One of the World’s Oldest Esther Scrolls Comes Home

Mid-15th century Iberian megillah now at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem and online

"Incredibly rare" ca. 1465 scroll is one of few pre-Spanish Expulsion megillot in existence

One of the world’s oldest known Esther scrolls (also known as a “megillah“) has been gifted to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, home to the world’s largest collection of textual Judaica, where it has also been made available online for the first time.

Esther scrolls contain the story of the Book of Esther in Hebrew and are traditionally read in Jewish communities across the globe on the festival of Purim, which will take place on February 25-28 this year.

Scholars have determined that the newly received Esther scroll was written by a scribe on the Iberian Peninsula around 1465, prior to the Spanish and Portuguese Expulsions at the end of the fifteenth century. These conclusions are based on both stylistic and scientific evidence, including Carbon-14 dating.

The megillah is written in brown ink on leather in an elegant, characteristic Sephardic script, which resembles that of a Torah scroll. The first panel, before the text of the Book of Esther, includes the traditional blessings recited before and after the reading of the megillah, and attests to the ritual use of this scroll in a pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewish community.

According to experts, there are very few extant Esther scrolls from the medieval period in general, and from the fifteenth century, in particular. Torah scrolls and Esther scrolls from pre-Expulsion Spain and Portugal are even rarer, with only a small handful known to exist.

Prior to the donation, this scroll was the only complete fifteenth century megillah in private hands.

The medieval scroll is a gift from Michael Jesselson and family, continuing long-standing family support of the National Library of Israel and its collections. Michael’s father, Ludwig Jesselson, was the founding chair of the International Council of the Library (then known as the “Jewish National and University Library”) and a strong leader and advocate of the Library for decades.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the National Library of Israel’s Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection, the new addition is “an incredibly rare testament to the rich material culture of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula.  It is one of the earliest extant Esther Scrolls, and one of the few 15th century megillot in the world.  The Library is privileged to house this treasure and to preserve the legacy of pre-Expulsion Iberian Jewry for the Jewish people and the world.”

Salvation from 500 Drunken Killer Elephants: The Other Maccabee Story

A different kind of redemption from Greek tyranny

Ptolemy IV Philopator's drunken elephants turn on their masters, by Jan Luyken, 1700 (Courtesy: The Rijksmuseum)

Antiochus and his elephants left Gaza in defeat.

One of the largest battles of the ancient world was over – apparently the first time Asian and African elephants had faced off against one another – though the victor’s herd had been of little help, famously fleeing the war zone in a crazed frenzy.

The defeated Antiochus was not the one of Hanukkah fame. That would be his son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

And the victor was not a Maccabee, but rather a Ptolemy: Ptolemy IV Philopator, to be more precise, the Greek pharaoh of Egypt who reigned before the story of Hanukkah took place.

Statue head of Ptolemy IV, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo: Keith Schengili-Roberts, CC BY 2.5)

As pharaoh, Ptolemy was already considered a divine figure, but he would become even more so following his victory at the Battle of Raphia, as his clash with Antiochus was known.

His subsequent “Raphia Decree” was copied and proclaimed throughout the empire, celebrating the victory, chronicling how the gods had helped him rout his rival and take the latter’s riches (including his elephants).

Ptolemy proceeded to visit and renovate countless pagan temples, repaying the gods for enabling his victory, and erecting graven images all over the place.

Temple relief of Ptolemy IV Philopater at Deir el-Medina (Photo: Kyera Giannini, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, CC BY 2.0)

Nonetheless, Ptolemy was not destined to become an infamous villain in Jewish tradition like the son of his foe, though he does play a similar role in the apocryphal, historically suspect and inaccurately labeled Third Book of Maccabees (or III Maccabees).


The Third Book of Maccabees

Written in Greek, most likely by an Alexandrian Jew sometime in the first century BCE, the Third Book of Maccabees doesn’t really have anything to do with the Maccabees at all, though thematically and stylistically there are certainly some similarities with the far better known story of Hanukkah.

After briefly recounting a foiled plot to assassinate Ptolemy and his victory over Antiochus (inspired by an enthusiastic pep talk given to the troops by his wife/sister Arsinoe), the story joins the pharaoh on his grand tour of pagan temples, which ultimately leads him to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple of the very non-pagan Jews.

Ptolemy brings an offering of thanks to the Jews’ one and only God, and is impressed by the beauty and grandeur of their Temple.

He approaches the Holy of Holies – the revered chamber into which only one man is allowed to enter one day each year: the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Inquiring about the mysterious room, the Pharoah of Egypt – a powerful king and god in the eyes of many – demands to enter, yet is refused due to the room’s sanctity.

Outraged and frightened, some Judeans pray for divine interference to stop the sacrilege, while others – like the Maccabees – raise a call to arms.

Ultimately, the supplication of Simon the High Priest is heeded and God acts: shaking Ptolemy like a reed in the wind, paralyzing his movement and speech. Humiliatingly dragged away by his terrified entourage, Ptolemy returns home to Egypt where he will exact revenge on the Jews for their insolent divine intervention.

Ptolemy IV Philopator gets too close to the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, by Jan Luyken, 1700. From the Rijksmuseum

Ptolemy aims to publicly disgrace the Jews by attempting to coerce them into pagan ritual, limiting the rights of those stubborn Jews who maintain their religion, forcing them to pay additional taxes, reducing them to the status of slaves and having them branded with the symbol of Dionysus.

He gives the Jews three options: scorn their heritage and become like their pagan neighbors; accept the new edicts while remaining Jews; or reject both and be put to death.  According to III Maccabees, some opt for the first option, though most go with the second.

The stubbornness of the Jews to maintain their separate ways leads to increasing enmity among their neighbors, as well as their disgruntled ruler. Fed up, Ptolemy demands that all Jews from throughout the empire be bound, forcefully and mercilessly brought together to be executed like the enemies he deems them to be.

Anyone found sheltering Jews is to be put to death; informants rewarded with the victims’ property.

The ensuing description of the Jews’ lamentations and forced transport to the hippodrome where their death would be made into a public spectacle is part Book of Esther, part Tisha B’Av liturgy, part Roots.

“The Destruction” by Maurycy Trębacz, ca. 1903. From the National Library of Israel archives

Though Alexandrian Jews were previously left out of the decrees, Ptolemy will not accept their empathizing with the plight of their brethren and decrees that they, too, will meet the same fate.

All Jews in the empire will be put to death.

Further enraged that his clerks’ ink had run out before they could successfully count all of the Jews to kill, Ptolemy decides it is time to call in Hermon, keeper of the elephants.

Pharoah’s plan: get 500 elephants really drunk and let them loose on the shackled Jews held in the hippodrome.

Hermon does what he is told, generously giving the large creatures copious amounts of unmixed wine and frankincense. As the time for the massive banquet and spectacle nears, the king remains in an exceptionally deep sleep – another miracle performed in response to Jewish pleas for divine mercy by the God Ptolemy had scorned.

By the time he finally wakes up, the appointed day has passed.

Still shackled waiting for their demise at the feet of angry drunken elephants, the Jews continue to pray.

The next day Hermon gets up at the crack of dawn, moving his elephant herd into place so as not to miss the opportunity again.

Yet, once more, the Lord of the Jews comes to their rescue, this time making Ptolemy’s mind forgetful and demented so that not only does he call off the mass murder, but he also lashes out at Hermon the elephant keeper for having played a role in the scheme.

The Jews praise their God who has redeemed them once more, yet by morning Ptolemy has already returned to his original plan, goaded on by others concerned by his unexpectedly erratic behavior and impatient for the deed to be done.

Five-hundred crazed and drunken elephants are led to the hippodrome accompanied by Ptolemy, likely crazed and drunken himself from days of excessive partying.

The rising dust announces their arrival and the shackled Jews shudder, once again lifting their eyes and hearts to the heavens.

A priest named Eleazar leads them in prayer, recounting the many miracles their God had performed for their ancestors across the centuries. With his prayer concluding just as the elephants and the king approach, the Jews shriek in supplication, their voices so loud that the sound echoes in the nearby valleys. Two angels appear – visible to all but the Jews themselves – and cause a terror to fall upon the elephants and their masters.

Two angels save the Jews from Ptolemy IV Philopator’s drunken elephants, by Jan Luyken, 1700. From the Rijksmuseum

Chaos ensues with the massive tusked beasts crushing many of Ptolemy’s men to death. Upon seeing the bloody spectacle, the king repents and orders that all of the Jews be freed.

He provides them with wine and everything else needed for a lavish seven day banquet to celebrate their survival and the divine miracles that had saved them. The party’s venue would be the very hippodrome in which they were to be put to death.

Ptolemy once again sends a missive to his men across the empire, ordering them to protect the Jews and return all property that had been confiscated.

Transport is readied as Jews from across the empire are returned to their homes by land and by sea, at Ptolemy’s expense.

“The flagship of Ptolemy Philopator” coloured engraving by Robert von Spalart, early 19th c. From the Wellcome Library, London (CC BY 4.0)

The Jews who had turned their backs on their ancestral religion are punished, and a joyous festival is instituted to celebrate the miraculous redemption from Ptolemy and his drunken killer elephants.


Drunken Killer Elephants of Antiquity

Ptolemy was certainly not the only despot in the ancient world to have drunken killer elephants at his disposal, and they are certainly not unique to this story.

In fact, they appear in the story of Hanukkah when Antiochus brings his herd into battle against the Maccabees and Eleazar heroically leaps into action, killing a number of the massive beasts before meeting his demise in their dung.

Since Alexander the Great first brought war elephants back with him from his conquests in the East, they quickly became a symbol of Greek power and reach, with Hellenistic control ultimately encompassing the native habitats of both African and Asian elephants.

Illustration of a Greek war elephant, from A Dictionary of Roman and Greek Antiquities; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Regardless of their origins, capturing and training elephants for warfare was a complex, difficult and expensive endeavor, and one which certainly did not always bear fruit in wartime as evidenced at the Battle of Raphia.

According to the ancient Greek historian Polybius, there were nearly 200 elephants involved in the Battle of Raphia, though Ptolemy’s African variety fled the scene in a chaotic stampede, terrified by their larger Asian counterparts, as well as the sounds and smells of war.

This was after literally generations of Ptolemaic war elephant training, as described by Lionel Casson and others.

Marble stela with Greek text relating to an elephant hunting party, apparently written during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator. © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Getting elephants drunk prior to battle was quite commonplace in the ancient world, according to Patrick J. O’Kernick, though “Modern scholars debate whether this practice was altogether advisable – drunkenness may have brought out the elephant’s aggression and terrifying aspect, but it also may have rendered the beast less manageable…”

Referencing John M. Kistler’s book War Elephants, O’Kernick explains that “like humans, different elephants respond differently to different amounts and types of alcohol; a well-trained elephantarch [commander of war elephants] and his staff would have known how to best administer alcohol to each beast to attain the desired effect.”


Remembering the redemption from the Greek pharoah’s drunken killer elephants

In Against Apion, the famous Roman Jewish historian Josephus reports that an angry Ptolemy once ordered the mass execution of Alexandria’s Jews at the feet of his drunken elephants as punishment for their siding with his rival Cleopatra II, whose two leading generals were themselves Jews.

Illustration of Josephus, from The Works of Flavius Josephus; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Instead of attacking the men, women and children assembled for that purpose, the elephants turned on their masters, killing a great many of the king’s own friends. After seeing a ghost and being persuaded by his concubine to change his ways, Ptolemy canceled the decree. The Jews were saved and the anniversary of their salvation was celebrated as a joyous holiday.

Some scholars have argued that this event, featuring a different Ptolemy, may be the source of the story told in III Maccabees, which also appeared in various versions in Byzantine literature over the subsequent millennium.

The Third Book of Maccabees was canonized by some Orthodox Christian sects, yet never included in the Catholic canon, in contrast to I and II Maccabees.

Despite its engaging plotline and similar style and theme to the story of Hanukkah, the tale of III Maccabees – like countless others – never made it into Jewish tradition in any lasting way.

It surely wasn’t the only book of its kind and Rivka Fishman-Duker has noted that it was just “part of the Diaspora literature of the Second Temple period with an emphasis on vengeance against the Gentiles and renegade Jews, the triumph of the righteous through prayer, and the steadfast refusal to join in pagan worship.”

There are certainly many reasons why the story, like others, didn’t make its way onto the Jewish bookshelf.

As far as “core” traditional Jewish culture is concerned, the story of Hanukkah is the first in which European or Western culture appears, presenting seemingly eternal challenges and questions related to maintaining tradition while confronted with the allure of the material world and modernity.

Perhaps that’s part of why the Hanukkah story remains so popular even outside the confines of religious practice.

The story told in the Third Book of Maccabees is not nearly as universal in this respect, and while it may have drunken elephants, it is lacking in pious warrior priests facing off in physical and spiritual battle against the world’s super power, bent on outlawing Jewish practice and transforming Judaism’s holiest site into an idolatrous shrine.

Though Ptolemy’s attempted entry into the Temple lay at the center of the story’s plot, it was largely set in Alexandria – a city with a significant Jewish community destined to wane – as opposed to Jerusalem, the site of the Temple and the eternal capital of the Jewish people.

The ruins of ancient Alexandria, by Henrik van Krooneveld, 1698. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Third Book of Maccabees was apparently written in the wrong language, place and time to  capture the broader Jewish imagination for very long,  destined to languish in relative Jewish cultural-historical obscurity, much like the great Jewish community of ancient Alexandria, which may have once been spared destruction at the feet of 500 drunken killer elephants.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

Religious Anarchist and Unobservant Orthodox: On Gershom Scholem, Harry A. Wolfson and Agnostic Sermons

Though they were both among the leading scholars in their field, Gershom Scholem had some fascinating critiques of his contemporary, Harry A. Wolfson

Gershom Scholem (left) and Harry A. Wolfson (right)

Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887-1974) is widely remembered as one of the greatest scholars of Judaic Studies in general, and of Jewish Philosophy in particular, of all times. The first full time professor of Jewish Studies in an American university (Harvard, where he also matriculated), Wolfson was a prolific author of wide ranging studies, not only in Judaica, but also in religious studies, penning major works on classic Christianity and Islam, as well.

At Harvard, where he taught for some fifty years, he trained two generations of scholars in Jewish studies, including Prof. Isadore Twersky, Prof. Arthur Hyman and many others. This is all the more remarkable considering that he grew up in a small shtetl in today’s Belarus and came to America at the age of 16 with excellent Talmudic training under Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein at the famed Slabodka Yeshiva, but with no formal secular training. Despite quotas limiting Jewish students at the time, Wolfson gained admittance to Harvard, studying with a diverse range of great scholars including George Foot Moore and George Santayana. He remained there for the rest of his long life.

His major studies in the realm of Judaica include those on R. Hasdai Crescas (1929), Spinoza (1934) and Philo (1947). He also published books on the Church Fathers (1956) and two volumes on the philosophy of the Kalam (posthumously, 1976, 1979). Wolfson quipped at one point that the Kalam became “his Vietnam” in the sense that he felt bogged down in the topic and unable to extricate himself.

Although he never traveled to Israel, Wolfson had occasion to meet Prof. Gershom Scholem on the latter’s trips to the United States. Here our story begins. On a visit in 1956, Wolfson presented Scholem with what, according to Scholem, he described as “my shortest work which, one day, will be a collectors’ item”. That work, a six-page pamphlet with only a page and half of text was the Morning Chapel Talk, based on a sermon that Wolfson had delivered in Appleton Chapel at Harvard on March 17th, 1955. According to Harvard tradition, every day at noon a different faculty member delivered a brief sermon. Wolfson, who had managed to avoid giving the sermon for many decades, finally acquiesced and delivered one based upon the verse “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (Psalms 14:1).  Wolfson inscribed the pamphlet, tongue in cheek:

 לידידי הפרופסור גרשם שלום

צבי וולפסון

מ”מ דק”ק קמברידז

(To my friend Professor Gershom Scholem

Zvi Wolfson

Preacher of the holy community of Cambridge)

Morning Chapel Talk, Harry A. Wolfson, the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

This time volume, which truly pales in comparison to Wolfson’s enormous books, and of which the National Library of Israel possesses only one copy, is found in the rare book division of the Gershom Scholem Collection.

There it would perhaps have been forgotten were it not for a series of events some twenty years later, after Wolfson’s death. One of Wolfson’s students and admirers, Leo W. Schwartz, had penned a biography, Wolfson of Harvard: Portrait of a Scholar (1978), which only appeared in print after the deaths of both Schwartz and Wolfson.

Wolfson of Harvard: Portrait of a Scholar, Leo W. Schwarz, 1978

As it happens, Scholem was invited by John Gross, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, to write a review.

John Gross’ letter to Scholem, the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Scholem threw himself into the project, filling the 310-page volume with extensive marginalia and adding several additional pages of notes as well, which are preserved today in the Gershom Scholem Archive at the National Library. What comes to light in perusing these notes is that while Scholem was impressed with Wolfson’s scholarship (although he has some criticism as well; Wolfson was considered a “daring” scholar and many of his theories were considered controversial), he seems to have had a more complex view of Wolfson the individual. As we shall see, Scholem was peeved by Wolfson’s never having visited Israel. Additionally, he apparently found this somewhat reclusive life-long bachelor to be rather odd. Thus we find in the notes that Scholem scribbled, references to Wolfson’s “eccentricities”, especially in his later years.

Scholem’s reference to Wolfson’s “eccentricities”. The Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Elsewhere, Scholem, apparently exhibiting a touch of sarcasm, even felt the need to comment on Wolfson’s favorite leisure time activity – the cinema, noting that, “he slept there!”

“He slept there!” – A note in the margins. The Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

The result of this was Scholem’s one-page review, published in the Times Literary Supplement on November 23rd, 1979 (p. 16). The very curious title was “The Sleuth from Slobodka”. It is striking that whereas the book he was reviewing chose to describe him in the title as “Of Harvard”, Scholem instead chose to emphasize Wolfson’s yeshiva background rather than his Harvard career![1]

After describing Schwartz’s book as “a curious book about a thrice-curious man”, Scholem does admit that Wolfson was “one of the towering Jewish Scholars of his period”. However, the tone quickly changes and Scholem states, “That the first professor of Jewish studies at Harvard should be a Yeshiva Bocher…may not be so surprising, given the background of most Jewish scholars who came to America. What is surprising is that…all his life he remained essentially a Yeshiva Bocher and transplanted the mind…of this species into the august halls of Harvard and into a method…given a modernist name: in his words, the ‘hypothetico-deductive method of text interpretation’”.[2] While Scholem is not the only scholar to have noted the methodological affinity between Wolfson’s research methods and that of the Talmudic inquiry that he had learned from Rabbi Epstein,[3] his highly critical response may be unique.

Scholem goes on to take Wolfson to task for “declining – often at the last minute – invitations to Europe and Israel where the universities were eager to have him as a guest or, in the case of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as a full professor.” Clearly Scholem, whose life trajectory was “From Berlin to Jerusalem”, was unimpressed by the strident Americanism of the scholar who had come “from Slobodka to Cambridge”! He also stresses Wolfson’s declining to express his own opinions upon the great issues facing the Jewish People in his time and goes so far as to accuse him of hankering for Gentile praise. Thus the critique of Schwartz’s highly sympathetic book spills over into a caustic critique of the book’s subject as well. Scholem was also bothered by the fact that Schwartz chose not to discuss Wolfson’s scholarly opponents, and he singles out Leo Strauss in the context of Spinoza, and Erwin Goodenough regarding Philo. It is certainly plausible that Schwarz, in his somewhat popular biography, had chosen not to go into the academic depth that Scholem felt was lacking.

Scholem, after pointing out that Wolfson defined himself as “an unobservant orthodox” chose to end his review by discussing our very own “Morning Chapel Talk”. After presenting Scholem with the pamphlet and explaining how he had finally agreed to give the sermon, Wolfson said, “So I gave them this talk, you can read it now”.

Scholem recounted, “When I had finished he asked me, with a wily expression on his face: ‘What do you think it is that I like best about this piece?’ I must have looked helpless. He said triumphantly: ‘You see, nobody will ever know whether I believe anything or not’. Among the many characteristic and passionate sentences I have heard from Wolfson, this was certainly the most remarkable one.”

In fact, Scholem had written a draft of this concluding paragraph on one of the pages that he inserted into Schwartz’s book. There he described the booklet as a “curious bibliographical item” and characterized Wolfson’s stance regarding his successful concealing of his personal beliefs as “great pride”. In the final version, Scholem replaced “great pride” with “triumphalism”. I’m not sure which is worse but it appears that Wolfson’s seeming smugness regarding his own agnosticism also rubbed Scholem the wrong way.[4]

With great pride he said: “Nobody reading this will ever know whether I believe or not”. From the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Thus a “curious bibliographical item” emerges as the tip of the iceberg of a complex relationship between two of the greatest Judaic scholars of the twentieth century, Wolfson of Harvard and Scholem of Jerusalem.[5]



[1] In the interest of fairness, we must admit that it is possible that the journal, and not Scholem, chose the title. Nonetheless, as we shall see, the title quite fits the content.

[2] The same personal style could have been viewed more favorably, such as in this quote from Wolfson’s student Prof. Isadore Twersky, “He was reminiscent of an old-fashioned gaon, transposed into a modern university setting, studying day and night, resisting presumptive attractions and distractions, honors and chores”. “Harry Austryn Wolfson, 1887–1974”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 95 (2), pp. 181–183.

[3] See Hillel Goldberg, “Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transitional Figures from Eastern Europe”, Hoboken 1989, pp. 37-62.

[4] Scholem’s caustic review did not go unanswered. Prof. Judah Goldin, in a long rebuttal, entitled “On the Sleuth of Slobodka and the Cortez of Kabbalah” (The American Scholar, vol. 49, Summer 1980, pp. 391-404) took Scholem to task for what he believed to be unreasonable criticisms of both Wolfson and Schwartz. To the best of my knowledge, Scholem did not respond. This debate is mentioned briefly by Yaacob Dweck in his article “Gershom Scholem and America”, New German Critique, 132, (2017), pp. 61-81.

[5] Scholem did contribute an article to the Hebrew section of Wolfson’s Jubilee Volume, which appeared in Jerusalem in 1965, pp. 225-241.

The Gershom Scholem Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

In Memoriam: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and “The Home of the Book”

In his own words, what does a new library for the Jewish world in Jerusalem mean?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking at the 2016 gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel (Photo: Hanan Cohen)

The following was a public lecture celebrating the renewal of the National Library of Israel, which was given by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at the National Library in Jerusalem on May 29, 2014.

Rabbi Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 until 2013. He was a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world, and held a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University, New York University and King’s College London. Rabbi Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

He was a member of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel and a dear friend of the Library.

May his memory be a blessing and may his teachings continue to inspire.

The Home of the Book for the People of the Book

The idea of a new National Library of Israel is one of the great projects of the Jewish people.   But what does a new library for the Jewish world in Jerusalem mean?  What makes this new library different to any other in the world? What makes it unique, especially when you consider the special relationship between Jews and books?

When Amos Oz and his daughter Fania published their secular credo, their ani maamin, of what it is to be a Jew, they called it Jews and Words. George Steiner has often argued that Jews inhabit language even more than land. The great historian Simon Dubnow, who was shot and was lying dying in the ghetto in Riga in 1941, said as his famous last words, “Yidn, shreibt un farschreib,” “Write and record.” The last thing he wanted to say to the Jewish people before he died in the Holocaust was  “Keep writing,” as if writing were our most sacred act, as if the witness of words was our legacy to the world.

The Talmud tells a story of Rava who was waiting for Rav Hamnuna to turn up to a lesson, but Rav Hamnuna was late because he was spending extra time at afternoon prayers. Rava says to Rav Hamnuna, “Look at this, he is forsaking the delights of eternity and immersing himself in the pleasures of this world” (Shabbat 10a). Is there any other religion in the universe that would consider prayer a kind of secular pursuit – the pleasures of this world – compared to the eternity that you get in study? I don’t know any other religion that made study so much higher than even prayer itself. Indeed, the festivals are called in the Torah mikra’ei kodesh. The word mikra,  is another name for Torah itself, because from the very outset, in synagogue and in the Temple itself, these were places not just of prayer but of reading and interpretation of the sacred texts.

Books, and the acts of reading and writing, studying and teaching, interpreting and expounding, are all things absolutely fundamental to Judaism. For instance, a few years ago, I was asked by the British Secretary of State for Education whether it felt strange beginning a new year – Rosh Hashanah – at a different time from everyone else. I replied that when you celebrate the New Year depends on what is really important in your life. What is the most important thing for Jews? It’s schools. It’s learning, so the Jewish New Year in our part of the world always begins at the same time as the academic year.

The child Hillel Kempler on his first day of school, 1932 (Courtesy: Centropa)

The Secretary of State asked: “Chief Rabbi, do you have something to help us, a saying, a sentence, to help us encourage a year of literacy?” I said, “What do Jews do at this time of the year? We say, ‘Katvenu b’sefer chayim,‘ ‘Write us in the book of life.’ When Jews think of life, they think of a book. That is what we’re about.” Therefore, when the Koran calls us the People of the Book, that is one of the understatements of all time. We are a people only because of the book.

Please allow me to set a picture, a portrait, and  a context for a new National Library of Israel. I want to do so by showing that the Jewish people exists at the intersection of three extraordinary propositions which shape Jewish life from the beginning, which are special to Judaism, maybe unique to humanity. We will see how the National Library of Israel fits at the intersection of these three narratives.


Revolutions in Information Technology

Number one, what excites everyone nowadays? IT, information technology. We are currently living through a revolution in information technology – computing, the Internet and artificial intelligence – and it is the fourth of the great innovations in communication in our history. The third great moment of innovation in information technology was the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in mid-15th century Germany and in England by Caxton.

The Gutenberg Bible

The first real breakthrough in information technology was the invention of writing. Writing was, in effect, the birth of civilization. For the first time, this simple technology allowed human knowledge to become cumulative and expand beyond the capacity of a single human memory. What was the first writing system in history? It was cuneiform in Mesopotamia. Writing has been independently invented seven times in different parts of the world: Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Chinese ideograms, the Indus Valley script, the Minoan script known as Linear B, and later the Mayans and the Aztecs.

But there is a problem with writing. Whether writing takes the form of pictograms, or ideograms, or syllabaries, those early writing systems all involved a very large number of symbols, from the Chinese, which had 40,000 different symbols – it takes 20 years to learn 40,000 different symbols – to even the most stripped-down, basic, demotic hieroglyphics, which got it down to 450 symbols. That is still an enormous amount. When there is writing in the form of these pictograms or ideograms, the result is a hierarchical society, because only an elite will ever know how to read and write. They are the knowledge class, and the masses are illiterate and therefore powerless.

It was actually the second invention in information technology that made the difference and coincided with the birth of the Jewish people. What was that revolution in information technology? The invention of the alphabet. That was the decisive thing. Of course, why was the first form of the alphabet called “alphabet”? Because of the Hebrew alef-bet. The first form of this alphabet is known as Proto-Semitic or Proto-Sinaitic.

Alef-bet practice sheets with children’s drawings from the Cairo Geniza (Cambridge manuscripts T-S H 5.19)

The Proto-Semitic or Proto-Sinaitic alphabet was first discovered by a British archaeologist called Flinders Petrie in the turquoise mines at Serabit in the Sinai Desert in 1903. Writing the alphabet seems to have been invented around 38 centuries ago, around the time of Abraham. As far as we know, the alphabet was invented only once. Every other alphabet in the world is directly or indirectly derived from that first alphabet. Of course, the first alphabet which had letters for vowels was Greek and it was also the first alphabet written from left to right. The direct descent from the Proto-Semitic alphabet was clear: Alef, bet, gimel, dalet became alpha, beta, gamma, delta in Greek. So whilst it is Greek that is very often seen as the first alphabet, actually the Proto-Semitic alphabet existed at least a thousand years earlier.

What was the result? Well, if you can articulate all the knowledge in the world with a symbol set of only 22 characters, for the first time in history you have the possibility of a society of universal literacy. That is the thing that makes Judaism a revolution in human history, because it is literacy that is at the heart of human dignity, as Judaism understands it. When you have a society of universal literacy, you have the possibility of a society where every one of whose members can be seen as the image and likeness of God.

Chart for teaching the Hebrew alphabet, Frankfurt, 1650. From the National Library of Israel collection

This is what Isaiah means when he says, “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children” (Isaiah 54:13). ALL your children will be learned of the Lord, not just some of them. The clearest place that we see this is in the eighth chapter of the Book of Judges. Gideon, who has a problem with the inhabitants of Succoth who refuse to feed his army until they had beaten the Midianites, came back to the town of Succoth, caught hold of a child at random in the street, and said to the child, “Write me down the names of the leaders of the town.” The child then writes down the names of the 77 leaders of the town. Just work that out. More than 3,000 years ago, Gideon can assume that a child at random in the street knows how to write. When did we have universal literacy in England? 1870. So this is something absolutely extraordinary.

Indeed, Jews became the first, indeed the only, civilization that predicated their survival on education. Already in the first century, under Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, Jews in Israel had a system of universal compulsory education. Jews became the people whose heroes are teachers, whose citadels are schools, and whose passion is learning and the life of the mind. That survives today, even among the most secular Jews. Sergey Brin of Google actually said to a reporter once, “I come from one of those secular Russian Jewish families where they expect even the plumber to have a PhD.”

That is the first point I make, that our people became a people because of the book, because they were there when the book was invented, the birth of the alphabet, which made it possible for everyone to read a book. Judaism comes into being, or the Jewish people come into being, simultaneously with the book.


Covenant and Conversation

The second point, and this is very, very hard for us to understand at this distance of time, is that the birth of monotheism actually created a crisis in the relationship between human beings and the Divine.

Monotheism was not simply a kind of mathematical reduction of many gods to one. That kind of reduction had already preceded, as it were, Moses, because there was a famous controversial Pharaoh of Egypt called Amenhotep the Fourth, otherwise known as Akhenaten, who was seen by Sigmund Freud and many others as the first monotheist. Akhenaten worshiped the god of the sun. That is not what Judaism is about. It’s not what Abrahamic monotheism is about. The real revolution of monotheism is not the reduction of many gods to one, but the idea that God transcends the universe, because God created the universe and therefore is not to be identified with or even symbolized by anything within the universe itself.

Abraham contemplating the stars in a work by E.M. Lillien, 1908

The result is a huge ontological abyss opened up between God and humanity. It’s not simply that God is big and we are small, God is powerful and we are powerless. Everyone, even the polytheists, knew that. It is that in our kind of monotheism, God is a different kind of being altogether, invisible, unknowable, unpredictable, a God that we cannot manipulate by magic, or explain by myth, or appease by sacrifices. The gods of the ancient world were close. You sensed them all around you, in the sun, the moon, the rain, the storm, the ocean, the forces of chaos. For the mythological mind, the world was full of gods.

What Judaism does from the first chapter of Genesis is obliterate that whole world at a stroke. It was the German sociologist Max Weber who said that Genesis, Chapter 1, is the decisive birth of Western civilization, where there is no struggle between the gods or between the elements. When God simply calls the world into being, Max Weber called this the “disenchantment of the universe,” what we would call the de-mythologization of the universe. Weber said if you want to see the roots of Western civilization, of science, and of rationality, you have to turn to Genesis, Chapter 1.

Max Weber, 1894

The question is, if God is so beyond the universe, how can we, frail, fallible and finite, relate to God who is infinite? How can we, who live within nature, relate to God who is beyond nature? That is the crisis in which Judaism is born. The answer the Torah gives is very simple. The answer is language. God speaks. And when we speak to God, God listens. That is the fundamental issue. Suddenly, language takes on an immense and fateful consequence with Judaism that it never had before. Indeed, God creates the universe by words: “Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). God creates the world with words. By creating humanity in His image, the great gift He gave us was the power of words, which Jews have used incessantly ever since.

Years ago the BBC did a series on the world’s great religions. The presenter finally came to his program on Judaism. He walked into a Jewish religious seminary and  interviewed  Elie Wiesel. The presenter said, “Professor Wiesel, Judaism seems like a very noisy religion. Do you have such a thing as silence in Judaism?” Wiesel thought for a moment, and replied, “Judaism is full of silences. It’s just that we don’t talk about them.”

In its translation of Genesis 2:7, that God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life, and man became a living being, the Targum says, “Ruach memallela“, man became a speaking being. It was that power of words which God gave Adam, and what gave Adam the ability to name the animals. God’s greatest gift is the gift of language. That then becomes the gesher tzar me’od –  the very narrow bridge – that crosses the abyss between finite humanity and the infinity of God.

Adam and Eve depicted in Sefer Evronot, Halberstadt, 1716. From the National Library of Israel collection

All of a sudden, everything rests on language, on God being able to speak to us and our being able to hear that speech. What that meant was that Judaism became much less a religion of holy places and of holy people, though we have holy places, Jerusalem the Holy City, and we have holy people, the kohanim – the priests. But above all, Judaism is a religion of holy words. That is where you will find God. Open a Torah scroll. Read. That is what made Judaism completely new in civilization.

This is a very subtle idea. There were two civilizations that thought in these terms, the two civilizations that become the first ever in history to break with myth. One was ancient Israel. The other one was ancient Greece. There is a subtle difference. They both take language very seriously. There’s a subtle difference between the Jewish view of language, “And God said let there be,” and the Greek understanding of language.

We know this because the theory of language developed by Plato was then taken up by a Jewish thinker, Philo, who was very much influenced by Hellenistic ideas and lived in Alexandria. Philo developed the concept of the Logos, “the word”, which had a huge influence on Christianity. The Gospel of John, which begins, “In the beginning was the word,” comes into Christianity through Philo, and thus Christianity develops a Platonic idea of language, which is different from the Jewish idea of language.

Philo of Alexandria

Suffice it to say that at the heart of Judaism is this remarkable idea contained in the description of the great festival Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. When Moses is at the end of his life recalling those events, in his final address to the Jewish people, the children of those that he brought out of Egypt, he reminds them of the great experience at Mount Sinai and uses a remarkable four-word phrase, remarkable only because it is so ambiguous. He says that what they heard was a “kol gadol v’lo yasaf“, “a great voice and it went on no more” (Deuteronomy 5:18). As the commentator Rashi points out, this could mean one of two things. “V’lo yasaf” means the voice sounded once and never again, or, as the Targum translates it, “pasak v’lo“, a great voice that sounded and never stopped. It is completely ambiguous. Did the voice happen once and never again, or did it sound once and ever again?

Of course, the reconciliation of that contradiction is that there were two modes of communication, the Torah Shebichtav, the written Torah, and the Torah She’be’al Peh, the oral Torah. The written Torah was written once and never again, but the oral Torah has never ceased. From the days of Moses to today, Jews have engaged in the mandate that God gave us to interpret His word afresh in every generation.

Judaism is, in short, an ongoing conversation between that once-and-once-only divine voice that sounded at Sinai, and the human interpretation of those words that has continued in every generation since. It is the great conversation that never ended. I call my commentary essays on the weekly Torah reading “Covenant and Conversation,” because “covenant” is mutual. God made it with Israel. Israel made it with God. But the whole of Judaism is that ongoing “conversation” between Israel and God as to how we understand God’s word for all time to make it God’s word for this time.

The end result of this was something quite extraordinary. We all know this, but we don’t often stop to remember it. What happened, having received the Torah from Moses, the Jewish people spent the next thousand years, from roughly the 13th century BCE to the third century BCE, writing commentaries to the Torah, which we call Nevi’im – Prophets and Ketuvim – Writings, the other books of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. They then spent the next thousand years writing commentaries to the commentary in the form of Midrash, Mishnah, and Gemara. Then they spent another thousand years writing commentaries to the commentaries to the commentaries, from Biblical interpretation to Jewish law to poetry, to philosophy, and to mysticism.

“Damascus Crown” Bible, Spain, 13th century. From the National Library of Israel collection

For 3,000 years, virtually every word that Jews wrote from 1,300 BCE to around the 18th century, was a commentary to the Torah. It was only in the 19th century that Jews began developing the literature of the Jewish Enlightenment, which was not directly a commentary to the Torah. Jews became a textual civilization, not only for the reason I made earlier, that we were there at the invention of the alphabet, but also because in Abrahamic monotheism, God, who is beyond nature, is to be found in a text, the text of Torah.

That text becomes the defining feature of Judaism, which could be understood in two different ways. The mystics and the prophets before them saw that text as a kind of ketubah, a marriage contract between the loving God and His beloved people, or to understand it, as I prefer to do, as the written constitution of Israel as a nation under the sovereignty of God. For these two reasons, Jews became a people of the text: because of the invention of the alphabet and because only through words could we fully enter into relationship with God.


The Global Nation

This brings me to the third and final point, in some ways the most poignant of all. It emerged out of two major crises. The first was the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE, and the second, much more seriously, was the tragic events of the first and second centuries of the Common Era, the Roman conquest, the destruction of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, and the dispersion of Jews across the world. The question was, were Jews – no longer a sovereign nation in their own land, scattered instead around the world – still a nation?

In any conventional sense, the answer has to be no. What is a nation? It is a group of people who live in the same land, speak the same language, exist under the same government, share the same culture, and participate in the same fate. In any of those senses, Jews were not a nation. They didn’t live in the same land. They were scattered throughout the world. They did not speak the same language of everyday speech. Rashi was speaking French. Maimonides was speaking Arabic. They were not under the same government or culture. The medieval rabbis in France and Germany, Tosafists, were living under a Christian regime, and  Alfasi and Maimonides and others under a Muslim one. They did not share the same fate. While the Jewish communities of northern Europe were being massacred in 1096 during the First Crusade, Jews in Spain were enjoying their Golden Age. When the Jews of Spain were exiled in 1492, and the Jews of Portugal in 1497, and forced to wander the world for a century, the Jews of Poland were enjoying their Golden Age. Jews had none of the things that make a nation. Yet, they saw themselves and were seen by others as just that, one nation.

How was that possible? The answer lies in the one very unusual fact about Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks and Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah. This can be seen by asking a very simple question: What comes first in the history of any nation, the land or the law? The country or the constitution? The place or the political structure? The answer is obvious. First, there’s the place, then come the people. They eventually develop into a nation. They develop political structures. They create a ruler or a government who enacts laws. First the land, then the laws. No exception, except one, and that is Judaism. It is the only exception in all of history. The Torah was given in the wilderness. First came the law, and only later, as it turned out, an entire generation later, came the land. There is no other example of this in all of history.

The Giving of the Torah, depicted in a Jewish National Fund poster, 1960. From the National Library of Israel archives

The result of this was incredibly fateful, because what it meant was, even in exile, even in dispersion, they may have lost the land, but they still had the law. They may have lost their country, but they still had their covenant. That alone sustained them as a nation in the Diaspora. It is the only thing. God said so explicitly. Believe it or not, we read it in the Torah. In the midst of the curses, the Rebuke in the weekly Torah reading of “Bechukotai“, God says through Moses these words, “And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly” (Leviticus 26:44). God says, “Even in the land of their enemies, I will not break my covenant with them.” Because the covenant preceded the country, it survived the loss of the country.

The result was, even in the Diaspora, that the covenant was still in force. It was  Saadia Gaon in the tenth century, who was wrestling with this idea – it puzzled him. How come we, who are scattered all over the world, are still a nation? Saadia Gaon famously said, “Our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah.” Because of the Torah and only because of the Torah, Jews throughout the world kept the same religious laws, read the same religious texts, celebrated the same holy days, said more or less the same prayers. They even faced the same point, Jerusalem, when they prayed.

Two men rolling a Torah scroll, ca. 1900 (Publisher: E. A. Schwerdtfeger & Ce). From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Because of that, Jews became the circumference of a circle whose center was here in Jerusalem. Jews therefore became the first virtual community, the Torah became the first Internet, and the Jewish people became the world’s first global people and for 2,000 years, the world’s only global people.

What is for everyone else in the 21st century the newest of the new – the concept of globalization – is for us the oldest of the old. That was brilliantly summed up by Heinrich Heine in his wonderful phrase that the Torah became “the portable homeland of the Jew.” Wherever Jews carried Torah, they were at home. As we say, and I find this line almost unbearably poignant, we say in one of the liturgical poems at the climax of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, in Ne’ilah – the closing prayers, as the cry of Jews before the State of Israel was recreated, “ein lanu shiur rak hatorah hazot.” This is all we’ve got left, Master of the Universe. We’ve lost everything. All we have is this Torah. It was that text, that they could carry wherever they went, that allowed Jews to be at home even when they lost their home, because they knew that Torah would carry them back one day here to the Land of Israel and here to Jerusalem, the Holy City.

Jerusalem as it appears on a late 19th century map of the Land of Israel. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, National Library of Israel

It was those three things, each one of them unique, that shaped the whole essence of Jewish identity. Not only by virtue of being there for the first alphabet did Jews become the first People of the Book. Jews not only by virtue of monotheism found, and were forced to find, God in words. They were also connected globally to one another by this book that they all read, they all engraved on their souls, and they all kept. That text kept Jews together and united as a single nation. The Torah can be seen as in every sense shaping this unique phenomenon, a people that only existed because of the book.

Indeed, we can see the Torah, we can see the Jewish people in this way, just as you see when you open Mikraot Gedolot, a central text surrounded by commentary, so the Jewish people has its central text here in Jerusalem the Holy City. All the world’s communities are like commentaries on that central text, because wherever Jews were, in every community, in every age, they added their own commentaries so that even though they lived in different cultures, and countries, and languages, and land, they remained part of that single extended conversation between the Jewish people and the God of heaven in dialogue with the terms of our destiny and our covenant.


Realizing the Vision: The Renewed National Library of Israel

Each of those three is a remarkable phenomenon considered in and of itself, but put them all together, and you get something quite extraordinary. Together they open up extraordinary possibilities when they become the backdrop for this project of a new National Library in Jerusalem, and there are three implications.

Simulated image of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem (© Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect).  Click image to enlarge

Number one, we began by saying Judaism was born in a revolution in information technology, the birth of the alphabet. If that is so, then we must use this new information technology, much of it shaped by Jews, after all, such as Sergey Brin of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, to enhance the new National Library, creatively, innovatively, to achieve our version in our time, in the 21st century, of what the invention of the alphabet did 38 centuries ago. Then, the alphabet opened up to everyone, democratized access to information. That democratic access to knowledge is what Judaism sees as fundamental to human dignity and equality.

Incidentally, the Jewish idea is the only one that has a chance of working. Let me explain why. Every other form of equality has been based on either equality of power or of wealth. But there is an inherent problem with democracy and equality of power. The problem is that power and wealth are both what I call material goods. The trouble with material goods is the more you share, the less you have. If you have total power but you decide to share it with nine other people, the result is you only have a tenth as much power as you began with. If you have 1,000 dollars and share it with nine other people, you’re left with only a tenth as much money as you began with. If you have a certain amount of knowledge and you share that with nine others, do you have less? Maybe you have more. Mikol melamdai hiskalti, the more we teach our knowledge to others, the more we learn. Wealth and power, at least in the short term, are zero-sum games, which means the more I share, the less I have. It means that wealth and power, the economy and the state, economics and politics, are always arenas of conflict. Knowledge is not, because the more I give away, the more I have.

That is why the Jewish version of an egalitarian society, a society in which everyone reaches his or her own full dignity by having access to education and to knowledge, is the only form of egalitarianism that really has worked and will continue to work. If somehow this National Library can open up its wealth of knowledge by using digitization and the Internet, and making all its materials available to everyone through a modem or through a Bluetooth connection, that would be revolution number one.

Simulated image of the Main Reading Hall in the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem (© Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect). Click image to enlarge

Number two, the National Library is a library that can form connections between Jews in this very, very fragmented Jewish world that we have now, where the gap between religious and secular continues to grow. As I began by saying, if there is one thing that even secular Jews believe profoundly, it is that we have a share in this heritage of literature and literacy. That is what makes the Jewish people what it is. That’s what Amos Oz was trying to tell us. That is what that wonderful MK Ruth Calderon, was doing in her maiden speech in the Knesset, when as a woman and as a secular Jew, she gets up and gives a Talmud lesson to the members of Knesset. It was a brilliant lesson, and it was a lovely way of saying, “You know what? This text belongs to all of us.” “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). It belongs to all of us.

A campaign, a way of extending the National Library so that everyone can plug into it, is a way of opening up the Jewish text and the Jewish commentary to what Torah She’be’al Peh – the oral Torah – is really supposed to be, the ongoing conversation scored for many voices of Jews in conversation with the terms of their destiny. We like argument. In fact, I don’t think we know any other form of conversation. When I did a public conversation with Amos Oz, his opening sentence was, “I don’t think I’m going to agree with Rabbi Sacks about everything, but then, on most things, I don’t agree with myself.” That is how we use a National Library to say, “You are all a letter in this scroll. You are all a part of the Jewish conversation.”

Finally, my point about the Torah sustaining Jews as a global people means that I believe that this new National Library to be built here in Jerusalem, the Holy City, cannot be simply and merely a national library. It must be a global library, because it was only books that kept us together as a global people. How wonderful if, through the Internet and through digitization of all the manuscripts and books and journals in this library, we could allow any Jew anywhere in the world to access this heritage. Would it not be wonderful if coincidentally with the building of this new Jewish library went a worldwide campaign of Jewish literacy, which really could engage the imagination of Jews throughout the world, regardless of whether they are religious or secular?

It is therefore my hope and my dream that the day will come when visitors to the State of Israel, be they presidents, prime ministers, or popes, will be taken not first to Yad Vashem, however important that is, but here to the new national and international library, which I propose should be subtitled, “The Home of the Book for the People of the Book.” Let us show the world not only how Jews died but how Jews live.

Simulated image of the Main Reading Hall in the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem (© Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect). Click image to enlarge

My personal favorite atheist, Nietzsche, was one of the greatest of all time because he was the most honest. Nietzsche was a very profound thinker. Many people think that Nietzsche was anti-Semitic. Nietzsche wasn’t anti-Semitic. He did not dislike Jews, but he deeply disliked Judaism. In fact, many people hated Jews because they didn’t become Christian. Nietzsche hated Jews because they gave birth to Christianity. He regarded Judaism and Christianity as what he called “the slave revolt in morals.” Judaism and Christianity is what happened when slaves defeated their masters and imposed their code on everyone.

Nietzsche rightly saw the Jews were his most formidable opponents. Nietzsche defined his own philosophy as the will to power. I define Judaism as the will to life. They are opposed principles. The way I want to define it very simply is that Nietzsche framed the eternal human choice between, on the one hand, the idea of power, and on the other hand, the power of ideas. Judaism showed the world the power of ideas, simple ideas that can transform the world not through war but through education. That is what I would like a new national and international Jewish library to be.

Those who built this land and this State, the heroes of the land and the State, were motivated by one idea, by the prophetic vision of Shivat Tzion – the Return to Zion – articulated by all the prophets, by Jeremiah’s insistence, “And there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord; and thy children shall return to their own border” (Jeremiah 31:16).  The day will come when Jews will return to their land. If that idea motivated people to create this State, so may those who design and build this new National Library be lifted and inspired by a no-less-famous vision and a no-less-magnificent one. The words of Isaiah that we all know, “There will come a time when many nations say, ‘Let us come and visit the mountain of the Lord, Jerusalem; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem'” (Isaiah 2:3).

Simulated aerial view of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem (© Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect). Click to enlarge

The time will come when the nations of the world will recognize that the power of ideas is greater than the idea of power. On that day, from Zion will go forth the Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem. Let us show the world that other face of Israel, the People of the Book in the land of the book, whose language is the language of the book and whose landscape is the landscape of the book. That book that inspired some of the greatest moral visions and greatest religious poetry the world has ever known. To build this home of the book dedicated to the people of that book is a project that could bring blessing not just to Israel, and not just to the Jewish people worldwide, but to the entire world. May that great project materialize here in our time. Bimhera beyameinu, Amen – speedily in our days, Amen.


Rabbis Sacks’ speech has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.