The Missing Milkcan of Warsaw Ghetto

Inside the Warsaw Ghetto, Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum knew that it was only a matter of time until his Jewish community was completely wiped out. But, refusing to let the Nazis destroy all evidence of Polish Jewish life, Ringelblum began archiving his entire community… with the help of a Shabbat afternoon club and a small collection of milkcans.

Emanuel Ringelblum, Koperczak, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Wikimedia Commons

If you knew that you only had a few months in which to document every single shred of evidence pertaining to your entire community, what would you collect? For Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, this question was not a hypothetical one. As conditions worsened in the Warsaw Ghetto, Ringelblum knew that it was only a matter of time until his entire community ceased to exist. But this phenomenal character in Jewish history refused to let the Nazis take away everything that the ghetto community had fought so hard to preserve… and he did this with the help of a Shabbat afternoon club and a small collection of milkcans.

Born on November 21st, 1900, in a small religious shtetl in Buchach, Ukraine, life for little Emanuel Ringelblum revolved around his family, Judaism, lively political discussions with the other men in the shtetl, and a strict regimen of religious and secular schooling. Emanuel excelled in his studies which were conducted in his mother tongue of Yiddish, and he was encouraged to apply for university, something of a rarity for young shtetl boys.

In 1920, Emanuel was offered a place at the University of Warsaw to study the History of Warsaw Jewry. He bid farewell to his parents, packed up his possessions, and set off for university. It was here that he met his sweetheart Yehudis Herman, and before long he had proposed marriage. In 1927, Emanuel graduated with a doctorate degree, after presenting a thesis on the history of Jews in Warsaw during the Middle Ages. With this achievement under his belt, Emanuel took a job at a Jewish high school teaching history, and Yehudis gave birth to a son who they named Uri.

Emanuel Ringelblum, Koperczak, Kronika getta warszawskiego, Wikimedia Commons

Life was good for the young family, and as Emanuel became more entrenched in Warsaw society, he started taking on different community social projects. In 1925 he joined YIVO, an organization that preserves and teaches Eastern European Jewish history and regulated the Yiddish language. He also formed a historical society called the “Young Historians Circle” and wrote for their two journals. By the late 1930s, Emanuel had published 126 of his own scholarly articles and was traveling all around Poland with the Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that provided relief and aid to Jews in need.

A staunch member of the Zionist political party Po’alei Zion Left, Ringelblum was elected as their delegate to the 21st Zionist congress in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1939. By this point, war was on the horizon and life for Jews in Poland was increasingly bleak. During the conference, Emanuel was offered an attractive opportunity to leave Europe and the prospect of war behind, and immigrate to pre-state Israel with his family. However, Ringelblum chose to remain in Poland, stating in his diary that he had not yet fulfilled his “obligation” to the Eastern European Jewish people. He knew that this decision could potentially cost him his life.

World War II broke out just as Emanuel was returning home from a trip, later that year. He had been helping the JDC organize legal and welfare-based aid for Jewish refugees who had ended up in Poland after escaping Nazi Germany, in a Polish-German border town called Zbaszyn. Emanuel had known that it was only a matter of time before war broke out, and when the Jews were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel and his family yet again faced a choice. Influential and wealthy community leaders were occasionally granted papers to flee Poland, and Emanuel knew that he could have secured these precious documents for himself, but he refused to leave behind the less fortunate members of his community, and resigned himself to living alongside them in 1940 when the ghetto was established.

Jewish life in Warsaw, Voyage en Pologne de l’Union Nationale des Combattants (UNC) 1933, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

A good man through and through, Emanuel’s community efforts didn’t stop within the walls of the ghetto. He would volunteer for guard duty regularly, and assist medical teams as they tended to injured Jews. He remained a member of The Joint Distribution Committee and offered aid where he could and he even created a movement for the continuation of Yiddish culture inside the ghetto walls.

But the most significant of his activities was yet to come. Ringelblum was among the leaders of the Aleynhilf, the largest Jewish aid organization within the Warsaw Ghetto, helping to distribute goods and food to those in need and providing solutions to housing issues. Leading this organization would have been impressive in and of itself, but this is not why we are interested in his involvement with the Aleynhilf.

Emanuel sensed an opportunity here, and began approaching other members of the Aleynhilf almost immediately. He would find historians like himself, or writers, educators, professors and the like, and see if he could trust them. He would befriend those he had marked out and learn about their level of commitment to the Jewish community. If he deemed them suitable, he would tentatively ask them to meet with him on the next Saturday afternoon in a secret storage house within the ghetto walls.

Ringelblum’s growing clandestine group of recruits would thereafter meet in secret once a week in their hideout, each Saturday afternoon. They called themselves the “Oneg Shabbat” group, meaning the group of Sabbath Joy. This was because they would only dare to meet on Shabbat, when larger gatherings of Jews were commonplace, in case they happened to be caught and questioned. Each member of the Oneg Shabbat underground group had an important job to perform.

Emanuel feared that with the liquidation of the ghetto which would eventually take place in April 1943, all the archives, details of Jewish life, and holy artifacts of his community would be lost forever, and he simply couldn’t stand to see the history of the Warsaw Jews be burned to the ground by the Nazis. With incredible foresight, he knew that if he wanted anything to survive, it would have to be kept secret.

So, Ringelblum orchestrated his plan: each member of the Oneg Shabbat group would spend the week collecting materials, prayer books, holy literature, ephemera, and more. On top of that, they would document their life in the ghetto and write about Jewish customs, community practices, family stories and the like. Anything worth keeping or recording could be collected. But it all had to be done surreptitiously. The success of Ringelblum’s budding archive depended on the group’s ability to hide it not only from the Nazis but also from any Jews within the ghetto who could foil their plans, even accidentally. This, they did superbly. There is no mention of the Oneg Shabbat group in any other Warsaw documents or notes from the time, and it truly seems that they were able to keep their mission private.

Bible from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, Moses Dal Castellazzo, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Memorial stone from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Emanuel would spend his nights looking through the materials and deciding what to keep. He also wrote diaries detailing every aspect of Jewish daily life inside the ghetto. Emanuel’s final collection contained over 25,000 sheets of writing, Torah covers, an Esther scroll, memorial stones, a bible published in Warsaw, his own diary, Yiddish songs and scripts, and so much more. With over 25 members of the secret Oneg Shabbat group dedicated to the cause, they managed to work fast and undetected.

Esther Scroll from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
 Torah Ark curtain from the Warsaw Ghetto, archived by Ringelblum, CJA Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As stories began pouring in of Jews being deported and carted away to concentration camps, Emanuel knew that the time had come. He packed up the materials from the Oneg Shabbat group and hid them in three large milkcans and at least ten tin boxes. He knew that there was a possibility that they could be discovered no matter how well they were hidden, so he sought out three different covert locations and spread the archives between them. Therefore, if one of them was found, the rest of the materials would still be safe.

With a heavy heart, he closed up the archives and hid them deep underground. Saying a final farewell to his collaborators, he disbanded the Oneg Shabbat group, unsure of whether they would ever meet again. They had done everything they could to preserve Jewish history in Warsaw, and they knew that the rest was out of their hands. Only Emanuel knew the location of the archives, as he didn’t want to endanger any of the other group members with this knowledge. The group met one final time to say their goodbyes and dispose of any materials that didn’t make it into the archive. The members left their hideout one by one, each walking off in separate directions. Never again did they speak of their clandestine activities.

One of the milk cans used to hide documents, from the Ringelblum Oneg Shabbat Archive, Wikimedia Commons

Not long before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943, Emanuel managed to escape the ghetto with his family, and find a secure hiding place in a safer part of Warsaw. In a dark and unknown cellar at 81 Grójecka Street, Emanuel hid with his family and 35 other Jews, with the help of Mieczysław Wolski and Janusz Wysocki, two Polish non-Jews who bravely came to their aid. Emanuel kept one diary with him in hiding and continued documenting his experience of Jewish life in Poland. In this small hideout, the Ringelblum family nearly made it to the end of the war. However, on March 7, 1944, the Gestapo stormed their hiding place and deported Ringelblum’s entire family, the other 35 Jews, and also the Polish couple who had helped them hide, taking them all to Pawiak Prison Camp, where every single one of them was murdered.

In total, only three members of the Oneg Shabbat group survived the Holocaust. The rest were killed.

One of these surviving members was a writer and historian named Rokhl Auerbach. Shortly after the war’s conclusion, she returned to Warsaw and the site of the ghetto, to lead a search for Ringelblum’s buried artifacts. On September 18, 1946, she found the first of the burial sites. Inside it were ten tin boxes, sealed with clay. They had become damp and most of the papers within the boxes were starting to mold, but special restorers were brought in to save the contents, and almost everything from these boxes was eventually recovered.

Rokhl knew that there were two other locations, but it took a team of archeologists another four years to find the second site. With this discovery, the first two milkcans were located, in a cellar at 68 Nowolipki Street. They were difficult to retrieve as the home had been destroyed in the war and rubble covered the entranceway, but upon removing the milkcans from the wreckage, the team found that they had held up much better than the boxes from the previous discovery. The contents of the milkcans were perfectly preserved and held a wider assortment of items than the documents found four years earlier.

Two milkcans and three tins buried by Emanuel Ringelblum, 1939–1945, Wikimedia Commons

The contents of these two findings are still to this very day the most in-depth and informative archives of Warsaw’s Jewish history, and the most accurate testimony of life within the ghetto. But you may be wondering what happened to the third burial site. The truth is that we don’t know. Ringelblum wrote that he buried the archives in three different locations and notes that he filled three milkcans with contents, only two of which have been found. We know therefore that there is still more to uncover. It is commonly thought that this third burial location is under the site of what is now the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw, but a group of archeologists who set out to find the milkcan in 2005 came back empty-handed.

Even without the third and final milkcan, Ringelblum’s archives are some of the most precious Holocaust documents ever revealed, telling us all about life under the most extreme form of Nazi occupation and ensuring that Jewish life in Poland before the war would never be forgotten. It was only due to the amazing foresight of Ringelblum that we have these materials at all. Though he was offered the chance to leave Europe before the Holocaust, Ringelblum chose to remain, knowing that he had work to do telling the story of the Jewish people. Ringelblum is a shining example of Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote “If not I, then who? If not now, then when?” We still hope to find the missing milkcan of Warsaw Ghetto, and learn even more about Polish Jewry in the early 1900s. But in the meantime, we can thank Ringelblum – for his sacrifice, for his intelligence to know what needed to be done, and for deciding that he would be the one to do it.

If you want to contribute to keeping your own Jewish community’s culture alive, the National Library of Israel has an ephemera collection which you can submit items to! Learn more here.

Deep Dive: Bringing Jewish Cemeteries to Life

British author and academic Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein spent the past year working with seven different communities across Europe to bring old Jewish cemeteries alive through new and exciting initiatives, encouraging a phenomenal revival of Jewish history

Images by Dr. Paul Darby and Piotr Banasik, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Krakow, at the Remah Cemetery, a historic necropolis with tombstones dating back to the sixteenth century, I wandered around with a group of students taking photographs. Soon after we walked to the lesser-known New Jewish Cemetery, located near a graffiti-covered underpass on the outskirts of the old town. The gated walls of the burial ground stretched over acres of land, a quiet wild space shaded by a thick canopy of trees. The air was filled with the sound of birdsong and the smell of wild garlic. Many of the graves were concealed beneath a thick covering of ivy, which gave the place an otherworldly feel. As we walked around taking photographs, I spoke to several of the Jewish studies students, many of whom spoke fluent Hebrew and Yiddish although none of them were Jewish. One young Polish woman told me that she keenly felt the void of the Jews in the streets, the constant and continuous sense of loss. She wanted to understand more about Jewish culture, the language and traditions of a people who had co-existed with the Polish community for centuries beforehand but were now unknown to her.

My name is Dr Rachel Lichtenstein, I am a British author and academic from Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K., who has spent the past year working with the Foundation for Jewish Heritage steering a range of different creative and educational activities at seven different Jewish cemeteries across Europe for the Deep Dive program. This project was part of an EU funded initiative with a consortium of international partners, that aimed to create ‘the broadest possible educational work on Jewish cemeteries in Europe’. The goal of the Deep Dive program was to demonstrate how Jewish cemeteries can be used as cultural, tourist, and heritage sites, as well as places of significance for educational purposes, whilst also honoring and remembering the Jewish communities who once lived in these places. We explored a variety of cemeteries and tested out a range of activities at seven very different Jewish burial grounds to encourage visitors from local communities and abroad, as well as school groups, to visit and learn more about these places in engaging new ways.

Image by Dr. Paul Darby, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Some of these cemeteries are historic sites that date back to the sixteenth century, while others remain as poignant memorials to those who perished in the Holocaust, as well as tangible remnants of the now largely disappeared Jewish communities who once occupied these locales for centuries. Others are satellite burial grounds, chosen for their ecological value, or due to partnerships with local teachers or communities already developed in those places. A few of these cemeteries are already frequently visited, mainly by religious pilgrims who come to pay their respects or pray at the graves of revered Rabbis and important figures in the Jewish world. Others are semi-abandoned, wild, and ruinous, and overgrown with trees. All are filled with thousands of stories about Jewish European settlement and life, and we can learn a great deal by engaging with them.

The Deep Dive program set out to explore how we can interact with these sites in a plethora of new ways, both educational and touristic. We tested a range of different initiatives to encourage local communities to develop heritage skills, as well as use these sites for educational, artistic, and touristic purposes. The activities we developed ranged from audio guides to heritage trails, digital mapping projects, films, and teacher’s packs. It was important for us to make sure that they were developed in partnership with local people, organizations, and institutions, whilst remaining respectful of these sites, their complex histories, their religious functions, and the participants involved.

Cemeteries by their very nature are full of stories of individuals and communities, past and sometimes present, and I strongly believe that our relationships to places are enriched and deepened when we engage with them directly. We need to have our feet on the ground, and explore them for ourselves, to learn about the layers of stories that exist there, particularly the histories of those who came before us. I cannot think of a more important and urgent project than the exploration of Jewish burial grounds in these places, which are so resonant with the tales of Jewish communities, now largely absent from these sites. These cemeteries are precious and utterly irreplaceable, both to the wider Jewish diaspora and the communities who live alongside them today. I truly hope that this project will encourage others to visit and learn from and about these Jewish cemeteries for themselves.

Images by Davit Mirvelashvili, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Georgia, we developed a teacher’s pack that explores Georgian Jewish history and Jewish cemeteries in that country, which are uniquely different to other burial grounds across Europe. For example, the twentieth century Soviet-era Jewish tombstones are similar in style to Georgian gravestones and often include pictures of the deceased and the inscriptions on the graves are in both Hebrew and Georgian. This project developed out of an urgent need for information, as there has long been a gap in available material for secondary school groups on Jewish cemeteries in Georgia, and many schoolteachers have only a limited knowledge of Jewish history. The development of this educational pack bridged this gap by creating a freely available resource that enables pupils and teachers alike to explore and learn about Jewish cemeteries, and therefore also about Jewish culture, life, and history. The pack is freely available in Georgian and English and has been printed and sent to many schools in Georgia as well as distributed to various libraries. The pack includes historical information, activities such as drawing symbols from Jewish tombstones and interpreting epitaphs, personal stories of Georgian Jewish figures, a quiz for students to test their knowledge, and more.

Image by Judit Sugár, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In Hungary, we decided to take a different approach, as meaningful connections with local Jewish history already existed in the city we chose to work with, so our job was to deepen already established connections. Therefore, we developed a project with known local Jewish and non-Jewish partners in the city of Szombathely who have been actively engaged in preserving Jewish memory there. This city was chosen because of its rich Jewish history, still active community, and successful Jewish heritage projects there. The final outcome was ultimately created by the head of the local Jewish community, Judit Sugar, who wrote and directed a documentary which focuses on the Jewish cemetery and captures the stories of the many important personalities buried there. The film also features extensive material on the history of the community, and interviews with the mayor alongside other local people including schoolchildren. The documentary is in Hungarian but subtitled in English and explores the fate of Hungarian and Central European Jewry through the history of just one town.

Image by Gabriel Khiterer, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

In each vicinity of the project, we set out to work with the local population, because it is they who are best equipped to tell us about the needs and values of their community. One example of this approach is the Deep Dive project that we carried out in Lithuania, where we collaborated with a local institution, a Jewish historian, and a writer, to encourage school children to develop creative writing pieces around their visits to a Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. Local Jewish school children took guided tours to a Jewish cemetery, where they learnt about the history of the Jewish cemetery, community and stories about the individuals buried there. Following these visits, the pupils took part in creative writing workshops, with an award-winning Lithuanian writer, where they were taught how to develop their ideas into poems, stories, and pieces of flash fiction, which were subsequently made into a small publication.

Images by Zuzana Martinková, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

This wasn’t the only community in which we decided to focus on students. In Slovakia we developed a pack for primary school children which explored the history, biodiversity, and ecology, of The Old Forgotten Jewish Cemetery outside the city center of Banská Bystrica. This site is historically rich and has a great range of plant, bird, and insect life. The content for this pack was researched and produced by master’s students from the Department of Biology and Ecology at the local University.

Visits to Jewish cemeteries can of course provide an insight into the historical past of a community, but they can also speak to current ecological concerns, as neglected rural sites such as cemeteries often become places of rich biodiversity. This innovative project demonstrates how we can care for both our past and our future, and combat the negative effects of climate change by protecting these historically and ecologically important sites.

Images by Svetlana Kostetkaia, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein




In other localities, it was more important for us to develop content for the cemeteries themselves. In Moldova, we produced an AudioWalk of 10-12 minutes long, available in Romanian, English and Russian, that explores the history of the Jewish Cemetery in Moldova’s capital city of Chisinau, and stories about the individuals buried there. This project set out to create a more immersive visitor experience for those wishing to explore this extraordinary site and direct them to places of interest within the cemetery. We wanted to demonstrate how an audio guide can encourage visitors, tourists, and school groups to explore and experience a Jewish cemetery and how making a digital tool which is freely available in three different languages might expand the visitor footfall of such a site.

Images by Piotr Banasik, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Similarly, in Krakow, Poland, we developed a photographic and historical program to encourage new ways of engaging with Jewish burial sites. The innovative part of this project was to train history students in photographic and artistic techniques, to encourage them to look at familiar places and explore well-known histories in new ways. The project culminated with a launch of the resulting photographic exhibition, which showcased the history and beauty of these historic Jewish cemeteries, in June 2023.

Image by Taras Kovalchuk, for the Deep Dive Program Report by Dr. Rachel Lichtenstein

Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, we collectively decided that we were unable to conduct activities on the ground there, so we chose to create a digital outcome for this project. Building on the work of historian Tetiana Fedoriv from the town of Zbarazh, we developed a digital memory map of the cemetery there, which visitors can explore remotely. This interactive digital map brings the stories of 15 individuals buried there vividly to life through a combination of historical research and photographic images. We used emergent technology to geolocate Tetiana’s research before making it widely available to international scholars and other digital visitors to the site.

Our groundbreaking program bought so many kinds of people together, institutions, and organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, across seven European countries, among them educators in all fields, students, schoolteachers, tour guides, historians, university departments and lecturers, as well as museums, local community representatives and politicians. In total approximately 500 individuals have taken part in the program so far, as participants, collaborators, and partners, and many more are expected to engage with the multiple outcomes of this project. The full report of the Deep Dive program and all the outcomes are available here along with the names of all those involved in the program, including funders, organizations, partners and participants:


This article was composed as a collaboration between Rachel Lichtenstein and Mia Amran. 

It Sounds Better in French… or Does It?

What happened when rabbinic courts in Morocco were under the authority of the French colonial government?

A "Ketubah", a traditional Jewish marriage contract from Kenitra, Morocco, 1951, the National Library of Israel

You never know what you’re going to find in an archive. A single, seemingly innocent page might be evidence of something quite large. That was certainly the experience of NLI archivists while cataloging the mid-20th century archive of the Beit Din of Kenitra (also called Port Lyautey), a costal Moroccan town north of Casablanca.

Archives of rabbinical courts and Jewish self-governing institutions are common. They tend to contain summaries of court decisions and the reasons behind them, notarized agreements or receipts, copies of standard contracts or documentation, or details of appointments and administration of the court. They differ of course from time to time or place to place, but there are many commonalities. One of those commonalities is the insistence that internal Jewish communal and court records appear in Jewish languages whether forms of Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, or others.

Medieval and early modern Jews benefitted from a great deal of cultural and political autonomy. Local non-Jewish officials granted the Jewish community rights and obligations, expecting Jews to regulate their own internal affairs, raise money for Jewish use, pay taxes to local governments, litigate disputes, and generally keep community members in line. Jewish communities were granted authority to tax members, and even punish them with fines, excommunication, and sometimes corporal punishment. Jewish communities functioned as autonomous governments over the Jewish residents.

Naturally, governance requires record keeping. The Jewish languages in these records made life easier for communal leaders, and the documentation was designed to keep internal Jewish affairs in the hands of Jews, particularly the leaders themselves. Take a typical pinkas, or record book, from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main.

A pinkas (record book) from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main  (1552-1802), the National Library of Israel

The community leaders kept their records in a language that only Jews could understand, and in many cities restricted access to those record books even from lay Jews. Only community leaders could get access to them.

Similar documents exist from Jewish communities in the Arab world, where Jewish communal legislation was recorded in manuscripts that summarized the local communal bylaws, regarding things such as appointment to leadership positions, taxation, sumptuary laws, and fines or punishments for disobedience. One such document, an example of among literally hundreds of similar ones held at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, includes lists of 18th-19th century Jewish communal ordinances from Fez and Meknes in Hebrew, written in professional scribal hand.

A pinkas containing 18th and 19th century records of the Jewish communities of Fez and Meknes, written in Hebrew, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Court decisions, contracts, and receipts were also recorded, again largely in Jewish languages. One example, from the NLI’s collection, documents a 1753 Hebrew-language agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds. He would gain exclusive rights to sell his wares to Jews, in exchange for a fee he would pay to the communal coffers.

A 1753 Hebrew-language contract containing an agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds, the National Library of Israel

Records like these provided important resources when problems arose, someone violated a rule or agreement, or an issue came to be adjudicated. Laypeople also needed documentation of economic transactions, in case of disagreement after financial deals. But, since Jewish communities were largely autonomous, responsible for their own affairs, there was no need to make Jewish documents accessible to non-Jews by using the local vernacular.

But the archival materials from the Beit Din of Kenitra in the mid-twentieth century held by the NLI were not in rabbinic Hebrew, but in French. Jews in Morocco spoke French during the colonial era, but it is not common at all to find rabbinical courts or halakhic documentation conducted in the vernacular. Why, then, would the Beit Din use French?

The answer stems from significant reforms that the French colonial government in Morocco made in regulating Batei Din [rabbinic courts]. To understand these reforms, it helps to compare the situation to Jewish courts that exist in the two biggest centers of Jewish life today, the United States and Israel. The model in the United States, where religious courts have no formal governmental authority whatsoever, involves entirely voluntary institutions. The government has little say in how they operate, and those courts act only for themselves and their constituents. The model in Israel is the reverse. Some religious courts are formally part of the state itself. They have no independence at all from the state.

But the French colonial government in Morocco offered a different, hybrid, suggestion. The colonial government wanted to reform the relationship between the Beit Din and the colonial authorities. Beginning in 1918, the French protectorate began to systematically reform Jewish communities and their institutions, modernizing them by limiting their authority and linking them to new, modern bureaucracy. They created Jewish rabbinic courts that would operate based on Jewish laws, but would be subject to the oversight of the colonial authorities, who would authorize the Batei Din to make decisions about internal Jewish affairs, particularly regarding marriage, divorce, and family law. Once the Jewish court had acted, the French Protectorate required systematic information about decisions, personal statuses, litigants’ obligations, or divorce settlements and their financial consequences. The French Protectorate demanded that the Jewish Beit Din take responsibility for personal status, and therefore also take responsibility for systematically reporting things to the government.

A French document from the archive of the  Kenitra Beit Din containing a statistical summary of past court decisions, including marriages and divorces, between 1944 and 1964, the National Library of Israel

This created new record-keeping responsibilities for the court. They could not simply run their own business, by Jews for Jews, in Jewish languages. Instead, the French and local authorities required systematical paperwork from the Jewish community. The Beit Din would collate its decisions about personal status, translate the decisions into French, and send them off to the local authorities. This practice continued even after Moroccan independence in 1956. The archive of the court in Kenitra includes such reports for the years 1944-1964. It even includes some long-term statistics, summarizing the total number of marriages and divorces performed during those years.

In terms of the content, the archive of the Kenitra court is fairly typical. But the small change in language is actually a microcosm of much more dramatic changes taking place in the relationship between Moroccan Jews, colonial Europeans, and local Muslim populations.


The Kenitra Beit Din Archive has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.










When Abraham and Plato Met in Barcelona

Medieval Barcelona was a unique meeting spot of Eastern and Western culture. A place where Jews, Muslims and Christians could mix. It was in Barcelona that the "first Jewish scientist" and one of the great Christian translators of the day conceived an ambitious plan to bring the wisdom of the Islamic and ancient worlds to an awakening Europe

The solar system according to Abraham Bar Hiyya, "Tzurat Ha'Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia" (The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres), 1494, the National Library of Israel

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says: “May you live in interesting times”. Abraham Bar Ḥiyya indeed lived in interesting times. Yet, he managed to turn that curse into a blessing.

In 1065, around the time of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s birth, most of the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Spain and Portugal) was an integral part of the Islamic world, and had been for centuries. During his lifetime, the peninsula’s northern Christian kingdoms began conquering large swaths of territory from the Muslims. The Crusades taking place at the same time in the Middle East further spurred the “Reconquista” – the Christian re-conquest of Iberian lands from the hands of the infidels. Armed with the power of religious fervor and the sword, they managed to conquer all the cities in the north and center of the Iberian Peninsula.

One would assume that in a period of religious wars, Jews would suffer persecution. Images of the Inquisition, expulsion, forced conversion and Jewish martyrs being forced to hide their Judaism come to mind.

However, during Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s own lifetime, very little of this came to pass. The Christian kingdoms remained relatively tolerant towards the Jews. The Muslims on the other hand, now the losing side in the conflict and on the defensive, began persecuting Jews and legislating strict regulations against them in the territories they still controlled.

Abraham Bar Ḥiyya grew up in a still-tolerant Muslim world and pursued higher studies in Zaragoza, which was a flourishing cultural center. But like many Jews living in those turbulent times, he eventually had no choice but to bid farewell to the world of Muslim culture and science and relocate to one of the nearby Christian kingdoms.

Abraham chose Catalonia, settling in its capital, Barcelona. There he met many Jews who were unfamiliar with Arabic and the rich world of Islamic science that also preserved the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. He decided to undertake the task of making the realms of science, geography and astronomy accessible to Jews. He began composing scientific essays in Hebrew, in which he combined his own knowledge with translations of ancient and Islamic sources. Yesodei HaTvuna U-Migdal Ha’Emuna (“The Foundations of Understanding and the Tower of Faith”) was an encyclopedic scientific work that summarized all the accumulated knowledge from the ancient and Islamic worlds relating to mathematics, geometry, astronomy, optics and music. Unfortunately, only the introduction and the first few parts have come down to us.

Drawing of Barcelona in the Early Modern period (1563), by Anton van den Wyngaerde

In Ḥibbur HaMeshiḥa VehaTishboret (“Treatise on Measurement and Calculation”‘), which was intended as a reference book for land surveying and contained complex formulas of arithmetic and geometry, Abraham not only included a basic collection of sources for the novice, but, in a first for the European reader, also the complete solution to the quadratic equation. The many and varied books of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya rightly earned him the accolade – “the first Jewish scientist”.

The book Tzurat Ha’Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia (“The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres”) presented for the first time in Hebrew the geographical sciences of both the Islamic and ancient worlds, including the earth’s relationship to other stars and to the moon and the sun. Abraham Bar Ḥiyya went on to write many more books, including works on the Hebrew calendar, astronomy (which included the first appearance of trigonometric functions in Hebrew), philosophy and Judaism.

Illustration of a solar eclipse, from Tzurat Ha’Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia (“The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres”) by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya, Switzerland, 1546, the National Library of Israel

And now we come to the second hero of the story.

The name of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya eventually spread to the Christian world that was then taking its first steps in the field of science. An Italian mathematician and astronomer by the name of Plato of Tivoli heard about the wisdom of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya and wanted not only to learn the basics of Islamic science from him, but also to disseminate his knowledge to the Christian world. Their meeting in Barcelona led to a longstanding friendship and collaboration. It is likely that Plato of Tivoli came to the city especially for this purpose. The Italian moved to Barcelona and lived there for about twenty years, where he continued to learn from the Jewish sage. Together, these two men, a Jew and a Christian, conceived a particularly daring and ambitious plan.

Abraham Bar Ḥiyya knew Hebrew, Arabic and Catalan, the language spoken in Barcelona. Plato of Tivoli knew Italian, learned to speak Catalan, and was of course fluent in Latin – the language of science and of European literature of the Middle Ages. And so, the two scholars embarked on a collaboration to translate into Latin the scientific writings of the ancient and Islamic worlds. Abraham would translate and explain to Plato in colloquial Catalan what was written in the Arabic sources, and Plato would translate and write it down in Latin. Together they compiled precious texts that became seeds of scientific knowledge, soon to spread across Christian Europe.

The duo translated a famous work by Ptolemy of Alexandria into Latin – the Tetrabiblos (Τετράβιβλος) or Quadripartitum (90–168 CE), which deals with philosophy, astrology and the constellations. This translation was studied for hundreds of years – in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – in universities all over Europe. The book’s positive reception allowed other works by Ptolemy to be accepted, thus indirectly contributing to further developments in the fields of science and medicine in Europe.

Imaginary portrait (1584) of the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria (90–168 CE), whose book Tetrabiblos, on philosophy and the constellations, was translated into Latin by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya and Plato of Tivoli

Plato and Abraham worked together on other translations from Arabic of mainly astronomical and astrological writings, including the work Kitab al-Mawalid (“The Book of Birth”) by the scholar Abu Ali al-Hayat (770–835), the works of al-Battani (858–929) and much more. It’s worth bearing in mind that astronomy and astrology, which at that time were inextricably intertwined, contained a great deal of geographical information, complex calculations of angles, volume and area, as well as rich and valuable mathematical information.

But Plato of Tivoli was not satisfied with just translating other sources. He also wanted to share Abraham’s own wisdom, which he had written down in Hebrew, with the Christian world. Relying on the Hebrew he had learned during the years of their joint work, Plato of Tivoli, apparently after his friend’s death, translated the Treatise on Measurement and Calculation into Latin, thus bringing to the Christian world the basics of geometry, trigonometry and the science of algebra. The chapters dealing with division, including the complete solution to the quadratic equation, which were studied by many European scholars, greatly influenced the development of mathematics in Europe. Liber Embadorum, the Latin translation of Treatise on Measurement and Calculation, was one of the direct sources of inspiration for Practica Geometriae, by the well-known mathematician Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa, 1170–1250).

Abraham and Plato, a Jew and a Christian living in a war-torn region in 12th-century Spain, sat together and distilled the best of the Jewish, Islamic and European-Christian worlds of knowledge. What might have been a curse became a blessing in the form of a meeting of cultures and scientific progress. Indeed, the Middle Ages may not have been so dark after all.

In the Edelstein Collection for the History and Philosophy of Science at the National Library of Israel, there are a number of books by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya, including the Treatise on Measurement and Calculation, The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres and the Quadripartitum, Plato of Tivoli’s and Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s joint translation of Ptolemy’s book. 21st century readers of Hebrew are in for a thrill when they realize that they can open up and read books on science and geography that were written over nine hundred years ago by one of the wisest and most prolific Jews who ever lived.

For all of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s books in the Edelstein collection at the National Library of Israel, click here.