Singing to Napoleon’s Tune on Yom Kippur

As Yom Kippur draws to a close, a nostalgic tune is sung in Ashkenazi synagogues around the world. While many Jews recognize this tune, most do not know that it was actually composed for Napoleon Bonaparte himself. So how did a Napoleonic marching tune make its way into our neilah prayer service?

Napoleon aiding the Jewish people, William L.Gross, 1806, the National Library of Israel


You’re standing there with your mahzor close to your chest, constantly checking your watch – time doesn’t seem to be moving forwards. Your stomach is continuously grumbling and your mouth is dry. The room feels cold and you look around at the somber faces in the rows of seats surrounding you. Your fingers count the pages of the mahzor in your hands, and you try to figure out how many prayers you still need to get through. Then, the cantor opens his mouth and a tune fills your ears that shakes you to your very core. This is a tune that you’ve been hearing since you were a little child, hanging onto the strings of your father’s tallit. It evokes memories of your childhood synagogue, that particular smell of the final hours of Yom Kippur, the bitter-sweet prayers so filled with longing and tears. And suddenly time starts passing again, perhaps even too fast, as you immerse yourself in the emotional neilah service.

Neilah prayer service, 1987, the National Library of Israel
Yom Kippur Mahzor containing neilah, 1350, Italy, Ktiv Project, the National Library of Israel

Neilah is the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year. The word neilah means “locking” in Hebrew. Coming in at hour 23 of the 25 hour-long fast day, this set of prayers is the last time to repent, ask for forgiveness for your sins from the previous year, and make requests for the upcoming year. Known also as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is traditionally seen as a serious day, full of rituals and prayer, on which we are judged by G-d, but in fact it is more than that: it is a chance to start afresh and a day on which, in Jewish belief, one can be incredibly close to G-d. It is also a day full of rules: no eating, drinking, wearing leather or gold, bathing, or touching the opposite sex. For many, it is a day in which the majority of the time is spent in synagogue, and some even take an oath of silence to honor the holiness of the day.

By the time neilah comes around, most people are hungry, thirsty, and emotional. There’s a mixed feeling in the room of wanting the day to be over so that everyone can return to normal tasks, but also of hanging onto the coattails of this holy time and desperately using each moment to atone before the heavenly book of judgement is sealed for the year. This is why it is such an evocative service for so many people, and why the tunes are filled with a significance reserved only for this service.

One of these tunes is well-known by most Ashkenazim, especially those whose ancestors hail from the Soviet Union. It is the tune that is heard in the Youtube video at the start of this article. In Chabad synagogues, the tune is not accompanied by words, and instead is chanted as a stand-alone melody at the end of the service. In other Ashkenazi synagogues, the melody is usually attached to one of the many piyutim of the service. It’s an iconic, upbeat, tune which really stands alone amongst the generally mournful melodies of the festival. This is because it was never written for the Yom Kippur service, it wasn’t written by a rabbi or scholar, indeed it wasn’t intended for prayer at all!

Yom Kippur by Jacob Weinles, Publisher: Levanon, Warsaw, the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Napoleon Bonaparte had dreams of world domination and would stop at nothing to fulfil this quest. He was an astute and brilliant military commander who did succeed in colonializing many countries, expanding the French empire by magnitudes. He was known for his ability to motivate his troops by filling them with high spirits and confidence before going into war. One way that he raised group morale was by singing. He believed that if the troops sang upbeat and patriotic marching tunes as they rode into their next conquest, they would be more impassioned to fight for their country.

So it was, in 1812, that Napoleon was leading his army on horseback towards Russia. This would be one of his most ambitious campaigns, and little did Napoleon know that it would also be one of his worst defeats. We can assume that his soldiers were at least a little apprehensive, and Napoleon decided to use his tried and tested method for calming their nerves: singing. The tune he chose was an unknown battle march, written specifically for Napoleon and his conquests, and within a short time, his army was belting out this unnamed song with vigor.

At the same time, the Jewish people were playing out their own story across Europe. Mainly living in small villages and shtetls, Jewish life in the early 1800s could be incredibly difficult. Discriminatory laws and overt antisemitism plagued many of their communities, and common legislation entrenched prejudice against them. However, Napoleon was generally seen as a friend to the Jews. As he conquered different territories, local Jews were placed under the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which were a liberating set of laws that amongst other things, promoted religious freedom. As well as endorsing the right to practice Judaism openly, these laws would also allow Jews to work in many various fields rather than the few that they had previously been limited to – they would be able to trade, open legal firms and even become doctors under this new set of regulations! In addition, crippling taxes which were typically levied on Jewish people were abolished, greatly improving their economic status. Finally, Napoleon sought to outlaw Jewish ghettos and allow Jews to live in freedom amongst their fellow countrymen. In effect, Napoleon was promoting equal rights for Jews, and generally providing them a better life.

Napoleon aiding the Jewish people, William L.Gross, 1806, the National Library of Israel

Because of this, the Jews would often aid Napoleon in his conquests, housing and feeding troops, acting as messengers or guides for his incoming armies, and helping out where they could. But the Alter Rebbe had other plans. Rabbi Scheur Zalman of Liadi, more commonly known as the Alter Rebbe, was the founder of the Chabad movement and wrote some of the most significant Jewish books of his time, including the Tanya and an updated version of the Shulchan Aruch. He was widely praised as one of the most important and respected rabbis of his era, and was often known as simply “The Rav” or “Rebbe” due to his preeminence. To put it in a nutshell, he was a man that people listened to.

On this occasion, he was also a man who sought to impact the political tide of Europe. The Alter Rebbe claimed that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, as he was praying the Musaf prayers in the morning, G-d came to him to let him know that Napoleon wasn’t going to win this war against Russia. Whether or not this divine intervention actually took place, it is possible that the Rebbe was simply politically attuned and understood that the Russian army and terrain were a formidable match for Napoleon’s troops. Either way, he knew that the fate of the Jews was hanging in the balance, and if they ended up supporting the winning side, their lives would be far easier in the future.

The Alter Rebbe, ca. 1880-1910, Avraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Alter Rebbe predicted that Alexander I, the Czar of Russia, would win this war, and if the Jewish community backed him up and helped hasten his victory, the Czar would remember their loyalty and treat them kindly in the future. He thought that as thanks, the Czar might lift some of the taxes imposed on the Jews, and rescind some of the rules entrenching the antisemitism of the region.

Thus, he instructed his large group of followers to support the Czar and be, as it were, on the right side of history, even as many other Jews continued to support Napoleon.

Against this backdrop, Napoleon’s army crossed the Prussian border, and the Alter Rebbe watched on as the troops marched confidently forward. They were still singing their morale-boosting song, and this uplifting tune stuck in the Rebbe’s head, becoming a core memory that he associated with the ensuing battle.

Jewish prayer written by Yisrael Gedaliah ben Moses Kazis for the military success of Napoleon and his armies, 1797, Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel

Sorry to ruin the ending, but the Alter Rebbe was largely correct in his predictions. The Czar won the war, with Napoleon’s forces suffering irreplaceable losses at the Battle of Borodino, just two days before Yom Kippur. In thanks, the Czar made the Rebbe an Honorary Citizen for all Generations – a very high award – and when the Rebbe passed away, his son (who took over as the next Rebbe) was given some land by the Czar in Cherson to build new Jewish villages.

In the year of Napoleon’s great Russian defeat, Yom Kippur was a celebratory festival for the Altar Rebbe and his followers. As the Rebbe stepped up to recite the neilah service, he wanted to mark this victory, and manifest its continued blessings for the year ahead. He quickly called upon one of his disciples and asked the student to remind him of Napoleon’s marching tune, which had become, in his head, the tune associated with the victorious battle. As he once again heard the rousing melody, he began to sing it loud and clear before his congregation.

Handwritten document by a Bonapartist to ascertain the allegiance of the Jews in Paris, 1815, the National Library of Israel

Soon, all of his students and followers were joyously singing along, jumping up and down to the victory march, completely rejuvenating the somber service of Yom Kippur, and forgetting all about breaking their fast. It was a moment to behold, and took root in the hearts and minds of all the people in attendance. The next year, the tune was incorporated into even more neilah services across the country, and in the years that followed, communities all across Eastern Europe began rejoicing in Napoleon’s marching tune during the closing moments of their neilah services.

Today, this well-known tune is ultimately thought of as a victory song, marking the belief that G-d looks over the Jewish people and will protect us both in times of war and peace. We sing this melody in the hope that our prayers have been heard and accepted, and that G-d is writing our names in the book of good life – we have been victorious.

Cantor leading neilah prayers, 2014, photographer: Dancho Arnon, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Once again, let me bring you back to the smell of polished wood and old books as we stand in the synagogue finishing up the neilah service. It has been a long day and you’re emotionally and physically tired. But as you turn the next page, your ears perk up as the congregation collectively breaks out into this joyous victory song and within seconds you know that your atonement has surely been accepted, that G-d is with you, and that all will be okay. The shofar is blown and a cheer breaks out as everyone lets out a sigh that they’ve been holding in for 25 hours. You take a moment to rejoice in the song “Next Year in Jerusalem” and you bask in the beauty of this long and historic religion.

“And Charity Will Save From Death”: How Rabbi Akiva’s Daughter Saved Her Own Life

The stargazers predicted that Rabbi Akiva's daughter would be bitten by a poisonous snake on her wedding day. The great sage now faced a cruel question: How to contend with such a prophecy? The Talmud tells of his choice, and how his daughter ultimately saved herself, unlike a certain Sleeping Beauty…

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter and the snake. Illustration: Aviel Basil, from the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance, are days when we can change our fate, according to Jewish tradition. Every night, thousands set out to say the selichot prayers of forgiveness and request that this year, we will be recorded in the Book of Life. That we should merit a livelihood and redemption. That our fate should be decreed to be positive.

It is precisely in times like this that we should recall the story of the daughter of Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic story which shows how a person can change a seemingly unchangeable fate.

The fate of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter was foretold, determined from on high, and was set to be grim and bitter. But she was able to change her destiny on her own, along with the reality in which she lived. True, we don’t even know her name; like many Talmudic women, she appears in the story only as the daughter of a great sage. Despite this, she succeeds in becoming a significant figure whose story touches every heart and captures the imagination of the readers.

Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest Talmudic sages, whose sayings fill the pages of the Talmud and whose thought had a great impact on Jewish history and culture up to our own time.

We will tell the story, which may seem reminiscent of a certain fairy tale, here below:

The prince finds Sleeping Beauty. From: Childhood’s Favorites and Fairy Stories. Source: Wikipedia

In the Babylonian Talmudic Tractate Shabbat, on the second side of page 156, we are told of how stargazers predicted to Rabbi Akiva that his daughter would suffer a terrible fate on her wedding day: She would be bitten by a snake and die. Rabbi Akiva now had to decide what to do: tell his daughter, protect her and not let her marry, or perhaps just eradicate all snakes in the area. But Rabbi Akiva decided not to do a thing. He did not tell his daughter of this prophecy, which might have scared or upset her. Instead, life continued as usual.

From the outset, this story is similar to that of Sleeping Beauty. Both involve a young woman with no name. Both mention a great danger facing her (Sleeping Beauty is to be pricked by a spindle’s needle and die or sleep until receiving a kiss from the prince). Both have a father who is forced to deal with this news. Both fathers decide to remain silent and not warn their daughter. But while Sleeping Beauty’s kingly father decides to order the destruction of all spindles in the kingdom, Rabbi Akiva has a different answer – he simply moves on with his life.

He doesn’t change his daily routine, and doesn’t take any decisive action. Instead, he chooses to trust his daughter, believing that she has the power to overcome the snake and save her own life. He gives her the independence to deal with this challenge on her own, granting her the ability to be tested, to cope with adversity.

Then the day comes for Rabbi Akiva’s daughter to marry. I imagine all of them excited at the meal, I imagine the dress she wore and all of the guests and relatives overcome with happiness. Only Rabbi Akiva sits in silence, worried. He doesn’t know if she will survive the night, if she will show up the next morning.

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter and the snake. Illustration: Aviel Basil, from the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books

In the dark of night, Rabbi Akiva’s daughter takes out the pin holding her hair in place, and sticks it into the wall. Unbeknownst to her, the pin also punctures the eye of the snake set to kill her, killing it instead. With this unintentional act, she succeeds in saving herself and changing her fate.

In the morning, she removes the pin from the wall, discovering the dead snake attached to it.

Interestingly, despite this being a wedding celebration marking the union of a new couple, the Talmud doesn’t spend even a single word on the groom, choosing instead to focus on the bride. This tale thus contains a Talmudic twist on a story familiar to us from the legend of Sleeping Beauty – but in this case, instead of the prince saving his beloved with a kiss, she manages to save herself.

Well over a thousand years ago, long before Disney concluded that female heroines can save themselves, the Talmud placed this brave woman at the center of the story and even sent us to follow in her footsteps and change our own fate.

Approaching her father Rabbi Akiva with the dead snake, he immediately understands that she has successfully changed her destiny and asks her – “What did you do?” The sages comment that by this he did not mean – “How did you kill the snake?” but rather “What good deed did you do which enabled you to change your fate?”

A charity box featuring the quote “And charity will save from death”. Photo: Zev Radovan. From: the Jewish Art Collection, the National Library of Israel

She responds – “In the evening, a poor man came and called on [us at] the opening [to our home], and all were busy with the [wedding] meal and none heard him. I stood and took a meal you gave me and I gave it to him” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 156, side 2 – translation from Sefer Ha-Agaddah)

Rabbi Akiva’s daughter tells her father how, on the night of the wedding, while all the guests were busy at the wedding feast, she heard a knock at the door. A light rap, perhaps, maybe even a faint one, but she heard it. At the door was a poor man asking for food. She took her meal, given to her in honor of her wedding, and gave it to him.

Rabbi Akiva listens to her story, and immediately issues a statement which is famous for appearing on Jewish charity boxes – “And charity will save from death” (originally from Proverbs 10:2). The action she took helped her change her own fate, due to her changing the fate of that poor, hungry man. Her actions had an impact on the world.

Rabbi Akiva and his daughter teach us that our actions have real world effects, and that we need not wait for others to change our own life. We need to act on our own to change reality.

Banning all the spindles or the snakes from the kingdom won’t help. Nor will trying to hide from life as a whole. Danger is everywhere, whatever we do. The only way to make it through life is to be a good influence on one another, and to listen to the knocking at the door and the voices around us, doing our best to hear them.

Only through this, can we save ourselves, just like Rabbi Akiva’s daughter.

Cover of the book Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), by Ayala Deckel and Shirley Zfat Daviday, Yediot Books, illustration by Aviel Basil


This wonderful story about Rabbi Akiva’s daughter is not particularly well-known. In fact, it’s rarely mentioned. Like many stories in the Talmudic literary genre known as Aggadah, it is hidden among the pages of the Talmud and its Aramaic language means few children can even read it.

This and other aggadic stories have recently been published in a book I wrote with Shirley Zfat Daviday, Havura Lo Sodit (“A Not-So Secret Society”, Hebrew), which is all about Talmudic stories for children, with the ancient tales told in connection with modern life, in our own time. There is a wonderful treasure trove of amazing characters hidden among the Aramaic words of the Talmud. The book frees them from anonymity and brings them back to life in a fascinating manner.

The Talmud doesn’t just tell nice stories. It contains painful stories as well, tales of the wounded and tales that have the potential to wound. It includes stories of people who tried to change the world and failed and also tales of those who succeeded without trying. These are stories of human beings. The Talmud does not paint a picture of utopia, it is authentic, touching, real. This is why its stories touch us so deeply, and why its characters remain relevant to this very day.

When Judaism and Buddhism Meet

Why does the National Library of Israel have a collection of more than 100 pieces of Buddhist art? Why are so many Jews drawn to Buddhism? Why did the Dalai Lama attend a Passover Seder? The answer to all these questions can be found by exploring the fascinating connections between the two religions.

Shaka Nyorai, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

In the process of researching a project about the lunar calendar, I typed the word “moon” into the National Library of Israel’s online catalog search bar. Alongside the many other images, to my surprise, I saw a beautiful picture titled The Kami and the Buddhas of Todaiji. I bookmarked the page on my computer, but soon forgot about it. A couple of weeks later, while looking through some of the NLI’s posters for a social media project, one image that I stumbled upon suddenly stood out to me: the Buddhist Shaka Triad.

The Kami and Buddhas of Todaiji, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel
Buddha Shakyamuni Triad, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

I promptly emailed the NLI’s curator of the Humanities Collection to ask him how we came to possess these two lovely Buddhist pieces of art, and his reply shocked me!

In 1891, an upper-class and well-educated Englishwoman named Elizabeth Anna Gordon visited Japan for the first time at the age of 40, as part of a world tour she undertook with her husband, John. The visit left a strong impression on the couple, and Elizabeth actually ended up moving to Kyoto, Japan, where she lived until her death. During her years in Kyoto, she spent her time researching Japanese Buddhism and expanding her impressive collection of Buddhist art.

Elizabeth had an insatiable interest in many of the world’s religions, and despite the fact that she enthusiastically studied Buddhism in Japan and collected numerous Buddhist books and artworks, she was also a deeply devout Christian, as well as a stout supporter of the early Zionist movement. Elizabeth Anne Gordon’s name is listed in the annals of Zionist history due to the fact that she funded the Zionist Labor Histadrut mission in 1903 to the Lake Victoria region of Africa. They had come to scout out the area for what would later be known as the “Uganda Plan” – the failed proposal to create a Jewish state in Uganda.

As she grew older, Elizabeth made a decision in honor of her commitment to Zionism, to bequeath part of her Buddhist art collection to the National Library of Israel – then still known as the Jewish National and University Library. Once donated, these images sat largely unexplored in the Library’s vast collections until 1938. When a promising young researcher of Japanese art from the Hebrew University requested to borrow some Buddhist paintings from the collections, staff at the Library were alerted to Elizabeth’s bountiful artworks which had been, by now, almost completely forgotten. Some years after the exciting rediscovery of this collection, the NLI decided to create an online exhibition of 139 of these Buddhist paintings, which is of course what I had accidentally stumbled upon.

Nembutsu Prayer Devotional Diagram with Amida Triad, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

But my original question remained: What does Buddhism have to do with us, the Library of the Jewish people? As it turns out, a lot!

In September 1893, in Chicago, Illinois, a Buddhist priest from Sri Lanka named Anagarika Dharmapala met with the young Jewish businessman Charles T. Strauss. Reciting an oath in Sanskrit, Dharmapala converted Strauss to Buddhism marking the first non-Asian person to be ordained into the Buddhist Sangha (monastic order). Following this monumental event, Buddhist leaders started to seriously explore the potential for an American Jewish interest in Buddhism. Buddhist teachers began to travel to the United States, giving lectures to large audiences disproportionately made up of Jews, about the similarities between the two faith systems, and a significant trend of new emergent literature from Jews who had adopted Buddhist belief systems can be traced to those years.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the Jewish Buddhist movement really took off. With the hippy ‘peace and love’ mentality on the rise, and many modern Jews seeking a more spiritual path, lots of young American Jews turned to Buddhism. Jewish friends Michael Fagan and Sam Bercholz established the Shambhala Buddhist festival; Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz founded the famous Insight Meditation center and movement; and even David Ben-Gurion espoused Buddhist meditation!

Ben-Gurion’s visit to Burma (now Myanmar), 1961, this item is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN), made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben-Gurion House Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Buddhism is non-theistic, which is to say that Buddhists do not believe in a G-d, rather a set of values to live by. Judaism, however, is monotheistic and encourages belief in one G-d as well as a strict set of rules, both in the form of practices and prohibitions. It is therefore possible, according to some opinions, to follow both religions simultaneously: to believe in a Jewish G-d, keep the Sabbath and laws of kashrut, and also subscribe to Buddhist mysticism, traditions, and values.

For Jews in the 1960s who felt that their Judaism lacked the guidance or spirituality that they craved, one option was to turn to Kabbalah, the Ethics of the Fathers, or the philosophy of the Kuzari. Alternatively, they could look further afield and adopt meditation, Karma, and the Zen beliefs of Buddhism. Many Jews chose the latter.

The Bodhisattva Kannon, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Later in the 20th century, the term “JUBU” emerged, used to refer to the growing sect of Buddhist Jews. Chogyam Trunpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, actually said that most of his students were Jewish, and the Dalai Lama even attended a Passover Seder in 1997! Vipassana Buddhism retreats are extremely popular with Israelis who travel to India, many of the western visitors to the Dalai Lama are Jewish, and it has been estimated by the writer of the famous JUBU book, The Jew in the Lotus that “a third of all Western Buddhist leaders come from Jewish roots.” According to certain estimates Jews count for as many as a third of all non-Asian Buddhists in North America today.

The Dalai Lama (Tensin Gyatso) arrived in Israel on March 20th, 1994 for a four-day visit as the guest of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Gideon Markowiz, 1994, Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel (1, 2, 3)

So why do so many Jews feel at home in the embrace of Buddhism?

According to Emily Sigalow, author of American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change, it was “the practice of meditation really drew them [the Jews] in.” With meditation being one of the core tenants of Buddhism, it is easy to see why some people strongly feel that these meditative practices are what attract Jews to Buddhism. Meditation is encouraged in Judaism and was practiced in the days of the Bible by prophets and priests. The mind-body duality of meditation is echoed in the Jewish belief that our bodily practices affect our spiritual growth, and that through elevating the body we can elevate the soul. Hasidic Jews often practice meditation, and for many Jews, the chanting ritual of prayer three times a day is a strongly meditative exercise. With that in mind, it is clear to see why Jews seeking to connect to a higher force may pick the meditation-focused path of Buddhism. In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, he relates how Buddhist meditation “illuminated” his unconscious and allowed him to “grow spiritually” as he related “how Jewish so much of this unconscious material was.”

Shaka Nyorai, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

However, mediation is not the only practice common to both Judaism and Buddhism. Many of the 253 monastic vows taken by committed Buddhists share similarities with Jewish mitzvot, such as tzniut (modesty) and yichud (the idea that men and women should not be alone in private). Moreover, four of the five Buddhist precepts are bans on murder, adultery, theft and lying. If these sound familiar to Jewish ears, it may be because these are some of our own Ten Commandments. Both Buddhism and Judaism encourage long hours of textural study and a high level of both spiritual and worldly education. Both religions are averse to materialism, especially in the form of modern technology. Both schools of thought believe that humans are not in true possession of the world and thus are taught (via abstinence from greed in Buddhism and via charity in Judaism) to let go of some of what we consider to be ‘our own’.

It doesn’t end there! Both Buddhism and Judaism state that improper or frivolous sexual encounters are immoral, while tantric or muttar (permitted) sexual interactions, conducted in certain settings with certain limitations, are indeed a spiritual practice. Both religions encourage self-growth as totally central to their faith, with Buddhists believing that being a better person will lead them on an enlightened path, and Jews believing that the world was created in order for humans to sanctify it with holy acts. As such, both religions believe in mussar, or guidance from others, and share a desire to tame and refine one’s character. Both groups also have a strong focus on meticulously daily activities, prescribed in order to make sure that each moment of the day contains a measure of spirituality.

Hoshi Mandara, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

But perhaps the most comparable of these similarities is the shared focus on suffering. Judaism is a religion which has endured far more than its fair share of suffering in the course of Jewish history. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a core tenant of the world: it is the cause of evil, and only through liberating ourselves from worldly suffering can salvation be reached. Ruth Sonam, a Jew who has been practicing Buddhism for over 25 years in Dharamsala, Tibet says “It’s so Jewish, you see, to always talk about suffering, as Buddhists do.”

However, while certain practices of Judaism and Buddhism may appear similar, perhaps more significant are the spiritual similarities between the two. Buddhists seek an elevated understanding of the world, and go through a similar process to what in Judaism we call chochma (a spark of understanding), binah (a deeper exploration of that understanding) and da’at (an elevated consciousness as a response to that understanding, or what Buddhists would call samadhi). Understanding the oneness of the world is a mutual goal in both religions. In Judaism we do this through kavannah (divine awareness) which is used to connect our actions to G-d. In Buddhism, spiritual consciousness is a constant goal imbued in every practice, too.

The Buddhist belief in Karma (what you do will be done back to you) is comparable to the Jewish principle of middah k’neged middah, which embodies a similar idea that the good or bad you put into the world will be returned to you in kind. Furthermore, both Jews and Buddhists say that the difficulties that one may face in life are simply tests, sent to trial our strength and help us overcome something within ourselves.

Mandala of White Path Crossing Two Rivers, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Jews and Buddhists also share spiritual beliefs about death. In Buddhism, the tradition is that a person will be reincarnated repeatedly until they attain Nirvana, the highest form of consciousness. Some adherents of Jewish mysticism believe that a soul will be reincarnated eight times until it has grown to the highest spiritual level that it can achieve, and only then will it be at eternal rest in heaven.

Brenda Shoshanna says in her book Jewish Dharma, that the spiritual practices of Judaism and Buddhism are “two wings of a bird… Buddhism helps one understand what authentic Jewish spiritual practice is”.

All this being said, there is one primary reason that I think Buddhism holds a strong draw for Jews. Up until now I have been calling Buddhism a religion, but many Buddhists actually do not consider Buddhism to be a religion but more of a practice or philosophy. “Buddhism is ontologically not a religion. ‘Buddhism’ does not exist: it is a Western designation for the path and philo-praxis offered by Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni… to solve the existential problem of suffering through self-directed meditation” says Mira Niculescu in I THE JEW, I THE BUDDHIST: Multi-Religious Belonging as Inner Dialogue. The Buddha never mentioned G-d in his teachings and Buddhism is non-theistic in its beliefs. It can therefore be argued, that following Buddhism is no more Judaically forbidden than learning philosophy or dedicating one’s life to a pursuit such as sports.

Image of the Buddha Shakyamuni Statue in Seiryōji, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

Despite Jews having a history of conflict with most other religions, this is not the case with Buddhism, and importantly, one need not ‘convert’ to Buddhism in order to meditate, or follow the teachings of the Buddha. One can spend their entire life in Buddhist practice without ever taking a formal oath or covenant to become a Buddhist. So those who wish to remain Jewish and dislike the idea of converting to a different religion, need not do so to practice Buddhism. There is, moreover, no genetic lineage to Buddhism, so a Jew may practice Buddhism while still recognizing their Jewish ethnicity and even seeking to pass their native Jewish lineage to their children.

Rakan, ca. 1850-1925, the National Library of Israel

So, maybe on balance, it really is appropriate for the National Library of Israel, as the Library of the Jewish people, to have so much Buddhist art in its collections. After all, it seems that Buddhism is as Jewish a religion as you can get!

The Kabbalistic Tree: The Map of God

The second commandment states that “You shall not make for yourself a statue or any image”. The Jewish Kabbalists found a rather unique and complicated way to circumvent this prohibition…

From the 12th century, clandestine groups of Jewish scholars began to speak of the “Kabbalah” – a new code name for secret teachings, which, despite being new – emphasized that these were actually a transmission or reception of esoteric ancient knowledge, and not a groundbreaking innovation (the word kabbalah literally means “reception”). As part of this new-old interpretation of Jewish tradition, Kabbalists began proposing a new, unprecedented system to refer to aspects of the Divine: the Kabbalistic Sefirot.

The Kabbalists found the word sefirot in an ancient esoteric book known as the Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Creation,” which dates back to the first centuries of the Common Era. In the book, there is no mention of prayer, life after death, the End of Days or messianic redemption, or even of the Jewish people.

But, what it does contain, and in abundance, is reference to creation. Just not the creation we know from Genesis. It propounds a completely different kind of creation.  How, then, according to the Book of Creation was the world created? By the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten Sefirot (probably a reference to the first ten numbers). These are seen as the building blocks of the world. Hence Creation, according to the Book of Creation, is based on the laws of language.

Taking the unique word sefirah (plural: sefirot) from that mysterious work, the Kabbalists changed its meaning. For them, God had two distinct aspects: one is the Ein Sof – The Infinite – about whom nothing can be known, this is the hidden God; the other is the Divine Presence in the world, which emanates from the Ein Sof through the ten Sefirot – divine categories that represent the powers, qualities, attributes (and so much more) of the revealed God.

The Ein Sof in “The Magnificent Parchment”, the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

From the fourteenth century, the Kabbalists began to formulate a visual representation to encode their ideas about the formation of this divine system, the names of the Sefirot and their attributes and qualities. They viewed it is a graphic representation of God and of the world, a visual and conceptual image of the manifestation of the Godhead. This was a glimpse of the order that governs the universe.

The Kabbalists often referred to the structure of the Sefirot as a system of pipes through which the divine emanation – the concealed Ein Sof – flows down to us humans here on earth. Of course, as anyone familiar with the Kabbalah will tell you, people also have a role in this system. Every person has the ability to influence, repair and preserve the entire divine system. Because what happens in the lower spheres affects the upper ones and vice versa. The Kabbalists called this tikkun. The repair happens through intention – through prayer directed at the qualities and powers of a particular aspect of the Divine (one of the Sefirot)– in order to achieve that repair in the world.


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One must understand, as Prof. J.H. Chajes explains in his new (and highly recommended) monumental book, The Kabbalistic Tree, that the graphic representation of the Sefirot is not a mnemonic tool, but a religious device, one that is comparable to a tree of many branches. The Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, for example, recommended using one’s imagination to envision the tree of Sefirot during prayer in order to better concentrate on a particular Sefirah in each and every prayer. Hence the tree is a body on which the Kabbalists drape the spiritual reality.

Eventually, the Kabbalah spread throughout the entire the Jewish world, and this technique spread along with it. We find representations of the tree of Sefirot in Jewish communities all over the world. The earliest “tree” to come down to us was created in Spain, the birthplace of Kabbalah, in 1284, in the shape of a wheel.

Earliest known Sefirot tree, Spain, 1284


But as noted, the tree of Sefirot is common throughout the Jewish world – in Europe, North Africa, Israel and the Middle East. A unique tree discovered in Kurdistan helped researchers to uncover a Kabbalist community about which they knew nothing before.

Researchers distinguish between two types of Kabbalistic trees (Ilanot in Hebrew): the tree of the early Kabbalistic period and the tree that developed in light of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534–1572), known as the “Ari”. The “classic” tree presents the Divine according to the Sefirot diagram. The Lurianic tree preserves the Sefirot format but offers an enriched and more intricate  structure and visualization of the divine system. At the end of this article, we include a complete Lurianic tree from Morocco to give you an idea of its complexity.

This does not mean that the older trees did not include additional details, and even illustrations supplementing the text. In fact, every tree – whether of the classic or Lurianic model– “required” the student to read a non-continuous text, and to jump from detail to detail in order to try to grasp the whole picture.

A classic Sefirot tree – from the Kabbalistic manuscript Sha’arei Ora shel R. Yosef Gikatilla


Ahead of the move to its new home, the National Library of Israel has acquired a rare and important collection of Kabbalistic trees, which join the existing material in the field of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism in the Library’s Gershom Scholem Collection, the largest collection of its kind in the world.

The new collection, which includes 36 parchment and paper scrolls – some of them the longest of their kind in the world (up to 36 feet long!) – joins the 25 scrolls already in the Library’s collection. With the addition of the new manuscripts, the National Library of Israel is now the world’s largest repository of Ilanot, with over sixty scrolls dating from 1660 to 1920, originating from Jewish communities around the world: from Western and Eastern Europe, Yemen, Kurdistan, Morocco, Iraq and more.

And finally, as promised, we present here a Lurianic Kabbalistic tree created in Morocco in 1800. Click on this link to see them item in our online catalog.

Photos: Ardon Bar-Hama.


Further Reading

J. H. Chajes, The Kabbalistic Tree (Pennsylvania University Press, 2022)

The Ilanot project at Haifa University