Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin: The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire

Helping merchants in the markets of Jerusalem, saving the Samaritans of Nablus, and corresponding with Jewish communities around the world - the archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin tells the story of one of the 19th century's most fascinating Jewish figures…

Illustration purportedly of Rabbi Gagin and his signature

One of the most moving treasures in the National Library of Israel is not a book, an ancient document or manuscript. Rather, it’s a stick.

More precisely, we are referring to a wooden staff consisting of two parts connected with a screw, measuring slightly over four feet and three inches long, with an ivory knob fastened at one end. It was sent to Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin by the Ottoman Sultan in 1842, when he was appointed to the position of “Rishon LeZion” – chief rabbi of the Jews of the Land of Israel. The Sultan would present such a staff to those in official positions as a mark of his patronage, with the item intended for use at public events and ceremonies.

Staff of the Rishon LeZion, Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin

For hundreds of years, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the “Hakham Bashi” was the title given to the chief rabbi of the Jews of the entire empire. The Hakham Bashi served as the Jewish community’s official representative before the government. The title of Rishon LeZion was given to the leader of the Jews of the Land Israel. Rabbi Gagin was the first to hold both positions at the same time.

Official appointment of Rabbi Gagin as Rishon LeZion. The tughra, the official seal of the Sultan, appears at the top.

Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin was born in Istanbul, or as it was then called by Jews – Kushta, almost 240 years ago, in 1787. Immigrating to Jerusalem as a child, he was drawn to the revered Beit El yeshiva in the Old City that had been founded 50 years before his birth and where a select few were allowed to devote themselves to the study of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah. In addition to promoting Torah study, the Beit El yeshiva also fostered communal support. Students had to sign a contract pledging to love and to help one another in times of sorrow and of joy, and to refrain from bearing grudges. At that time, Beit El was the only institution in Jerusalem permitted to independently send emissaries abroad to raise funds among Jewish communities in the diaspora.

Fundraising letter of the Beit El Yeshiva

Rabbi Gagin grew up in the Beit El yeshiva. He became a rabbi, ruled on matters of Jewish law, was proficient in Kabbalah, and eventually assumed the role of head of the yeshiva. At the age of 55, married and the father of a son, he was given the titles of Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. In the collections of the National Library of Israel are hundreds of items, documents and correspondence from his 8-year tenure. From his seat in the Old City of Jerusalem, Rabbi Gagin conducted extensive correspondence with dozens of communities in the Land of Israel and beyond. Tiberias, Haifa, Ramla, Safed, Acre, Beirut, Aleppo, Syria, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Bulgaria, Vienna and London are just some of the Jewish communities Rabbi Gagin was in contact with and assisted in countless matters. Gagin sent halakhic responses to questions that required his ruling, signed court documents such as wills, endowments and inheritances, and even rent contracts. He was in contact with very wealthy families and with communal leaders and religious court judges in many different locations, but he also personally raised funds for young bridegrooms, resolved inheritance disputes, helped establish an orphanage and even testified on behalf of a man who had come to Jerusalem from Damascus and was accused of various libels.

Transfer of a debt from Damascus to Jerusalem


Fundraising for a bridegroom


Inheritance dispute


Testimony on behalf of a resident of Damascus who had come to Jerusalem

While engaged in these activities, Rabbi Gagin continued to write essays on Torah, sermons and books which are also kept at the Library. Two of the books relate to his term in office: Sefer HaTakanot VehaHaskamot (“The Book of Regulations and Agreements”), which included the customs of Jerusalem, and is believed to be one of the first books printed in the city; and Chaim M’Yerushalayim, a book which includes a selection of sermons delivered by Rabbi Gagin while serving in his esteemed roles. Both books, which deal with communal matters, shed light on contemporary historical issues and life in Jerusalem 200 years ago, including for example the debate among Jerusalem’s rabbis about the distribution of the charity funds (haluka) collected abroad on behalf of the Holy Land’s Jewish residents.

An interesting case which illustrates the multifaceted nature of Rabbi Gagin’s work is the approbation he gave to the Samaritan community. According to Islamic practice, only “people of the book” (the ahl al-kitab), generally understood to include Jews and Christians, have the right to protection under Islamic law. Islamic religious scholars ruled that Samaritans were not of the Jewish religion and were therefore unprotected. The Samaritan community of Nablus appealed to Rabbi Gagin to help them escape the dire fate of their coreligionists living in Damascus who had nearly been wiped out due to Muslim persecution. Rabbi Gagin sent a letter in which he wrote: “The Samaritan people are an offshoot of the Children of Israel who acknowledge the truth of the Torah”. The Islamic authorities, recognizing Rabbi Gagin’s personal signature and status, accepted the document and the Samaritans duly received the government’s protection.

Signature of Rabbi Gagin

Rabbi Gagin died on 20 Iyar תר”ח, 1848, at the age of 61, and was buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. His son Shalom Moshe Chai Gagin also served as head of the Beit El yeshiva, and was also an emissary and travelled abroad on its behalf. He named his own son Chaim Abraham after his father.

Sixty years after Rabbi Gagin’s death, the rabbis of Jerusalem signed a declaration which they presented to the Ottoman authorities. The statement reads: “We, the undersigned sages and rabbis of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem, do hereby inform and testify… that the role of Rishon LeZion has no affiliation to the role of Hakham Bashi and there is no connection between the two, as these are two distinct and separate positions. And therefore the Hakham Bashi will not be referred to by the title Rishon LeZion and the Rishon LeZion will not be referred to by the title Hakham Bashi. And to this we have signed our names… Jerusalem, Sivan התרס”ט (1909).”

The statement signed by the rabbis of Jerusalem, including Rabbi Gagin’s grandson, also named Chaim Abraham

Among the names of the 26 rabbis who signed the declaration is that of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin, the grandson of Rabbi Gagin. He surely knew that his grandfather, for whom he was named, had served at the same time as both Hakham Bashi and Rishon LeZion. It seems that the years when these two roles could be held by the same person were not long lasting. Few had managed to follow in Rabbi Gagin’s footsteps and hold the staff at both ends.



The archive of Rabbi Chaim Abraham Gagin is in the process of being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.

Who Was the Soldier Who Pleaded for His Life in David Grossman’s Classic Book?

A signed copy of David Grossman's book, "To the End of the Land", reveals the link between the author's pain over the death of his son and a tragic event that happened fifty years ago. This is the story of how Grossman made use of rare recordings from the Yom Kippur War in an attempt to ease the burden of a harsh reality

David Grossman (photo by Kobi Kalmanovich) and a soldier praying during the Yom Kippur War (photo by Avi Simchoni) courtesy of David Grossman and the IDF Archives

David Grossman’s note to Yossi Rivlin, in the book Isha Borakhat Me-Bsora (To the End of the Land)

To Yossi –

With fond memories from the radio –

And in great friendship

David Grossman

May 4, 2008


At first glance, this handwritten note scribbled by David Grossman in a copy of his novel, To the End of the Land, appears unremarkable. A few words from an esteemed author to a former colleague at the Kol Yisrael radio station. But behind this seemingly ordinary dedication hides an extraordinary story. Its beginning goes back to the first terrible hours of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and it ends with Grossman’s epilogue in his masterpiece To the End of the Land, published thirty-five years later, after the death of his son Uri in the Second Lebanon War.

While sitting at home and reading Grossman’s book shortly after its release, Yossi Rivlin was struck by a passage that sounded very familiar to him, but he couldn’t remember from where:

“Hello, hello? Anyone left? […] Why doesn’t anyone answer?…What is this, are you playing with me? Over, over, over,” Avram mumbled hopelessly.


“And I need clean water and bandages,” Avram mumbled, exhausted. “This thing stinks. It’s a rag…Hello? Hello? Can’t hear. Why would you hear, you assholes. Well, if you don’t hear, you’ll soon smell, with this wound. Gangrene for sure, fuckit.”


“Plant, this is Peach.” A new voice rose dimly over a rattling engine sound. “We’ve been hit on Lexicon 42. We have casualties, requesting evacuation.”

“Peach, um, this is Plant. Copy. Sending evacuation momentarily, over.”

“Plant, this is Peach. Thanks, waiting, just hurry ’cause it’s kind of a mess here.”

Peach, this is Plant. We are handling, we are handling, out.”


“Hello, hello, answer me, you sons of bitches, you quislings. You left me here to die? How could you leave me to die?”


In the background, Avram sang vigorously, “My sukkah is a delight – with greenery and lights!” and the radio operator hummed along with him, bobbing his head to the rhythm. “Listen to him. Thinks he’s on Sesame Street or something.”

The song broke into a groan of pain.

(David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010, p. 549-552)

David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010

For hours Yossi racked his brain until he finally recalled the event that took place two decades earlier.

It was back in the 1980s, when Yossi was working as a reporter for Kol Yisrael radio. He was tasked with doing the research and then handing over the material to more senior journalists who would turn what he had found into a news item. Always on the lookout for a good story, one day a co-worker mentioned man named Avi Yaffe. Avi was a recording technician who lived in Jerusalem and had some rare and interesting recordings in his possession. In late September of 1973, Avi was called up for army reserve duty and he brought along a large Nagra tape recorder thinking that he would be able to listen to music and maybe also document the unique atmosphere that prevailed in the military outposts Israel had erected along the Suez Canal.

But Avi had no idea that within a few days war would break out and that he would find himself at the frontlines of the fighting, stationed at the “Purkan” outpost on the banks of the canal. The Egyptian attack began with an intense artillery barrage directed at these Israeli military positions, as Egyptian soldiers began to cross into Sinai. Instead of listening to music, Avi used the machine to record the communications during the war’s first few hours between the headquarters in the rear and the heavily bombarded frontline outposts, including his own.

Avi Yaffe with his Nagra tape recorder, from a personal photo album

Yossi went to see Avi. In a long and painful interview, he listened to Avi’s chilling stories about the early days of the Yom Kippur War on the southern front, and how he had managed to save himself and the four tapes he had recorded.

From among Avi Yaffe’s stories about that frightening time, Yossi could not shake off one story in particular – about Sergeant Max Maman, a reservist trapped in one of the outposts that was being battered by Egyptian artillery and his pleas over the radio for backup. Those at the headquarters tried to calm him knowing that there was nothing they could do. The helplessness in his voice, his pleas that went unanswered – it was unbearably hard to listen to. So much so that Avi eventually turned off the tape recorder because he simply couldn’t continue listening to the voice of the soldier begging to be rescued, knowing that his fate was already sealed.

Sgt. Max Maman

Here is a transcript of that recording from the “Hizion” outpost. Sergeant Max Maman, codename “Troublemaker”, is in communication with the contact post, codename 22:

“22, Troublemaker here, urgent, over.”

“22 here, over.”

“Troublemaker here. They’re firing at the outpost with artillery, we have to destroy them, over.”

“Endless tanks, endless, need immediate assistance, urgent, aerial, artillery cover, help us, over.”

“Everything will be OK, hang in there, things are a bit difficult but it’s not too bad, over.”

“Troublemaker here, over. I hope you are right, I also hope you get here fast with the air support, because there is no possibility to even lift up our heads here, over.”

“Attention, they’re coming at me through the gate, I’m asking, uh… artillery through the gate…”

“Voices from the Inferno” – part one of a special program produced by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, based on recordings from the Yom Kippur War (Hebrew)

It’s a gut-wrenching experience to hear Sergeant Maman’s trembling voice over the radio transmitter asking over and over again for help, and the evasive response from the headquarters.

In another recording, from Avi Yaffe’s outpost, one can hear singing. One of the soldiers starts off with “Hava nagila, hava nagila, hava nagila venis’mecha” – let us rejoice and be glad – and the others join in. The singing sounds almost macabre against the background of gunfire, explosions and calls for help coming from the outposts around them. But, when you think about the impossible reality they found themselves in, this song must have provided some kind of relief from the tension and sense of helplessness.

What does all this have to do with David Grossman? Yossi and Grossman worked together in the 1980s at Kol Yisrael radio’s Reshet Bet station, where Grossman was a broadcaster. Grossman used Yossi’s research and Avi’s recordings for a special report about the Yom Kippur War and the difficult decisions those few soldiers were forced to make while under heavy fire in the outposts along the canal. The program, broadcast on the eve of Yom Kippur 1987, was very well received.

Yossi eventually left his radio job, became a writer and published a number of works of fiction. David Grossman went on to become one of Israel’s most celebrated authors.

Years later, David Grossman’s son, Uri, was killed together with his entire tank crew in the last few hours of the Second Lebanon War, in August of 2006.

Grossman wrote To the End of the Land years before his son’s death.  But in the epilogue, he writes about the book’s close connection to Uri and his death:

Uri was very familiar with the plot and the characters. Every time we talked on the phone, and when he came home on leave, he would ask what was new in the book and in the characters’ lives. (“What did you do to them this week?” was his regular question) […] At the time I had the feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him. […] After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.

David Grossman’s epilogue in To the End of the Land

While reading To the End of the Land, Yossi remembered that broadcast about the lone soldier stuck in the outpost, begging for help during the Yom Kippur War. He decided that he had to ask Grossman about it.

But Grossman rarely discussed his new book in public, and even if he was able to attend an event with the writer, Yossi wasn’t sure Grossman would even remember him.

When Yossi heard that Grossman was scheduled to appear at the Tmol Shilshom café in Jerusalem, he decided to try his luck and meet with him. At the end of the event, Yossi sheepishly raised his hand and asked Grossman whether it was possible that a certain section in the book was based on the broadcast they had both worked on many years before. Shading his eyes from the glare of the lights, Grossman looked out into the audience, then stood up and walked over to Yossi, a giant smile on his face:

“’Yossi?’ he asks me. ‘Yes,’ I answer… and he says: ‘Yes! Of course! It’s from your broadcast!’”

Both of them were overcome with emotion, and at the end of the evening, David Grossman inscribed the copy of the book that Yossi had brought with him, a memento from a uniquely tragic yet oh-so Israeli story.

To the End of the Land tells about the reality of life in Israel. A reality that cannot be avoided, a reality in which war, bereavement and PTSD are an inseparable part of life. Grossman’s story had proved prescient in a most personal way.

In the story about a woman trying to escape bitter news, a scenario which haunts everyone who lives in this country that has known its fair share of wars, Grossman included his and Yossi Rivlin’s broadcast about those rare recordings from the early days of the Yom Kippur War. At the end of the book, the reader is left not knowing whether she succeeded or not. What we do know is that Grossman could not escape his own tragic news, the death of his son Uri, killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War.

Uri Grossman, son of author David Grossman, killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War together with his tank crew (family photo album)

But perhaps Grossman was able to do for Ora, the book’s heroine, what he was not able to do for himself and for his own son. He did the very thing that all the soldiers who listened to Max Maman’s pleas from the outpost on that day and those who listened with dread to the tapes years later could not do. In the book, he chose to save the character Avram, the soldier stuck in the outpost. Yet while Avram survived, he was not spared the post-trauma that many of those who made it through the war suffer from.

On the last page of the book, Grossman does one more thing – perhaps the only thing one can do for those who are gone. He offers the possibility of the existence of hope:

“(…) I thought that if we both talked about him, if we kept talking about him, we’d protect him, together, right?”

“Yes, yes that’s true, Ora, you’ll see –”

“But maybe it’s the exact opposite?”

“What? What’s the opposite?” he whispers.

[…] She grips his arm: “I want you to promise me.”

“Yes, whatever you want.”

“That you’ll remember everything.”

Yes, you know I will.”

(David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010, p. 650)


Grossman’s decision not to shelve the book after his son’s death, may also have been a decision to choose hope.

For more on the rare recordings from the Yom Kippur War, and what transpired in the outposts in its first few days, watch the series produced by Kan 11 (Hebrew): part one, part two and part three. Information about those recordings is also available on Avi Yaffe’s website, and in his recently published book (Hebrew) documenting the complete story: Shovakh Yonim (“dovecote”, the codename for the outbreak of the war).

The two volumes of Shovakh Yonim, Avi Yaffeh’s book on fighting in the Suez Canal outposts during the Yom Kippur War

Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s Extraordinary Tabernacle Model

Among the thousands of documents, letters, rare books and manuscripts in the Yahuda collection at the National Library of Israel, there is a unique and unusual object: a precise three-dimensional model of the Tabernacle and its vessels down to the last detail of its golden rings and scarlet threads. What was the impetus behind Prof. Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s extraordinary model?

Abraham Shalom Yahuda and the model of the Tabernacle. All the photographs in this article depict the Tabernacle model in the Abraham Shalom Yehuda Archive at the National Library of Israel

With his prodigious knowledge of Arab culture, and expertise in Oriental studies (now called Middle Eastern studies) as well as Jewish religion and history, Abraham Shalom Yahuda was a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. However, one lecture in particular made it into the headlines of the 1939 Passover edition of the venerated British Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle: “BUILDING OF THE TABERNACLE – Evidence of Biblical Authenticity – HEBREWS AT THE TIME OF EXODUS” (March 24, 1939).

The newspaper enthusiastically reported that Prof. Yahuda “delivered a lecture last week on ‘The Building and Craftsmanship of the Tabernacle,’ […] accompanied by the showing of a model, specially built for Professor Yahuda of the Tabernacle, and it aroused great interest. The model was complete down to the most minute detail […] in strict accordance with Dr. Yahuda’s views […] [Yahuda] revealed a perfect knowledge of absolute craftsmanship and of architecture.” (ibid.).

How did a boy from the Sephardic community of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem wind up studying for a doctorate in Semitic languages in Germany? What drew him, in the midst of his academic career, to undertake the complex and Sisyphean task of crafting a model of the Tabernacle? And most curiously, what does the model, now in the Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, look like? In order to answer these questions, we must go back in time to Jerusalem of the late 19th century, which was just beginning to expand beyond the Old City’s walls.


From Jerusalem to Germany

The year is 1877. Abraham Shalom is born to the Yahuda family living in the Even Yisrael neighborhood, the sixth to be built outside the walls. His mother was originally from Germany and his father was the scion of a distinguished and wealthy family originally from Iraq. In Jerusalem of those days, such mixed ethnic marriages were rare, but in his family, it was expected, as Abraham Shalom writes in his memoirs:

In those days, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities were estranged. [However] my grandfather’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Yehezkel Yahuda, who had come from Iraq to Jerusalem, because of his charity and generous support of many scholars, was beloved by all communities, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike… and he tried with all his might to endear the communities to each other.

And the first thing he did was to give his daughter Sara’s hand in marriage to Rabbi Yehoshua Yellin of Łomża, and to betroth his eldest son Shaul to the daughter of Rabbi Yeshaya Bardaki, one of the great Ashkenazic rabbis and important community leaders, and his younger son Faraj Haim to the daughter of the Chabad follower Rabbi Israel Shapira from a distinguished family from Poland. My father, Rabbi Benjamin, also followed in his footsteps and sought to draw the Ashkenazim closer, and hired melamdim (religious tutors) from the community for my elder brother and myself.

(Abraham Shalom Yahuda, When I Studied Rashi [Hebrew])

From a young age, Abraham Shalom was taught Torah, Jewish law, Mishnah and Talmud and other religious texts according to Jewish tradition, by private tutors hired by his parents. Yahuda describes it thus:

My father, being well-to-do, would pay a well-known tutor double and triple the going rate on condition that he not take on more than two or three additional students besides me, and who must be more advanced in their studies, in order to stimulate my scholarly envy. He did the same with all of my tutors. Indeed, this was to my benefit, particularly, a few years later, when I was studying Talmud. (Ibid.)

In his teens, he began studying other subjects, also with private tutors, Arabic language in particular, which became his great passion. At age 17, he published an article on the Arabic language in the newspaper HaMelitz, and the book Kadmoniyot Ha’Aravim (“Antiquities of the Arabs”) about the history of Arab culture before Islam. Shortly after, he wrote another article titled Nedivei ve’Giborei Arav (“The Nobles and Heroes of Arabia”).

Yahuda, wanting to pursue higher education in the field of Oriental studies, traveled for that purpose, to the birthplace of this scientific field, which, as chance would have it, was also the birthplace of his mother. He studied at various universities in Germany and received his doctorate in 1904.


A Zionist of Arabia

Oriental studies, as developed in Germany, included both Jewish and Bible studies as well as Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, so that by the end of his academic training, Abraham Shalom Yehuda was an expert in several fields. Being in Europe also opened up new intellectual and social horizons for him and he forged personal connections with scholars and researchers as well as with international statesmen, leaders and members of the elite. He was invited to give lectures at universities throughout Europe and even at the court of the King of Spain, a connection he later leveraged in order to aid persecuted Jews.

In addition to his academic career, Yahuda also became a Zionist activist, befriending Shaul Tchernichovsky and Prof. Joseph Klausner, and even meeting with Theodor Herzl in London. Yahuda describes this meeting and Herzl’s great interest in the young Orientalist’s thoughts about current relations between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land:

Dr. Herzl . . . asked me if I thought the Muslims in the Land of Israel would willingly accept the matter of a Jewish state, if the Sultan will hand over the Land of Israel to the Jews… I was a little embarrassed, because I knew . . . that he knew only a little about the real conditions in the Land of Israel and the situation of the Arab population. I told him that in my opinion we must gain the local Arabs’ sympathy for the plan, and that the Sultan will not take any serious step without the consent of the residents . . . Dr. Herzl sounded disappointed upon hearing my opinion.

(“Herzl’s Attitude to the Arab Problem“, Hed Hamizrah, October 7, 1949 [Hebrew])

Yahuda met Herzl again about a year later at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, where he reiterated his thoughts about initiating direct communication with the country’s Arabs, but to no avail:

Dr. Herzl was adamant that the residents of the Land of Israel have no opinion on this matter, that the Sultan has absolute say. I warned him again . . . emphasizing [the importance of] establishing a closer relationship with the Arabs of the Land of Israel and explaining the Zionist objectives to them as well as the great advantages they will achieve from honest cooperation with us.

I realized from everything he told me about the Arabs that he was completely misled by representatives who never had a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the Arab problem, yet these were the “experts” on whose opinion Dr. Herzl was relying. (Ibid.)

Prof. Yahuda belonged to a stream in the Zionist movement that believed in cooperation and dialogue with the Arabs of the Land of Israel, who knew them, their way of life, their leaders and social codes from childhood. They sought to establish relationships with them and not go above their heads and present them with a fait accompli that would inevitably lead to resistance and rebellion. Apparently, this thinking – and the desire to prove the existence of ancient connections between the Jews and their Arab surroundings – was one of the reasons he decided to invest so much of his time and resources in the Tabernacle model, discussed in more detail below.


“Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you” (Ex 25: 9)

The model of the Tabernacle built by Prof. Abraham Shalom Yahuda is based on the description in the Book of Exodus, chapters 25–35. These contain the commands for the building of the Tabernacle and describe in detail the preparation of the tools and other accessories used in the ceremonies performed in it. The text also includes instructions for the Tabernacle’s dismantling and reassembly in accordance with the practice of the ancient Israelites during their wanderings in the desert, on their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan. Besides relying on the descriptions in the Bible, Yahuda would consult the writings of the great biblical commentator Rashi for whom he had the greatest admiration, on any matter that seemed to him unclear:

I was always impressed with Rashi’s vast knowledge in every field, even in crafts, such as pottery, carpentry, silversmithing, sewing, weaving, and the like regarding the crafts and craftsmanship of the Tabernacle.”

(When I Studied Rashi)

Thus, equipped with the Bible’s instructions and Rashi’s commentary, Yahuda began his work. First, he built the Tabernacle’s frame: the sides made of wooden posts on silver bases and connected to each other by means of three bolts threaded through crossbars.

The crossbars were gold-plated, and accordingly Yahuda placed golden cylinders inside them, creating the impression that they were made of gold, according to the biblical command:

At the Tabernacle’s entrance there were columns on which was hung a veil (parokhet) made of woven fabric. Similar columns separated the Tabernacle’s two parts – an outer sanctuary, the “Holy Place” and an inner sanctuary, “the Holy of Holies.” Yehuda decided to decorate these with Corinthian capitals, a detail that does not appear in the Bible.  These too are covered with fabric.

According to the Bible, the veil fabric was specially woven on both sides so that each side displayed a different pattern. According to Rashi’s commentary, the pattern featured lions. Prof. Yahuda followed this interpretation and had a fabric woven which clearly shows the variety of the threads as detailed in the Bible “blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen” (Ex 39: 2), with images of lions on it.

The Tabernacle was covered with bolts of various fabrics and hides, which were connected with hooks. You can see in the model the precision and attention to detail in connecting the hooks to the fabrics.

The Tabernacle was surrounded by a courtyard, which also consisted of columns on which was written “And their tops were overlaid with silver.” Here too, Yahuda depended on Rashi’s commentary which interpreted this to mean that the columns were decorated with silver fillets – and so he also built the courtyard columns and decorated them with hoops of silver wire.

Finally, the walls of the Tabernacle’s courtyard were prepared with the greatest precision, and as Rashi explains, were made “like a kind of ship’s slats, with apertures, like basketry, and not like the weaver’s work.”


“Build an altar” (Ex 27: 1)

Besides the Tabernacle structure itself, Prof. Abraham Shalom Yehuda’s model also includes the Tabernacle vessels and other accessories that were used in it. For example, he built a model of the altar, square and with four corners, and like all the vessels of the Tabernacle it was attached by rings to long wooden poles for carrying it on journeys in the desert. The beautifully crafted model of the altar includes a “a grate of bronze mesh”, with “…a bronze ring at each of the four corners of the mesh”, which is placed “beneath the ledge of the altar, so that the mesh comes halfway up the altar.” (Ex 27: 4–5). See in the accompanying photo how the model follows closely the instructions in the biblical text.

Yahuda also included in the model the bronze laver used for washing the hands and feet of the priests before they entered the interior space of the Tabernacle to perform their work.

as well as the various musical instruments: trumpets, cymbals, and more, which accompanied the Tabernacle work and the Israelites’ journeys in the desert.

To these, he added small explanatory handwritten signs in beautiful script.

Small figurines were apparently placed in different locations around the model in order to demonstrate the various roles of the priests and the ceremonies and events that took place in the Tabernacle. Among the figurines are a man bringing an offering of first fruits, a priest washing his hands and feet, a guard, and a man bringing an animal for sacrifice.

Yahuda apparently made use of the model, and an accompanying drawing in his many lectures, in which he explained the construction of the Tabernacle and the daily activities that took place in it. Judging from the report in the Jewish Chronicle, it clearly aroused great interest among listeners and viewers.


An Orientalist Becomes an Artisan?

We are left with the question: what was Yahuda’s motivation in embarking on such a project that included an abundance of items, of which only some have been described here, that necessitated such precision and detail, required much deep research, and engaged professional artists in its construction?

Unfortunately, Yahuda did not leave any notes explaining his motive, work and goals. We can however find several explanations in the lectures he gave after its construction.

As mentioned, Yahuda was an Orientalist who strove to strengthen ties between Jews and Arabs, between their respective cultures and in particular between the peoples living in the Land of Israel. For him, the Tabernacle was a means of proving the deep ties that existed in ancient times between the Jews and the Egyptian people. According to Yahuda, it would have been impossible for the Israelites in the desert to obtain all the materials, means and talents to build such a magnificent Tabernacle without having learned the various crafts from the Egyptians and without having been able to take with them fabrics, metals, precious stones and other materials from the wealth of pharaonic Egypt. As he saw it, the years of hard labor described in the Bible were preceded by years of Jewish integration in Egypt, in its culture and in its physical and spiritual wealth. The Tabernacle is evidence of this.

The work of the Tabernacle, he believed, is proof of monotheism’s uniqueness over the idol worship practiced in Canaan, and in this, Jews and Muslims, for whom belief in one God is a pillar of both faiths, share common ground.

Another motive for building the model is related to an equally important issue that Yahuda grappled with in his professional life, which is the controversy over the degree of truth behind the real-world artifacts mentioned in the biblical stories. Yahuda, who as mentioned was also an expert on religious issues, had disagreements with his colleagues on these topics. Construction of the Tabernacle supported his claim for the Bible’s veracity in these matters.

And it might also be possible that between his scholarly pursuits, research, reading and writing, Yahuda perhaps also may have enjoyed working with his hands and giving free rein to his imagination, creativity and the artist in him.

In any event, after Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s death in 1951 in the United States, where he had been a professor at several universities, thousands of items from his personal archive were transferred to the National Library of Israel, including dozens of boxes containing the parts of the spectacular model he built. The Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, which numbers documents and manuscripts as well as the elaborate model of the Tabernacle and its vessels, is a reflection of his multifaceted professional personality.


The photos of the Tabernacle model that are published here for the first time, are from the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive at the National Library of Israel. The archive is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.











Crowdsourcing History: Moshe David Gaon’s Efforts to Document Sephardic Jewry

Moshe David Gaon realized that the contributions of Sephardic Jews had been overlooked by historians, well before it dawned on others. He dedicated his professional life to making things right. His personal archive, a collection of critical significance to Jewish history and culture, is preserved today at the National Library of Israel

Scholar Moshe David Gaon in 1907

When imagining a historian, people might think of a lone individual hunched over old documents, fragile archives, or ancient manuscripts. There is some truth to this generalization, but it does not do justice to the collaborative work that makes historical writing possible. Historians build on what has been written by experts before, and they maintain ongoing communication with peers in the field or laypeople with information. Moreover, historians participate in ongoing conversations, sometimes conversations that occur over generations. Today’s historian attempts to answer a question raised by one of her teachers by gathering information from a wide range of people and sources.

This is doubly true for scholars who work to create a new field of study. One such scholar is Moshe David Gaon (1889-1958), a pioneering but underappreciated researcher who revolutionized the study of Sephardic Jewry in the Land of Israel as well as the history of the Ladino language and its journalism. Born in Bosnia, he spent much of his life in the Land of Israel, as an educator, publicist, scholar, and communal leader.

Moshe David Gaon dedicated his professional life to documenting Sephardic Jewry. His archive is preserved at the National Library of Israel.

His contribution is more impressive given the context and history of academic Jewish studies, which began in the 19th-century in German-speaking lands. This tradition – known as Wissenschaft des Judentums – worked to present Judaism as on par with the greatest aspects of European culture, and it tended to emphasize the contributions of Judaism to the West and to Europe. Modern Sephardic Jewry was often ignored or looked down upon as unsophisticated. The Zionist historians, mostly from Eastern Europe, who began working in the first half of the twentieth century, emphasized the contributions of European Jews to the nascent Zionist movement, but tended to downplay the continuous history of Sephardic Jewish settlement in the Land, as well as Sephardic contributions to the modern renewal of Jewish life in Palestine.

Gaon, among others, insisted on a correction. But that correction was hard to implement. After a century of work, Wissenschaft had already created a basic infrastructure for the study of the past, including bibliography, networks of scholars, and journals. But Sephardic Jewish studies were way behind the curve.

Central, then, to Gaon’s project was gathering and creating new sources of knowledge, and this meant reaching out to sources of information far and wide. His extensive archive reflects the work he did in creating a bibliography, particularly of important Ladino newspapers. It documents his groundbreaking work on the influential Ladino Biblical commentary, Me’am Loez. Gaon published works of Sephardic Hebrew poetry, and he gathered biographies of influential Sephardic Rabbis. His most important work is Yehudei HaMizrah BeEretz Yisrael (1928), a compendium of information on Sephardic Jewry in the Land of Israel. It remains an important reference work today, and it has been reprinted several times. In that work, he emphasized the importance of Sephardic Jewry in the establishment of an economically productive but religiously observant Yishuv in the land of Israel.

He could not have done any of this alone, and part of what he set out to accomplish was creating a network of scholars, knowledgeable laypeople, and community members who would all contribute to an ongoing conversation that would give Sephardic Jewry the pride of place it deserved. His archive is full of his ongoing correspondence, some of which was haphazard, but some was a more systematically designed effort to gather information and share ideas.

A letter sent by Moshe David Gaon to “the distinguished author and journalist Mr. Joseph Anjil”, requesting him to provide the names of editors of various Ladino newspapers, 1953, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel


Abraham Recanati provides names of newspaper editors, after he was asked a series of questions similar to those seen in the above letter, 1953, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel

Some of Gaon’s efforts focused on making connections with those who shared his agenda, for example several written exchanges with an older contemporary, Shlomo Rosanes, who likewise believed that Sephardic Jewry had not been researched adequately. Gaon asked Rosanes for help with publishing and publicizing his own work, but more importantly used Rosanes as a source of information, particularly about Ladino newspapers and the lives of Sephardic Jews who had moved to the Land of Israel in the 19th century.

Gaon also wanted to document information held by the general public, and in the 1930s he systematically sent questionnaires to hundreds of public figures of Sephardic background, asking them about their own lives, the path that their families took to the Land of Israel, and the communities they came from. Some responded briefly and laconically, while others provided elaborate personal and family histories. These questionnaires provided important background for Yehudei HaMizrah Be’eretz Yisrael. In one exchange in late 1930, Rabbi Joseph Haim Illos of Tiberias provided a complete life history of his own illustrious father, the recently deceased Rabbi Eliyahu Illos (1860-1929), who had come to Tiberias from Morocco as a young man. Gaon was particularly interested in figures who moved to Palestine prior to the Ashkenazi Zionist movement.

A letter written by Rabbi Joseph Haim Illos to Moshe David Gaon in 1930 in which he provides a complete life history of his own illustrious father, the recently deceased Rabbi Eliyahu Illos, who had come to Tiberias from Morocco as a young man, the Moshe David Gaon Archive at the National Library of Israel

Gaon’s posthumous Bibliography of Ladino Periodicals (a basic reference work today) was itself a kind of crowdsourcing project. Letters from around the Ladino-speaking world, whether from communities in the Balkans or from dentists in Tel Aviv, provide names of editors, information on the number of issues of each paper, or documentation of dates on which publications began or ceased. As he insisted in his Introduction to the Bibliography: “I avoided relying on rumor, trusting instead only eyewitnesses. I wanted to base this work on facts and documents that could not be questioned.” After Gaon’s death, completing the work and bringing it to publication continued as a group effort, by staff at the Ben-Zvi Institute, the National Library of Israel, and by Gaon’s friend and colleague Moshe Kattan.

Gaon also kept his finger on the pulse of current events, asking colleagues for documentation of their own experiences in real time. When, in 1934, a man in the city of Basra in Iraq claimed to be the Messiah, Gaon immediate brought his letter-writing skills to bear on documenting the event.  Writing in the name of the Sephardic Community Council, Gaon insisted on getting as much information as possible about the man, his motivations and the community’s response to his messianic pretentions.

What is his name, his age, his birthplace, who are his parents, and what was his job? The man’s habits interest me greatly. It is important to clarify the factors that led him to reveal himself as Messiah, and how did he prophecy. Do some believe in him, and how did the Jews and the community leaders respond to him? Have government officials gotten involved?

He was not asking only out of curiosity. With a sense of urgency, he saw this correspondence as key to his role as historian. “I hope that you do not disappoint me and as soon as you receive this letter you respond so that we can fully document this event and determine the place of this man in the history of Israel, whether for praise or blame.” If the community responded, I did not find that response in the archive, leaving us less knowledgeable of this event and its aftermath.

Which only demonstrates the value of wide-ranging communication in documenting history. Scholars operating alone know what they know. People with knowledge sharing and communicating create a community of knowledge and change how people view the world. As the Mishnah states (Avot, 4:1): “Who is wise? One who learns from every person”.



The Moshe David Gaon Archive is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.