Shedding New Light on Rabbi Reines

Manuscripts belonging to Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines, one of the founding fathers of religious Zionism, have been donated to the National Library

A postcard featuring an image of Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (center, seated) and other members of the Mizrachi, Verlag Zion, Vienna, 1902

In its early days, the Zionist movement was not popular among traditionally religious Jews. Most rabbis either opposed Zionism or ignored it. Not so Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915), who gave the new movement his wholehearted support. We know Rabbi Reines’ views from his published works, but for a hundred years his many manuscripts have been hidden from the public eye and practically forgotten. Recently the manuscripts were donated to the National Library of Israel, where they were digitized and put online. The manuscripts show a new dimension of Rabbi Reines’ relationship with Zionism and with its founder, Theodor Herzl.

A poster featuring a photograph of Rabbi Reines, printed by the Mizrachi’s Eretz Yisrael fund, apparently in 1940

Rabbi Reines brought together the sacred and the profane in many areas of his life. He founded a yeshiva that combined traditional Talmudic study with secular subjects, an innovation at the time. His scholarship combined traditional Talmudic genius with broad interests including mathematics, philosophy, and logic. So he was perfectly cut out to initiate close cooperation between traditional Judaism and secular Zionism.

Rabbi Reines first got involved in the Zionist movement in 1899, when he participated and spoke at the Third Zionist Congress in Basel. In the coming years he continued to participate in Zionist Congresses. He met Herzl and corresponded with him until Herzl’s death in 1904. In 1902 Rabbi Reines founded the Mizrachi movement, a religious faction within the Zionist movement founded with Herzl’s support.

That same year, Rabbi Reines published Or Chadash Al Zion (A New Light Shines on Zion), a religious defense of Zionism. He sent a copy of the book to Herzl, along with a letter that has been preserved in the Zionist Archive and printed in Sinai 3, page 340:

I am honored to present you with my book, Or Chadash Al Zion (A New Light Shines on Zion), which I dedicate to your great and exalted name. As I publish this book which speaks of the Zionist movement, I see a personal obligation to present it as a gift to the one who founded this movement and gives his life to it.

Upon Herzl’s untimely death, Jews around the world mourned his passing, Rabbi Reines among them. But the newly discovered Reines manuscripts show us that years later, Rabbi Reines was still speaking of Herzl and even made the unusual decision to lecture in honor of Herzl in his yeshiva.

From Rabbi Reines’ Yalkut Arachim, the National Library collections

The lectures of Rabbi Reines from the years 1908-1911 are collected in a manuscript titled Yalkut Arachim (A collection of entries). Rabbi Reines wrote a heading above each lecture with the date or occasion on which he delivered it. Most of the headings are typical occasions for lectures that come up in the life of a Rosh Yeshiva, like “opening lecture for the students at the Yeshiva”, or “Shabbat Hagadol” (the Sabbath before Passover when rabbis typically deliver special lectures), but two surprising dates appear:  “Sunday, 20 Tammuz 5668, the anniversary of the passing of the head of Zionism, of Herzl,” and above another lecture, “What I decided to speak about today, Wednesday, 20 Tammuz 5670, the anniversary of the (passing of) Herzl, peace be upon him.”

The first of these lectures is given the title “the participation of the living with the dead”, and in it Rabbi Reines examines the topic of immortality and life after death. Surprisingly, Rabbi Reines presents a fairly secular view of life after death: “When we see that even after his death, his achievements are recognized, that it a sign of his immortality.” Later in the lecture, Rabbi Reines adds that “those whose help is recognized even after their death have been made to be like God.” The last words of the speech are: “All signs of mourning are signs of immortality.”

From Rabbi Reines’ Yalkut Arachim, the National Library collections

We now know that Rabbi Reines’ connection to Herzl went far beyond political cooperation. Reines truly admired Herzl, seeing him as a figure who was larger than life and practically superhuman. Could it be that Rabbi Reines’ final sentence about signs of mourning is not only a general statement, but also a reference to himself, as he continues to mourn the loss of Herzl even years after his passing?


Find more of Rabbi Reines’ manuscripts, here.


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Latkes, Hanukkah Donuts and the Head of Holofernes

What did Jews eat on Hanukkah throughout the generations? When did the sufgania come along? And what were latkes made of before potatoes reached Europe in the 16th century?

A few years after Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucid dynasty, the Maccabean Revolt began. It was a struggle between Jews who were zealously protective of their religion and culture and the Hellenized Jewish elite who were supportive of the Hellenistic reforms introduced by the new king.

Three years of tenacious fighting ended with a Maccabean triumph. While the coveted victory was obtained, the Temple remained in a state of neglect and chaos, forcing the victors to rededicate the altar and celebrate – though rather late – the eight-day-long festival of Sukkot. A few hundred years after the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty, the Talmud recited the story from a slightly different angle; completely ignoring all military-related matters, the Talmudic story tells of the Temple’s priests who found a small cruse of olive oil that hadn’t been desecrated; though the amount of oil it contained should only have been enough to light the Temple Menorah for a single day, it miraculously lasted a full eight.

It is hard to think of a more appropriate story to establish a holiday filled with a wonderful assortment of oily, fatty foods – the kind that make you immediately want to scrap all those failed diet plans and new year’s resolutions, as well as any semblance of proper eating manners as you gobble away (no worries, we’ve all been there). But it turns out that was not the case. Comfort food dunked in rivers of olive oil was an invention born much later in history.

A small cruse of natural ‘Tnuva’ honey for Hanukkah, the National Library Ephemera Collection

Judith and Holofernes – A Hanukkah Story?

The mention of the oil cruse is one of the very few references to the Maccabean Revolt made in Talmudic literature. As a result, the question “What are we eating?” – perhaps the most important Jewish question imaginable when it comes to the holidays – was not fully answered, at least according to historical research, until the 14th century.

So, what did they eat during Hanukkah in the 14th century?

Around this time, the Sephardic Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girona (known as the RaN) instructed that one must eat dairy foods on Hanukkah. To substantiate this custom, the RaN told an interesting story about ‘The daughter of Yohanan’, who, deeply concerned for the fate of her people, fed cheese to the commander of an enemy army so that he would grow thirsty – and then proceeded to decapitate him. Following the death of their commander, his soldiers fled.

This story is conspicuously reminiscent of the well-known story of Judith and Holofernes. The RaN, followed by other Jewish rabbis of those days, began to falsely associate the story of Judith (who was not always mentioned by name) with Hanukkah – even though according to the Book of Judith itself, its heroine lived hundreds of years before the days of Antiochus. Who was Judith and how did she make her way into the story of Hanukkah?

The Book of Judith is part of the Jewish Apocrypha, a non-canonical text which survived over the ages thanks in large part to Christian traditions which adopted it. The story tells of Judith, a Jewish widow who snuck into the camp of an enemy force camped outside Jerusalem and loyal to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. The beautiful Judith seduced the enemy’s general Holofernes, feeding him dairy foods (according to certain versions) which caused him to become thirsty and drink large quantities of wine. When the drunk commander fell asleep, she decapitated him, spreading panic through the Babylonian intruders’ camp and causing the enemy soldiers to disperse in confusion. The RaN found justification in the medieval folktale versions of the story of Judith for what was apparently a popular custom of the time – eating cheese on Hanukkah. This is albeit the fact that Judith’s name does not actually appear in the story told by the RaN.

“Judith with the Head of Helofernes” by Giuseppe Cesari. The story became a common theme in European art

Latkes With No Potatoes? What is That?

More familiar Hanukkah foods began to appear in the 14th century. It was then that Hanukkah levivot (latkes in Yiddish) were mentioned for the first time in the satiric poem Even Bohan, composed by the rabbi and poet Ḳalonymus ben Ḳalonymus in Provence. But what were these pancakes made of, especially when potatoes were to reach Europe only well after America was discovered in the second half of the 16th century?


The first print of Even Bohan, Naples, 1489, one of the first books printed in Hebrew.

The folktale versions of the story of Judith provided an answer to this pressing question. According to some versions of the story, when Judith wished Holofernes to become thirsty, she fed him levivot, in addition to the aforementioned dairy foods. After beheading Holofernes, Judith commanded that a festive meal be prepared, including levivot or latkes, made from a mixture of dough and honey. Judith also encouraged the consumption of wine, to help bring about the joy of the holiday, much like in the story of Purim which appears in the Book of Esther.

And what about that marvelous oil? When did that come in? As it turns out, it all started with the sufganin – the ancestor of the sufgania (Hanukkah donut) we so adore. As early as in the Mishna, the word sufganin (סופגנין) appears in a complex Halachic discussion relating to the ancient custom of Hafrashat Challah – the setting aside of a portion of bread dough for the Temple’s priests – a practice which  was forced to evolve after the destruction of the Temple.

New immigrants to Israel celebrate Hanukkah with IDF soldiers and sufganyot, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

The authors of the Tosafot, who added to Rashi’s commentary on the Torah and Talmudic literature between the 12th and 14th centuries, were the first to associate the sufganin with Hanukkah. Over time, the link between doughy pastries, the sufganin and Hanukkah grew stronger; by the 14th century, oily foods were a proud Hanukkah tradition. Here below is a translated segment from Even Bohan, Rabbi Ḳalonymus’ 14th century poem  which makes reference to levivot and sufganin:

In the ninth month, in Kislev,
(his voice raised)
in order to honour Mattityah ben Yoḥanan the renowned
and the Ḥasmoneans,
the important women should gather
knowledgeable about making food [biryah] and cooking levivot,
large and round, the whole size of the frying pan,
and their appearance good [tovyani] and ruddy [argamani],
like the appearance of the Rainbow.
They bake the dough and make different kinds of tasty food from the mixture,
Ḥavitz in the pot, and porridge;
and above all they should take fine wheat flour
and make sufganin and isqaritin from it.
And the drinking should be what is proper to festivals,
with joy over every single cup


Even Bohan translation courtesy of the Open Siddur Project

A Great Miracle Happened Where? The Origin of the Dreidel

Four Hebrew letters – Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Pei – tell the story of our people. But did you know that the dreidel was not originally a Jewish custom?

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra'anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

Four letters – נ Nun,  ג Gimel,  ה Hei and פ Pei – tell the story of the Jewish people, or at least one of our most famous stories. This would be the tale of the Greek villain Antiochus who decided he was going to, once and for all, deal with that unruly lot who continually insisted on publicly boasting about how chosen, wonderful and one of a kind they were. Antiochus proceeded to spite the Jews and place idols in the very heart of their cherished Temple.

With the help of some handy divine intervention and a bit of ingenuity on the part of the Jewish military, the Maccabees managed to prevail over their enemy who had besieged Jerusalem, thus proving to the Hellenized Jewish elite that trust should be placed only in God and His Torah. To top it all off, a small cruse of oil was found in the Temple that would miraculously last for eight days of light – seven more than expected. This was the miracle referenced by the letters Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Pei, which stand for Nes Gadol Haya Poh – “a Great Miracle Happened Here”. These are the letters imprinted on the dreidel, the game most commonly associated with the festival of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra’anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

But do you know where the dreidel bearing these four letters originated? Here’s a hint – it is not an ancient Jewish custom.

Many Jewish holiday customs and traditions are rooted in the distant, oftentimes forgotten, past: Why do we fry latkes on Hanukkah and what were they made of before potatoes were imported from America in the 16th century? Why is it that we wave flags on Simchat Torah? How can we be expected to remember this stuff?

Hanukkah celebrations in Ra’anana, 1948. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

On occasion, as in the case of the dreidel, Rabbis and Halachic scholars are presented with a simple, undeniable fact they must contend with: On Hanukkah, we play dreidel. This raises the need to find (or invent) a Halachic explanation or story relating to what was, up until then, a slightly vague tradition of unclear origin.

In the 19th century, a certain group of rabbis who were faced with this question, came up with a creative answer: The dreidel, they explained, is a game Jews used to play whenever a Greek person was nearby. The idea was to fool the Greek into thinking the Jews were playing a harmless game, while hiding the fact that they were actually engaged in the forbidden study of Torah. The truth is a bit more surprising.

The origin of the dreidel is not entirely clear, yet most scholars agree it evolved from an English toy known as a ‘Teetotum’. It may be that the game was first brought to England by Roman soldiers.

Whether or not that was the case, this version of the spinning top had spread all over England and Ireland by the 16th century. During the 19th century, four letters were imprinted on the dreidel’s four sides, each representing an action in a gambling game:

N for Nothing

T for Take all

H for Half

P for Put in

When the game reached Germany, two of the letters were replaced:  T (Take All) became G (Gant), while S was the German letter used for Put In. H and N remained the same.

One theory links the acceptance of the dreidel as a favored gambling game to the fact that Jews in Germany were forbidden leave their homes on Christmas. With the synagogue off limits, more secular pursuits would occasionally replace Torah study during this time of the year. The Latin-German letters, however, were eventually substituted with Hebrew letters: Nun (נ), Gimel (ג), Hei (ה)and Shin (ש). For the purposes of the game, the meaning of each letter remained the same as in German.

A dreidel from the Dreidel Collection at the Center for Jewish Art, the National Library of Israel

So, when did the dreidel become a Hanukkah game?

Because of the common overlap between Christmas and Hanukkah, as the years went by the gambling game taken up by Jews in Germany became an innocent children’s game played on the Festival of Lights. The symbols were also given a different historical religious meaning – they became an acronym for the Hebrew words: Nes Gadol Haya Sham (“A great miracle happened there”) –the miracle of the victory over Antiochus and the cruse of oil.

In Israel, the Shin (ש) on the dreidel was replaced with a Pei (פ), signifying that a great miracle happened Here (poh), in the Land of Israel, which was no longer the distant There (sham).

Dreidels from the Dreidel Collection at the Center for Jewish Art, the National Library of Israel

The Composer Who Angered the President of Israel

Andre Hajdu, one of the greatest and most groundbreaking composers in Israeli history, a recipient of the Israel Prize, was not popular with everyone…


Andre Hajdu in his home in Jerusalem. Photo: Dana Shimoni

Silence filled the hall as the piece known as Ludus Paschalis, written by the composer and future recipient of the Israel Prize, Andre Hajdu, reached its climax. Suddenly, a single, brave voice uttered the words, “Mr. President, forgive us”. They were meant for Mr. Zalman Shazar, the President of the State of Israel, who had sponsored the special concert held at the Hebrew University in January, 1971. It was merely the second time the piece had been performed in front of an audience, following the concert premiere which was held in Tel Aviv the previous evening.


The festive concert was part of the Jerusalem Testimonium Festival, a special event being held for the second time, for which a number of pieces, dedicated to Jewish and biblical themses, had been specially composed. That year, the participating composers were asked by the concert’s organizer, Recha Freier, to create pieces relating to the Middle Ages. Who could be better-suited for such a task than Andre Hajdu? Though Hajdu, one of the most highly-regarded ethnomusicologists in Israeli history, was not a fan of mixing biographical and musical elements – we will use this opportunity to take a closer look at the extraordinary life of this fascinating figure.

Andre Hajdu was born in 1932 to a Jewish family in Budapest. He survived the Holocaust and later studied music under the greatest Hungarian musicians of his day, including Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, who were composers as well as ethnomusicologists. Following in their footsteps, Hajdu began studying ethnomusicology and folklore. He spent much time with the local Romani people (previously known as Gypsies), learning their language and studying their musical culture.

Hajdu later moved to Paris following the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, yet he did not find his place there and struggled to make a living. He later spent time in Tunisia, where he “rediscovered” his own Judaism amidst the unique Jewish community of Djerba. Upon his return to France, he began studying Gemara and observing mitzvot. What followed was only natural: With the encouragement of Dr. Israel Adler, founder of the National Sound Archives and the Jewish Music Research Centre, Hajdu made Aliyah and turned his attention to the study of another type of folk music – Hassidic music and the traditional melodies sung in the Beit Midrash.

Considering all this, when Hajdu was asked to compose a piece for the Testimonium, it was only natural that he created a piece of musical theatre dealing with the relationship between Jews and Christians, with the scourge of antisemitism and its place in the world – this was was the infamous Ludus Paschalis. The piece depicts a group of Christian children murdering their friend who poses as a Jew as part of a game.

The Hebrew words – “Mr. President, forgive us”, can be heard at the beginning of this recording from the performance:


In an interview he gave a few years later, Hajdu said the piece was “intentionally provocative”: “It was a sort of psychoanalysis of Christianity… (antisemitism) will be gone from the world only when the world itself is gone.” The entire piece, as recorded on that fateful night, can be heard here.


A segment of Ludus Paschalis in Hajdu’s handwriting. Courtesy of the Hajdu archive, the National Library of Israel


Yamim VeLeylot supplement, Maariv, January 29th, 1971

President Shazar was upset; the Jewish characters in the musical did not react to the murder which took place on the steps of the Beit Midrash, and this passivity was not to his liking. He left the event and did not attend the celebratory reception held in his honor after the performance ended. Sometime later, a meeting was arranged in an attempt to settle matters between the composer and the President. The meeting was not very successful, but over time, raw emotions were calmed. During the 1990s, the controversial composition was even played on Israeli public radio. Hajdu himself continued developing his career as a researcher, lecturer and composer, writing music to accompany various Mishnayot (verses of Jewish biblical commentary), composing sections of the Book of Ecclesiastes and more.

“The President Left the Premiere of “Testimonium” in Anger, Removing His Patronage”, Davar, January 6th, 1971

Hajdu’s unique personality and teaching methods encouraged improvisation and attracted the attention of students who wished to study with him. Well-known Israeli composers and artists admired the composer who passed away in 2016, including Gil Shohat, Yoni Rechter, Yonatan and Aharon Razel, among many others.



Andre Hajdu’s archives are kept at the National Library of Israel.


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