A Parrot from India Recites ‘Shema Yisrael’ in Cairo

A particular parrot mentioned in a manuscript from the famous Cairo Genizah possessed an impressive knowledge of Jewish scripture!

The parrot in the picture is a Rose-ringed parakeet, whose scientific name is Psittacula Krameri. This parrot, which is common throughout the Indian subcontinent, is especially talented in imitating people, and served as a pet in ancient periods. Photograph from Wikipedia

In chapter 10 of the Book of Kings 1, we read of “monkeys and parrots” (“kofim v’tukim”) which are brought to King Solomon as precious specimens from abroad. The words originate from ancient Sanskrit, and the unusual merchandise brought from India arrived with their Indian names, which is how they were presented before the residents of the Mediterranean who were unfamiliar with such animals. This led to words in Sanskrit appearing in the Bible.

Hundreds of years later, in early 12th century Cairo, Yitzchak ben Shmuel Hasfaradi wrote a commentary for the Book of Kings, and had to interpret the word Tukim – “Parrots”. At the timeת trade between Egypt and India, via Yemen, was flourishing and Jews were active partners in this trade – as can be seen in documents found in the Cairo Genizah. The Cairo Genizah is a famous collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments, which for many centuries rested in the dusty storeroom of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old. The collection was only discovered by European scholars in the 1750s, and it has since been dispersed among different institutions around the world, including the National Library of Israel.

Yitzchak ben Shmuel Hasfaradi is a familiar figure from the Genizah – he was a prestigious dayan [rabbinic judge] in Cairo, and his signature adorns many certificates discovered in the collection. When Yitzchak ben Shmuel wanted to interpret the word Tukim, he could make use not only of his linguistic knowledge, but also of his personal acquaintance with Jewish merchants who arrived from India bearing precious local products and exotic merchandise.

This is how Yitzchak ben Shmuel interpreted the word Tuki (the singular form):

“It means albabaj, (ببغاء, the Arabic words for parrot), which is green, and is a kind of bird which comes from the lands of India and knows how to talk.”

“It means albabaj, which is green” the manuscript of the Midrash Elziani kept at the National Library of Israel

Yitzchak ben Shmuel then offered a different explanation for the meaning of the word tuki, which he argued comes from the word ‘b’tavech‘ – meaning “in the middle” or “between” – as the bird does not really understand how to converse like a human being, but is neither completely nonverbal like most animals, “its language is similar to the language of people, and therefore they are called tuki, in other words, ‘in the middle'”. In Hebrew, the words tuki and tavech have a similar spelling.

After the linguistic interpretation, Yitzchak ben Shmuel adds personal testimony from Cairo, from the house of the Governor of Egyptian Jewry in the late 11th and early 12th century, Mevurach ben Sa’adia:

“And I saw a parrot in Cairo, at the home of our master Governor Mevurach which was given to him by a Jew who came from the lands of India, and he indeed taught it many verses, and I heard him reciting all of the Shema (a traditional Jewish prayer praising the one God), until the word echad (“one”), and he extended the word echad – as Jews customarily do, and the entire verse of Hashem Hoshia, and the entire verse of Tehillah L’David, in other words, chapter 145 of Psalms.”


“I saw a parrot in Cairo”, the manuscript of the Midrash Elziani in the National Library in Jerusalem.

Reading Yitzchak ben Shmuel’s description of a parrot capable of reciting Jewish prayer helps us to better understand the critical words of his contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, about those Jews who recite their prayers ‘like the words of a bird and parrot’.

The article is based on the writings of Mordechai Akiva Friedman in his book ‘HaRambam, HaMashiach B’Teiman v’Hashmad’, pages 10-11. The photographs are of the Midrash Elziani manuscript kept at the National Library of Israel, as part of the Rosetta Project.


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Modern Zionists as the New Maccabbees?

Zionist pioneers celebrated Hanukkah as a new way to connect an ancient people with its heritage

Hanukkah always held a special place in the calendar for Jewish pioneers in the Land of Israel, thanks to the symbolism of the Maccabean Revolt and all it represented: independence, nationalism, heroism, and the struggle against cultural suppression.

Throughout the holiday, the historical legacy of the Maccabean Revolt was emphasized, and each year trips were made to the Maccabees’ graves in Modi’in and to sites of ancient battles in Judea. These trips included hikes, readings from the Bible and the Book of Maccabees, and guided tours.

The Hanukkah festivities for adults and youth included dances and stage performances, as well as variety shows that included literary, theatrical and musical passages that related directly to the events of Hanukkah and its main messages.

Here is a slection of old posters and ads for various pre-state Hanukkah events during the 1930s-1940s



In the 1920s, a new tradition was established to connect Hanukkah with the renewal of Hebrew culture. The eight days of Hanukkah were declared “Hebrew Book Week”.

On Hanukkah, youth movements would hold marches in in the city streets alongside urban festivals. The local authorities also encouraged residents to light menorahs in order to enhance the festive atmosphere.


The Gershom Scholem Family Bible

The Gershom Scholem family Bible – originally belonging to the Hirsch family, Gershom Scholem’s mother's family – was used to record births, b’nei mitzvot, marriages, and of course, deaths

The Hirsch Family Bible: Die Heilige Schrift der Israeliten, edited by Ludwig Philippson, illustrated by Gustave Doré

Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the twentieth century and an important Israeli public intellectual, had deep roots among the Jewish bourgeoisie of Germany and the family Bible chronicles that particular Jewish sensibility and culture.

The family Bible belonging to Gershom Scholem’s mother, Betty Scholem (née Hirsch) is a chronicle not only of the simchas and life events of one singular family. It is also the chronicle of the fate of the greater German Jewish community before the Second World War.

The Hirsch Family Bible: Die Heilige Schrift der Israeliten, edited by Ludwig Philippson, illustrated by Gustave Doré

The first inscription in the Bible announces that this is the chronicle of the family of Hermann Hirsch, oldest son of the butcher Aron Hirsch and his wife Brune, from Reetz in der Neumark (today, Recz, Poland). We read that Hermann had eight children: five sons (Siegmund, Arthur, Hugo, Fritz, and Hans) and three daughters (Betty, Clara, and Käthe).

The next generation recorded in the Bible includes the four sons of Arthur and Betty Scholem—Reinhold, Erich, Werner, and Gerhard (later known as Gershom)—and the two children of Hans Hirsch—Johanna and Hermann Hirsch. The birth records conclude with Betty Scholem’s grandchildren Edith, Günther (later known as David), Renate, Irene, and Arthur. In fact, grandson Arthur’s birth in October 1927 is the latest simcha recorded in this Bible.

The births of Hermann Hirsch’s children and Betty Scholem’s children

This family strongly demonstrates the declining birth rates among Jews in Germany, and German Jews had, on average, two-children families long before their Christian neighbors. Hermann Hirsch had eight children. His three adult children had four, two, and no children. Betty Hirsch Scholem’s four sons had a total of five children. Even excluding Gershom Scholem’s childless marriage with Escha Burchhardt, the Scholems were below the average of 2.33 children per Jewish family in Prussia in 1925 (though above the average of 0.69 children for families with one Jewish parent and one Christian parent). Factors that likely contributed to their family size were their residence in a big city and the turbulence within their marriages.

The births of Hans Hirsch’s children and Betty Scholem’s grandchildren

Hermann Hirsch and his descendants listed their family weddings. Hermann noted that he and Johanna Plaum from Rawitsch (today, Rawicz, Poland) were married by Rabbi Elhanan Rosenstein in Berlin in 1862 and that Betty and Arthur Scholem were married by Rabbi Rudolf Ungerleider of Berlin in 1890 in Charlottenburg. These are the only two weddings listed with detail.

As a result, it is not clear if other marriages were with non-Jewish spouses, though most were not, in fact. However, readers of Gershom Scholem’s memoir, From Berlin to Jerusalem, will recognize two mixed marriages listed here without comment: Käte Hirsch to Walter Schiepan in 1911 and Werner Scholem to Emmy Wichelt in 1917. It is also recorded in this Bible that Gershom Scholem and his first wife, Elsa “Escha” Burchhardt, married on 5 December 1923—Gershom’s 26th birthday. (In From Berlin to Jerusalem, Scholem writes, “We married in November 1923 on the roof of the Mizrahi teachers’ seminary.”)

Family marriages

Many of the entries in the Bible mention where events took place. Fritz Hirsch was born in 1875 and died in 1876 in Leobschütz (today, Głubczyce, Poland), where Hermann was then working for the Jewish community. By 1878, the family had moved to the Berlin area. The wedding of Betty Hirsch and Arthur Scholem took place in the newly built synagogue of Charlottenburg, then an independent city adjacent to Berlin. In the years before World War I, Charlottenburg had an affluent population, a well-respected technical college, new department stores, and a sizeable Jewish community with several synagogues. Among them was a private synagogue partially owned by Betty’s father.

Simchas in the life Hermann Hirsch and his family

When Betty married Arthur and moved to central Berlin, she entered a different world from Charlottenburg. Though central Berlin also had a large Jewish community, it was more diverse than Charlottenburg—religiously, culturally, and economically. It was also the seat of royal power and the center of Germany’s newspaper industry, which was important for the Scholems, who were printers. In the years before World War I, Betty’s sister Käte and brother Hans lived in Schöneberg, another independent city adjacent to Berlin. Though generally not as affluent as Charlottenburg, Schöneberg was largely middle-class and had a substantial Jewish community. The so-called Bavarian Quarter of Schöneberg was home to particularly large, upper-middle-class Jewish population in the 1920s and early 1930s.

While Aron Hirsch worked a butcher in the small town of Reetz, which had less than 100 Jews, Hermann Hirsch became a successful man and a leader of the Jewish community in Charlottenburg. In this Bible, he recorded a number of happy events, including the purchase of a house in Charlottenburg, the purchase of property for the construction of a synagogue, and his election to Jewish communal office. He was active in Berlin Jewish communal affairs. Two of Hermann’s children were able to study at university, a rarity for any Germans in that era and something exceptionally unusual for women. It is noted in the Bible that Hans Hirsch earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin and Käte Hirsch earned a doctorate in medicine at the University in Freiburg. She then opened a medical practice in Schöneberg. Hans, who worked as a chemist, later received his license as a patent attorney.

Simchas in the life of Hans, Käthe, and Johanna Hirsch

The family’s death records are quite telling. The first four deaths – those of Hermann Hirsch’s parents and in-laws – are listed with a curious mix of the Hebrew month and Christian year, e.g., 17 Sivan 1864. All other deaths are listed only with the Christian/secular date. Among the most striking things about this family record is the high rate of child mortality. Siegmund Hirsch died at the age of seven, Hugo at the age of two. Arthur Hirsch died when he was only 11 days old, and Fritz died days before his first birthday. Clara lived to be only 17 years old. Only three of Hermann Hirsch’s children lived to adulthood: Betty, Käte, and Hans. In fact, as late as the 1880s, more than 40 percent of all German Jewish deaths occurred before the age of fifteen. Yet high as that proportion seems today, it was still much lower than the equivalent among non-Jews, which remained above 50 percent into the twentieth century. German Jews also had a higher life expectancy than Christian Germans. However, the final death recorded in the Bible was that of Arthur Scholem, Betty’s husband, who died in February 1925 at the age of 61.

Family deaths

This Bible’s inscriptions capture the experience of several generations of the German Jewish middle class. It is a story of migration and urbanization. It is a tale of secularization, bourgeoisification, and educational and professional advancement. It is a story of Jews becoming Germans, or at least maintaining a hybrid identity. However, it was an experience that ended in dispersion and destruction. Hermann Hirsch’s three surviving children all experienced the Holocaust. In 1939, Betty Hirsch Scholem escaped to Australia. Hans Hirsch was able to flee to Brazil. Käte Hirsch Schiepan was deported to Theresienstadt, where she died in 1943.

“Let there be light!”

The fate of Betty Scholem’s four sons, whose births are listed in Bible, also exemplified the fate of the historic Jewish community in Germany. Like so many German Jews, Gershom Scholem went to Palestine; however, in contrast to most German Jews in Palestine in the 1930s, he was a long-time resident of the Yishuv, having made aliyah in 1923. He became a master of the Hebrew language and a giant in the Israeli intelligentsia. Nonetheless, his professional and social circle in Jerusalem remained notably German or Central European. Reinhold and Erich Scholem immigrated to Australia during the summer of 1938 and began the process of rebuilding their lives. After many years, Reinhold established himself and enjoyed prosperity. In contrast, Erich struggled to regain the business success that the Scholems had known in Berlin. Their brother Werner Scholem, who had been a leader of the German Communist Party, was arrested in 1933 by the Nazis and sent to prison. Even though a court acquitted him of the legal charges against him, there was no way out of the Nazis’ system of injustice and terror for him. He was murdered in the Buchenwald concentration camp in July 1940.

​This article was written by ​Jay Geller, Samuel Rosenthal Professor of Judaic Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.


Special: 150 Years at the Western Wall

How did the Western Wall look before its liberation in '67? What did it look like 100 years ago? And 150 years ago?

How did the Western Wall look before its liberation in ’67? What did it look like 100 years ago? And 150 years ago? Rare photographs from the National Library of Israel’s collections show a different Western Wall than the one we know today. One area for prayers became two and the uniforms of those who visited and guarded changed, yet one thing has stayed the same: the Jewish people’s yearning to visit and pray at this most revered of sites.

The identities of those who photographed the site also changed over the years, ranging from renowned international photographers in awe of the extraordinary relationship between man and stone, to tourists and pilgrims visiting the Wall as part of a journey to the Holy Land, to local and foreign soldiers simply there as part of their service. The images also reveal the history of photography itself: black and white photographs, hand-colored photographs, changing methods of printing and developing.

Join us on this historic journey to the Western Wall.