Why Did Moroccan Jews Bring Moses Into the Passover Haggadah?

Moroccan Jews (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) to this day begin the Passover Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic at the center of which is the figure of Moses…

MS Bill Gross 168. Long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors,” Tafilalt, 20th century

As we all know, the Passover Haggadah deals entirely with story of the Exodus from Egypt, followed by the crossing of the Red Sea, all the while praising the Creator and expressing gratitude for the many miracles and wonders He performed to liberate and bring the Israelites from slavery to freedom.

According to the story told in detail in the first chapters of the Book of Exodus, Moses was a major player in all the events of the Exodus from Egypt, from the moment God spoke to him before the Burning Bush and entrusted him with the mission to go and speak with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea as though crossing dry land, and then across the desert for forty years until his death before entering the land of Canaan. And yet, throughout all the pages of the Haggadah, the dominant biblical figure of Moses is not mentioned even once. Furthermore, in the Haggadah we read: “And God brought us out of Egypt not by the hand of an angel, nor by the hand of a fiery being, nor by a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be He, and He Himself in His glory.”

Why was the figure of Moses erased so completely from the Passover Haggadah? The Haggadah text we know today was formulated in the fourth century CE. It was around this time that the figure of Jesus was enshrined as a central divine figure of the Christian faith which was rapidly spreading across the known world. Some believe that the Jewish sages, fearing the rise of a similar popular movement among the Jewish people that would counter Jesus with the figure of Moses as the true divine figure, attempted to expunge the figure of Moses even from the memory of the constitutive events associated with him. These events are of course recounted in detail in the Haggadah, the central text of the Passover Seder, which shaped Jewish consciousness for generations.

Yet, to this very day, the Jews of Morocco (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) begin the Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic, in which the central figure is none other than Moses. The text is recited at the beginning of the fourth stage of the Seder – yahatz – before the reading of the Haggadah, when the person conducting the Seder picks up the three matzot, takes out the middle matza and breaks it in half (reserving one half to be eaten later during the Tsafun ritual).

The Judeo-Arabic text is recited while the broken piece of matza is held up for all to see. According to this short text, God parted the Red Sea for our Ancestors into twelve paths through Moses, our rabbi and prophet. This is followed by a prayer that asks God to save the members of the communities from exile and bring them to the Holy Land just as He delivered our ancestors out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The Judeo-Arabic text eventually crystallized into two different but closely related main versions, one used in the Tafilalt and adjacent communities in the southeast and northeast of Morocco, and another, shorter version, customary in other communities. The wording of the text varied slightly from one community to another, as often occurs with a text that is primarily transmitted orally.

MS Paul Dahan, Brussels, 4464, from Tafilalt, early 19th century. First part of the long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors,” courtesy of the manuscript’s owners


Why did Moroccan Jews see a need to bring Moses to the Seder and return him to the story of the Exodus? And when did it happen? As can be discerned from the Arabic language of the two versions discussed here, the text about Moses was formulated at the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. During this period, the last incarnations of medieval literary Judeo-Arabic, called Middle Judeo-Arabic, were still in use. Despite losses to the text over the generations because of its oral transmission, many traces of this ancient language can still be found in it.

What is the connection between the language and the consolidation of this special text? It seems that the return of the figure of Moses and his role in the Exodus story came at a time when the Jewish communities in Morocco and other lands of North Africa and Andalusia, that is, Muslim Spain, were allowed to return to open practice of their Judaism at the end of the thirteenth century under the rulers of the first Marinid Sultanate. The connection is a dramatic and even tragic event of long duration that nearly destroyed all the North African and Andalusian communities at the beginning of the reign of the fundamentalist Muslim Almohad Caliphate.

The first rulers of this dynasty coerced all the Jews under its rule to convert, to become anusim by forcing them to hide their Jewish observance for more than one hundred and twenty years; those who refused to convert to Islam were immediately sentenced to death. The period of the forced conversion began in approximately 1140, at the beginning of the Almohad sect’s takeover of Morocco and North Africa, including Libya and Andalusia, and ended after the empire’s disintegration in 1269, when Marrakesh was conquered by the Marinid tribes, who gradually regained most of Morocco’s regions.

At the beginning of the period of forced conversions, when Maimonides and his family lived in Fez (1160–1165), conditions had at least permitted Jews to live as Jews inside their homes if they wished, while behaving as Muslims in public. Praying in synagogues and the performing of Jewish ceremonies in public were strictly forbidden. In 1167 or 1168, during the period that has been termed the “gentle apostasy” ((השמד הרך, Maimonides wrote what has become known as the “Letter of Apostasy” (איגרת השמד) – a letter of encouragement to the Jews of Fez who were secretly holding onto their Judaism: “And the works of His hands will be done in secret because never has there been anything heard like this marvelous apostasy [author’s emphasis, JC] in which there is no objection except for speech alone.”

However, conditions worsened immeasurably afterwards under the rule of Sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (ruled from 1184 to 1199) and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser (ruled from 1199 to 1214). The two rulers imposed even harsher regulations on the Jews of North Africa and Andalusia, in their communal and religious life and economically, but the memory of the persecutions is recorded only among the Jews of Morocco. The religious commentator and physician Rabbi Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin (1150?-1220?), who lived through the difficult events in Fez before he was able to leave Morocco, wrote a personal account of the persecutions and humiliations imposed on the Jews of Morocco. His testimony also included a harsh rebuke of those Moroccan Jews who did not leave Morocco to save themselves from the ruin. His story appears in the sixth chapter of his treatise Tibb al-Nufūs (“The Hygiene of the Souls”). In it he describes first-hand the persecutions that were the lot of the Jews of Morocco: the contempt and daily humiliations suffered at the hands of the Muslims; the constant fear of being reported to the authorities for not keeping the laws of Islam, which would lead to loss of their property, wives and even their lives as punishment; the prohibition against any sign of Jewish life even inside the homes, and the prohibition against educating children in the Jewish religion and the Torah; the forgetting of the Torah and the Hebrew language that resulted; the humiliating clothing they were forced to wear; the removal of children from Jewish homes to educate them in the religion of Islam; and finally, the prohibition against practicing commerce, the trade which put food on their tables.

MS Bar Ilan 122, from Tafilalt, 19th century, long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”


This second period of the great apostasy dealt a fatal blow to the remnants of the “gentle apostasy.” Accounts of this period are almost entirely absent from historical research due to the lack of documentation. Only Maimonides’ temperate description of the “marvelous apostasy” remains in the historical consciousness, though it barely captured the severity of the decrees subsequently imposed on the Jews of Morocco in particular, as the seat of the rulers Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansour and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser was in Fez. For about eighty years, the anusim were forced to live as Muslims in every sense, to participate in prayers in mosques and to abolish all Jewish symbols. It is true that in these strict conditions came some relief with the disintegration of the Almohad Empire, but even then, the prohibition against practicing Judaism continued. With the Marinid tribes’ eventual takeover of Morocco and other large parts of the Almohad Empire, Jews were allowed to return to their Judaism, but they did not do so demonstratively for fear of antagonizing the Muslim populations whose hatred of the Jews had grown under the Almohad caliphate. The hidden Jews saw their return to Judaism as a second exodus from Egypt.

Moreover, because of the forced Muslim education they received, and the Muslim sermons they were forced to hear in the mosques, the central figure etched in the minds of the converted Jews was the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, who has always been at the center of Islamic worship and belief. The community leaders who sought to restore Jewish life and Jewish consciousness among the survivors of the apostasy needed to obliviate the image of the Prophet of Islam and counter it with a central Jewish figure that would overshadow it. Hence their need for the image of Moses, which Maimonides had already established as one of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, as described later in the piyut – Yigdal Elohim Hai [Acclaim and Praise the Living God] composed at the beginning of the fourteenth century by Rabbi Daniel ben Yehuda Hadayan: “In Israel there never arose another prophet like Moses, able to see God’s likeness.”

MS Paul Dahan, Brussels, 3363, from Tafilalt, 20th century. This manuscript contains the long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”]

From the end of the thirteenth century and through the fourteenth century, the image of Moses appeared in other Judeo-Arabic poems and texts that were at the core of the Judeo-Arabic culture and poetry that developed from that time among Moroccan Jewry and until the community’s dispersal in the third quarter of the twentieth century. These poems, most of which were written in late Medieval Judeo-Arabic, include poems recited in the home of a new mother on the eve of the circumcision of her newborn; poems about the Exodus from Egypt and its wonders according to the Midrash; poems in praise of Moses; the repertoire of Passover texts known as Dhir, which are unique to the Jews of Morocco; and the long text of the Ten Commandments read on Shavuot. In the fourteenth century, the biblical texts and other para-liturgical texts were also translated into late Medieval Judeo-Arabic – the translations of the Shar – i.e. the traditional calque translations familiar today. In these Judeo-Arabic texts, Muslim terms used to describe the supreme qualities of Muhammad were used to describe Moses, to emphasize him as the true messenger of God (Rasul Allah) and chief of the prophets, who spoke directly with God (Kalim Allah).

MS National Library 38=2618, from Taflilat, 19th century, with the long and full version of the text, “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”

In the manuscript seen above, the long text of “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors” appears twice, on the right in square script and on the left in cursive:

“Thus did God part the sea for our ancestors into twelve paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace be upon him; He rescued them and delivered them from hard work to rest and from slavery to freedom. He sent him, may His name be exalted, so that He may lead us today also in the same way; May He gather our communities to His destroyed holy house, and save our captives from this exile for the sake of His great and holy name.”  The forcibly converted Jews referred to themselves in these various poems as “captives.”

You can listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:


MS Bill Gross MO.11.009_005. From one of the communities in southeast Morocco, 20th century. Courtesy of the manuscript’s owners

The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the long text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea into twelve separate paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him.  He rescued them and delivered them from hard labor to rest and from slavery to freedom. God, may His name be exalted, sent him. Thus shall He do to us now and save us for the sake of His great and holy name; Amen.”

Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:

MS Michael Krupp 3288, 20th century, from one of the communities in southeast Morocco

The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea when our ancestors were brought out from the land of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him. Just as He saved them and delivered them from hard labor to freedom, so God will save us from this exile. May it be His will and let us say Amen.”

Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text below:


This article is a preview of a forthcoming comprehensive essay I am preparing on the beginning of the development of Judeo-Arabic poetry and culture in Morocco in which I will expand on much of the material that has been described here in brief. This large essay is now in advanced preparation for publication under the title: Destruction and Restoration: The Destruction of Jewish Life in Morocco under Forced Conversions of the Almohads and its Restoration, Joseph Chitrit, Haifa: Pardes Publishing House, 2023 (three volumes, in Hebrew).

This Book Also Goes Up to Scholem: On Gershom Scholem and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

The fascinating correspondence between these two giants in the field of Judaic Studies reveals much about both men, including their impressions of a young Leon Wieseltier…

Gershom Scholem (left) and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (right). Photo credits: the Aliza Auerbach Archive at the National Library of Israel; Monozigote

As is well known, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) was always happy to receive gifts of books for his collection. According to one interpretation, that is the reason that he maintained an empty shelf in his home library, so that his guests wouldn’t get the impression that there was no room for him to receive more books! Interestingly, on the 23rd of Tamuz in the Hebrew year of 5737 (July 9, 1977), Scholem received not one, but two books, with dedications from the same author.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (1932-2009) was an American scholar of Jewish History who taught initially at Harvard and from 1980 at Columbia University, where he served as the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society. Baron had been Yerushalmi’s PhD advisor at Columbia and it must have been satisfying for both men when Yerushalmi “returned home” after his long sojourn at Harvard. I myself left Columbia with a degree in history in 1979, missing the opportunity to study with Yerushalmi by one year. He is widely remembered for his 1982 work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.

The first of the books that Yerushalmi presented to Scholem was his own historical work, published the previous year, The Lisbon Massacre of 1506 and the Royal Image in the ‘Shebet Yehudah’ (Cincinnati 1976).

Jerusalem. 23 Tamuz 5737. Jerusalem
To Gershom and Fania Scholem
In friendship

The second, more intriguing book, was a slim volume (29 pages) published in Bombay India in 1916, Guide: The Secret Doctrine of the Soul and Body With Miscellaneous Information Useful in Daily Life, by one “Judah Shallum Kasooker, Jerusalemist”.


Jerusalem. 23 Tamus 5737
And thus, this book also goes up to Scholem!
-To Gershom Scholem  
In friendship
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi

I was unable to find any information regarding the author, Judah Shallum Kasooker, or why he refers to himself as a “Jerusalemist”. This volume is the only title of his in the National Library of Israel, which holds three copies. His picture is also somewhat intriguing:

As you can see, he distributed his book for free (only additional copies were charged), and each of the copies at the NLI has a different name written in the blank space. The Yerushalmi – Scholem copy had been given to Joseph David Gadkee.

The work was dedicated to the author’s “brethren who are lovers of the Jewish religion”. Gershom Scholem of course stamped his own copy, as was his custom.

It is beyond the scope of this post to properly review this guide, but among the topics discussed are levels of the soul, reincarnation, prayer, the Sabbath, charity, death and “separation of the sexes”.  Of course, one has to finance one’s publications, especially when they are distributed for free. Our author ran an advertisement on the last page for “Vegetable Pain Drops”, which were good for more or less whatever ails you!


Perhaps it should not surprise us that the author himself was an alternative healer, who did not charge the poor for his services.

Returning to Yerushalmi’s dedication, including the phrase “This book also goes up to Scholem”, Yerushalmi was obviously alluding to Scholem’s infamous “negative catalogue” of 1937 –“קונטרס עלו לשלום : רשימת ספרי קבלה וחסידות המבוקשים לאוסף ספריו של גרשם שלום” -This was a six-page list of 111 works that Scholem hoped to purchase for his library. He would later lament in his autobiography,  From Berlin to Jerusalem, that the main result of this folly was that book dealers subsequently raised the prices of works they knew Scholem was after!

At this point let us zoom out and take a look at the Scholem – Yerushalmi relationship. Firstly, it’s important to realize that Scholem was Yerushalmi’s senior by 35 years, so the relationship was hardly equal. By the time that Yerushalmi began his academic career Scholem was already a world-renowned scholar, amongst the most important academics in the field of Judaic Studies.

Gershom Scholem in his study, 1974, photo by Aliza Auerbach, the Aliza Auerbach Archive, the National Library of Israel

In the NLI’s Gershom Scholem archives, there is preserved a fairly extensive correspondence (about 15 letters) between the two, which took place between 1973, when Yerushalmi was a young lecturer at Harvard, until 1980, when he was transitioning to his new position at Columbia, and only two years before Scholem’s demise. Initially Scholem wrote to Yerushalmi in English and Yerushalmi responded in beautiful Hebrew. Later they would both write in both languages.

Their letters display a great degree of mutual admiration and as time went on and the two visited each other (along with their spouses), a close personal friendship as well. Amongst the topics they discussed were publications and translations of some of Scholem’s books as well as the upcoming (1979) book by David Biale, Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History. Their mutual fascinations with Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin were also discussed as well as young scholars-in-training at the time, especially Leon Wieseltier. The file also contains two letters written after Scholem’s death. They are a letter from Yerushalmi to historian Prof. Jacob Katz in 1984, in which he sent Katz his correspondence with Scholem for possible publication, and a letter from Fania Scholem (his widow) to Yerushalmi in 1987.

We will take a look at a few of the highlights from their correspondence, which began after Yerushalmi sent a copy of his 1971 work, From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto: Isaac Cordoso: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Jewish Apologetics. Scholem (30.1.73) praised the work and encouraged Yerushalmi to also publish the letters of Cardoso’s brother, the Sabbatian theorist Avraham.

“I consider your work an excellent contribution” – click to enlarge

Yerushalmi for his part was ecstatic at Scholem’s positive evaluation of his work and responded (2.3.73) with superlative praise for Scholem and his status in the world of Jewish scholarship. Among his comments, “I merited to receive praise and encouragement from the generation’s greatest scholar in Judaic Studies…since beginning to compose my book I couldn’t restrain myself from one recurring thought, which is – what will ‘he’ say?”

“Praise and encouragement from the Gadol HaDor” – click to enlarge

In a very interesting letter from Yerushalmi ( 11.1.76), which may not have actually been sent to Scholem, Yerushalmi spoke glowingly of Scholem’s book, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, which he would have read in the original German edition (1975), as the English translation was published only in 1981.  He confessed that in addition to finding the book enlightening on the subject of Benjamin, it was so as well on the subject of Scholem himself. He chose however not to go into detail, as “I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself”. Last but not least he shares with Scholem his “obsession” regarding Franz Kafka, “one of the very few writers who ‘speak’ to me in a particularly intimate way”.

“I hardly have the temerity to go on writing to you about yourself” – click to enlarge

In a wide-ranging letter from 3.4.76 Yerushalmi opened with thanks to Scholem for sending him a copy of his book Devarim B’Go, and closes with a request to Fania Scholem to assist them in finding an apartment to rent (or swap) on their upcoming trip to Jerusalem. In the body of the letter, Yerushalmi laments having to serve as head of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard. The up side to his undesired administrative tasks is the opportunity to interact with scholars from the Arab world, though he assumes that, “the majority return home to Tripoli or Damascus, and point to me as proof of the authenticity of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion'”!

“…me as proof of the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” – click to enlarge

On the eleventh of January, 1978, Yerushalmi informed Scholem that he was sending to him, together with the letter, three “segulot” (amulets), two that had been written in the United States and a third from Tunisia.

“I’m enclosing three segulot…” – click to enlarge

This letter also contains the beginning of what would become extensive correspondence regarding David Biale’s proposed book Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter Culture, which would be published the following year by Harvard Press. The book, based upon Biale’s prior PhD dissertation, was the first work regarding Scholem himself, and thus all involved wished to proceed with caution.

“Do you know this man [Biale] and his work? If so, please give me your opinion about him.”- click to enlarge

Lastly, Yerushalmi mentions that he does have satisfaction from a few excellent students, one being [Leon] Wieseltier, who would go on to a successful career as a literary critic and as the literary editor of the “New Republic”. Scholem would also comment about him in later correspondence.

On February 12, 1978 Scholem responded with a four-page handwritten letter on a variety of topics. The great majority dedicated to a response to Yerushalmi’s question regarding David Biale and his proposed book regarding Scholem. Scholem responds at great length (also enclosing one page of comments that he had previously sent to Biale himself), and among other things, writes that, “My general opinion is that it is a serious and interesting book…I would be positive about its publication”. On the other hand, “I disagree on certain things which on the one hand suffer from ‘overinterpretation’, while on the other, many sources he is unaware of are ignored”. Scholem goes on to provide a list of books and articles that in his opinion Biale should incorporate into his research. He closes this part of his letter with one specific criticism and writes, “regarding the influence of Hermann Cohen’s ideas on my perspective, this is a brash hypothesis that seems unfounded to me…I have never dreamed of such a connection and even now that Biale has revealed it, his words are not at all convincing”.

Scholem returns at the end of his letter to the topic of Yerushalmi’s promising student and writes, “I consider Wieseltier to be a very talented young man. He, however, is at risk of spreading his talents too thin. It would be appropriate for someone like you to invest in bringing him close”.

Click on any page of the letter to enlarge

Yerushalmi responded on April 24, 1978, attempting to allay Scholem’s concerns regarding Biale’s forthcoming book. “I would certainly have authored a different book about you, but I think this book is serious enough that it deserves to be published. It is the first attempt to understand your oeuvre, and others will come to correct and to add… Biale is a flexible young man, and he wants to please you. Even though some points could easily be refuted, let’s not forget that at the end of the day, this is his book, and he is fully responsible for it”.

Click to enlarge

The final letter that we have is from over two years later (10.6.80), when Yerushalmi informs Scholem that he will soon be moving from Boston to New York and returning to Columbia University. With that, it appears that their intensive spurt of correspondence came to a close. Scholem died two years later in early 1982, Yerushalmi in 2008, not before achieving, somewhat like Scholem, status as one of the preeminent scholars in the field of academic Judaic Studies.

“We are moving to New York in late July or early August…” – click to enlarge


Yalta – The First Jewish Feminist

If you haven’t heard of Yalta yet, it’s okay – many people haven’t. But as the second most mentioned woman in the Talmud, Yalta does deserve more fame, especially as her daring escapades left many speechless. Often described as the ‘first Jewish feminist,’ Yalta was a leading woman of the time, going around smashing barrels of wine, adjudicating for women’s issues, contradicting the highest regarded rabbis, and rewriting ancient laws to finally include women in Jewish practices

"Miriam" by Laura James. Cover art for "Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne" - Wilda C. Gafney. Published by Westminster John Knox Press, National Library of Israel collections

There is a general frustrating tradition to render women in the Talmud nameless. At most, one can occasionally expect a side note mentioning “the wife of so and so.” But amongst the few named women in the Talmud is a strong-willed, brave person who could reliably be described as Judaism’s first feminist – or at least the first Jewish feminist to be so outspoken about her beliefs.

“Miriam” by Laura James. Cover art for Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne – Wilda C. Gafney. Published by Westminster John Knox Press, National Library of Israel collections. Cover art – Miriam by Laura James

The Babylonian Rabbi, Rabbah bar Avuha, was a student of the famous Rav – Abba bar Aybo – and a sage in the second generation of the amoraim, the Jewish scholars who lived from 200-500 CE and codified many of the teachings of the Oral Torah. He resided in Babylonia where he became a religious judge. Rabbah bar Avuha was also related to the exilarchs, the leaders of the Jewish community in Persian Mesopotamia, and may have been an exilarch himself. This afforded him prominence as both a rabbinical authority and a nobleman within Persia. According to legend, he was also a friend of the prophet Elijah who gave him leaves from paradise, making him rich, but it’s up to you to decide for yourself whether he gained his wealth through his political prowess, or encounters with prophets in the Garden of Eden.

Either way, he was able to provide a nice quality of life, by 200 CE standards, for his family. His family included one daughter with a larger-than-life personality: Yalta. This very Yalta is the second most-mentioned woman in the Talmud (the first most-mentioned woman in the Talmud is the daughter of Rav Chisda.)

Cover art by David Parkhurst for Rav Hisda’s daughter: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery. Book I, Apprentice – Maggie Anton. Published by Plume, National Library of Israel collections

But before we get to Yalta, we must first meet her husband – in an article about feminism it is a tad ironic to insist on putting the man first, but chronology is chronology!

Rav Nachman bar Yaakov was a student of our friend Rabbah bar Avuha, and he also served as the chief justice of the Jews who were subject to the exilarch, so in a way the two men were also contemporaries. Rav Nachman certainly had his own achievements, including being the head of the school of Nehardea, but he had a slightly wacky personality, to say the least. For one thing, his ego was sizable (Sanhedrin 98b, Sanhedrin 5a, Bava Metzia 66a). He also had a raging superiority complex and would treat those who he saw as below him (which was nearly everyone) poorly.

When Rabbah bar Avuha’s yeshiva was destroyed, Rav Nachman offered him the head position at his own school. In return, Rabbah bar Avuha offered him a wife. A fair trade, don’t you think? Thus it was that Yalta married Rav Nachman, and they lived happily ever after, enjoying a great degree of comfort.

Jewish Identity in American Art: A Golden Age Since the 1970sMatthew Baigell. Cover art by Matthew Baigell. Published by Syracuse University Press, National Library of Israel collections

But it wasn’t always a quiet life, for, as mentioned, Yalta was a bright spark and would often stand up for what she believed in. Many stories can be told to exemplify her fiery character, but none is so prominent as the story told in Berachot 51b. Yalta and her husband were hosting a meal in their home, at which the renowned Rabbi Ulla was eating. After saying their blessings upon concluding the meal, men and their guests would pass around a Cup of Blessing filled with wine, giving each recipient the chance to say a prayer for their own good fortune. On this occasion Rabbi Ulla was given the honor of leading the blessing, and once he was finished, he ignored Yalta and gave the cup straight to Rav Nachman. Rav Nachman, a loving husband, or perhaps a husband seeking to avoid a marital dispute, asked Ulla to pass the cup to Yalta.

“Babylonian Talmud,” Gail Renlund. Cover art for Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice – Judith Hauptman. Published by Westview Press, National Library of Israel collections

Ulla replied “The issue of a woman’s womb is blessed only through the issue of a man’s belly (Deuteronomy 7:13.)” In effect, Ulla was telling the table that women only conceive because of the blessings of their husbands, and that it is pointless and even wasteful to include women in the sacred Cup of Blessing practice as their spiritual satisfaction can only come via a man. He also relegated womankind in supposing that all they should be concerned to pray for is childbirth, and ignored the fact that maybe Yalta wanted to pray for something other than having children – (gasp!) To avoid all doubt, it is worth mentioning that Ulla’s claims were unfounded and his exclusion of women directly contradicts what is relayed in the Torah itself, but that’s not the point here.

Women Praying at the Western Wall,” L. Genut. Cover art for The Women of the Talmud Judith Z. Abrams, published by J. Aronson, National Library of Israel collections

Yalta was furious. She stood up from the table, ran into the storeroom, and smashed 400 barrels of wine, obliterating hundreds of cups of wine at the refusal of her one. Rav Nachman implored Ulla to reconsider his decision to ostracize Yalta and Ulla reluctantly obliged, but he wasn’t going to go down so easily. Ulla found a new, comically large and less beautiful cup and handed it to Yalta for the blessing, mocking her request to join in and branding it as greedy. This unsubtle dig seemed to be aimed at women in general, as if to ask – “You want wine now too? Is it not enough that you get the privilege of serving men while owning nothing and being someone else’s property? Fine – I’ll give you wine! I’ll give you loads of wine!”  But don’t worry, Yalta wasn’t going to stand for his mockery, and demanding the last word, she took the cup from him while proclaiming “from travelers come tall tales and from rag pickers lice,” in effect completely illegitimizing both Ulla’s opinion and character.

Yalta:  A Talmudic Novel – Rochama Weiss. Cover art by Dov Abramson Studios. Compiled by Leah Schnir. Published by United Kibbutz Publishing House, National Library of Israel collections

Maybe breaking so many barrels of wine seems a tad overreactive, but a second opinion states that she only broke the seals on the barrels. Yalta was upset that she wasn’t able to partake in the sacred act of blessing, and she wanted to show that her desire was not in vain but in a noble effort to include women in this commandment. The Torah teaches that when something is destroyed for a reason (including to teach a lesson), there is a lift on the prohibition of wanton destruction. Moreover, the number 400 has the same numerical value as ayin hara, “the evil eye”. Ulla had acted in an unjust way, so to show him what real justice meant, Yalta broke the seals on the barrels of wine and distributed their contents to underprivileged people, so that they could use the wine at their own meals.

Beruria the Tannait: A Theological Reading of a Female Mishnaic Scholar – Dalia Hoshen. Cover art by Rowman & Littlefield. Published by University Press of America, National Library of Israel collections

Yalta wasn’t just concerned with expressing her opinions in alcohol-related escapades. At a time when a woman having an opinion was unthinkable, let alone unheard, Yalta would actually advise her husband on different matters. On one occasion (Kiddushin 70b,) she instructed Rav Nachman to distance himself from those who wouldn’t respect his opinion, and he obliged, going as far as to show one adversary a note with Yalta’s advice and explaining that he would defer to his wife and leave the uncivil discussion at once.

Halakhic Literature and Talmudic Commentaries Responsa, concerning a rebellious wife. Published, with translation, by Friedman, Jewish Law Annual 4. Cambridge University Library, “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

This brave woman didn’t always need her husband to stand up for her, though. When she received a ruling from a rabbi concerning her menstruation and the Jewish laws of family purity, she felt dissatisfied with the rabbinical ruling. Not one to simply accept her fate, she took matters into her own hands and sought out a new Rabbi who would give her an answer that she could accept (Niddah 20b.)

Yalta was able to understand that she hadn’t been given an optimal ruling by the first rabbi because of her vast medical knowledge (Gittin 67b) and understanding of the intersection between Jewish law and medical ethics, an area of study still being discussed today, 1800 years later! Yalta was educated by her father, to the shock of many, and became a learned woman. Had she been born a mere few thousand years later she might have become a doctor or a scholar herself. As it was, she had to be content standing up to rabbis and making religious rulings for herself (Chullin 109b.)

Paraphrases of Talmudic sources concerning women. Cambridge University Library, “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

It was perhaps because of this that her guidance was so sought out by those around her, especially women (surprise surprise!) In fact, her guidance was so necessary to her community that on Shabbat, when it was generally forbidden to carry anyone in a sedan chair, her ever-doting husband allowed Yalta to be carried into town to speak to her disciples (Beitzah 25b.)

Women and Womanhood in the Talmud – Shulamit Valler, translated by Betty Sigler Rozen, published by Brown Judaic Studies, National Library of Israel collections

What is interesting is that Yalta’s husband wasn’t exactly at the forefront of the feminist movement himself. One might go as far as calling him a misogynist, and they would have serious reason to do so. While serving as the judge in a theft trial, he dismissed the claims of the wronged party (Sukkah, 31a.) Having had her business stolen from her she was understandably distressed. But Rav Nachman dismissed the entire case with a crass statement that “she is a noisy woman.”

And it is true that Rav Nachman was not much one for outspoken women. He even went so far as to decry prophets themselves for the simple sin of being female. “It is not seemly for women to be conceited” he said, continuing that “the two prophetesses Deborah and Huldah had hateful names, namely, ‘bee’ and ‘weasel’” (Megillah 41b.) Even the women anointed with prophecy by G-d himself were, sadly, still women in the eyes of Rav Nachman and thus should not have been speaking in public, unlike his wife.

Jewish Feminism: Framed and Reframed – Esther Fuchs. Published by Lexington Books, National Library of Israel collections

If this is how he spoke of the prophetesses, you can imagine how he treated his female slaves (reportedly, his treatment was – “without regard to their moral sensibilities.”). So how could he stand up for his wife’s blatant acts of empowerment while vilifying the other women around him? One might guess that it was love which drove him to abandon his sexism and support his wife, but Rav Nachman was certainly not so loyal to Yalta. Once, when traveling to the city of Shchenziv he told his men to bring him a woman who could act as his ‘wife’ during his time in the city. His plan was to divorce her when he left the town and return to the none-the-wiser Yalta at home (Yoma 18b.)

So if it was not love, what did draw Rav Nachman to Yalta, this proto-feminist of huge proportions? Feminist scholars flocked to Yalta’s ideas (Niddah 20b) about the laws of niddah (Jewish laws pertaining to menstruation,) and even today’s rabbis sing praises for the revolutionary standpoints of Yalta.

Maybe it was her “assertiveness and forcefulness” which scared Rav Nachman into doing what she said? Maybe we can believe the theory that he only married her after her former husband’s demise, and both age and pity led him to accept her nature? But the favored answer is that he was simply aware of her goodness and truthfulness. Yalta’s very name means truth. The numerical value of the name Yalta adds up to 441, which is the same value as the Hebrew word for truth – emet. As Ben Yehoyada said “her proper and truthful actions spoke for themselves.”

Miriam Leading” by Jackie Olenick. Cover art for The Women of the Torah: Commentaries From the Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah – Barbara L. Thaw Ronson. Published by J. Aronson, National Library of Israel collections

What is certain is that Yalta broke the glass ceiling before we even had a term for it. She wouldn’t have called herself a feminist because the movement hadn’t even been thought of, let alone vocalized. But being the second most mentioned woman in the Talmud comes with a responsibility to stand up for womankind and in this respect it’s fair to say that Yalta exceeded with flying colors.

How Jews Started Writing Letters To G-d

Did you know that the Israeli Postal Service has an entire department dedicated to letters addressed to G-d? Did you know that no one can accurately trace the tradition of leaving prayer notes in the Western Wall? Did you know that many prominent rabbis would like to abolish the tradition all together? We explore some of the heated debates and captivating accounts of leaving letters for G-d in the venerated cracks of the Western Wall and answer the rousing question of why people leave prayer notes at all

Postcard from 1920s Germany depicting Jews praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. This postcard is part of the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

A story is told of a young boy who visited the Western Wall for the first time. He was perhaps a tad skeptical of its significance and his father watched on nervously as the boy cautiously approached the wall and held out his hand. The young boy’s fingers traced the ancient stone, but the boy retreated and backed off quickly from the wall. A minute later he returned, dragging a chair from the plaza outside, to the surprise of his father. The boy pulled the chair up to the wall and clambered upon it. Standing on his tiptoes he reached up his hand and touched the very tallest stone he could manage, letting a small smile slowly spread across his face.

Photograph of a father and son at the Western Wall from 1973. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Image of children inserting notes into the Western Wall from 1978. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Walking away from the Western Wall, hand in hand, the boy’s father asked whether his son had found any significance or emotion in the experience. The boy replied: “father, I felt how smooth the stones were just above ground level, but how rough they were where no hands could reach to touch them. This wall is a place where people rest their heads, grasp the bricks with their hands and let their tears smooth the façade. This is a place of hope and beauty.”

Photograph of men praying at the Western Wall in 1972. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Amidst the cool stones, smoothed and softened by endless hands, little prayers lay curled up between yellowing pages of hopeful notes. From all over the world, people of all walks of life write down their innermost feelings and burry them in the gaps along the face of the Western Wall. Many have come to accept this tradition as standard, but it wasn’t always so, and in fact there are those who would rather that the practice come to a swift end. But let’s begin at the beginning.

Poster of women praying at the Western Wall from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

The Western Wall is a portion of ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem which forms part of the large retaining wall of the Temple Mount built by Herod the Great. It is often considered the holiest place in the world for Jews, as it is the closest place that they are permitted to pray outside the Temple Mount. The largest part of the wall is used for prayer and is sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall or the Kotel. It is here that we find thousands of crinkled notes stuffed into its cracks.

Rosh Hashanah greeting card from 1930 Germany, depicting the Western Wall, from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

There is a curious tradition amongst mankind to make our presence known in any place we visit. From the earliest times people were carving their identities into stone, and even today one needn’t look far to find an urban wall brightened by graffitied names: “John woz ‘ere”. Understandably then, during the British Mandate period, the authorities decreed that the Western Wall was too precious to be defaced, in a ruling that follows: “It shall be held… that the Western Wall should not be disfigured by having any engravings or inscriptions placed upon it…and that the Wall should be kept clean and be properly respected.”

Postcard from 1920s Germany depicting Jews praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. This postcard is part of the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

Along with this decree came the presumed end of people writing their heartfelt prayers and wishes on the face of the Western Wall, but it was not so.

Indeed, a new solution had to be found for people to leave behind a lasting memory of their spoken prayers, so the famous tradition of prayer notes was born (or perhaps reborn, as we shall soon see). Initially, those who travelled to the wall to pray would write out their meditations on the spot, placing them directly into the cracks. But as word spread of this venerable tradition, more and more people wanted to take part. Soon it became accepted that anyone travelling to the Western Wall would bring with them the pleas of all their friends and families. Notes would fill all the available spaces and begin to tumble out onto the plaza below.

Photographic image of the Western Wall Plaza from 2014, from the National Library of Israel collection. Photographer: Gabi Laron
A 1992 reproduction of a Morris Kats’ painting, depicting the Western Wall Plaza from the collection of A. Peri Esq. Jerusalem Israel at the National Library of Israel

Yet sources differ regarding the very first occurrence of placing notes in the Western Wall. Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited the Western Wall in 1699 and was supposedly the first one to record that letters were to be found in the crevices. Others say Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar was the one who first noted this phenomenon.

The Wailing Wall, written by Judith Weinshall Liberman, 2017, Dog Ear Publishing. This children’s book tells the story of a bar mitzvah boy and the magical note he leaves in the Western Wall
A 1978 photograph of a female soldier placing a letter into the Western Wall. Note all the other notes in the cracks of the wall. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Conversely, according to Rabbi Zalman Koren, a great expert of the Western Wall, the tradition dates back to the days of the Chassidim who would give their rebbe notes called kvitlech with names of those who he should bless during prayer. When the rebbe died, these notes would be placed on his grave instead. As Chassidim made their way to Jerusalem in the 1700s, this ritual spread to leaving notes in the Western Wall, a practice then adopted by others.

Photographs of notes left in the Western Wall, 1978, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Photographer: Boris Karmi
Photographs of notes left in the Western Wall, 1978, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Photographer: Boris Karmi

The Book of Remembrance for the late Rabbi Getz, who served as Rabbi of the Western Wall until 2005, disagrees. He tells the moving story of a man who wept over his dying wife. As his tears fell, a heavenly hand passed him a note and a holy voice instructed him: “Go out immediately to the Western Wall, place the note between the stones and you will receive complete healing,” implying that it was already customary to bury notes in the Western Wall nearly 260 years ago.

More biblical sources are also quoted as the root of this tradition. The biblical commentator Ramban notes that the Children of Israel were writing their prayers on notes in order to receive blessings even during the exodus from Egypt, and sources for inscribing prayers in note form can be found in Ezra 9:8 and Isaiah 22:23 too. Clearly there is dispute about the origins of inserting notes into the Western Wall – and fierce competition to be the first person to have remarked upon this tradition. The truth is that we probably don’t know who wrote the first prayer note – in fact, it has surely long since disintegrated, or been buried… which leads us to the next fascinating debate in the world of Western Wall notes.

A printed micrograph from 1979 showing the blueprints for the Western Wall, from the Jeselsohn, David and Jemima Collection at the Israel Museum, in the National Library of Israel collection

The tradition being as old as it is (and how old is that, I’m still confused!) today anyone visiting the Western Wall would have to swim through a sea of letters if it were not for the Jewish law forbidding the desecration of any article containing the name of G-d. Of course, it is impossible to know how many of these little notes contained the name of G-d without hiring a formidable team to open and read each of these private requests, so all the papers must be treated as if they contain those holy letters.

Photograph from the 1940s of Jews inserting notes into the Western Wall. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Thus, twice a year before Passover and Rosh Hashanah when hoards of visitors are expected to descend onto the streets of Jerusalem, the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, immerses in the mikve, takes a long wooden stick, and pries all the notes from the wall. He fills over 100 bags full of notes and takes them to the Mount of Olives to be buried.

Image of a woman putting her letter into the Western Wall, 1974. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When Jews leave notes at the graves of holy rabbis, generally these notes get burned, and there is much deliberation in the rabbinical world over whether the same should be done with the Western Wall notes. Burning the notes is “more pure” but burying them shows “more honor” according to many rabbis, giving the proper respect to the notes’ manifold authors.

Postcard depicting people praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

So, who are these people writing the notes? Well, everyone! Of course, Jerusalem natives and tourists are the main contributors, but geographical distance is no barrier to having your letter put in the wall. Simply log onto the Western Wall website and type out your prayer. It will be printed anonymously, on size 4 typeface in an illegible font to prevent anyone reading it (don’t worry, G-d has a good pair of eyeglasses), before being hand-placed into the wall. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch also receives hundreds of letters annually, addressed to “G-d, Jerusalem.” He folds up these letters and inserts them, too, in the wall. There is even a fax and email address set up for those who want to send their letters digitally. And of course, an entire department exists in the Israeli Postal Service for the thousands of letters sent to Israel simply addressed “to G-d.” The postal workers take each one and dutifully deliver it to the Western Wall, which would explain why the average Israeli has to wait approximately 781 business days to receive any mail!

Via Twitter, the Israeli Postal Service proves that they send all the letters addressed to G-d to be placed in the Western Wall

Of course, some letters are more high profile than others, although I hear that G-d doesn’t pick favorites. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have placed their prayers into the wall, as well as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Most famously, in 2008 when Barak Obama inserted his note into the wall, it was removed and sold to an Israeli newspaper who published it, to the anger of many.

Not everyone agrees with the idea of putting notes into the Western Wall. Rabbi Zalman Koren famously recounts that many Jews do not bury their requests among the stones of the Western Wall so as not to deface the precious bricks. Rabbi Jacob Joseph agrees that this practice “pollutes” the holy space.

Book of remembrance of Jerusalem. This book contains many of the traditions and sources pertaining to Western Wall. From the Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel collections.
Pamphlet publishing the prayers and customs of the Western Wall, 2009. Found in the National Library of Israel collections

Moreover, Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk clearly states that “Attributing holiness to any object borders on idol worship” and in the bible (2 Kings 18:4) King Hezekiah agrees that worshiping even holy sites and objects is idolatrous.  Thus, modern day rabbis often argue that worshiping the Western Wall by placing notes in its crevices is similarly idolatrous, and the debate rages on.

Poster of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. Notice the men in the background inscribing words into the stones. This poster is part of from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel
A 1974 photograph of women praying at the Western Wall. Note all the letters in the cracks of the wall. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

We started with a story, so we shall end with a story: A man told his rabbi that he was going to place a prayer in the Western Wall. “Why?” the rabbi asked, “G-d hears prayers regardless of where you are or how you convey them.” “True, G-d is the same everywhere” replies the man, “but I am not”. The practice of placing notes into the Western Wall is a source of comfort, hope, and encouragement for so many thousands of people, whether in person or via a disgruntled Israeli postal worker. So, debate all you like, it seems that the tradition is here to stay.