To Have and to Hold: The Wedding Between Children and the Torah

At the start of their studies, children in Morocco went through a symbolic wedding ceremony to bond them forever with the Torah

חתני כאתב. התמונה לקוחה מתוך ספרו של ד"ר מאיר נזרי, קהילות תאפילאלת סג'למאסא, כרך א, מעגל האדם, אוניברסיטת בר אילן תשע"ג

Throughout the generations, Jewish communities in the Diaspora have recognized the same historical truth that is quickly learned by all young parents: the first day of school is both exciting and a bit stressful.

Jewish communities across the world have developed their own ways of facilitating the start of Torah learning for young children when they begin their studies in Heder (Jewish school). At the southern tip of the Sahara Desert, in a region of Morocco called Tafilalt, one of the most interesting and special traditions of welcoming children to their studies in Heder was preserved until the 20th century.

A photo of a bride from the wedding ceremony. The photo is not dated. Image from the Heritage of Moroccan Jewry.

The second main event in a child’s life of every Jewish boy, after of course, his birth and Brit Milah (ritual circumcision), was an event called “Liktahb,” a term that means “entry to Heder,” in English. This central event in the child’s life is marked with a grand ceremony modeled after the mock wedding described in the Talmud that symbolically ties the youth to the Torah.

Every traditional Jewish wedding requires the participation of a bride and a groom- this was also the case in the ceremony held by the Jewish community in Tafilalt. The groom, just five years old, beginning his studies in Heder, was matched with a bride around the same age and they were joined together in a symbolic wedding ceremony.

The bride and the groom. The girl, Rachel the daughter of Hannah from Fes and the groom, Meir Turgeman from Erfoud. This picture was taken from Dr. Meir Nazri’s book, “The Communities of Tafilalt and Sijilmasa,” Volume I, The Human Cycle, Bar-Ilan University.

This unique ceremony had interesting variations within the Sephardic community. There were those who held a parade for the children down to the local river where each of the bridegrooms would throw an apple into the waters and there were those who would invite the bride’s family for dinner the night before the ceremony to eat a special, traditional dish. Some even held a special ceremony in their local synagogues that is typically reserved for a groom on the Shabbat before his wedding.

Like the tradition held in many communities where the child entering Heder licks honey off of the letters of the Aleph Bet, the wedding ceremony is also a symbolic ritual to connect the child with the Torah. The ceremony with honey symbolizes the sweetness of the Torah and the wedding ceremony symbolizes the marriage and commitment of the child to the Torah and his studies.

The Rabbi Who Performed Scientific Research From a Hungarian Prison

In 1920 Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, the chief rabbi of the Hungarian city of Szeged was arrested by Hungarian authorities who interrogated and imprisoned him for a year.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Belle Breuning

Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Belle Breuning, 1944

In 1920, Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, one of the most important contributors to the lexicons of Wilhelm Gesenius for the Bible and of Carl Brockelmann for the Aramaic Language, was accused of making political statements against the authorities and against the new governor of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy.

During his 13 month imprisonment, Rabbi Lőw continued working on his famous work, Die Flora der Juden (“The Plants of the Jews”), which deals with the various vegetation mentioned in Jewish sources with a focus on Rabbinic literature. Written in German, the four-volume series was published between 1924-1934 and is available at the National Library of Israel. The series went through a second printing after the death of the author.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw - Statement of defense
Available at the National Library of Israel: The statement of defense from the trial of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Rabbi Lőw, who was charged with defamation of the Hungarian governor, was imprisoned and released a year later as a result of an international intervention.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw was born in 1854 in the Hungarian city of Szeged. As an orientalist, he was interested in the names of plants in Semitic languages since his youth.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Rabbi Immánuel Lőw in his youth

In addition to his studies at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin (Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums), he studied Semitic linguistics at the University of Leipzig, Germany. It was there in 1879 that he submitted his doctoral thesis on plant names in Aramaic (Aramäische Pflanzennamen). His scientific publications and notes on the animal and mineral issues in Biblical and Talmudic sources attest to his intention to publish two additional books, thus creating a series: “The Fauna, the Flora and the Minerals in the Jewish sources.”

Aaron Aaronsohn to Rabbi immanuel Löw
Aaron Aaronsohn’s 1908 letter to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Aharonson, the discoverer of emmer (“the mother of wheat”) describes his journey to Constantinople to report on his research. He requests information from Lőw about specific plants from these areas, from the NLI collections.
Lewis Ginsberg to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
A letter from Ginsberg Lewis of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, from the NLI collections

After his death on July 19th, 1944, the estate of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw was preserved in the Jewish community of Szeged. On the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, the community decided to donate the collection to the new State of Israel. The Hungarian government had other ideas and forbade the transfer of the collections to anywhere outside the borders of  Hungary. After a long negotiation, the State of Israel successfully purchased the collection instead of simply receiving it for preservation.

Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Rabbi Leopold (Lipót) Lőw

The collection was permanently deposited in the National Library archive in 1958. It includes correspondence, manuscripts, various documents, lists, speeches and essays by Immanuel Lőw and several pieces of correspondence and speeches given by Immánuel’s father, Leopold (Lipót) Lőw.

Isaac Samuel Reggio to Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Letters from Isaac Samuel Reggio to Rabbi Leopold Lőw in Hebrew and German, from the NLI collections.
Rabbi Abraham Geiger to Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Three letters by Rabbi Abraham Geiger to Rabbi Leopold Lőw, father of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Frankfurt 1865-1867, from the NLI collections

Rabbi Leopold Lőw was born in Czerna Hora, Moravia, a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was imprisoned following the plots of his enemies who denounced him at the end of the revolution in 1848 but was pardoned by the Austrian general Julius Jakob von Haynau. Leopold Lőw was the rabbi of Szeged from 1850 until his son Immánuel took over the position in 1878. He also corresponded with many important personalities of his time.

Isaiah Luzzatto to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Letter from Isaiah Luzzatto (son of Samuel David Luzzatto – Shedal) in French to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw – Padova, 1880, from the NLI collections.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw’s father, Rabbi Leopold Lőw was the first rabbi who gave speeches to his congregation in Hungarian and the first who introduced the Hungarian Language into the Jewish prayer. He was an important rabbi whose rulings influenced the policies of the Austrian and Hungarian governments. His son Immánuel inherited his affinity for public speaking. This talent accompanied Rabbi Immánuel Lőw during his tenure as head of the Jewish community of Szeged, from 1878 until his death.

Abraham Shalom Yehuda and David Yellin to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Letter from the Hebrew Language Committee to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw on his election as an active member of the committee. Signed on the letter: Abraham Shalom Yehuda and David Yellin, from the NLI collections.

Immánuel Lőw was a representative of the Neolog communities in the Supreme Council of the Hungarian Parliament of 1927. He was a Zionist and served as head of the umbrella organization of the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod. He corresponded mainly in German, Hungarian and English with distinguished academic institutions, publishers, personalities and scholars of his time, among them Aharon Aharonson, Theodor Nöldeke, Nathan Shalem, Ephraim Hareuveni and others.

Theodor Nöldeke to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Correspondence between Rabbi Immánuel Lőw and famous German Semitic languages researcher Theodor Nöldeke, from the NLI collections.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw wrote more than 10 books on politics and religious topics. According to some sources, when the transports of Hungarian Jews to extermination camps began, he was allowed to leave Hungary as part of the Kasztner deal. He was removed from the deportation train, but he was gravely ill and he later died in the Jewish hospital in Budapester on July 19th, 1944.

Joint passport of Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Bella Breuning
The joint passport of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw and his wife, Brenning Bella. Apparently, this passport was supposed to serve them when boarding the train to Switzerland as part of the Kasztner-deal in 1944, from the NLI collections

(For the records of Immánuel Lőw Archive click here).

The Jewish Face of the Moon

How was the moon drawn by Jews throughout history?

Sefer Evronot | Hebrew Union College Library, Cincinnati, OH, USA, 1779; Ms. 902, page 37

Many eons ago in the ancient world, the Jews adopted the moon as the basis of the Hebrew calendar. Only isolated groups, such as members of the Judean desert cults, attempted to build the Jewish calendar around the sun but all such attempts ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, and the lunar calendar was universally accepted as the Jewish calendar.

Birkat HaLevana | The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, NY, USA, Unkown Date; Ms. 8740, page 50

The moon emerged as the undisputed victor in the battle for the Jewish perspective of time. While the days in Jewish culture are determined by the sun – from sunset to sunset – the calculation of the days into months depends on the “birth” of the moon.

Sefer Evronot | The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel, 1716.

While the pagans regarded the moon as a god in its own right, the moon’s central function in Judaism is expressed not only in the calculation of the months but also in the blessing recited at the beginning of each Jewish month – ‘Birkat HaLevana’ [the ‘Blessing of the Moon’]. The blessing praises the one God, the Holy One Blessed Be He, creator of all natural phenomena.

Seder Kriyat Shema U’Birkat Halevana | Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1738; Ms. Rosenthaliana 407, page 23

This also seems to be the reason that, throughout the generations, Jews drew the moon with human features, as it is considered a natural phenomenon created by God and therefore not a transgression of the prohibition against making idols or graven images.

Seder Birkat Halevana | Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1743; Ms. Rosenthaliana 698, page 7

The Jewish Stew Made of Anything but the Kitchen Sink

With very few fresh ingredients at their disposal, the Jews created a plethora of dishes that took full advantage of the limited components that were available.

Bialystok, November 20, 1932. Bringing pots of Cholent to the baker's oven on a Friday afternoon, YIVO Polish Jewish Archive

There is a level of unappreciated genius behind the Jewish culinary experience. With very few fresh ingredients at their disposal, the Jews created a plethora of cultural dishes that took full advantage of the limited options that were available.

There is a certain magic that comes with eating a bowl of carefully prepared, piping hot, aromatic Cholent on a cold Shabbat afternoon. The dish can only be described as a masterpiece of ingenuity and a work of art that has withstood the test of time to make it from the Middle Ages to modern day food establishments, cook offs and the typical Shabbat table.

The “anything goes” style dish can best be described as Jewish comfort food, came into being as a result of the Jewish law that forbids cooking on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. The dish is cooked on Friday afternoons and left on the heat for a long, slow overnight cook. The traditional, rich stew is comprised of whatever fixings are available on hand with ingredients and styles varying by country and continent, wherever Jews can be found. The typical Ashkenazic Cholent, stemming from Eastern Europe, is made from dried beans or barley, chicken or beef scraps, potatoes and assorted spices.

All you need to know about Cholent, The Sentinel December 20, 1945.

The name of the stew typically varies by location as well. The term Cholent is believed to stem from the French word, chald, meaning warm, referring to the low and slow method of cooking the meal in a pot. Others believe it stems from the Hebrew SheLen, meaning rested, referring to the overnight cooking method that would ensure a hot meal on Shabbat afternoon. In the Sephardic tradition, the dish is called Hamin, derived from the Hebrew word, Ham, meaning hot.

Heinrich Heine, the famous poet who converted from Judaism to Protestantism due to political pressures, was so enamored by the traditional dish that he wrote a poem professing his love and sharing his feeling that the recipe for Cholent must have been given to Moses by God Himself.

“Cholent is the food of Heaven,
And the recipe was given
By the Lord himself to Moses
One fine day upon Mount Sinai

Cholent is God’s bread of rapture,
It’s a kosher-type ambrosia.”

A recipe for Cholent, not given by God. “Foods to Remember,” from the Bnai Brith Messenger, December 16, 1955.

While this may seem like some serious love for a good pot of Cholent, a little parodic pamphlet written in the early 1800’s from the National Library’s Ephemera collection tells a tale of a lost love and the adversity and horror faced when a pot of Cholent gets tragically burned.

The pamphlet tells the story of an old man sitting at his Shabbat table surrounded by his family, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the traditional pot of Hamin. The dish arrives at the table and the old man opens the lid expecting the beautiful aroma of a perfect stew to wash over him but instead, to his horror- the contents of the pot have been completely burned. So deep is his sorrow at the sight of the smoky pot of food that he feels compelled to eulogize the poor stew.

That poor Cholent…He was so young. From the National Library Ephemera Collection.

“Hamin the son of Hamina, may his memory be a blessing, may the King in his mercy who rests between the stovetop and the oven and between the tongue and the lips, between the smile and the teeth, that was burned on the Shabbat through no fault of his own the death of his food is an absolution for all those who keep the Shabbat. May the King in his great mercy, have compassion on its consumers.”

The satirical eulogy concludes with a Mi Shebeirach (a public prayer or blessing recited aloud for an individual or a group), calling for God to bless the poor anonymous man who was served a pot of burned Cholent on the holy Shabbat.

This dedication and commitment to Cholent also found itself in the shtetls of Europe, where, on Friday afternoons, each family would walk their hot pot of freshly prepared Cholent down the road to the local bakery. There, the assorted pots, sealed with a paste of flour and water, would be placed in the baker’s oven to keep warm overnight. On Saturday afternoons, following the conclusion of prayer services, the reverse pilgrimage would take place when families would carefully fetch the hot pot from the oven in time for lunch.

Today, Cholent has its own cult of following. On Thursday evenings in Israel, there are many who flock to the eateries in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to treat themselves to a pre-Shabbat Cholent to ring in the weekend. For those who don’t live near a restaurant where Cholent is served, the dish is also readily available in easy to prepare packets and, in some countries, you can even buy it ready made in a can from your supermarket shelves- although we definitely recommend the homemade version.

We are not in the Shtetle anymore! Advertisement for Osem’s Cholent “Ready Meal” Packets from the National Library Ephemera Collection.

The consumption of the heavy, aromatic stew tends to cast a spell on diners – one that can only be compared to the lethargy that comes following the perfect Thanksgiving turkey – lending to the perfect atmosphere for a good nap on the day of rest.

There is an old saying that claims you cannot consider yourself a good Jew unless you eat Cholent on Shabbat – but we believe a good pot of Cholent can be enjoyed any day! Perhaps it is time to break out the old cookbooks and give it a try?

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