics:

I have a little dreidel,  I made it out of clay.
And when it’s dry and ready, oh dreidel I shall play.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh dreidel I shall play.

It has a lovely body, with legs so short and thin.
When it is all tired, it drops and then I win.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh dreidel I shall play.

My dreidel’s always playful. It loves to dance and spin.
A happy game of dreidel, come play now let’s begin.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh dreidel I shall play.

Interestingly enough, according to research by Professor Eliyahu Schleifer, this song was composed by Shmuel Eliezer Goldfarb, the brother of the famous Conservative Rabbi Israel Goldfarb who composed another classic and seemingly timeless Jewish melody, “Shalom Aleichem,” that is traditionally sung on Friday nights to welcome in the Shabbat.

Rabbi Israel Goldfarb was a rabbi and educator in New York who worked for the Young Israel movement. His mission was to renew Jewish liturgy and ceremonies in America using traditional musical motifs. Shmuel Eliezer Goldfarb, his brother, served as the Director of the Music Education Ministry on the Jewish Education Council in New York. This gave Shmuel the opportunity to promote the teaching of music in local schools. The two musical brothers collaborated to promote the teaching of Jewish music and from 1918 to 1929 they published books and pamphlets that compiled different songs to use for various holidays and occasions.

Hanukkah celebrations in Raanana in 1948. From the PhotoHouse archive. Photo taken by Rudi Weissenstein.
Chanukah celebrations in Raanana in 1948. From the PhotoHouse archive. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein.

Their joint effort came to an end with the start of the Great Depression. Israel stayed in his rabbinical position, but Shmuel Eliezer moved across the country to Seattle where he served for 38 years, from 1930 to 1968, as music director and choir conductor at the Reform synagogue, Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

Shmuel is most famous for his composition of the song “I Have a Little Dreidel.” The melody was first taught in Seattle schools and then spread across the country, becoming a fixture in early childhood Jewish education and a classic part of the Chanukah repertoire in North America.

Shmuel Eliezer Goldfarb passed away ten years after retiring from his position at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in 1978, leaving behind a legacy of poetry and music.

drediel dance
Chanukah celebrations in Raanana in 1948. From the PhotoHouse archive. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein.

“I Have a Little Dreidel,” is also available in Yiddish. The Yiddish version entitled “Ich Bin a Kleyner Dreydl,” was written by Shmuel Shlomo Grossman. While the melody of the Yiddish version of the dreidel song is similar to the English version, the lyrics differ with the Yiddish song describing a dreidel made of lead instead of clay and as the dreidel spins, the people join in and spin as well.

The Yiddish version reads:

Ich bin a kleiner dreidel, gemacht bin ich fun blai.
Kumt lomir ale schpilen, in dreidel – eins zwei drai.
Oi, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oi, drei sich, dreidel, drei.
To lomir ale schpilen, in dreidel eins un zwei

Un ich hob lib zu tanzen, sich dreien in a rod
To lomir ale tanzen, a dreidel-karahod.
Oi, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oi, drei sich, dreidel, drei.
To lomir ale schpilen, in dreidel eins un zwei.

Which in English reads:

I am a little dreidel, I am made from lead.
Come let’s all play dreidel – one two three.
Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh, dreidel, dreidel, spin.
So let’s all play dreidel, one and two.

And I love to dance, to spin in a circle.
So let’s all dance a dreidel-circle.
Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh dreidel, dreidel, spin.
So let’s all play dreidel, one and two.

Both versions of the song express the fun and happiness that comes with the annual celebration of the Festival of Lights and the joyful experience that awaits all who sit down for a good rousing game of dreidel.

Special thanks to Dr. Gila Flam, Head of the music department: music collection and sound archive and music reading room, for her help in writing this article.


The Magnificent Polish Synagogue That Was Destroyed in World War I

In 1768, a unique wooden synagogue was constructed in the town of Sniadowo. These images are the last ones that were taken before the building burned to the ground.


Facade of the synagogue in Sniadowo

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5674 (September 30, 1913), Konrad Kłos, architect and historian of Polish architecture, arrived in Sniadowo to photograph the town’s historic, wooden synagogue. He captured the synagogue from many angles. He photographed the bima (main platform), the dome, the balcony, the two women’s sections, and the painted walls. He also captured the men and women of the Jewish community and a few cows grazing in the nearby meadow.

Situated on the banks of the Narbek River in Poland, the synagogue in Sniadowo was built in 1768 and its fame was spread far beyond its wooden walls. Klos photographed the synagogue as part of a project to document important architectural buildings throughout Poland, an initiative he created with fellow architect and friend, Oskar Sosnowski.

Facade of the synagogue from the north-west.

The synagogue in Sniadowo boasted a large organized Jewish community. It was part of a group of unusual synagogues built in northern Poland in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The walls were painted and decorated on the inside. This was unusual because of the Jewish prohibition of displaying pictures and sculptures as a part of the laws banning the practice of idolatry.

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During this time period, in certain Jewish communities – Germany, for example – decoration of the interior of synagogues was forbidden in order to avoid distraction from prayer. In Poland, however, there was a more forgiving attitude towards decorative flourishes. The sages and rabbis of Poland were asked about the issue and had a mixture of responses. Rabbi Avraham Avali ben Haim Gombiner, known as ‘Magen Avraham,’ suggested that painting on the walls of the synagogue should be permitted, but not at eye level of the congregants and in this way no one would actually be praying in front of the paintings. Others, like Rabbi Akiva Eiger of Pozna, were supportive only of paintings that depicted flora and other plant-life.

A photograph that focuses on the top of the bima. Here we see the wooden walls of the synagogue from the inside.
A photograph of that focuses on the interior of the dome that appears to have been photographed from the attic.

The Jews in Poland did not have their own tradition of building and therefore adopted models and techniques that were common in the area. Together with the contractors, they constructed buildings and then expanded them as necessary. The original synagogue in Sniadowo was built as a square (the inner space and prayer hall), and other sections were added on later. The synagogue featured a “broken” roof, causing it to look as if it were made of several levels. Along the outside edges were towers, and the building itself housed historical “galleries,” as well as carved balconies and handrails. The facades, dome, and balconies were all ornately decorated.

Details of the synagogue roof and the entrance to the women’s section.

In the center of the Sniadowo synagogue stood the bima, upon which the structure of the dome was erected as a kind of Hupa. Unfortunately, the names of the architects, builders, and artists who built and decorated the synagogue are unknown to us today, but one can still be impressed by the beauty of the synagogue through the spectacular photographs taken by Klos in 1913.

A photograph from the balcony on the second floor of the synagogue

At the end of the nineteenth century, there were approximately 1,300 Jews in Sniadowo. During the First World War, the synagogue was burned to the ground and the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army ordered the expulsion of the Jewish inhabitants from the town. Jews emigrated to other cities and other countries. By 1921, only 386 Jews remained in Sniadowo. The population managed to recover somewhat and grew to 869 men, women and children leading up to the events of World War II.

The end of dwindling Jewish life in the town arrived with the German occupation in June 1941. Some of Sniadowo’s Jews were seized and executed on the spot. The rest were sent to the Lomza ghetto on the way to their final destination. They arrived in the Auschwitz extermination camp in January 1943.

The facade of the synagogue from the east and the fence surrounding the courtyard.

Almost all of the wooden synagogues in Poland were destroyed during the Holocaust. These photographs stand as rare documentation and a memory of the wooden synagogue which, just several months after these images were captured, was completely destroyed in the chaos of First World War. They are a glimpse into the Jewish center of Sniadowo at the height of its glory and a testament to hundreds of years of Jewish life in Poland.

The photographs were found in the archives of Rabbi and researcher Shmuel Poznanski. 

Thank you very much to Dr. Gil Weisblei for your help in writing this article.

The Jewish Boy Who Was Secretly Baptized and Kidnapped by the Catholic Church

In accordance with Papal law, Jewish families were not permitted to raise Catholic children. Once news of his baptism leaked, Edgardo Mortara was taken into custody by the Vatican.


"The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862

It all started with a well-meaning decision. A decision that, without the intention of inflicting harm or pain, would change the lives of an entire family and forever impact public opinion of the Catholic Church.

Edgardo Mortara was born in 1851, the sixth of eight children born to a Jewish Italian family living in Bologna. When he was just a few months old, Edgardo fell seriously ill and, despite his doctor’s best efforts and the desperate prayers of his parents and loved ones, his condition did not improve.

During this time, the Mortara family employed a 16-year-old Catholic maid named Anna Morisi. Anna watched the young boy grow ever sicker. Assuming there was nothing left to be done for the poor child, the young maid took it upon herself to secretly baptize Edgardo in the hopes that, if God decided it was time to take him from this world, at least she would have saved his soul. Without asking for the permission of his parents or considering the potential repercussions of her actions, Anna baptized Edgardo. To the surprise of those around him, the boy grew stronger, conquered his illness and returned to full health.

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At least, that was the story Anna Morisi told her priest during confession six years later.

In accordance with his dedication and loyalties to the Church and their rulings, the priest reported the story to the proper authorities who immediately took action. After all, according to the law of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, a child who underwent baptism – even unofficially – was undeniably Catholic and the law of the Papal States strictly forbade families of other faiths to raise Catholic children.

Papal Soldiers of Pope Pius IX
Papal Soldiers of Pope Pius IX.

The knock on the door came on a peaceful July evening in 1857. The quiet atmosphere of the Mortara home was quickly shattered as papal soldiers stormed the house and seized six-year-old Edgardo, informing the family that their son was no longer theirs to keep. The boy was ripped from the protective arms of his stunned parents and taken directly to the Vatican.

News of the kidnapping of Edgardo and the plight of the Mortara family quickly spread across the globe. Major international figures including the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I and Napoleon III of France tried to influence Pope Pius IX to return the child to his family to no avail.  The Church insisted that the law was clear: once the boy had been baptized, he was undeniably Catholic and could not be raised by Jewish parents.

Evidence was brought forth proving that the maid was not a trustworthy person and had been dismissed from the Mortara home and the homes of several subsequent employers. The Mortaras denied that Edgardo had ever been seriously ill which made the purpose of the secret baptism completely irrelevant and refuted any right the Catholic Church had to take the child – for if the baptism was never necessary it should not have taken place, leaving the child as nothing more than Jewish.

Sir Moses Montefiore
Sir Moses Montefiore, from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Sir Moses Montefiore, activist, philanthropist and president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, took up the cause of the Mortara family, writing letter after letter to communities in America and Europe in the hopes of rallying more support for the Mortara family and to increase the pressure on the Church to return the boy to his rightful home. After several months of advocating in Britain, Montefiore and the Board of Deputies decided that more drastic measures were necessary to gain traction with the Church. He packed his bags and prepared to travel to Rome to try and appeal to Pope Pius IX directly in the hopes of finally reuniting the boy and his family.

Bevis Marks Synagogue
Interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, London. Image from the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University.

Before he left on this mission of vital importance, the Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (the Bevis Marks Synagogue) in London where Montefiore was a participating member, prepared a special prayer that was read during services by the congregation to beseech the heavens for his success. With the prayers of his community to strengthen him, Montefiore and his wife set out on their journey with the knowledge that they were to face many tough battles ahead.

prayer was written in honour of Montefiore’s mission to Rome in April 1859
Prayer in honor of Montefiore’s mission to Rome in April 1859. From the National Library of Israel collections. Click image to enlarge.

Upon his arrival in the Italian capital city, Montefiore had several of his contacts reach out to the pope on his behalf in an attempt to receive an audience with him. As the days dragged on into weeks, he began to understand that this mission was not going to be a success. Several weeks after his arrival in Rome, Montefiore finally received a response to his inquiry for a papal audience: “To my sincere disappointment,” wrote his contact, “I am informed that the pope would not receive you. His Holiness could not permit any discussion of the Mortara case, it being a closed question.”

In place of a meeting with the Pope, Montefiore was granted an audience with the Cardinal Secretary of State, who, after hearing the pleas of Montefiore, cynically suggested that at the age of 18, the Mortara boy would be given a choice on whether to remain in the Catholic Church or to return to his family but that until then, he would be raised and educated in accordnce with the Catholic faith. Despite what turned out to be a generally unproductive meeting, the Cardinal did agree to allow the Mortaras to visit their son.

Conflicting narratives emerged as to what happened during the parental visits with Edgardo. According to one account, the child would desperately cling to his parents and cry that he wanted to return to his home. The other version of events claimed that the child was enlightened and emboldened by the spirit of redemption and was heartbroken that he could not convince his parents to convert and join his new way of life.

Edgardo Mortara with his parents
Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother.

After weeks of effort, Sir Moses Montefiore left Rome and returned home having been unsuccessful in his attempts to meet with the pope. Edgardo Mortara remained unwaveringly in the custody of the Church despite the international attention and pressure imparted on the Vatican.

Bnai Brith Messenger, May 10, 1940
Bnai Brith Messenger, May 10, 1940.

The Mortara family continued to advocate for the return of their son to no avail. Edgardo Mortara became a priest at the age of 21 having trained under the pope himself from childhood. He dedicated his life to the Church, traveling throughout Europe and preaching his religion, until his death in Belgium in 1940.

Special thanks to Karen Ettinger from the Education Department at the NLI for her assistance in writing this post. Click here to view the NLI Education website.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

For additional information on Montefiore’s visit to Rome, read “Anglo-Jewry and the Mortara Case,” available in the National Library collection.