Revealed: How Hanukkah Was Celebrated a Thousand Years Ago

We collected a few greetings and well-wishes for the holiday that were found in the famous Cairo Genizah

A letter written in Judeo-Arabic reads "Bada al-ayyam al-sharifa (These days the honorable ones), al-mukhtazah al-mahawdeh b-elnasim (well-known and recognized for miracles)... He who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time…"

Even though it is not one of the biblical Jewish holidays, the festival of Hanukkah held an important place for the Jews of medieval Cairo who wrote a majority of the documents in the Cairo Genizah. This famous collection of Jewish manuscript fragments was originally stored in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old.

The Genizah reveals that even in the Middle Ages, the Jews of Cairo (then known as Fustat) would send Hanukkah letters and greetings to one another. One such greeting contained a variation of a well-known Hanukkah blessing which is still in use today: “He who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days and in this month, will perform miracles and wonders for us and for your people”. We have collected a few more greetings and wishes that can be found in the Cairo Genizah to share with you this holiday season.

Part of a letter in Judeo-Arabic. The author sends greetings to the addressee and other relatives. “Afchal al-salam” (peace be upon him), and wishes to send his peace (‘salami’) “Le-lamuli (to my master) al-Sheich Ya’qub Shatz, al-Sheich Taher, ve-seir al-sahab (and the rest of the members).”


One of these dates to the mid-11th century: an invitation sent by a man to an honored friend for a Hanukkah event: “…that we shall meet tomorrow in the synagogue.” He added, “God will put the days of Hanukkah upon him and all that he has, as a sign of good and a sign of blessing.”


“God will put the days of Hanukkah upon him and all that he has, as a sign of good and a sign of blessing.”


Another fragment of a letter, written in Judeo-Arabic, reads, “Bada al-ayyam al-sharifa (During these honorable days), al-mukhtazah al-mahawdeh b-elnasim (well-known and recognized for miracles)…He who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time…”


“Bada al-ayyam al-sharifa al-mukhtazah al-mahawdeh b-elnasim…” (During these honorable days well-known and recognized for miracles…)

It was a great sin to allow anyone to spend the holiday alone, without family. In a letter sent by a man by the name of Yosef to one of his relatives, he wrote: “V-ana akool anani etzel el-eichem alei el-Hanukkah (and I say that I will come to you in honor of Hanukkah).”


“V-ana akool anani etzel el-eichem alei el-Hanukkah” (And I say that I will come to you in honor of Hanukkah).”


Happy Hanukkah!


The first two letters are currently part of the Cambridge University collections – TS10J 14.9 & TS8J22.7. The third is located at the JTS Library- ENANS 2.5. The letter which mentions the Hanukkah family visit is part of the Lewis-Gibson Collection, LIT2.140

The Magnificent Polish Synagogue That Was Destroyed in World War I

In 1768, a unique wooden synagogue was constructed in the town of Sniadowo. These images are the last ones that were taken before the building burned to the ground.


Facade of the synagogue in Sniadowo

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5674 (September 30, 1913), Konrad Kłos, architect and historian of Polish architecture, arrived in Sniadowo to photograph the town’s historic, wooden synagogue. He captured the synagogue from many angles. He photographed the bima (main platform), the dome, the balcony, the two women’s sections, and the painted walls. He also captured the men and women of the Jewish community and a few cows grazing in the nearby meadow.

Situated on the banks of the Narbek River in Poland, the synagogue in Sniadowo was built in 1768 and its fame was spread far beyond its wooden walls. Klos photographed the synagogue as part of a project to document important architectural buildings throughout Poland, an initiative he created with fellow architect and friend, Oskar Sosnowski.

Facade of the synagogue from the north-west.

The synagogue in Sniadowo boasted a large organized Jewish community. It was part of a group of unusual synagogues built in northern Poland in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The walls were painted and decorated on the inside. This was unusual because of the Jewish prohibition of displaying pictures and sculptures as a part of the laws banning the practice of idolatry.

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During this time period, in certain Jewish communities – Germany, for example – decoration of the interior of synagogues was forbidden in order to avoid distraction from prayer. In Poland, however, there was a more forgiving attitude towards decorative flourishes. The sages and rabbis of Poland were asked about the issue and had a mixture of responses. Rabbi Avraham Avali ben Haim Gombiner, known as ‘Magen Avraham,’ suggested that painting on the walls of the synagogue should be permitted, but not at eye level of the congregants and in this way no one would actually be praying in front of the paintings. Others, like Rabbi Akiva Eiger of Pozna, were supportive only of paintings that depicted flora and other plant-life.

A photograph that focuses on the top of the bima. Here we see the wooden walls of the synagogue from the inside.
A photograph of that focuses on the interior of the dome that appears to have been photographed from the attic.

The Jews in Poland did not have their own tradition of building and therefore adopted models and techniques that were common in the area. Together with the contractors, they constructed buildings and then expanded them as necessary. The original synagogue in Sniadowo was built as a square (the inner space and prayer hall), and other sections were added on later. The synagogue featured a “broken” roof, causing it to look as if it were made of several levels. Along the outside edges were towers, and the building itself housed historical “galleries,” as well as carved balconies and handrails. The facades, dome, and balconies were all ornately decorated.

Details of the synagogue roof and the entrance to the women’s section.

In the center of the Sniadowo synagogue stood the bima, upon which the structure of the dome was erected as a kind of Hupa. Unfortunately, the names of the architects, builders, and artists who built and decorated the synagogue are unknown to us today, but one can still be impressed by the beauty of the synagogue through the spectacular photographs taken by Klos in 1913.

A photograph from the balcony on the second floor of the synagogue

At the end of the nineteenth century, there were approximately 1,300 Jews in Sniadowo. During the First World War, the synagogue was burned to the ground and the Supreme Commander of the Russian Army ordered the expulsion of the Jewish inhabitants from the town. Jews emigrated to other cities and other countries. By 1921, only 386 Jews remained in Sniadowo. The population managed to recover somewhat and grew to 869 men, women and children leading up to the events of World War II.

The end of dwindling Jewish life in the town arrived with the German occupation in June 1941. Some of Sniadowo’s Jews were seized and executed on the spot. The rest were sent to the Lomza ghetto on the way to their final destination. They arrived in the Auschwitz extermination camp in January 1943.

The facade of the synagogue from the east and the fence surrounding the courtyard.

Almost all of the wooden synagogues in Poland were destroyed during the Holocaust. These photographs stand as rare documentation and a memory of the wooden synagogue which, just several months after these images were captured, was completely destroyed in the chaos of First World War. They are a glimpse into the Jewish center of Sniadowo at the height of its glory and a testament to hundreds of years of Jewish life in Poland.

The photographs were found in the archives of Rabbi and researcher Shmuel Poznanski. 

Thank you very much to Dr. Gil Weisblei for your help in writing this article.

The Jewish Boy Who Was Secretly Baptized and Kidnapped by the Catholic Church

In accordance with Papal law, Jewish families were not permitted to raise Catholic children. Once news of his baptism leaked, Edgardo Mortara was taken into custody by the Vatican.


"The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862

It all started with a well-meaning decision. A decision that, without the intention of inflicting harm or pain, would change the lives of an entire family and forever impact public opinion of the Catholic Church.

Edgardo Mortara was born in 1851, the sixth of eight children born to a Jewish Italian family living in Bologna. When he was just a few months old, Edgardo fell seriously ill and, despite his doctor’s best efforts and the desperate prayers of his parents and loved ones, his condition did not improve.

During this time, the Mortara family employed a 16-year-old Catholic maid named Anna Morisi. Anna watched the young boy grow ever sicker. Assuming there was nothing left to be done for the poor child, the young maid took it upon herself to secretly baptize Edgardo in the hopes that, if God decided it was time to take him from this world, at least she would have saved his soul. Without asking for the permission of his parents or considering the potential repercussions of her actions, Anna baptized Edgardo. To the surprise of those around him, the boy grew stronger, conquered his illness and returned to full health.

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At least, that was the story Anna Morisi told her priest during confession six years later.

In accordance with his dedication and loyalties to the Church and their rulings, the priest reported the story to the proper authorities who immediately took action. After all, according to the law of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, a child who underwent baptism – even unofficially – was undeniably Catholic and the law of the Papal States strictly forbade families of other faiths to raise Catholic children.

Papal Soldiers of Pope Pius IX
Papal Soldiers of Pope Pius IX.

The knock on the door came on a peaceful July evening in 1857. The quiet atmosphere of the Mortara home was quickly shattered as papal soldiers stormed the house and seized six-year-old Edgardo, informing the family that their son was no longer theirs to keep. The boy was ripped from the protective arms of his stunned parents and taken directly to the Vatican.

News of the kidnapping of Edgardo and the plight of the Mortara family quickly spread across the globe. Major international figures including the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I and Napoleon III of France tried to influence Pope Pius IX to return the child to his family to no avail.  The Church insisted that the law was clear: once the boy had been baptized, he was undeniably Catholic and could not be raised by Jewish parents.

Evidence was brought forth proving that the maid was not a trustworthy person and had been dismissed from the Mortara home and the homes of several subsequent employers. The Mortaras denied that Edgardo had ever been seriously ill which made the purpose of the secret baptism completely irrelevant and refuted any right the Catholic Church had to take the child – for if the baptism was never necessary it should not have taken place, leaving the child as nothing more than Jewish.

Sir Moses Montefiore
Sir Moses Montefiore, from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Sir Moses Montefiore, activist, philanthropist and president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, took up the cause of the Mortara family, writing letter after letter to communities in America and Europe in the hopes of rallying more support for the Mortara family and to increase the pressure on the Church to return the boy to his rightful home. After several months of advocating in Britain, Montefiore and the Board of Deputies decided that more drastic measures were necessary to gain traction with the Church. He packed his bags and prepared to travel to Rome to try and appeal to Pope Pius IX directly in the hopes of finally reuniting the boy and his family.

Bevis Marks Synagogue
Interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, London. Image from the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University.

Before he left on this mission of vital importance, the Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (the Bevis Marks Synagogue) in London where Montefiore was a participating member, prepared a special prayer that was read during services by the congregation to beseech the heavens for his success. With the prayers of his community to strengthen him, Montefiore and his wife set out on their journey with the knowledge that they were to face many tough battles ahead.

prayer was written in honour of Montefiore’s mission to Rome in April 1859
Prayer in honor of Montefiore’s mission to Rome in April 1859. From the National Library of Israel collections. Click image to enlarge.

Upon his arrival in the Italian capital city, Montefiore had several of his contacts reach out to the pope on his behalf in an attempt to receive an audience with him. As the days dragged on into weeks, he began to understand that this mission was not going to be a success. Several weeks after his arrival in Rome, Montefiore finally received a response to his inquiry for a papal audience: “To my sincere disappointment,” wrote his contact, “I am informed that the pope would not receive you. His Holiness could not permit any discussion of the Mortara case, it being a closed question.”

In place of a meeting with the Pope, Montefiore was granted an audience with the Cardinal Secretary of State, who, after hearing the pleas of Montefiore, cynically suggested that at the age of 18, the Mortara boy would be given a choice on whether to remain in the Catholic Church or to return to his family but that until then, he would be raised and educated in accordnce with the Catholic faith. Despite what turned out to be a generally unproductive meeting, the Cardinal did agree to allow the Mortaras to visit their son.

Conflicting narratives emerged as to what happened during the parental visits with Edgardo. According to one account, the child would desperately cling to his parents and cry that he wanted to return to his home. The other version of events claimed that the child was enlightened and emboldened by the spirit of redemption and was heartbroken that he could not convince his parents to convert and join his new way of life.

Edgardo Mortara with his parents
Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother.

After weeks of effort, Sir Moses Montefiore left Rome and returned home having been unsuccessful in his attempts to meet with the pope. Edgardo Mortara remained unwaveringly in the custody of the Church despite the international attention and pressure imparted on the Vatican.

Bnai Brith Messenger, May 10, 1940
Bnai Brith Messenger, May 10, 1940.

The Mortara family continued to advocate for the return of their son to no avail. Edgardo Mortara became a priest at the age of 21 having trained under the pope himself from childhood. He dedicated his life to the Church, traveling throughout Europe and preaching his religion, until his death in Belgium in 1940.

Special thanks to Karen Ettinger from the Education Department at the NLI for her assistance in writing this post. Click here to view the NLI Education website.

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

For additional information on Montefiore’s visit to Rome, read “Anglo-Jewry and the Mortara Case,” available in the National Library collection.


The Jewish Books That Were Plundered by the Nazis

Millions of books were stolen by the Nazis during World War II. These books were utilized by the Nazis to "investigate" the "Jewish problem."

ERR operatives arrange stolen books in Eastern Europe (Photo: Yad Vashem)

During World War II, the Nazi forces confiscated millions of books from institutions and archives across Europe from “enemies of the regime” which included Bolsheviks, Freemasons, Jews, and others. According to one estimate, approximately five million books were taken from Jewish libraries and Jewish collections over the course of the war. The stolen publications included books on Jewish studies, poetry, and Hebrew literature along with sacred books, manuscripts, and books on science and culture that were written in several languages including Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and German.

The Reich Institute for the History of New Germany (Reichinstituts für Geschichte des Neuen Deutschlands), was founded in 1935 and was one of the most significant destinations for stolen books – Jewish books in particular.  The director of the institute was the Nazi historian Walter Frank. Some of his writings published by the institute can be found in the National Library.


Walter Frank, Deutsche Wissenschaft und Judenfrage, Hamburg, 1937

The two main bodies that collected Jewish books were the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) and the Advanced School of the Nazi Party (Hohe Schule der NSDAP). The Reich Main Security Office was founded by Heinrich Himmler and was considered to be the strongest branch of the Third Reich as it included the Gestapo forces, the police, the Einsatzgruppen, and other departments. The ministry was responsible for identifying security threats to the country from its enemies within a jurisdiction that included all occupied countries. One of the departments of the institution, headed by Dr. Franz Alfred Six, worked to collect entire libraries from various parts of Europe for the purpose of investigating the ideological enemies of the Nazi regime.

In 1933, the same year that the Nazi party rose to power, the book confiscations began. The first stage focused on the Freemasons and later grew to include Jewish libraries. With the annexation of Austria, the Jewish collection of the Reich Main Security Office grew to eighty-five thousand volumes. Twenty-four thousand of these books eventually found their way to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, what later became the National Library of Israel. As more Eastern European countries were occupied, more public and private libraries were raided and their contents were sent to the central library in Berlin.

Books and treasures confiscated by the Nazis in Ratibor. Photo: Yad Vashem

Nearly two million books accumulated in the central depository of the ministry, but the Reich Main Security Office focused most of its attention on archival material including personal documents, community books, and other information – documents that could help them investigate, identify and annihilate their enemies including the Jews.

With the start of the American bombing of Berlin in 1943, much of the collection was transferred to Silesia and Bavaria for safekeeping. Some sixty thousand Jewish books were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto where they were cataloged and kept separately from the ghetto library. After the war, the Theresienstadt books were turned over to the Jewish Museum in Prague. The books that remained in the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin were discovered by the Soviet and American forces, respectively (there were two separate buildings for the library in Berlin).

In the end, most of the collection (including many Jewish books and archival documents) fell into the hands of the Soviet Army. It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union that these books were allowed to be examined by the Russian authorities. A relatively small amount of the materials were returned to previous owners and the fate of the majority of the material confiscated by the Russians is unknown.

The other entity that competed with the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany and the Reich Main Security Office in obtaining the books was the book confiscation unit established by Alfred Rosenberg called the ERR. Though, in terms of the quantity of material stolen, this organization had no real ability to compete with the Nazi security services.

In 1939, Alfred Rosenberg, the chief ideologue of the Nazi party, began laying the foundations for the establishment of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party (Hohe Schule der NSDAP). This institution was set to become the center of Nazi academic studies. Hitler planned to open the school after Germany’s victory in the war and ordered Rosenberg to carry out the preparatory work with a focus on research and the establishment of a library.

Alfred Rosenberg at the ERR headquarters. (Photo: Yad Vashem)

The Advanced School of the Nazi Party was meant to include eleven research institutes throughout Germany, specializing in the fields of religion, race, folklore, German studies and more. In reality, the only research institute that was ever established was the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (IEJ). This institute was opened in Frankfurt and, as every academic institution does, it needed a respectable library. When establishing a library of this sort, books are typically purchased by the institution or received as donations – but the Nazis had a different method.

Rosenberg established a special unit that he named after himself. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was tasked with touring the major libraries of occupied countries and organizing shipments of the important books back to Germany. The ERR focused mainly on France and the Netherlands at the start of the war, robbing many famous libraries and several Jewish collections including the Rosentiliana Collection, the Etz Chaim collection in Amsterdam, the Library of the Rabbinical Seminary and the Alliance organization in Paris.

When Germany invaded Russia and Rosenberg became responsible for the collection of publications in the occupied territories in the east, many additional Jewish libraries fell into his grasp. The ERR confiscated every collection that appeared significant to its operatives and the rest were sent off to be destroyed. Books destined for the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Problem were sent to Frankfurt and books intended for the other institutes of the Nazi Party’s Advanced School (for a later time when the institute would be opened) as well as books with an unclear destination, were sent to the Central Library in Berlin. Books that arrived in Berlin and were deemed unnecessary for academic purposes were distributed to libraries of universities and other institutions in Germany. Some remain there to this today.

The books at the Institute in Frankfurt were found by the US military after the war. The military and, later, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization, actively returned books to their former owners and worked to find new homes for the “orphaned” books, like the National Library.

A map describing the ERR’s field of activity. Collection centers for stolen books were established in several cities in Europe.

The Institute for the Study of the Jewish Problem regularly published an academic journal called “Weltkampf.” Some of the researchers who published articles in the journal were assisted by the large library that had been accumulated there. In the summer issue of 1941, the list of authors includes Alfred Rosenberg himself who, in the same issue, published an article on the connection between Nazism and science. The issue also includes two articles published by the Institute’s director, Wilhelm Grau. Grau was director of the Department for the Study of the Jewish Problem at the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany until the director of the institute, Walter Frank, was dismissed and Grau took his place.

Weltkampf die judenfrage in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Frankfurt am Main 1941

A list of new books published on the subject appears at the end of each issue of this journal. It is quite astonishing to go over the list and see how many publications (books and articles) about Jews were written in the midst of the war and the Holocaust. In 1944, as the Germans suffered painful defeats in the east and as the Allies bombed German cities and prepared to invade the West, anti-Semitic academics continued to sit in the ivory tower, researching and publishing on the “Jewish problem.” It is even more astonishing to see that some of the books that came to the Institute in these years originated in the United States and England. How did they arrive in Germany from enemy states? Perhaps through a neutral state?

The Weltkampf periodicals came to the National Library after the Holocaust via Austria where many of the collections of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party were sent. They were kept at the monastery of Tenzenberg and found there after the war by British forces. Later, many other books were found and donated to the survivors of the Jewish community in Vienna. In turn, the community decided to donate these books to the National Library in Jerusalem. A few thousand books were sent to Israel in the late 1940s and about eighty thousand more books arrived in 1955. All of these books have been labeled to indicate their origins.


Some of the books that came from Austria to Jerusalem feature the stamp of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party – the institution that sponsored the “study of Jews without Jews” (Judenforschung ohne Juden) – alongside the stamp of the National Library of Israel.