Pigs in a Shtrayml

An image of a pig wearing a shtrayml, a fur hat often associated with hasidic Jews, understandably raises some eyebrows. One could be forgiven for thinking such images are part of an antisemitic propaganda effort, but in fact, the concept of animals wearing shtraymls has commonly been featured in works of Jewish satire…

There is a saying: "You can't make a shtrayml out of a pig's tail". Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.

On December 19, 2016, a rally was held in Jerusalem attended by girls in grades five and six studying in Bais Yaakov seminaries in Israel. The Thursday evening rally was held at the Jerusalem Arena, a multipurpose sports center and one of the largest indoor spaces in Israel’s capital city. With eleven thousand seats, the arena is the home of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club. But the girls had not gathered for a sporting event. The goal of the gathering was to discourage and deter girls from pursuing academia – meaning degree- or diploma-granting higher education – even in institutions or programs that seek to cater to the Haredi population or that operate under Haredi auspices.

One of the speakers, Rabbi Pinhas Erlanger, summed up proceedings by declaring, “Academia is a stumbling block for the House of Israel, and the entire content stands in contradiction to it, and therefore one should not study in these places…not even online.”

The first speaker was Rabbi Baruch Shapira, a high school teacher in Kol Torah – a renowned non-hasidic Haredi educational institution in Jerusalem that includes a high school and a rabbinical academy. Rabbi Shapira related a conversation he had earlier that day with Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman (1914–2017). At the time of the rally, Rabbi Steinman was widely regarded as the foremost religious authority of the non-hasidic Ashkenazic world. Besides being a renowned Torah scholar, Steinman was also the head of the Degel HaTorah faction of the Agudat Yisrael political party in Israel’s Knesset. Consequently, a message from the respected and influential centenarian carried significant weight.

According to the message delivered by Rabbi Shapira as reported by news outlets, Rabbi Steinman supported the rally, summing up his distaste for Haredi academic programs with a pithy remark: “Haredi academics?! That is a pig with a shtrayml.”

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.

In Jewish imagination, the pig is the paradigm of something non-kosher and the very antithesis of holiness. Hence, when a Jew refers to something or someone as a pig it is nasty and can be particularly hurtful. The flip side of a bellicose statement like “a pig with a shtrayml” is that it conjures up an incongruous image with a powerful message.

Rabbi Steinman’s crisp – though offensive – quip may have been drawing on a Yiddish expression. For example: ‘From a pig’s tail, you cannot make a shtrayml.’ The expression is often taken to mean that from something bad you cannot make something good. Alternatively, the expression may mean that something holy, like a shtrayml, cannot or should not be made from something that is impure. Another possibility was that Rabbi Steinman was thinking about a different Yiddish expression: ‘If you put a shtrayml on a pig, does that make him into a rabbi?’ If these Yiddish expressions were Rabbi Steinman’s points of reference, then he was suggesting that holy Haredi society cannot include non-kosher academia.

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.

A shtrayml would not be found among the clothing of the primary school girls in attendance, nor in the wardrobe of the women who were the target of the rally’s larger message decrying academia. Why then did Rabbi Steinman mention the shtrayml? He himself did not wear a shtrayml, so he was not talking about his own headwear. Moreover, most of his followers were kneitsch wearers, that is, non-hasidic Ashkenazim who wore fedoras rather than fur hats. The shtrayml, however is a symbol. In the image that Rabbi Steinman conjured up, the traditional fur hat represents the Haredi community, while the pig represents academia. Putting a shtrayml on a pig is absurd; so too is Haredi academia. The two just do not go together.

Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.

Animals wearing shtraymls are not a common image in Jewish consciousness, though the Yiddish expressions indicate that Jews have toyed with the notion of shtrayml-wearing livestock. The truth is that other farm animals have also been topped with the furry headwear.

In 2011, an American Yiddish magazine that caters to hasidic communities advertised a shtrayml sale before Passover. The full-page advertisement showed a lamb wearing a shtrayml, tied to a bed in the desert with pyramids in the background.

The image evoked the biblical Exodus where lambs were procured four days before the children of Israel left slavery (Ex. 12:3-6 – “let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household…”). According to the sages, the lamb was tied to the corner of the bed before Passover evening when it was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten.

The shtrayml-wearing lamb is a bizarre sales pitch: Which shtrayml-wearing Hasid would want to be tethered to a bed in the desert for four days before being slaughtered? Presumably the peculiar image was designed to capture the attention of the magazine’s readers. Furthermore, the image relayed a message: a new shtrayml – just like securing a lamb in Egypt – was an essential, perhaps even divinely mandated, element of Passover preparations.

Indeed, as Passover approaches, many shtrayml sellers advertise their wares. For those who cannot treat themselves to a new fur hat, specialized cleaning services are offered.

“Beauty and perfection at the top” – an ad for “Shem Tov Shtraymlach”, appearing in ⁨⁨Ha-Maḥaneh Ha-Haredi⁩, May 26, 2016, from the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

It is possible that the earliest source for an animal donning a shtrayml comes from Lubavitch lore – an interesting fact in itself given that Lubavitch Hasidim no longer wear fur hats. The story which I will presently recount, harks back to the dawn of Hasidism.

The tale – as so often happens with this fabulous literary genre – appears in different versions. The earliest recorded version appears to be an 1879 discourse delivered by Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Maharash, 1834–1882). The discourse would have been delivered in Yiddish, though a Hebrew transcription is what has reached us. The exact term shtrayml does not appear; rather, a more general term is used: kova shel shabbat, a Shabbat hat. Maharash’s son and successor, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn (Rashab, 1860–1920) also recounted the tale, as did his son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz, 1880–1950).

Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz), source: Jewish Educational Media

When retelling the story in 1941, Rayatz specifically referred to the shtrayml. So too did Rayatz’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), when he recalled the tale in 1984. The numerous retellings suggest an abiding lesson which transcends a specific context.

According to this story, the Besht (Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, ca.1700–1760) instructed his disciples to close their eyes, and they suddenly perceived an ox wearing a shtrayml. The Besht explained that this was a Jew who sits and eats ox meat in honor of Shabbat. Alas, instead of savoring Shabbat, he relishes the ox meat.

The power of this colorful image lies in its ability to evoke a response in the audience – which in this case was the followers of the Lubavitch hasidic masters. Pondering the odd scene, the hasidic audience would be able to imagine themselves as shtrayml-wearing oxen. The shtrayml in the tale is what indicates that the figures are not real oxen; rather, they are Hasidim who are acting like oxen. The moral of the tale is compelling. You may be decked out in hasidic garb, but you are behaving like an animal. 

Of course, the enduring lesson is not limited to the shtrayml wearers. No type of respectable clothing can justify behavior that is unbecoming of a human being. Whether that timeless message has anything to do people studying in academic institutions is another matter.

A Hasid with a young student, both wearing shtraymls. This item is part of Archive Network Israel and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel


The shtrayml and other elements of the hasidic wardrobe are discussed in Levi Cooper’s forthcoming book Hasidic Relics: Cultural Encounters, to be published later this year by Maggid Books.

Yalta – The First Jewish Feminist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Jews Started Writing Letters To G-d

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Woman Who Ignited the Hasmonean Rebellion

Very few know her story. It isn’t taught in schools and certainly not in kindergartens, but according to the midrash, Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, sister of the Maccabees, was a key figure in the Hanukkah story. What does the midrash tell us of the woman who stood up to protect her Jewish sisters? How did she use her wedding day to spark the fire of rebellion in her brothers?


Elizabeth Richman holding a jug, 1926. Courtesy of Archive Network Israel in collaboration with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

According to the midrash, the entire Hanukkah miracle is based on the act of one brave (and today largely forgotten) woman who dared to speak aloud what everyone else knew but would not say. Her declaration led her brothers to start a rebellion. She was the true heroine and instigator of the festival of Hanukkah.

Her story is not taught in schools, certainly not in kindergartens. Her name was Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, sister of the Maccabees.

According to the midrash, the Jews, then living under Greek Seleucid rule, had remained silent for three years; three years in which every woman who married would first be raped by the local Greek governor before she could enter her husband’s house. This is how the midrash describes it: “When the Greeks saw that Israel was not affected by their decrees, they stood and decreed upon them a bitter and ugly decree, that a bride would not go in [to her husband] on her wedding night, but rather to the local commander” [all quotes from Midrash Ma’aseh Ḥanukkah “alef,” A Tale of the People’s Resistance to the Seleucid Greek Occupation].

It is awful to imagine how many women underwent this violation and humiliation. The midrash tells us that the men of the Hasmonean family did nothing. And the women of Israel fell victim again and again to the abuse.

Matityahu the Hasmonean in battle, a relief likely sculpted by Jacob Roukhomovsky, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Then came the wedding day of Matityahu the Hasmonean’s own daughter Hannah. This time, Hannah decided to put an end to the ongoing atrocity. In the middle of the wedding banquet, while all the distinguished and important guests were eating and enjoying themselves, she stood up and ripped off her wedding dress, leaving herself naked in front of her family and friends.

“And when everyone was sitting down to eat, Ḥannah, the daughter of Matityahu, stood up from her palanquin and clapped her hands one on the other and tore off her royal garment and stood before all of Israel, revealed before her father and her mother and her groom!”

At first, her brothers reacted with anger and shock. They wanted to kill her for having disgraced them and for shaming the family and herself.

But she, in turn, scolded them for turning a blind eye, all the while knowing what awaited her that night at the governor’s palace. Not one of them had raised a finger, not one had stood up to protect her dignity. She reprimanded her brothers for being angry at her nakedness in front of them, even as they remained calm at the thought of her having to go later that night to the governor who would sexually assault her.

An expedition to the graves of the Maccabees. Courtesy of Archive Network Israel, in collaboration with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“She said ‘Listen, my brothers and uncles! So what—I stand naked before you righteous men with no sexual transgression and you get all incensed?! And you do not become incensed about sending me into the hands of an uncircumcised man who will abuse me?!’”

She forced them to face up to the bitter truth. According to the midrash, this was the moment her Maccabee brothers first raised the flag of rebellion.

The first question that comes to mind when someone hears this story is – did this really happen?  After all, this isn’t a story that is told as part of the typical Hanukkah celebration. We know the story of the miracle of the jar of oil, we know all about the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the heroism of Judah the Maccabee. But the story of the woman who incited the rebellion, or the story of the sexual exploitation that was behind the uprising isn’t common knowledge.

Among the Ashkenazi communities of Europe, the story of Hannah, whose name may derive from the name of the Hanukkah holiday itself, appears in some sources, but she is occasionally referred to anonymously as bat Hashmonaim – a Hasmonean daughter. In the communities of North Africa, on the other hand, they tell the story of Judith who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes, and whose heroism is recorded in a slightly different way in the apocryphal “Book of Judith.” Some researchers suggest that these two women—“bat Hashmonaim and Judith—are one and the same.

Judith with the head of Holofernes, Bezalel Archive

I think the more interesting question we need to ask ourselves is why hasn’t this story been told more often? I believe that the story of Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, has remained hidden or suppressed because of its complexity. Telling this story, a tale of silenced sexual violence, can be a disturbing experience. It is much easier to tell the story of a military triumph of good over evil as we light our menorahs and eat our jelly donuts.

But Hannah’s story is an important one and its telling is long overdue. It is a story that can bring about a real change, even today.

Rashi’s commentary on the lighting of the Hanukkah candles in the tractate Shabbat offers additional evidence for the significance of Hannah’s role in the Hanukkah narrative. The question is asked whether women are obligated to fulfil the commandment of lighting Hanukkah candles. The answer is affirmative, women are obligated and the Talmud’s explanation for this special obligation is that women were partners in the Hanukkah miracle and are therefore also obligated in lighting the candles that commemorate the miracle.

Rashi writes of the Hanukkah miracle and Hannah’s role in it: “Since the Greeks decreed upon all the virgins getting married to have intercourse with the high official first. And the miracle happened through a woman.” Rashi, the great commentator of the Bible and Talmud, offers here a concise interpretation of the female heroism behind the Hanukkah story and its female protagonist. He makes the claim that a woman wrought this miracle, and for that very reason, to this day, women are expected to light Hanukkah candles.

Invitation to a “Maccabee Festival” in Germany, Hanukkah eve, 1903. The Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Of course, this is not proof that the story happened necessarily, but it is evidence that it is not new either. Rather, it is an ancient story reflecting a familiar reality from various times in Jewish history passed down in Jewish tradition.

The story of Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, is a harsh one and it remains hidden and untold. But in my view, it is the most important story there is.

Hannah expresses the voice of silenced women throughout the generations, right up to this very today. She shows us how important it is for us to stand up for each other. She reminds us to support and help those women whose voices have been taken from them through violence. She teaches us that sometimes the baring of the naked truth, no matter how painful, is the only way to create change.

Hanukkah has a female hero. A hero whose strong voice resonates in today’s painful Israeli reality. A hero who implores us to look around and see who is in need of help. If we dare to place her story in the center of our discourse, if we dare to tell of her brave act, we can strengthen female voices that choose not to remain silent and give voice to the wronged women who have been silenced throughout history.