The Mystery of Moses’ Horns

Michelangelo, the great Renaissance artist, left an incredible cultural legacy behind, along with a fascinating mystery: Why did he choose to add horns to his famous sculpture of Moses?

Michelangelo Moses832

Michelangelo’s "Moses". Photo: Ulrich Mayring

By Daniel Lipson

In the eternal city of Rome, not far from the Colosseum, sits the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Behind the church’s relatively modest façade is one of the world’s most famous works of art, which has made this somewhat ordinary-looking house of worship into a famous location: the sculpture Moses, erected as part of the monument for Pope Julius II.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the most prominent artists of the Renaissance, created the sculpture on the orders of the Pope himself. The work began in 1505, ending ten years later. The Pope, who had commissioned the work for his own tomb, died two years before and did not get to see the finished product.

The sculpture presents the figure of Moses, and in addition to the long beard and the divine tablets he holds, it’s a little surprising to discover that Moses also has a small pair of horns. Two strange bumps protrude from his head in a rather unflattering manner. Some claim that Michelangelo added these in order to mock the Pope, but the more common view is that this artistic decision was based on an error in interpretation.

Michelangelo Moses
Michelangelo’s Moses. Photo: Ulrich Mayring

But how can it be that such an esteemed artist, who spent a decade working on his creation, could make such a mistake?

The story is as follows: Michelangelo and many preceding generations of European Christians were familiar with the Vulgate version of the biblical text – largely the work of a man by the name of Jerome.  Jerome, who would later be raised to sainthood, was a priest, theologian, and translator who translated the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century CE, relying on previous Greek translations and even studying Hebrew to understand the text of the Old Testament in the original.

Back to Moses’ horns. The solution to the mystery can be found in the last few verses of the weekly Torah portion or parshah of Ki Tissa, in the book of Exodus. Here is the text in question (Ex. 34:29-30, 35), as it appears in English in the Douay-Rheims Challoner Bible, which is still used by certain Catholic congregations today:

“And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned [karan in the original Hebrew] from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned [karan], were afraid to come near… And they saw that the face of Moses when he came out was horned [karan], but he covered his face again, if at any time he spoke to them.”

Biblia Sacra1599
Biblia sacra, Antwerp 1599, open to the verses describing Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai (second column from left)

The Hebrew root k-r-n can indeed mean “horn” – as in animal horns. But it has other meanings as well: k-r-n can also mean a ray of light, and the original Hebrew verses here were in fact referring to a verb or action, not a noun. The verb essentially means, “to shine” or “to glow”. The original Hebrew text indicates that Moses’ face was shining, not horned. Jerome was almost certainly familiar with both meanings, but chose to translate karan as “horned”, a mistake which earlier translators had successfully avoided.

The famous Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint explains that Moses’ face was “glorified” or “glorious”, which is a reasonably accurate translation. But Jerome also made use of the Greek translation done by Aquila of Sinope. Aquila grew up in what is now Turkey in the second century. He converted to Judaism, and some identify him with Onkelos, whom we know as the man who translated the Torah into Aramaic.

In any event, Aquila indeed translated the Hebrew root k-r-n as meaning “horn”. It may sound strange to us, but in ancient times horns symbolized power, which is why horns were sometimes attached to the helmets of warriors. To be fair, Aquila was careful to write that Moses had the “appearance” of horns rather than physical ones.

Jerome followed Aquila and used the word cornutam / cornuta in Latin, meaning animal horns, not rays of light.

From a copy of the Vulgate, France, 13th century

According to one explanation, the use of the word cornatum may have an antisemitic dimension. Both the New Testament and the Christian faith as a whole attribute the presence of horns to monstrous creatures and even Satan himself. Even though the Old Testament is also holy to Christians, it could be that Moses, as the representative of the Jewish People, was described implicitly as being the leader of an evil people or nation, and the horns thus served as a means to demonize the Jews.

Another possibility is that Jerome, like Aquila before him, got the idea from an entirely different source:

There is a certain early piyut (a Jewish liturgical hymn) that appears in some of the older Ashkenazi prayer books for Jewish holidays. This piyut tells of Moses receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, and it was customarily recited during the festival of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, when the Torah is read in the synagogue.

The piyut was written in ancient Aramaic in the dialect of the Land of Israel, and it incorporated Greek words as well. The language and structure of the piyut dates it to the era of the Byzantine Empire before the Muslim conquest, but according to scholar Joseph Heinemann, it is based on a folk song, handed down orally from much earlier.

The piyut is comprised of 22 lines, built as an acrostic following the Hebrew alphabet. It was translated into Hebrew in 1966 by Avraham Rosenthal. The piyut opens with the words Arkin Hashem Shemaya Le-Sinai (“God bent Heaven to Sinai”), later describing God placing rays of glory on Moses’ head. So far, so good in aligning with the biblical text. But then, towards the end of the piyut, the angels appear before God and are afraid of Moses, as they claim he might gore or headbutt them.

מחזור רומה 1441
Arkin Hashem Shemaya Le-Sinai piyut, Rome Machzor, 1441

It may be that this combination of Moses’ physical description (the Hebrew wording being open to interpretation) with his supposed ability to headbutt or gore someone (possibly based on a common, popular understanding which arose during this period), is responsible for creating the image of Moses as actually having horns on his head.

It might be that this was the source Aquila relied upon, which Jerome then copied when preparing the text of the Vulgate.

But is Michelangelo’s work based on this mistranslation?

Art historian Ruth Mellinkoff proved that the association of animal horns with Moses was a common theme in many Christian artistic works in the Middle Ages, and not always negatively so. Sometimes Moses appeared with one horn, a hat from which horns emerged, and even hair in the form of two horns. It would appear that Michelangelo was following a well-established artistic tradition when he decided to add his horns.

Art scholar Malka Rosenthal showed that Moses appeared with horns in Jewish literary illustrations as well. A number of books published in the German city of Fürth between 1741 and 1750 show the figures of Moses and Aharon on the cover, with Moses holding a staff and tablets while a pair of horns appear on his head.

Passover Haggadah, Fürth, 1741
אשל אברהם 1741

Medieval Jewish commentators like Rashi, Rashbam, and others reject this view, of course. The words of Ibn Ezra concerning a particular heretic named Hivi sum it up fairly dramatically:

“May the bones of the criminal Hivi be crushed, who said that since [Moses] ate no bread, Moses’ face became as dry as a horn. And that the reason [the People of Israel] feared [approaching Moses] was because his face was ugly. And how did this accursed [Hivi] not open his eyes…”

From Fantasy to Reality: The Forbidden Love of Edith and J.R.R. Tolkien

"For she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien." This was how Tolkien explained the unorthodox choice of words which he placed on the tombstone of the woman he loved. What was the connection between Lúthien – the mythological image of female perfection which Tolkien himself created – and his wife Edith? And what caused their three-year separation, which almost ended in her marrying someone else?

עותק של עיצוב ללא כותרת (1)

Left: Edith Tolkien with her eldest son, John, 1918. Right: A young Ronald Tolkien, 1911.

On the bright green grass in the Catholic section of Wolvercote Cemetery near Oxford, among the lavishly adorned tombstones mostly bearing the names of Polish immigrants, stands one simple gray granite stone, modestly engraved with the names of two characters from one of the most widely-read fantasy books ever written.

Beren and Luthien.

“But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth he came upon Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar. Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.”

(From J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion)
קברם המשותף של בני הזוג טולקין עם הכתובות "לותיין" ו"ברן", בית העלמין וולוורקוט שליד אוקספורד.
The Tolkiens’ shared tombstone, with the inscriptions “Luthien” and “Beren”, Wolvercote Cemetery near Oxford

But the couple buried there were real people, even if their story could have been taken out of a fairy tale. He was an author, poet, linguist, and one of the most important fantasy writers of the modern era, who was (and is still) admired throughout the world to an unprecedented extent, and she was his beloved wife, who settled (or was forced to settle?) for the adoration of her own family.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, but grew up as an orphan in late 19th century England. He lost his father when he was only four years old, and his mother when he was twelve. When Arthur Tolkien died, the widowed mother Mabel did everything in her power to provide a good life for her two sons – Ronald (of his three names, this was the name he was called by his family and close acquaintances) and young Hilary who was only a year old.

Mabel, who was an educated woman beyond what was common at the time, raised her sons in the green suburbs of Birmingham and gave them an excellent home education. Despite their poverty, it was a happy childhood. Ronald learned to love the things that filled his early life with wonder: the green trees and the countryside, his mother Mabel, and starting at the age of four – words and languages.

From the moment he learned to read, and as he progressed in his studies, Tolkien was captivated by linguistics. While his friends struggled with the correct spelling of modern English, he studied its origins and was fascinated by textbooks on ancient languages like Greek, Welsh, and Gothic.

His mother Mabel died of diabetes when she was only 34. Insulin, which could have saved her life, would only be discovered some two decades after her death. The children, who suddenly lost the wonderful environment they had grown up in along with their beloved mother, grieved bitterly. In her will, Mabel appointed Father Francis Xavier Morgan as their guardian, and the boys moved to live in the city of Birmingham itself.

Father Morgan was the priest of the small Catholic congregation that Mabel and the children had joined only four years earlier. This happened despite the protests of her family and the family of her late husband, who subsequently stopped supporting her financially. Father Francis’ visits to the Tolkien family home started out as part of his role as a dedicated parish priest, but very quickly he became a close friend to the lonely Mabel and a sort of “uncle” who provided much-needed kindness and amusement to her two sons. As Tolkien himself wrote to his own sons later in life, Father Francis was more present and significant to them than many “real” fathers.

After a rather unhappy period during which the children lived with a childless relative for a few years, Father Francis decided to move them into Mrs. Faulkner’s home on Duchess Road, near where many members of his congregation lived.

Aside from Mrs. Faulkner, the two-story house was also home to her husband Louis (who enjoyed a drink or two), their daughter Helen, the maid Annie, and another tenant who rented the room that was just below the boys’ room – a young girl named Edith Bratt. Edith was also an orphan, but that was where any similarity between her and the Tolkien brothers, with whom she’d be sharing this domestic space in the years to come, ended. While the boys came from a distinguished British lineage and benefited from a fine childhood education, she was the illegitimate daughter of Frances Bratt of Gloucester. Edith was over three years older than Ronald, her interests included music and sewing, and – she was a Protestant! This would soon become a major obstacle.

אידית בראט, בשנים הראשונות להיכרותה עם טולקין.
Edith Bratt, during the early years of her acquaintance with Tolkien

Edith was also incredibly kind, a gray-eyed beauty, and quite bored. When her guardian decided that she should live in the room in Mrs. Faulkner’s house, he thought that since she was studying music at the girls’ school, she’d be able to practice on the piano in the main room of the house. He hoped that in time she’d be able to work as a professional musician. But although she enjoyed Edith’s musical accompaniment during the evening singing sessions she occasionally hosted, Mrs. Faulkner wasn’t so generous when Edith sat down in front of the piano to practice. “My dear Edith” she’d say sourly, “I think that’s enough for now.”

When the boys arrived at the gloomy house with its climbing vines and forlorn lace curtains, it was like a breath of fresh air for Edith. She was especially fond of Ronald, the serious and talented young man. She discovered that he could be incredibly polite when necessary, but also goof around cheerfully at other times.

Despite their age gap, Ronald and Edith quickly became friends. He was mature for his age and she acted younger than hers. Together with Hilary, his mischievous brother, they conspired against the “old lady” who ran the house with an iron fist: they held secret parties in Edith’s room and went on long hikes together. As time went on, Edith and Ronald grew closer and closer, and the relationship that began as a friendship blossomed into young love.

Edith showed no interest in Ronald’s first great love (studying ancient languages ​​and inventing new ones) and had received a much simpler education than he had. And yet they found enough topics of conversation to occupy long hours spent wandering the streets and teahouses of Birmingham.

They even came up with a private whistle-call that was meant just for them. “When Ronald heard it in the early morning or at bedtime,” Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter explained, “he would go to his window and lean out to see Edith waiting at her own window below.”

In a letter to Edith years later, Tolkien recalled with longing, “My first kiss to you and your first kiss to me (which was almost accidental)—Our goodnights when sometimes you were in your little white nightgown, and our absurd long window talks; and how we watched the sun come up over town through the mist and Big Ben toll hour after hour, and the moths almost used to frighten you away—and our whistle-call—and our cycle-rides—and the fire talks—and to three great kisses.”

But no great romantic love story is complete without something to keep the couple apart from each other – at least for a time.

Ronald was supposed to study for a scholarship exam that would allow him entry into the institution that would become the most important in his life – Oxford. But between his captivation with Edith and his efforts to invent a new language, he found it a bit difficult to concentrate and failed to pass the test.

Father Francis, the benevolent guardian, was not too pleased with this relationship developing between his promising protégé and the young Protestant woman who was three years his elder. Before he even voiced his opposition, the two began to hide their meetings. “We thought we had managed things very cleverly,” Tolkien later wrote, but community gossip was stronger than their naive schemes.

Father Francis insistently demanded that Ronald end his “inappropriate” relationship with Edith immediately. He also arranged for Ronald and Hilary to move elsewhere. At the same time, Edith received an invitation to live in Cheltenham with an elderly lawyer and his wife, and she accepted.

In the period before Edith’s trip, they continued meeting secretly here and there, whenever they “happened” to bump into each other. She bought him a pen for his 18th birthday and he bought her a wristwatch for her 21st.

But when Father Francis heard that they had met again, he was furious. He even threatened to stop supporting Ronald’s academic career if he met, spoke, or wrote to Edith again until he reached the age of 21, at which point Ronald was no longer his ​​responsibility.

What this meant was that the two endured three long years of forced separation. In the eyes of the young Tolkien, this was a truly horrible sentence.

Despite her longing for her Ronald, Edith liked her new life in Cheltenham, which was better than anything she had known before. Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, Ronald made his studies the focus of his life. He had close friends (who founded a secret society together), immersed himself in books, studied hard, began working on his own writing, played rugby, and continued working on languages, both historic and invented. 

In 1911, after he finally passed his entrance exams, Ronald went off to study at Oxford and decided that despite everything, he was going to be happy there.

It wasn’t hard. Oxford quickly became the first real home he had known since his mother’s death. 

אקסטר קולג', אוקספורד. מקום הלימודים שהיה לבית לטולקין הצעיר.
Exeter College, Oxford, was like home for the young Tolkien

But he never forgot Edith. He thought about her every day. Three years after they parted, at midnight between January 2nd and 3rd in 1913 when Ronald Tolkien became a man in his own right, he sat on the bed in his room at Oxford and wrote Edith a promise of renewed love, ending the letter with the question: “How long will it be before we can be joined together before God and the world?”

But when he received his lover’s reply, everything turned black. She, not sure he still remembered her or wanted her, was engaged to marry George Field, the brother of her classmate.

But Edith was too important to Tolkien to give her up without a fight. 

He went to Cheltenham to speak to her heart. When he got off the train, Edith was waiting for him on the platform. What did they say to each other that day after three years of silence? Did they repeat those “great kisses” from their happy times on Duchess Road? Tolkien didn’t bother leaving us a detailed record of that day, but that evening, Edith gave back the ring that George Field had given her.

Finally, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Edith Bratt were an official couple. At first, they kept it a secret, trying to recapture the feeling from when they’d longingly sneak around in the past. They were worried (and rightfully so) about how their families would react. Eventually, they publicly announced their engagement, and in the middle of World War I, they were married in a very modest ceremony in a small Catholic church. 

From that satisfying “happily ever after” moment, they shared a life that was a wonderful combination of love and devotion, alongside occasional disappointments and arguments. In other words, marriage.

Tolkien was drafted into the British Army during the war and returned from the battlefield in France, sick with a disease that was then known as “trench fever.” For two years he was in and out of the hospital. During the very long hours he spent in bed, he began to write what would later become his legendarium – sometimes called the “Tolkien Mythology” – the foundation of the world upon which the books he later wrote were based.  The world he created would transform him into one of history’s bestselling authors.

Edith, who in the meantime had given birth to their eldest son while she was alone and far from her beloved, described this period as a “miserable wandering homeless sort of life”. She wrote to Tolkien, teasing him somewhat begrudgingly and bitterly: “I should think you ought never to feel tired again, for the amount of Bed you have had since you came back from France nearly two years ago is enormous.”

But once the war ended, Tolkien was given his first academic position at Oxford, and life could truly begin for the young Tolkien family.

They saw ups and downs. Edith was unhappy in the elitist academic environment. She hated Oxford, hated the Catholic Church she was forced to join, and she envied her husband’s male friends who were a significant part of his inner world to which she was not granted entry.

Despite the notable differences in their education and their documented arguments and mutual complaints, none of their relatives or acquaintances ever doubted that they shared a great love.

Edith was proud of her husband, whose academic and literary success became meteoric over the years. For his part, Tolkien was a loving and devoted husband and father who took part in household chores, spent a lot of time with his children, and invented one-of-a-kind stories for them.

Modern critics tend to criticize Tolkien for his attitude toward women. They quote a letter he wrote to his son before his marriage (in which he warned him that a husband should know how to stand up for himself), point out the very small number of female characters in his literary work, and blame him for the fact that Edith followed in the path of his professional career and lived for many years in places she wasn’t fond of and where she felt no personal connection.

The truth, as always, is more complex. Tolkien adored Edith, and valued women in general to a degree that was quite unusual for those times. In fact, as an undergraduate he spoke in support of the tactics and objectives of the suffragettes while taking part in a school debate.

During Edith’s final years, once Tolkien retired and no longer had any academic obligations, he was the one who followed her. He agreed to leave Oxford for her and live in a small seaside town where she was happy. Her happiness in turn made him happy, even though the move forced him to give up large parts of his former life. As for the female characters in his works, even if they were few in number, they are all strong and magnificent, and most of them are much more impressive and talented than the men appearing beside them.

The immortal Luthien, heroine of The Silmarillion, saves Beren her beloved, just as he saves her.

“There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Luthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Luthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed.

Then the spell of silence fell from Beren, and he called to her, crying Tinuviel; and the woods echoed the name. Then she halted in wonder, and fled no more, and Beren came to her. But as she looked on him, doom fell upon her, and she loved him.”

The Hebrew edition of Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Keter Books

Edith was Tolkien’s Luthien. She was also the inspiration for the character. When she passed away, two years before him, he illustrated this with an incomparably beautiful gesture of love.

“For she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien,” he painfully wrote to his son Christopher when the latter asked why he wanted to have “Luthien” engraved on her tombstone. 

“I am afflicted from time to time (increasingly) with an overwhelming sense of bereavement […] Yet I hope none of my children will feel that the use of this name is a sentimental fancy. It is at any rate not comparable to the quoting of pet names in obituaries. I never called Edith Lúthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief pan of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos. […] Forever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.”

From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, July 11, 1972


Even Borscht Tastes Like Home

New on the shelf: When we leave home, even when we make that decision willingly and voluntarily, there is still a connection to the place we left behind. And there’s nothing like food to reawaken those memories and that unique sense of longing.

By Noa Reichmann

“All Ukrainians are supposed to love borsch(t)—but what if you hate the red stuff? A young girl despises Eastern Europe’s most beloved soup, and not even the grandmothers of Kiev can persuade her to change her mind…”

         From the cover of I Hate Borsch!

Yevgenia Nayberg, an award-winning theater designer, author and illustrator, grew up in Ukraine and immigrated to the United States.

As a Ukrainian girl, she was expected to love sour beet soup, otherwise known as borsch or borscht – but what to do, she really can’t stand the “red, thick, disgusting soup!” With many a humorous illustration, she describes her excitement at all the elements of Ukrainian agriculture being enlisted in the service of making this national dish. Her sense of persecution is also translated into amusing, brightly colored illustrations.

While preparing to leave for the United States, Yevgenia receives many recipes for making borscht, and every grandma she knows swears her own recipe is the one true original. Arriving at the Promised Land of America teaches her new things about the hated dish: it’s called borscht there rather than the Ukrainian “borsch”, it comes in bottles and has no taste at all…

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Moving to the US exposed Yevgenia to new foods and tastes. But as time passed and after eating “tons” of American food, she felt something was missing. Maybe she missed the sight of the red liquid in the white ceramic bowl, the heavy crooked spoon on the wooden table, or the “amber tea in the cloudy glass”. After opening up her old suitcase and taking out her old children’s clothes, she took the borsch recipes, laid them on the table, read them one by one, and then went to the kitchen to prepare the dish.

The book ends, naturally, with the author’s own recipe for borsch.

Unfortunately, many Israeli citizens have also had to recently leave their homes, and not out of choice. Some of them don’t even have any souvenirs of their former lives, which were turned upside down in a day.

The National Library of Israel collections include recipe books produced in various communities around the country, many of them in kibbutzim.

Because of the character of life on the kibbutz in the past, most of the recipes in the older books refer to baked goods: cakes, cookies, and salted pastries. There are also recipes for salads and other dishes appropriate for hosting guests, but usually not recipes for whole meals.

This was the case with a publication released by the “Baking Mothers Organization” of Kibbutz Nahal Oz in 1985. An absolute majority of its recipes cover cookies and cakes.

The online cookbook put out by Kibbutz Be’eri in 2022 is representative of kibbutz life in the 21st century. It includes recipes for all parts of the meal: starters, soups, main dishes, and desserts. It contains traditional foods from different Jewish communities, alongside foods from around the world: sushi salad with seaweed alongside Hungarian goulash with nokedli or couscous soup.

The very mention of some dish we knew in the past always has an emotional connection – of rejection, or of longing.

May the dishes, morsels and recipes we encounter only conjure up pleasant memories!

Translated from Hebrew by Avi Woolf

“You can recover from this”: When Past Captives Told Their Stories

When they finally returned home, the Israeli POWs of the War of Attrition decided to do something unusual for their time – they shared their experiences. The decision to put things down in writing did not dull the pain, but it did allow them to connect to their own inner strength, to a sense of enduring hope and to the shared experience in captivity that helped them survive. For their relatives, it offered a glimpse of what could rarely be discussed face to face

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24-year-old Giora Romm, arriving home after four months in Egyptian captivity, December 1969, source: family album

By Yael Ingel

In 1973, Lieutenant Dan Avidan returned home after three and a half months in Egyptian captivity. On the outside, he looked physically fine, but the years in captivity had forever left their mark on his health: the injuries and torture he suffered damaged his legs and diabetes spread through his body due to his emotional state. Like many of those released from captivity, he tried to go back to a normal life with his family and his daily work routine at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, but the shadows of his haunting experience followed him everywhere.

Young Dan Avidan and his father Shimon, who was commander of the Givati Brigade during the War of Independence. Some feared that Dan was treated particularly cruelly because of his father’s past and the Egyptians’ hatred for him. Photo courtesy of the Kibbutz Ein Hashofet Archive

Years afterward, there was one thing Avidan took with him everywhere and with which he refused to part – a book. A signed copy he always carried with him – to the point that when he was rescued from a serious car accident and all his personal items were destroyed, the first thing he tried to do was to get a new signed copy.

The book is called Chutz Mitziporim (lit. “Aside From Birds”, later translated into English as Seasons of Captivity: The Inner World of POWs). It is a faithful recounting of the long stretch of time he spent with nine other Israeli soldiers in Egyptian captivity. The book is based on interviews with the ten former prisoners of war. The author, Professor Amia Lieblich, still clearly remembers Avidan’s appeal to her for a new copy: “He treated it like a lucky charm,” she recalled. “It was a source of pride for him, his source of strength, and this is why he always kept it close wherever he went. Always.”

What did the book contain to make it so meaningful for Dan Avidan, the former captive, as well as all those mentioned in it?

Did they gain strength from reliving the descriptions of how they fell into captivity? From reading about the interrogations, the torture, and the isolation they endured? The book in fact reveals something far greater: the incredible mental strength these ten soldiers already possessed at the time, the internal world of those who endured three unbearable years, and perhaps most importantly – their social organization, which included a weekly assembly where decisions were made on a democratic basis, joint study sessions, board games, and even schedules for dishwashing and making food – all the ways in which the captives tried to restore a sense of routine and normality in an utterly abnormal situation.

Chutz Mitziporim(lit. “Aside From Birds”) by Amia Lieblich [Hebrew]. Cover: Ofer Echo. The Hebrew title is taken from a quote of Menachem Eini, one of the captives: “It was the first time we came out of the courtyard without our eyes covered – I discovered the horizon. All those years, I didn’t see anything beyond the 18 meters of the room and the courtyard. Aside from birds that flew in the sky”

In an era when the concept of psychological trauma (or PTSD) was not yet widely recognized – indeed, it doesn’t even appear in the book – the idea of writing and publishing a book about the experience of captivity was groundbreaking. The internal feelings which helped the prisoners survive in Egyptian captivity for so long likely also helped them understand that sharing their story and experiences would be of value, to themselves and to others. The book includes their own insights from their period in captivity and interviews with the spouses of some of the captives, effectively seeking to encompass this difficult experience from all angles.

They were not the only ones who did this. More than a few former hostages and prisoners of war have felt the need to document their own history. For some, exposing and working out the story was no less important an experience than the captivity itself. I set out on a journey to learn the story behind these revelations, and discovered them to be an incredible source of strength and even comfort.

A Book is Born

The year was 1986. Amia Lieblich was then a particularly busy scholar and author, when she got a phone call from Col. (res.) Rami Harpaz. He, like Avidan, was among the ten soldiers who were in Egyptian captivity together and who were released 13 years earlier. Since that time, an idea had been brewing in his mind, and he now felt the time had come to realize his vision.

Harpaz had read some of Lieblich’s books and understood that she was the woman he was looking for: a scholar and social psychologist, who knew how to weave together the stories of a number of individuals who have something in common, into one fascinating tome.

He thought there was value in a joint investigation of what happened during those years in captivity, and was hoping that she would acquiesce and write about it. Lieblich knew of Rami and his comrades from the well-publicized story of Israeli pilots translating JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit while in Egyptian captivity, but she was up to her neck in prior obligations at the time. When he asked, she responded: “Get back to me in a year.”

As befits a person raised on a kibbutz established by German Jews, punctuality was a must for Harpaz. Therefore, exactly one year later, Harpaz appealed once again to Lieblich: “Are you free, now?” Surprised at his diligence, she read one of the journals he left her, a document from the joint assemblies in captivity managed by each of the prisoners in turn, and immediately understood that she had to write their story.

She had only one condition: Harpaz had to speak to all his other comrades from the period of captivity and ensure they were all interested in taking part in the book. The sense of pride that Harpaz and his friends shared concerning how they spent their time in captivity and the desire to talk about what they went through emotionally, got them to agree. They felt they had a story to tell the world and Israeli society in particular.

Another 48 Captives Returned From Egypt, Including the 9 Long-Term CaptivesAl Hamishmar, November 18, 1973

“It’s perhaps worthwhile to have been taken captive just for that”

Among those ten IDF prisoners of war who were held in the notorious Abbasiya prison were both senior pilots and civilian IDF employees who operated mobile canteens. Many testified that the interrogations and torture were not the worst part of the experience. The uncertainty and isolation, not knowing whether people in Israel were even aware they were alive – this is what burdened them in their first months in captivity, which they spent isolated from one another. When they were finally transferred to a shared cell and began receiving letters and Red Cross visits, the improvement in their state of mind was enormous.

When the ten released POWs summarize what their experience in captivity gave them in the book, they mention the education they acquired and the social skills they learned in finding ways to all get along. They made particular note of Rami Harpaz’s critical role in organizing their shared life in the cramped, difficult conditions in which they were living.

One of them, Motti C., recalled: “…[Rami] was our teacher. He he built us all in the proper way. I have never said it to him, but living with a man like him in one room for three years proved to be an experience for a lifetime. It’s perhaps worthwhile to have been taken captive just for that” (Seasons of Captivity, p. 261). Motti did not suffice with what he told Lieblich in the interview for the book, but also took care to repeatedly tell it to Harpaz himself when they would meet to mark the anniversary of their release from captivity, Lieblich told us.

But not everyone managed to go back to normal life. Another released POW, Motti Bablar, described the heavy burden he carried with him, sometimes too heavy. In an interview he gave many years after the book was published, he described the trauma he dealt with, a concept that didn’t exist in Israeli society at the time: “It was easier in Egyptian prison, at least there I only had to worry about myself! At home, I had a wife and three children I had to care for.”

“Egyptians Denied Medical Care From Captive Pilots; Left Their Fractures Open to Break Their Spirit.” Maariv, December 7, 1969

“These are the boundaries of the field – act!”

Rami Harpaz’s name comes up again and again and his exceptional stature among the captives comes through across the pages of the book. His strong personality, the quiet leadership he displayed, his decision-making abilities, his charisma and humanity are all mentioned over and over. Even after he was released, Harpaz continued to rise through the ranks of the Air Force and moved up in the management structure of a successful factory in his kibbutz, Hazorea.

How did he do it? What are the tools he used to successfully deal with being held captive for three years? Harpaz developed an existential philosophy during his time in the Egyptian prison, influenced in part by books sent to him, such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He concluded from these that it is in the power of any person to determine how they feel in regards to whatever circumstances they find themselves in. During captivity, he formed a deep understanding that he had no control over what was happening – but that he was the only one who could determine how he would respond to it all. It would seem this approach positively affected everything around him. When asked to explain the approach that kept him optimistic and active throughout this period, he said:

“You have no control over the facts, naturally, but you have control over your attitude toward them. This principle worked for me in jail and seems to be working for people everywhere […] I told myself, this is your field, go play the game. That was the difference between me and the others […] Feelings like rage, frustration or helplessness, questions like ‘Why me?’ don’t exist for me.” (Seasons of Captivity, p. 261-262)

Rami Harpaz welcomed by the members of Kibbutz Hazorea. Photo from Hashavui Ve’Eshet Hashavui: Nurit Ve-Rami Harpaz (translated as Letters From Captivity: The Israeli Pilot and his Wife)

Not only was this the most successful of the dozens of books Lieblich wrote – it was even translated into English – she claims this was the book that most deeply affected her personally, and she attributes much of it to Harpaz’s life philosophy. This can be seen in Lieblich’s decision to establish a discourse group that meets annually to discuss the topic of death, and her book Café Mavet (“Café Death”), which came out in 2019. This group conducts itself much like the group in captivity, with a different member leading the discussion every time on a rotational basis.

Seasons Of Captivity
Seasons of Captivity: The Inner World of POWs, by Amia Lieblich, the English translation of Chutz Mitziporim

After the terrible events of October 7, when many people were taken hostage by Hamas and held in captivity in Gaza, journalists turned to Lieblich, asking to interview her on the psychological state of the hostages – both those that were eventually freed, as well as those still being held hostage by Hamas. She refused.

Amia agreed to speak with us about past cases involving former captives and made it very clear that “there is no similarity at all between captivity then and captivity now: those were soldiers and these are civilians, then it was a sovereign state subject to international law and now it is not, then the Red Cross was involved and here they are not. And these are just a few examples.”

Still, when asked what she would say if she encountered someone released from Hamas captivity, and what she could offer them from her own experience of speaking to those freed after the War of Attrition, she gave a very clear response:

“Those who underwent terrible things and returned – they should tell their story. Let someone write it up. Letting experiences out, not necessarily in therapy, perhaps alongside it, is meaningful, it helps. I saw it with the captives of the War of Attrition.”

Yair Dori, a paratrooper who was seriously wounded and taken prisoner in 1970. He spent some ten months in Egyptian captivity, some of which was with the ten captives Lieblich interviewed for her book. Right: “hospitalized, wounded and dying, in a military hospital in Cairo.” Left: “with his mother upon returning, hospitalized in Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer.” From: Yair Dori – Sipuro Shel Tzanchan Yisra’eli Bashevi Hamitzri (“Yair Dori – The Story of an Israeli Paratrooper in Egyptian Captivity”, Aharon Dolev and Yair Dori, published a year after his return in 1972)]

The Children Waiting at Home

In difficult situations, sometimes a very human and understandable need arises for a third, outside person, who isn’t family, to intervene and help someone open up and tell their story. Sometimes it takes this type of external figure to help unload and overcome feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt, as well as any sense of distance that can form between those who have returned from captivity and their relatives, due to the lengthy period of separation.

Yitzhak (Jeff) Peer is another former pilot. He was also among the group of ten captives interviewed by Lieblich. He was one of those who used Lieblich’s work as an aid that helped him tell his family what he went through in captivity. Jeff was born in the United States and made Aliyah at age 14. He played a significant role in putting together the famous translation of The Hobbit into Hebrew. After returning from captivity, he moved back to to the United States and became a test pilot. Lieblich flew to meet him there:

“He asked me if his 17-year-old daughter could join the interviews I conducted with him. I said of course, and then I realized that this was the first time she was hearing from him about his experiences in captivity. Before this, he simply couldn’t tell her. It was precisely this framework of an interview for a book that helped them become closer. It was a rare opportunity for both of them.”

The children of these captives did not find it easy to overcome the absence of a missing father during the period of captivity. Dalia Harpaz was one of the twins born to Rami while he was being held in Egypt. They only first met each other when she was three and a half years old. In conversation with her, she said that because her father was absent during the critical early childhood phase of bonding between parents and children, she never really managed to truly believe and internalize that Rami was indeed her father.

Over the years and after growing up, their connection strengthened, but something fundamental was always missing. As an adult, Dalia stresses that she never lacked for anything. She describes her father as an incredible person, a good-hearted man who was a source of inspiration for her in how he faced adversity.

Newspaper report on the birth of twins Dalia and Deganit Harpaz, whose mother Nurit was eight months pregnant when her husband Rami was taken captive. Haaretz, August 8, 1970

Towards the end of his life, while struggling with Parkinson’s, Rami wrote a book with his wife entitled Letters From Captivity: The Israeli Pilot and his Wife. The book is a dialogue between the two of them about the long stretch of captivity, in which they describe the difficulties and small victories along the way.

Dalia tells of how the books on her father’s time in captivity sparked a conversation between the two of them on the subject, which was hardly discussed beforehand at home:

“Until I read Chutz Mitziporim [Seasons of Captivity], I didn’t know what my father went through! And until I read the drafts for the book he wrote with my mother – I didn’t know what she went through, these were really new revelations for me – her heroism, the pressures she experienced, the difficulty in raising girls alone and maintaining hope, the dreams she had that were shattered.”

“Captivity doesn’t pass”

Giora Romm, a pilot who fell captive in 1969 and returned home before Rami Harpaz and his comrades were taken captive, eventually published his book, Solitary: The Crash, Captivity and Comeback of an Ace Fighter Pilot. He only got around to writing it when he was in his sixties, after having served in a number of public roles.

In the book, Romm wrote about the four months he spent in captivity. Getting back to normal life was not simple, but he was determined – he wanted to live. The book also describes these challenges – the difficulties of life after captivity.

A year after he returned from Egypt, Romm was back flying a fighter jet. When he flew over the Nile Delta, the region where he’d been shot down two years previously, he experienced uncontrollable shaking, extreme dryness in the mouth, and a rapid heart rate.

Rom passed away in August 2023, after years of service in both the Air Force, which he left with the rank of Major General, and the public sector. Neta Gurevitch, his daughter, was born some two years after he returned from captivity. When we spoke with her, she stressed that although her father lived a full and fruitful life after returning from captivity, and would invest in and be present for her, traces of that time in captivity remained with him: “captivity doesn’t pass. The captive spends their whole life trying to integrate that experience into the rest of their life.”

“Air Force pilot Giora Yaakov Rom, whose plane was shot down on the 11th of the month in Egyptian territory, was photographed in a hospital in Cairo, where he is recovering from his wounds”. Haaretz, September 21, 1969

When she says “Literature is dear to my heart because it is a tool which allows one to undergo the experience of another and internalize it,” it seems to me that she is mostly talking about the life story of her beloved father.

As far as Neta is concerned, the book her father wrote can help us during these difficult days, when we pray for the safe return of all the hostages:

“This book is testament to the fact that you can recover from this thing. There is life afterwards. There is life with meaning afterwards, with all the difficulties along the way. Maybe if people read it, they will connect with that place of hope.”

Giora Romm (left) with his family. Second from right: his daughter, Neta Gurevitch. Photo: Ran Mendelson. From a family album