The Sufi Freedom Fighter Who Inspired the Lubavitcher Rebbe

How did the song of a Muslim Imam from the Caucasus Mountains become a Hassidic niggun [song] in the Rebbe’s court in Brooklyn?

Imam Shamil (1797-1871)

“Speech is the quill of the heart, and song is the quill of the soul” 
(Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi)


Simchat Torah evening, 1958, Brooklyn, New York. The central study hall of the Lubavitch Hassidut in the Crown Heights neighborhood is bustling with activity. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, stands in the center singing a new niggun. For a decade, beginning in 1954, the leader of the Hassidut would teach his disciples an unfamiliar Hassidic tune from days gone by. On the festival evening, following the traditional Simchat Torah hakafot [dancing around the synagogue 7 times with the Torah scrolls] and the festive meal, when the Hassidim gathered together for a “Hitva’adut [which means coming together or bonding]”, he turned to the crowd and said:

“I heard this tune from Hassidim, together with a story. When the Russian government began to expand by capturing large territories, they set their sights on the Caucasus Mountains which were inhabited by uncultured people [on another occasion, when talking about this song, he said “Semi-barbaric tribes, who were as free as a bird, with no laws, and even without cultural restrictions”]who had their own Emperor whose name was ‘Shamil’. Despite the government’s numerical advantage over these mountain dwellers they were unable to conquer them due to the difficulty in reaching them, as they lived in high mountains. Until they tricked them – they promised to make peace with them, and to grant them leniencies and so forth…and they eventually captured the ruler ‘Shamil’, and exiled him to the depths of Russia, and whether he was imprisoned or not, he was in exile.

When he was in exile, he would occasionally remember the high mountains where he was free of the bonds of government, without the restrictions of the jail and even without the restraints of a settled city of residence and the limitations and constraints of culture, and now he is enslaved…and a great yearning for those high mountains, where he was as free as an eagle in the heavens would awaken in him, and he would sing this song, which begins with yearning and ends with hope that he will eventually return home.”

Who was Shamil? What is known about him? Imam Shamil (1797-1871), was a tribal leader in North Caucasus, a Sufi Muslim, politician and rebel, who led a stubborn battle against the Russian desire to expand their empire by conquering land in the Caucasus region. At the end of a long, drawn-out fight, Shamil surrendered to the Russian troops and was imprisoned in a small village in Dagestan. He was later exiled to the city of Kaluga, a small city in central Russia, not far from Moscow. In 1869 the Russians permitted Shamil to end his life in Mecca, and he travelled there via Istanbul.

Shamil died in Medina in 1871 during a visit to the city and was buried in “Jannatul Baqi”, a famous cemetery in Medina in which many famous personalities from the Arab-Muslim world are interred. Shamil was, and remains, revered by many of his followers. His courage, bravery and determination became famous among his admirers.

Imam Shamil (1797-1871)

Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s account of Shamil’s story is consistent with the historical facts, but what about the song which “begins with yearning and ends with hope”? Is its source known? Is the song known and sung in different Caucasian communities? Seven years ago, in an attempt to discover the tune’s source, I approached Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine, an esteemed researcher of Hassidut who worked for many years as a senior librarian in the National Library’s manuscript department and archives. “I doubt that the information I have will bring you closer to your goal,” he said, “I heard from the Hassid Avraham Mauer (Dreizen) that in 1969, while walking through the Boro Park neighborhood, he saw a non-Jew watering his garden while humming Shamil’s niggun to himself.

Mauer claims that the non-Jew knew the song from a foreign source, but did not remember if this is what he heard from the non-Jew after asking him, or if he recognized from the tune itself that it was similar but not identical to that taught by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.” The question of the song’s source remained, “Perhaps you should search in the field of theatre?” Mondshine suggested, “I know, for example, that a movie was made about one rebel – Pugachev, so perhaps a play was produced about Shamil, in which that song is the background music when he is in jail? Logically, the chances of knowing what Shamil really sang when he was imprisoned are miniscule, and only a song publicized by a play could become known and travel great distances.”

Mondshine’s proposal to attempt to locate the song’s source in theatrical productions or Russian movies was seconded by Professor Edwin Seroussi from the Hebrew University’s faculty of Music and director of the Jewish Music Research Center. “This song has interested me for many years. The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that he heard the tune from Hassidim, I assume that the Jews who sang the song to him lived in the Russian region. The song’s musical components are different than those traditionally found in regular Hassidic niggunim, and especially from Lubavitch niggunim. The Russians were fascinated by Shamil, and his character appears in late 19th century and early 20th century Russian literature. It is possible that this tune was used as background music for a movie or a play. Jews were members of the Russian upper class and it is likely that they were familiar with this literature and with Shamil’s role. I have no concrete proof of this as I have yet to carry out a detailed investigation which requires high proficiency in the Russian language, but my instinct tells me that this is the correct approach.”

Professor Seroussi also discussed the song’s musical character, “Years ago, I worked on a collection of music of the Mountain Jews together with the musician Peretz Eliyahu who is a great expert in the field. We discussed various songs in Caucasian music which are connected to Shamil. This tune which is attributed to Shamil is unknown in the repertoire. Peretz even said that ‘This is an Ashkenazi song’… the song’s character is unique and stands out among the Lubavitch niggunim. Its melodic line has a special form in an unusually wide range for a short tune, rising, then dropping sharply and then rising another octave [a musical interval of six tones –T.Z.]. This special melodic movement is undoubtedly what caused the Rebbe to interpret the song as he interpreted it.”

“A Niggun of Yearning (Shamil)”, Song 302 in the Song Book of the Lubavitch Hassidut.

“The entire story of Shamil is only a parable,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn said to his followers, “which was created in order to derive the niggun and the moral for service of God from it”. The story of Shamil’s niggun can be seen as a metaphor for a Jew’s soul. The soul, which is inherently spiritual and abstract, descends from the elevated world into our physical world and is clothed in the body of a human being. The physical body, with its needs and desires, can restrict the soul and, become a type of jail cell for it. The soul constantly yearns for the spiritual freedom and pleasure which it experienced before descending into the world. The song of yearning sung by Shamil can mirror the soul’s yearning for its source.

In an essay​ which will be published in the near future in the “Studia Judaica” journal, the central journal for Jewish studies in Poland, Professor Seroussi relates an interesting story connected to the “Shamil” niggun. It appears that there are some inaccuracies in the story (as it originally appeared in the compilation “Niggun: Stories Behind the Chasidic Songs That Inspire Jews” by Mordechai Stainman), however, it seems that the story’s main facts are correct – according to the testimony of one of its central participants, Shmuel Spritzer, who confirmed the story to Professor Seroussi.

The story’s central figure is the famous musician, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and his encounter with “Shamil’s Niggun”. The story was related by Shmuel Spritzer, who was a young man at the time (in 1970) who had come to do outreach work together with his friend Shmuel Langsam in Portland (Oregon), U.S.A. The pair, “with the black suits and hats” participated in an event held in the house of a musician by the name of Professor Bloch, waiting for the arrival of “a beloved and long-time friend” named Leonard Bernstein. When Bernstein arrived shortly before sunset, Spritzer (who did not know who Bernstein was, despite him being famous at the time) asked him to put on Tefillin. Bernstein refused.

Spritzer began to question Bernstein. “What is your profession?” he asked, and Bernstein replied, “I am a conductor”. Bernstein then asked the pair to sing something. Spritzer replied that he does not want to sing, but would be happy to play a piece of music – “Shamil” from a record which he had with him. Spritzer related that he chose this piece because of a story he had heard about the song’s recording in 1936. The violin player who took part in the recording, a non-Jewish professional musician, related that he began to sweat and experienced strange physical sensations when playing the song, and that he played in a special, different and moving manner in that recording. “You know,” Bernstein said to those present in the room, “as a Jew, I carry a lot of music in my soul.” “Then you are in the right place,” Spritzer said. “How do you know?” Bernstein asked, and Spritzer replied, “Because even your sigh is heard in Heaven, just like Shamil’s sigh.” “Who is Shamil?” Bernstein inquired, and Shpritzer responded “You will meet him in the song. The two of you have much in common”. Bernstein listened to the song attentively and said, “I like this song, I feel connected to this song, I don’t know how to explain it but I felt a feeling of release.” “I’ll explain it to you” Spritzer said, “but first, put on Tefillin”. Sunset was only a few short minutes away and Bernstein turned to Spritzer and said, “There is something I must understand, why did you choose this specific song?” “Because I like it and I felt that you needed to hear it,” Spritzer said. “You understand music,” Bernstein said, “I will put on Tefillin if you promise me that you will work in music in the future.” Spritzer agreed and Bernstein put on Tefillin for the first time in his life.

Years later, Bernstein’s travels took him to Boston. He was once again offered to put on Tefillin, this time Bernstein agreed. As the Rabbi helped him to put on the Tefillin, he asked Bernstein if this is his first time putting on Tefillin. “No,” Bernstein replied, “a decade ago, one summer evening, when I heard Shamil’s niggun.” The Rabbi smiled and said, “Yes, Shamil’s niggun.” “At that time, I heard a deep internal call,” Bernstein said, “I heard Shamil, I heard myself, I heard… that was the first time I put on Tefillin.”

In the spirit of “Shamil”‘s niggun, here is a different niggun to the words from Chapter 63 of Psalms [English translation from] “My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You, in an arid and thirsty land, without water: As I saw You in the Sanctuary, [so do I long] to see Your strength and Your glory”, performed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn.

Just How Literate Were Jewish Women of the Past? The Cairo Geniza Tells All

Boys in antiquity were taught to read and write - this we know. But were girls their brothers' peers? What about their mothers?

An unconventional suggestion: strike the child at home as well

A question that seems to reoccur more often than not about Jewish women of the past is: Were they literate? What did they learn and where? With the new school year upon us, we must ask these pertinent questions about studious girls, women teachers, and mothers involved in their children’s education.

As a rule, women received minimal education. Women were taught domestic duties such as embroidery. Many women did not have a grasp of the Hebrew language in speech, let alone in reading and writing. Nonetheless, evidence from the Cairo Geniza suggests that even girls of low stature and economically poor backgrounds received some kind of Jewish education, and girls of higher stature received more.

Various documents from the Geniza tell of girls gone who went to school, and women who were teachers.

In the letter you see here, the teacher is telling the child’s parents that the beatings he gives the child do not help, and he suggests that the parents strike him at home, as well. He goes on to say that the beatings are not working because, “Every time I strike him, the teacher jumps in and dismisses him after four-five strikes.” The gendered nature of Hebrew informs us that the dismissing teacher was a woman and most likely the other teacher’s wife. The couple most likely taught children together, boys and girls. How can we know this? Well, the aforementioned child is written about as, “Never ceases to fight and curse, he and his sister.”

An unconventional suggestion: strike the child at home as well

Teaching couples seemed to have been common, and the education occurred in the teachers’ home, or at the child’s home, if a wealthy family could afford a teacher. In a list of the needy from Fustat there is mention of “The (Female) Teacher from Domyat,” a town in the north eastern region of the Nile Delta, and right next to her there is mention of “The (Male) Teacher from Domyat” – possibly her husband. Perhaps due to some trouble the couple had to flee Domyat to the capital.

The teachers are tzedakah beneficiaries

Teaching was a family profession. In a complicated question to Maimonides, a woman and her children were abandoned by her husband, and the woman sought livelihood. In the document it is written, “And the woman had a brother who would teach the little ones Bible and the woman had knowledge of the Bible.” Perhaps her knowledge came from her father who would teach her along with her brother? In any event, the woman in need of aid began to teach the Bible to her children alongside her brother for years. “And afterwards, when the brother travelled away, she sat in his place, took the little ones, and taught the Bible to them for four years.” She even took her oldest son, a grown man by that time, to teach by her side.

We saw girls being educated and women teaching both boys and girls. And mothers were very involved in their children’s education, especially widows. Melicha, the widow of Abu Sa’ad, arrived at the Beit Din (the rabbinic court) accompanied by her brother and another man by the name of Abu Alfachel. It was agreed by all sides of the court that Abu Alfachel would teach Melicha’s son, Haba. The document below tells us that Haba will be taught to write a letter without misspelling and without mistakes, as well as how to use an abacus.

May everyone’s up coming school year be as successful!

A contract between a teacher and a mother regarding the education of her son
5th row: “So that he may write a letter without misspellings… and without mistakes…”

(The letter by the teacher who beats pupils can be found in the Cambridge University Library: TS8J28.7 and was originally published in a paper by Shelomo Dov Goitein. The Tzedakah listing including the teachers from Domyat is also at Cambridge: TSNS320.30, as is the contract of the widow Melicha regarding the education of her son Haba:  TSNSJ401.I and published by Goitein in the same paper.)

No Children Allowed: Introducing Lilith, the Jewish Vampire Queen

​Dracula? He’s nothing compared to the first vampire in history, the one and only Lilith. Among her many “hobbies”: hounding humankind, causing crib death and night emissions in men, and sucking blood.

Article by guest-writer and vampire-catcher Odelia Barkin-Kamil

On May 26, 1897, the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker was published. The novel caused a sensation and initiated an entire genre of vampire literature and culture, from the books Interview with a Vampire, to the film series Twilight, and the television series True Blood and even an Israeli Vampire series, titled Hatzuya (“Divided”), which was broadcast in over sixty countries around the world.

But in fact, vampires and demons were not created with Dracula. They have been part of human imagination since the dawn of humanity. Evidence of vampire-like creatures called by different names can be found as far back as Sumerian and Babylonian mythology. The Jewish source for vampirism is mentioned in connection with Lilith, the first wife of Adam—who even made a guest appearance in one of the seasons of True Blood. The series creators who were familiar with the myth, gave the Lilith of Genesis an honorary role in season five in which they suggested that God had created the vampires as a race superior to humans.

Two versions of the creation story appear in Genesis. The Midrash explains this by saying that first woman was created as man’s equal, and she was called Lilith (“Male and female He created them,” Genesis 1, 27). The two first human beings argued because Lilith wanted to be on top during sex, and when Adam would not agree, claiming that she was lesser than him, she pronounced the ineffable name of God and abandoned him in Paradise.

Birth amulet with a depiction of Adam and Eve, the earliest known printed Jewish amulet. Amsterdam, c. 1700. From Angels and Demons (ed. Filip Vukosavović)

God sent three angels to find her סנוי, סנסנוי וסמנגלוף   (Sanvay, Sansavay, and Smangalof), and when they reached her she was already deep in the ocean. She chose to become the wife of the king of the demons, Ashmadai, and she too became a blood-sucking demon. They begged her to return to Adam but she refused. As punishment they commanded that one hundred of her newborn sons would perish every day. In revenge for this terrible punishment she announced that she would pursue the human infants, the children of Eve.

Amulet for new mothers, from the Amulet Collection of the National Library of Israel

Thus, according to Jewish tradition, Lilith is believed responsible for crib death. Boy are especially vulnerable to her influence until the ninth day after their birth, and girls until the twentieth day. To avoid her harmful influence, even today there are new mothers who carry a picture of the three angels in their purse or hang the picture over the crib of the newborn, for according to the Midrash the angels came to an agreement with Lilith that she could do any harm in any place where she sees their names. After Lilith left Paradise, Eve was create from Adam’s rib, as subordinate to him.

An amulet intended to protect newborn mothers and infants from Lilith, featuring the three protective angels

How to Protect Oneself against a Vampire

Garlic cloves can be used to protect against vampires. One can also use a crucifix, holy water, or a Star of David, since the Vampire being a Satanic, soulless creature, is the antithesis of holiness and is repelled by religious symbols.

In addition, if a vampire is chasing you, it is recommended to throw a handful of sand, rice or salt at it. According to folkloric legends about vampires in various mythologies – Chinese, Indian and Slovakian – the vampire is cursed with an obsessive compulsive disorder related to numbers (arithmomania) and must count any granules in his path. One of the ways to escape a vampire therefore is by distracting him by throwing a handful of rice or any other granules in his way, which will force him to stop to count them and thereby delay his pursuit. In the 1970s, this characteristic was adopted by the creators of Sesame Street for the character of Count Von Count. Besides the amusing pun with regard to his name (Count is an honorific title and also the verb “to count”), he is a Transylvanian vampire who speaks with an accent, wears a cape like Dracula as portrayed in the early film by the actor Bela Lugosi. This characteristic was also adopted by the creators of the Israeli vampire series Hatzuya.

Odelia Barkin-Kamil is a vampirologist. She lectures on vampires in popular culture, mainly in film and television as an inspirational and empowering figure.

Special thanks to Dr. Zvi Leshem and Yuval De MalachDemalah of the National Library of Israel’s Gershom Scholem Library Collection for their help in locating sources and in the preparation of this article.


The Feminist Version of the Jewish Morning Blessing

Do you thank the Almighty for making you a man or a woman? Two fifteenth-century manuscripts show the choice is yours!

The words “who has made me a woman and not a man" are highlighted here in a siddur kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York

Farissol’s revised version in the 1471 siddur now kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

The traditional Jewish morning blessing includes a verse in which males thank God with the words: “who has not made me a woman.”  Women reciting this verse often modify it to “who has made me according to His will.” This tradition took root in the siddur (Hebrew prayer book) centuries ago, but two fifteenth-century manuscripts reveal a groundbreaking thinker who chose a somewhat more progressive wording for this controversial blessing.

Abraham Farissol changed the familiar wording of the blessing to “who has made me a woman and not a man” in two prayer books he dedicated to two anonymous women.

As a Jewish thinker of the highest order, Abraham Farissol’s reputation preceded him. Recognized for his erudition in his lifetime, Farissol’s many pursuits included cantor, scribe, and teacher. Deeply interested in the advancements of the Age of Discovery sweeping across Europe, he composed the first essay in Hebrew dealing with the discovery of America.

Along with being a pioneering thinker, he was also an exceptional man of faith.  In 1471 and 1480 Farissol hand-wrote two prayer books for women which contain a fascinating feminist innovation. In the prayer book as we know it today, the man reciting the morning blessings thanks God for life that is renewed each morning, for not making him a Gentile, for not making him a slave, and in the words of the prayer that has provoked countless debates, he blesses the Almighty “who has not made me a woman” or in another version “who has made me a man and not a woman.” The woman, for her part, thanks God with the words “who has made me according to His will.” In fact, the text of the accepted blessing for women – “made me according to His will” – is not found in the Talmud, but is mentioned in the early–fourteenth-century halakhic work Arba’ah Turim (lit. “Four Rows,” an important work of Jewish law by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as Ba’al Ha-Turim – “Master of the Rows).

And so, 150 years after the Ba’al Ha-Turim, when Europe was moving out of the Middle Ages, Abraham Farissol wrote two Hebrew prayer books which changed the accepted wording of this morning prayer. In the age of the Renaissance, Farissol abandoned the medieval wording “made me according to His will” in favor of a more interesting, progressive verse – “who has made me a woman and not a man.” One of these books is today kept at the National Library of Israel, while the other is preserved at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

Farissol’s revised version in the 1480 siddur, kept at the National Library of Israel.

We do not know the identities of the two women who Farissol dedicated his books to, as their names were erased from both siddurs. It is possible that Farissol wrote additional prayer books with this blessing which have not yet (or may never) come to light. It is not clear how widespread the change Farissol introduced was or whether it remained the exclusive province of the thinker. What is certain is that at least these two women walked with their heads held high, feeling proud that their Creator had chosen to make them women, and not men.

The morning blessing in the siddur kept at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America
The morning blessing in the siddur kept at the National Library