The Treasure Left Behind by the IDF Reservist Killed in Gaza

Eyal Meir Berkowitz's talent for explaining complex Mishnayot was recognized by rabbis and experts in the field. On December 7, 2023, Eyal fell in an IDF operation extracting the bodies of hostages abducted to Gaza. His family decided to cherish his memory by handing his work over to the National Library of Israel.

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Many unique and fascinating stories can be linked to items preserved in the collections of the National Library of Israel. But it’s not every day that we receive a book connected to current and tragic events which we hear about on the news – and when this happens, it can be truly moving.

Here is one such recent case.


Eden Zachariah and Ziv Dado were abducted to Gaza on October 7. Eden, a 28-year-old from Rishon Letziyon, was kidnapped while trying to escape from the Nova festival, which she attended with her partner Ofek Kimhi – who was murdered there that day. After 67 days, her family was informed that Eden had been murdered in Hamas captivity. Ziv, a 36-year-old IDF warrant officer from Rehovot who served as a logistics supervisor for the Golani Brigade’s 51st Battalion, was killed in an encounter with terrorists on the same day. His body was taken to Gaza and he was recognized as an abducted fallen soldier held by a terrorist organization. He left behind a wife and child. Two months after Eden and Ziv were kidnapped, soldiers of the 699th Battalion – belonging to the IDF’s 551st (Reserve) Brigade (“The Arrows of Fire”) – set out to extract their bodies from the Jabaliya area of the Gaza Strip, where intelligence indicated they were being held. On the way there, a roadside explosive was detonated, targeting the Israeli troops. Two reservists were killed in the explosion. The two had been friends for years, since their time together in training – Eyal Meir Berkowitz, 28 from Jerusalem, and Gal Meir Eizenkot, 25 from Herzliya, son of the former IDF Chief of Staff and current war cabinet member Gadi Eizenkot. Other soldiers were wounded as well. Eden and Ziv’s bodies were ultimately extracted and given a proper Jewish burial in Israeli territory.

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One of the last pictures of Eyal and Gal together in Gaza. Photo courtesy of the Berkowitz family

Eyal Berkowitz grew up in Susya in the Southern Hebron Hills. He completed his high school education at the local Bnei Akiva Yeshiva for Environmental Studies. Afterwards he moved on to study at the Bnei David Advanced Yeshiva in Eli.

While studying there, Eyal joined a group of students who studied Mishnah together. Eyal himself studied and memorized the Mishnah based on a small version of the Mishnah Sdurah series.

משנה סדורה
Eyal’s book of Mishnayot from his time at Eli

The first edition of the six orders of Mishnah published by Mishnah Sdurah came out in the 1990s. What made this series unique was its design and the arrangement of the text in a way that makes it easier for the student to understand the Mishnah.

Each individual Mishnah is spread out over a series of brief lines. Each line is devoted to a new sentence, a pause mid-sentence, or a particular point from within a list of several points. This structure also serves as its own form of punctuation and can also help with memorization. The spacious design also leaves room for writing comments on the page.

Eyal was able to make good use of all of this, and throughout his studies, he wrote brief comments for practically every Mishnah. As someone who always had a knack for drawing, he also occasionally added little illustrations.

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Tractate Sanhedrin, with Eyal’s comments

After three years in Eli, Eyal enlisted in the IDF in 2016. He started out in Sayeret Matkal and then moved on to Maglan – both elite units. In 2022, he married Michal. They lived together in Jerusalem, where he started studying to become a doctor at Hebrew University.

But he only managed to finish his first year.

On that fateful day of Simchat Torah, Eyal and Michal were at his parent’s house in Susya. Upon learning of the scope of the terrorist assault in the Gaza border region, Eyal was immediately called as a reservist, and he soon found himself fighting inside the Gaza Strip once the ground invasion got underway.

Eyal was killed in action, a few hours before the beginning of Hannukah, on December 7, 2023. Just a few days earlier, he and Michal had marked their first year of marriage and had promised to celebrate when Eyal came back from the reserve duty.

Eyal Meir Berkowitz ob”m. Photo courtesy of the Berkowitz family

A few weeks after his death, his family approached the National Library. They had found Eyal’s book of Mishnayot with his written comments, and offered to have the volume scanned and cataloged by the NLI. The idea was welcomed by the Library and the scans have already been completed. The bibliographic information accompanying Eyal’s set of Mishnayot at the Library contain a brief note in Hebrew:

The illustrator, an alumnus of the Bnei David Advanced Yeshivah in Eli in Binyamin, served in the Maglan unit and fell during a mission to extract the bodies of hostages held in the Gaza Strip on the 24th of Kislev, 5784, December 7, 2023. The volume was delivered for photocopying by his wife.

While preparing this article, we were excited to hear that aside from the scans that were uploaded to our online catalog, the family also decided to donate the book itself to the National Library, and it was indeed handed over a few days after Israeli Memorial Day.

משפחת ברקוביץ צילום מוטי דהאן
Eyal’s family handing over his Mishnayot to the National Library of Israel, May 2024. Right to left: Dr. Chaim Neriah, curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library, Shmaya Berkowitz, his wife Riki, and Michal – Eyal’s widow. Photo: Motti Dahan

The scanned book reveals how Eyal’s comments were often brief, but were still able to very succinctly explain the intention of the Mishnah, even in places where the original text does not tell us many details.

The Mishnah, like every ancient text, is hard to read and understand without background knowledge of its subject matter. This is why commentators throughout the generations – Rashi, Maimonides, Rabbi Ovadyah of Bartenura, the Tosfot Yom Tov as well as more modern commentaries like Kehati, Safrai, and Artscroll – have been written to help readers dive in.

Eyal succeeded in illuminating the words of the Mishnah, using very brief explanations in a modern Hebrew style, with an occasional dash of humor added in. Rabbis who saw the Mishnah with his comments attested to his succinct comments containing amazing depth and great talent in connecting Mishnayot to other sources.

Here’s just one brief example: The Mishnah in Tractate Eruvin calculates the distance between two cities to allow the carrying of objects between them on Shabbat, something which would be forbidden if it involved carrying things from one jurisdiction to another. If the radius of 70 cubits and 2/3 cubits from one city touches on the same calculated area of a nearby city, they are considered a single locality or jurisdiction, and as Eyal put it, along with a small illustration: “we connect them both.” This is certainly a much clearer explanation than the Mishnah’s original formulation in Hebrew.

Tractate Eruvin, chapter 5, Mishnah 2, Eyal’s copy

We will only add that it is a Jewish custom to study Mishnayot for the ascension of a person’s soul on the anniversary of their death, as the words “Mishnah” and “Neshamah” (soul) consist of the same letters in Hebrew.

May the memory of Eyal, Gal, and all the fallen of Israel be a blessing.

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Eyal Berkowitz ob”m. Photo courtesy of Berkowitz family

Let’s Raise a Glass for Miriam the Prophetess

What was Miriam the Prophetess’ part in the Exodus from Egypt? How does the Jewish Midrash explain her role in the journey from slavery to freedom and why do some set aside a sixth cup for her at the Passover Seder table?


Postcard reproducing the work of German artist Ludwig Gustav Wilhelm Scheuermann (1859-1911), presenting the biblical image of Miriam, sister of Moses, holding a musical instrument. The Postcard collection, the National Library of Israel

As opposed to the Passover Haggadah, the Jewish Midrash tells us of the significant role played by Miriam the Prophetess in the Exodus from Egypt. Every Passover we are told of the Children of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom, but it often goes unmentioned that Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Moses, had a significant role in that journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. These acts earn her, in some traditions, a place of honor at the Seder table.

What was Miriam the Prophetess’ role in the Exodus?

The Exodus is remembered in Jewish tradition as a rapid departure, almost a hasty flight, from Egypt. Thus, the Jews left the country so fast that they didn’t have time to properly bake bread, leading to the matzas we eat during the holiday instead.

We can imagine our ancestors quickly leaving their homes and barely managing to take food with them, grabbing what they could and getting out. It therefore seems very strange that just after the Red Sea is split in two and the People of Israel cross over to the other side, the Bible describes Miriam the Prophetess taking her timbrel and starting to play and dance.

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”

(Ex. 15)
Anselm Feuerbach painting, 1862. Displayed at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin

Where did Miriam manage to find a timbrel in the middle of the desert – did she take the time to bring it along during the hasty exit from Egypt?

When you are forced to leave as quickly as possible, you only take what you really need with you. It’s certainly logical to bring along that which is required to survive in the desert – food, water, clothes. Why did Miriam choose to bring a timbrel – a musical instrument akin to a modern tambourine? In his commentary, Rashi describes how Miriam and all the other Israelite women, during the challenging, complex, and even terrifying moments of the departure from Egypt, still believed there would be reasons for happiness, dancing, and merriment. “The righteous women in that generation were confident that God would perform miracles for them and they accordingly had brought timbrels with them from Egypt” [Rashi, Ex. 15:20]. Therefore, Miriam brought a timbrel with her on the journey. She knew she would have the opportunity to use it.

A photo of The Golden Haggadah, Barcelona, 1320. The Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

This is the unique strength which characterizes Miriam’s leadership throughout the Exodus: the power to believe that the painful reality can reverse itself. The power to try and bring about change, to imagine a better reality than the present one and to strive to realize it.

According to the Midrash, the entire redemption, all of the Exodus, was based on Miriam’s act of rescue. The Talmudic story tells us that when Pharaoh decreed that all the newborn boys be thrown into the Nile, her father Amram, a great leader in his generation, divorced his wife Yocheved, deciding that if the children were to be murdered anyway, then there was no point in having them and thus no point in being married.

The people followed suit and divorced their wives, too. A moment after Pharaoh’s terrible decree, the Talmud describes how despair gripped the people, with families collapsing wholesale.

It was in this atmosphere of doom that Miriam emerged as a leader: “His daughter said to him: Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh” (TB Sotah 12a). Miriam appeals to her father and reproaches him: your decree is harsher, as he only condemned the males, while you are also condemning the females. He is wicked and so his decree will ultimately be abolished. But you are ensuring the decree will be realized by your own hand.

Amram, a leader of the generation, is able to heed his daughter’s innocent, seemingly naïve voice, and decides to remarry his former wife, after which Moses is born. It is for this moment that the Jewish sages describe Miriam as a Prophetess: As a young girl, she saw beyond the immediate need for survival, beyond the here and now, and led to the birth of the People of Israel’s great leader. In a difficult moment of existential danger, Miriam managed to foresee the horizon beyond and believe in a better future. Operating within a difficult reality, she refused to give up.

Moses Abandoned on the Nile, by Paul Delaroche

When Moses was placed inside the basket, her mother doubted her and asked “My daughter, where is your prophecy?” (Ex. Rabbah 1). He and his wife were helpless and despairing. They sat at home, and the sorrow for their son filled their hearts. But again, Miriam refused to play along. She went to the river and made sure Moses found a home with Pharaoh’s daughter, taking care to ensure her prophecy came true.

Miriam’s strength came through in these moments, when despair seemed to be overtaking belief in the good.

Later on, as the People of Israel wandered the desert, the Jewish sages speak of how Miriam had a well, one containing flowing water and which she took everywhere. It was a well that allowed the People of Israel to drink water in the desert and survive its dryness. Miriam herself was a flowing well, especially in the hard times when despair spread, when things seemed doomed and there was no solution on the horizon. It was then that her vitality burst forth most prominently.

This is why a relatively new custom has emerged among certain communities of placing a cup for Miriam next to the traditional cup reserved for Elijah the Prophet during the Seder meal. The cup for Miriam, however, is filled not with wine but water, and is made of glass. It is a cup reminding us of the hope and belief in miracles that happen every day.

The custom of leaving a cup of wine for Elijah the Prophet is based on a halachic dispute over whether Jews are required to drink four cups of wine at the Seder – or five, one for each redemption of the Jewish People. Everyone agrees on the four cups, but the fifth is up for debate. Therefore, the custom emerged to place a fifth cup, but not to drink from it.

While Jewish religious jurists simply call this cup “the fifth cup”, it has become popularly known as the cup of Elijah. According to the Maharal of Prague, this name was given because Elijah is the symbol of redemption, and thus the cup of redemption is named for him. But according to the Gaon of Vilna, it is because Elijah will come at the End of Days and resolve all halachic disputes – including the question of the fifth cup.

The cup of Elijah attained a special status at the Seder table. Which is why we place Miriam’s cup next to it.

The cup of Miriam the Prophetess seeks to correct a historic and narrative injustice by securing a place of honor at the Seder table and in the story of redemption, for the women who also led the people:

“This is the cup of Miriam, the cup of living water, in memory of the Exodus. May it be God’s will that we merit drinking from the waters of Miriam’s well for health and redemption. May it be God’s will that we learn from Miriam and all the women to come out with timbrels and dancing in the face of the miracles of daily life and sing to God in every moment – Amen!”

The blessing written on Miriam the Prophetess’ cup seeks to give thanks for the ability to believe in the good even during difficult times, and gratitude for the strength to not surrender to despair or pain but rather to find the moments and points of light, and to sing, play, and rejoice in daily life.

From a distance everything looks like a miracle

but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like that.

Even someone who crossed the Red Sea when it split

saw only the sweating back

of the man in front of him

and the swaying of his big thighs

Yehudah Amichai, translation by Robert Alter

The Story of a Nation That Redeems Its Captives

From Abraham who saved his nephew from captivity, to IDF helicopters carrying Israeli hostages back from Gaza - for thousands of years, Jews have fought, paid any sum necessary, and even endangered their lives to redeem and save their brethren from captivity and imprisonment

"The Commandment of Redeeming Captives"

One of them was the father of the Jewish nation. The other was his nephew, who joined the biblical Patriarch in leaving their place of birth on an almost mad journey to a new land. It took some time, as well as a brief adventure in Egypt, before they finally settled in Canaan. But then, the nephew fell captive – he and all who were with him. It happened because of a war they had absolutely nothing to do with, between different groups of petty monarchs with outrageous names like Kedarlaomer and Amraphel.

When Abraham heard his nephew Lot had fallen captive, he did not hesitate, even for a moment. He got his family and entourage together – a mere 318 people, all told – and set out to pursue the four captor kings and their armies, who had just won a decisive victory in the Valley of Siddim (near the Dead Sea) against five other kings. The pursuit began nearby in Sodom and reached all the way to Damascus, but Abraham was finally able to save Lot: “And also Lot … he returned and also the women and also the people” (Genesis, 14:16).

Abraham meets with Melkitzedek. 15th century. St. Peter’s Cathedral in Leuven, Belgium

With the captives now freed, the King of Sodom and the King of Salem (Shalem, Jerusalem of today) received Abraham and his people with flowers and gifts (well, bread and wine, anyway). Abraham handed them the loot he was able to take in battle. He went to war not to get rich, but to save Lot and the others taken captive with him.

This is probably the first incident of captives being freed in the recorded history of the Jewish nation.

Judaism considers human captivity to be a grievous sin. One of the Ten Commandments is “Thou Shall Not Steal” – and this commandment in fact refers to kidnapping – stealing people, not inanimate property. The punishment for this is death – “And he who steals a man and sells him, and he is found in his hands, will be put to death” (Exodus, 21:16).

Consequently, and possibly also due to our past, as a nation redeemed from captivity and slavery in Egypt, freeing captives from their captors has become a supreme moral value in Judaism. Something that must be done.

Maimonides says this of the imperative to free captives:

“And you have no greater commandment than the redemption of captives, for the captive is to be classified among those who hunger as well as those who thirst, those who are naked and those who stand on the brink of death.”

 (Hilchot Matnot Aniyim, 8:10-11)

“Jew! Have you fulfilled your duty to save prisoners […] Raise up your donation quickly to redeem the hostages”, a pashkevil poster from the National Library’s Pashkevil Collection

According to Jewish law, redemption of captives comes prior to many other things, including even taking care of the non-captive poor. It is even permissible to sell a Torah scroll to redeem a captive with the proceeds.

When a man marries a woman, he makes ten commitments to her, one of which is an obligation to redeem her if she is taken captive.

We are told of how King David himself fulfilled such an obligation. While David was busy with a certain Philistine mess in another part of the country, two of his wives – Achinoam and Avigail – were staying in the city of Tziklag. The Amalekites living in the area exploited the absence of King David and his army to attack the city, burn it to the ground, and take all the women and children captive.

When King David returned to a burned and empty city, he made the decision to pursue the Amalekites, even though he could only take some 400 men with him for the purpose, of whom 200 soon deserted. Fortunately, they caught an Egyptian youth along the way, the slave of one of the captors. He directed them to the Amalekite camp, where David and his men found their enemies “drinking and reveling because of the great amount of plunder they had taken” (the women, we can reasonably assume, were considered part of this “plunder” – 1 Samuel 30:16).

David and his men had the advantage of surprise, and they slaughtered many looters and drove the rest to flight, leaving the property almost entirely intact and many women shaken, but still alive.

Slave market in Constantinople, 19th century. William Allen

But superhero style rescue missions, even if told of our fathers and kings, have not been the main method the Jewish people have used to redeem their captives over the centuries.

During the long years of exile from the Land of Israel, all the leaders of Jewish communities could do was collect money – ransom – to free captives from bondage, or convince other, richer communities to help them out.

The Cairo Genizah, for instance, contains correspondence between Maimonides and various Jewish communities dealing with the redemption of captives – how many and where, and how much it would cost to free them. Among the letters is a receipt signed by Maimonides’ hand, relating to a sum donated for the redemption of captives. The text of the receipt explains that the donation came from the donor’s sale of his property.

Receipt signed by Maimonides. Cambridge University, TSNS309.12

The captives redeemed by the communities in Egypt weren’t friends or relatives of the donors, they were Jews who usually came from distant lands such as Mesopotamia and Southern Europe. They were typically were taken captive by pirates or highway robbers and were brought to cities in North Africa to be sold into slavery.

The concept of being taken captive and the difficult experiences entailed were not foreign to the members of Jewish communities, no matter where they were based. Even if they didn’t experience it personally, these people had been raised on stories of exile – in Egypt, Babylon, and later the exiles of the Second Temple period and the horror stories of the captives taken to Rome.

The Jewish captives were their brothers, and it was a great mitzvah to redeem them, even at great expense. Even if they didn’t know them from Adam.

There were cases where the effort to redeem captives failed – where they died due to sickness or abuse. There were also times when freeing captives helped to create new communities or strengthen existing ones.

“Redemption of Captives” – Generations raised on the importance of the commandment to redeem captives have resulted in extensive literature on the topic

Such was the case with the legendary “Four Captives.” According to the story, these were four sages who left Babylon, or the city of Bari in Italy, depending on who you ask. Their ship was ambushed by pirates on the Mediterranean, and they were taken captive. In that time, the late 10th century, about 150 years before Maimonides was born, Babylon was the spiritual center of the Jewish People. Jews in communities in North Africa, Italy, and Spain were almost entirely religiously dependent on the sages in Babylon and their religious rulings, which could only reach them after months of travel, in the best-case scenarios.

The pirates did not offload all the captives at once, instead offering their human cargo at the various ports they visited on their voyage. Thus were the four sages spread out across a very broad geographic expanse – from Egypt in the east through Morocco to Spain in the west. At each of the locations where one of the sages was redeemed, that sage eventually helped to establish a new independent spiritual Jewish center.

Rabbi Moses Ben Hanoch and his son, also called Hanoch, reached Spain. They were redeemed with a princely sum by the community of Cordoba, which was then a small, developing community. No-one in the community knew the ragged individuals they saved, yet they did not hesitate to pay more than the community could afford to rescue them. Their adherence to the commandment of redeeming captives paid off in spades: They eventually understood who Rabbi Moses was, and he was appointed as head of the city’s Jewish school. Over time, Cordoba became an important and significant Torah center, and its flourishing alongside other communities helped form the basis of Spanish Jewry’s Golden Age.

Letter from the Rabbis of Sefrou to the Rabbis of Meknes (both cities in Morocco) regarding the redemption of Jewish captives in the hands of Berber tribes

But things weren’t always so simple. Jewish efforts to free their captives at any price created a problem, and it was clear to the sages that this might actually encourage the kidnapping of Jews specifically. This is why the sages of the Mishna enacted the following regulation:

“We do not redeem the captives for more than their worth, because of Tikkun Olam (repair of the world).”

This regulation, which decrees that captives should not be redeemed for more than their market value, required people to put their feelings aside, and prefer the rational strategy that considered the long term good of the nation over the desire to ease the pain of a suffering mother or daughter.

But this regulation was not always strictly adhered to. The Gemara tells of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Hananiah, who redeemed a child from the Romans (the Gemara does not tell us if the child was captured alone or with his family). When the effort to redeem the child ran into trouble, he said “I will not move from here until I have ransomed this boy for whatever money may be asked.” And indeed, the Gemara says that he paid a very large sum of money for the child, much more than he was worth. Was it because of mortal danger that he ignored the regulation, or because he knew this child could become a great leader? It is not clear. In any event, per the story, the freed child grew to become the famous Rabbi Ishmael.

One leader who did demand that the regulation be applied – to himself – was Meir of Rothenburg, “The Maharam”, who was born Meir Ben Baruch in 1220 CE in the city of Worms, Germany. Worms is a beautiful town with a rich Jewish history. A number of great Torah sages emerged from Worms whose teachings formed a solid foundation for Ashkenazic Jewry for generations, but the city was also the sight of a terrible massacre of Jews, and the Jewish quarter itself was destroyed a century after the Maharam’s death.

In his youth, the Maharam studied with the great sages of France. Upon returning to Germany, he very quickly became the main Rabbinic authority of Ashkenazic Jewry. Towards the end of his life, the Jews of Germany were increasingly persecuted and he, who believed every Jew must do everything they can to reach the Land of Israel – set out on the difficult journey. But the law of that time forbade the Jews from leaving Germany’s borders. He was caught in Italy and handed over to the German authorities.

The Maharam of Rothenburg was imprisoned in a fortress in the city of Ensisheim, to the dismay of his students and family. The community obviously wanted to redeem him – he was their undisputed leader – and apparently, they even began to collect the necessary funds. But the German ruler demanded an exorbitant sum, and the Maharam – perhaps with the hope of being freed for a more reasonable sum later on – commanded them not to pay the ransom. He died a few years later in prison, leaving behind the commentaries he wrote in his cell, after being provided, reluctantly, with a parchment and quill to write with.

Even after his death, the German authorities would not release his body to be buried. It was only 14 years later that a rich Jew named Alexander Ziskind Wimpen came forward and paid a fortune for the body’s release. He himself was buried alongside the Maharam in the Worms cemetery, where the adjacent graves of the two can still be found, with the gravestones telling part of this story.

Gravesites of the Maharam of Rothenburg and Alexander Ziskin Wimpen at the Worms cemetery

The story of the Maharam of Rothenburg is but one of many. In Christian Europe, Jews were perhaps not sold into slavery or used as props in cruel gladiator fights, but they continued to be taken captive and imprisoned in terrifying fortresses and prisons, oftentimes without a fair trial or even a trial at all.

Jewish community pinkasim (ledgers) from all over Europe are filled with side notes on diplomatic efforts to redeem captives, documentation of prayers to free prisoners, or lines in the accounts mentioning sums allocated for such purposes. Success in this field, so it seems, was hard to come by.

Many years later, during the era of the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, redemption of captives took a sharp turn. No longer a question of paying ransom (or bribes to Ottoman officials), the prisoners in British jails now often had a military background – these were members of the underground forces seeking to liberate the country. Alongside (largely failed) diplomatic efforts, the members of the Jewish community or Yishuv and the underground fighters returned to the ways of their forefathers from the Bible – the way of armed struggle.

On May 4, 1947, the Irgun (Etzel) raided Acre Prison to free the underground prisoners held there. This was a complex operation which included coordination among a number of teams, including the prisoners themselves. The Irgun members disguised themselves as members of a British engineering unit and maintenance crew, and a firefight broke out with a British paratrooper force guarding the jail.

The Jewish Yishuv was in tumult. Forty-one Jewish prisoners managed to escape, six of whom were killed and another eight recaptured. Three members of the attacking force were also killed and another three were captured and later executed. In addition, more than 180 Arab prisoners also broke out of jail that day. Most of them were caught, but some – including dangerous criminals with significant potential for killing Jews later on – managed to stay on the outside.

Was this a heroic action redeeming captives, or a needless suicide mission that endangered the Yishuv? In a speech that Menachem Begin, the head of the Irgun, gave on the radio three days later, he said the following:

“Once again, our blood has been spilled and has saturated the hills of Galilee. But it is not the blood of the butchered, but rather the blood of fighters and heroes, giving birth to new heroes, cultivating a new heroism, bringing freedom to the homeland and a life of honor to the people.”

In his eyes, at least, this was a glorious return to the days when the Jewish People could defend itself, even at the cost of blood.

Since the State of Israel was established and to this day, we have been dealing with different and complex aspects of redeeming captives – from soldiers taken in battle to citizens taken as hostages by murderous terrorist organizations.

May it be that all those who have not yet returned from captivity merit us the chance to fulfill the commandment of redemption of captives, and may they return home, all of them.

Prayer’s Light in Wartime’s Darkness

Since the horrific events of October 7 and the subsequent war, a large chorus of voices have turned to the heavens, hoping to deal with their pain and confusion by praying to a higher power. This has been a typical Jewish response to war since biblical times, and continues into the modern age. Let’s explore some of these powerful wartime prayers, and find out where they truly come from.

Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren in Sinai reciting prayers for the IDF soldiers, 1970, Eitan Haber, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Israel is at war. How does that sentence make you feel? What is your response?

Some people feel anger at this, an anger that spurs them forward as they spend time volunteering, sharing content online about the conflict, and donating money to various Israeli causes.

Military rabbi (Feldrabbiner) Dr. Balaban with a group of Jewish soldiers in Lublin, 1914-17, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Conversely, some people feel helpless or mournful, not knowing quite what to do with the difficult emotions that this war raises for them.

And at the same time, many people, when trying to deal with this turmoil, simply turn to a higher power – asking “why”, begging “please”, saying “help”.

Soldiers being blessed by a rabbi before going off to war, 1914-18, Germany, the National Library of Israel

During this time, there is of course not just one valid response, but the response that is perhaps often left unacknowledged, and sometimes seemingly adverse to outside commentary, comes from that last group of people – those who are, right now, grappling with, or turning to, their faith.

The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar urge Jews to say a specially composed prayer on Passover 2007 for Israeli soldiers held captive since the Lebanon War, The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), April 6, 2007, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

This war, unfortunately, does not mark the first time in history that so many Jews have been massacred, and with each tragic slaughter of the Jewish people, a large chorus of voices turns to the heavens. Often the words which leave the mouths of these Jews during times of distress such as these are pre-prescribed: they come from a prayer book, are read in order and adhere to rituals which were determined long before our lifetime.

Poster advertising an emergency day of fasting and prayer to end the Holocaust, called by the Chief Rabbinate of Palestine and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of American and Canada, 1945, the National Library of Israel

But these are not the only prayers that count. Spontaneous words from the heart have almost always had a place in Judaism, a fact that is somewhat surprising given the ostensible rigidity of the religion, and the structures upon which it relies.

But nonetheless, we can see that this is undeniably the case. Once upon a time, as told in the Book of Samuel, a biblical woman named Hannah stood at the entrance to the Tabernacle at Shiloh, rocking silently back and forth and muttering to herself, as tears welled in her eyes. The Jews around her assumed that she was a drunkard and looked unkindly upon her. However, what was really occurring was a silent but supremely powerful turning-point within the Jewish religion. Hannah was saying a silent prayer – without a prayer book, without a quorum of men, without prescribed words. Just a woman praying silently from the heart.

Group of soldiers and rabbi at Passover service 5678 (28 March 1918) in Italy, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Since then, the idea of making up and reciting personal prayers has gained legitimacy, but while Hannah’s prayers focused on her childlessness, the concept of personal prayer really took off and became common within Judaism in the context of war.

King David is famous in Jewish tradition for having been an astute warrior and conqueror. Many of the Psalms that appear in the Bible are traditionally attributed to King David, and there is even a belief that he composed some of these hymns for his troops to use in prayer during war. For example, Psalms 20: 8-10 reads:

“These trust in chariots and these in horses, but we-we mention the name of the Lord our G-d. They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength. O Lord, save [us]; may the King answer us on the day we call.”

The Chief Rabbi of the British Empire composed a prayer for the protection of Jewish soldiers to be read in synagogues every Sabbath during the Boer War in South Africa, 1899, the National Library of Israel

Another famous and even earlier biblical example of prayer entering Jewish liturgy during times of war is the story of how the biblical forefather Jacob prepared for his reunification with his estranged brother Esau. Jacob is warned that his brother is approaching, accompanied by 400 men. Fearing for his life, he decides to compose a prayer for salvation. Jacob’s prayer (Genesis 32: 10-13) echoes the words of the prayer we know today as Ha-Gomel, which is recited whenever a soldier returns from war, to this very day.

This practice of authoring prayers in response to war exists in the modern age as well, such as prayers composed for Jewish soldiers during World War I.

Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren in Sinai reciting prayers for the IDF soldiers, 1970, Eitan Haber, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

We have many famous examples from the Holocaust of prayers being written to suit the spiritual needs of the suffering congregations and individuals during that time of great trauma. Jewish author and poet Alexander Kimel, for example, created a set of prayers for the victims of the Holocaust after surviving the ordeal himself. These prayers are now usually read as part of the Yahrzeit service on the High Holy Days, but many of the Jews reading his words do not know just quite how recently these prayers were actually composed.

Group of Jewish soldiers and their rabbi in Purgstall, 1917, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

Similarly, most synagogues around the world recite the Mi Sheberach prayer for the safety of Jewish soldiers each week on the Sabbath. To the casual listener, this classic prose might sound hundreds of years old, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! While the original Mi Sheberach blessing for the recovery of sick Jews dates back to the 12th century, it was only adapted for use when praying for Jewish soldiers by the former Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, in 1956, while Israeli troops were fighting in the Sinai Campaign.

Military rabbi blesses and gives sermon to Jewish soldiers in Austria, 1914-18, Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, the eminent Rav Ariel Bar Tzadok wrote a prayer for the welfare of the state of Israel, using sources from Sefer Shoreshei HaShemot. Again, these prayers were adopted by the nation, and synagogues were soon full of people fervently repeating Ariel Bar Tzadok’s words in the hope that they would bring success in battle.

Then, in 2014, during Operation Protective Edge, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo was compelled to write the “Prayer on Behalf of the Jewish Soldiers Going into Battle” whose profound meaning touched many Jewish hearts around the world and became a constant daily chant for lots of Jews in various global congregations.

Newspaper article explaining new High Holy Day prayers written for Israeli soldiers fighting in the War of Independence, the Sydney Jewish News, 25 November 1949, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

And even now, Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, and a man steeped in tradition, has requested that all Jewish congregations say his newly-written “Prayer for the Success of Am Yisrael” every day until the end of this current dreadful war. This novel prayer has become the new-normal in many synagogues around Israel, who pledge to read it aloud each day until the end of the war in Gaza.

President Chaim Herzog, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis and others at a service in Jerusalem to offer prayers for the well-being of Jewish troops fighting in the Gulf, 1991, David Mizrachi, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

So, while some people think of Jewish prayer as something stagnant or pre-prescribed, it is clear to see that this is very much not the case, especially during times of war. In fact, much of the war-time liturgy that so many Jews rely on for comfort, was composed in the recent past by modern Jews who felt just as much longing for safety, success and peace as we do today.

The Abridged Prayer Book for Jews in the Army and Navy of the United States, 1917. In addition to the expected material, it includes specially composed prayers for war, a “Prayer for the Government,” national anthems, “America”, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hail, Columbia,” plus a calendar for 1917-1920, Jewish Welfare Board by Jewish Publication Society of America, the National Library of Israel

For those who utilize prayer to connect to the current war in Israel, it may come as some comfort to know that the words that many believe to hold so much power do not need to have been written over 2000 years ago. They can be as heartfelt as the inner feelings of parents missing their children, rabbis guiding their communities, and individuals standing on the precipice of uncertainty, unsure of how to look at the world around them, who instead look up to the sky and open their mouths to see what words fall out.

And who knows which of the prayers from today’s wars will end up etched on the pages of prayer books used by our great grandchildren for generations to come.