In Memoriam: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and “The Home of the Book”

In his own words, what does a new library for the Jewish world in Jerusalem mean?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking at the 2016 gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel (Photo: Hanan Cohen)

The following was a public lecture celebrating the renewal of the National Library of Israel, which was given by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at the National Library in Jerusalem on May 29, 2014.

Rabbi Sacks served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 until 2013. He was a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world, and held a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University, New York University and King’s College London. Rabbi Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

He was a member of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel and a dear friend of the Library.

May his memory be a blessing and may his teachings continue to inspire.

The Home of the Book for the People of the Book

The idea of a new National Library of Israel is one of the great projects of the Jewish people.   But what does a new library for the Jewish world in Jerusalem mean?  What makes this new library different to any other in the world? What makes it unique, especially when you consider the special relationship between Jews and books?

When Amos Oz and his daughter Fania published their secular credo, their ani maamin, of what it is to be a Jew, they called it Jews and Words. George Steiner has often argued that Jews inhabit language even more than land. The great historian Simon Dubnow, who was shot and was lying dying in the ghetto in Riga in 1941, said as his famous last words, “Yidn, shreibt un farschreib,” “Write and record.” The last thing he wanted to say to the Jewish people before he died in the Holocaust was  “Keep writing,” as if writing were our most sacred act, as if the witness of words was our legacy to the world.

The Talmud tells a story of Rava who was waiting for Rav Hamnuna to turn up to a lesson, but Rav Hamnuna was late because he was spending extra time at afternoon prayers. Rava says to Rav Hamnuna, “Look at this, he is forsaking the delights of eternity and immersing himself in the pleasures of this world” (Shabbat 10a). Is there any other religion in the universe that would consider prayer a kind of secular pursuit – the pleasures of this world – compared to the eternity that you get in study? I don’t know any other religion that made study so much higher than even prayer itself. Indeed, the festivals are called in the Torah mikra’ei kodesh. The word mikra,  is another name for Torah itself, because from the very outset, in synagogue and in the Temple itself, these were places not just of prayer but of reading and interpretation of the sacred texts.

Books, and the acts of reading and writing, studying and teaching, interpreting and expounding, are all things absolutely fundamental to Judaism. For instance, a few years ago, I was asked by the British Secretary of State for Education whether it felt strange beginning a new year – Rosh Hashanah – at a different time from everyone else. I replied that when you celebrate the New Year depends on what is really important in your life. What is the most important thing for Jews? It’s schools. It’s learning, so the Jewish New Year in our part of the world always begins at the same time as the academic year.

The child Hillel Kempler on his first day of school, 1932 (Courtesy: Centropa)

The Secretary of State asked: “Chief Rabbi, do you have something to help us, a saying, a sentence, to help us encourage a year of literacy?” I said, “What do Jews do at this time of the year? We say, ‘Katvenu b’sefer chayim,‘ ‘Write us in the book of life.’ When Jews think of life, they think of a book. That is what we’re about.” Therefore, when the Koran calls us the People of the Book, that is one of the understatements of all time. We are a people only because of the book.

Please allow me to set a picture, a portrait, and  a context for a new National Library of Israel. I want to do so by showing that the Jewish people exists at the intersection of three extraordinary propositions which shape Jewish life from the beginning, which are special to Judaism, maybe unique to humanity. We will see how the National Library of Israel fits at the intersection of these three narratives.


Revolutions in Information Technology

Number one, what excites everyone nowadays? IT, information technology. We are currently living through a revolution in information technology – computing, the Internet and artificial intelligence – and it is the fourth of the great innovations in communication in our history. The third great moment of innovation in information technology was the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in mid-15th century Germany and in England by Caxton.

The Gutenberg Bible

The first real breakthrough in information technology was the invention of writing. Writing was, in effect, the birth of civilization. For the first time, this simple technology allowed human knowledge to become cumulative and expand beyond the capacity of a single human memory. What was the first writing system in history? It was cuneiform in Mesopotamia. Writing has been independently invented seven times in different parts of the world: Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Chinese ideograms, the Indus Valley script, the Minoan script known as Linear B, and later the Mayans and the Aztecs.

But there is a problem with writing. Whether writing takes the form of pictograms, or ideograms, or syllabaries, those early writing systems all involved a very large number of symbols, from the Chinese, which had 40,000 different symbols – it takes 20 years to learn 40,000 different symbols – to even the most stripped-down, basic, demotic hieroglyphics, which got it down to 450 symbols. That is still an enormous amount. When there is writing in the form of these pictograms or ideograms, the result is a hierarchical society, because only an elite will ever know how to read and write. They are the knowledge class, and the masses are illiterate and therefore powerless.

It was actually the second invention in information technology that made the difference and coincided with the birth of the Jewish people. What was that revolution in information technology? The invention of the alphabet. That was the decisive thing. Of course, why was the first form of the alphabet called “alphabet”? Because of the Hebrew alef-bet. The first form of this alphabet is known as Proto-Semitic or Proto-Sinaitic.

Alef-bet practice sheets with children’s drawings from the Cairo Geniza (Cambridge manuscripts T-S H 5.19)

The Proto-Semitic or Proto-Sinaitic alphabet was first discovered by a British archaeologist called Flinders Petrie in the turquoise mines at Serabit in the Sinai Desert in 1903. Writing the alphabet seems to have been invented around 38 centuries ago, around the time of Abraham. As far as we know, the alphabet was invented only once. Every other alphabet in the world is directly or indirectly derived from that first alphabet. Of course, the first alphabet which had letters for vowels was Greek and it was also the first alphabet written from left to right. The direct descent from the Proto-Semitic alphabet was clear: Alef, bet, gimel, dalet became alpha, beta, gamma, delta in Greek. So whilst it is Greek that is very often seen as the first alphabet, actually the Proto-Semitic alphabet existed at least a thousand years earlier.

What was the result? Well, if you can articulate all the knowledge in the world with a symbol set of only 22 characters, for the first time in history you have the possibility of a society of universal literacy. That is the thing that makes Judaism a revolution in human history, because it is literacy that is at the heart of human dignity, as Judaism understands it. When you have a society of universal literacy, you have the possibility of a society where every one of whose members can be seen as the image and likeness of God.

Chart for teaching the Hebrew alphabet, Frankfurt, 1650. From the National Library of Israel collection

This is what Isaiah means when he says, “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children” (Isaiah 54:13). ALL your children will be learned of the Lord, not just some of them. The clearest place that we see this is in the eighth chapter of the Book of Judges. Gideon, who has a problem with the inhabitants of Succoth who refuse to feed his army until they had beaten the Midianites, came back to the town of Succoth, caught hold of a child at random in the street, and said to the child, “Write me down the names of the leaders of the town.” The child then writes down the names of the 77 leaders of the town. Just work that out. More than 3,000 years ago, Gideon can assume that a child at random in the street knows how to write. When did we have universal literacy in England? 1870. So this is something absolutely extraordinary.

Indeed, Jews became the first, indeed the only, civilization that predicated their survival on education. Already in the first century, under Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla, Jews in Israel had a system of universal compulsory education. Jews became the people whose heroes are teachers, whose citadels are schools, and whose passion is learning and the life of the mind. That survives today, even among the most secular Jews. Sergey Brin of Google actually said to a reporter once, “I come from one of those secular Russian Jewish families where they expect even the plumber to have a PhD.”

That is the first point I make, that our people became a people because of the book, because they were there when the book was invented, the birth of the alphabet, which made it possible for everyone to read a book. Judaism comes into being, or the Jewish people come into being, simultaneously with the book.


Covenant and Conversation

The second point, and this is very, very hard for us to understand at this distance of time, is that the birth of monotheism actually created a crisis in the relationship between human beings and the Divine.

Monotheism was not simply a kind of mathematical reduction of many gods to one. That kind of reduction had already preceded, as it were, Moses, because there was a famous controversial Pharaoh of Egypt called Amenhotep the Fourth, otherwise known as Akhenaten, who was seen by Sigmund Freud and many others as the first monotheist. Akhenaten worshiped the god of the sun. That is not what Judaism is about. It’s not what Abrahamic monotheism is about. The real revolution of monotheism is not the reduction of many gods to one, but the idea that God transcends the universe, because God created the universe and therefore is not to be identified with or even symbolized by anything within the universe itself.

Abraham contemplating the stars in a work by E.M. Lillien, 1908

The result is a huge ontological abyss opened up between God and humanity. It’s not simply that God is big and we are small, God is powerful and we are powerless. Everyone, even the polytheists, knew that. It is that in our kind of monotheism, God is a different kind of being altogether, invisible, unknowable, unpredictable, a God that we cannot manipulate by magic, or explain by myth, or appease by sacrifices. The gods of the ancient world were close. You sensed them all around you, in the sun, the moon, the rain, the storm, the ocean, the forces of chaos. For the mythological mind, the world was full of gods.

What Judaism does from the first chapter of Genesis is obliterate that whole world at a stroke. It was the German sociologist Max Weber who said that Genesis, Chapter 1, is the decisive birth of Western civilization, where there is no struggle between the gods or between the elements. When God simply calls the world into being, Max Weber called this the “disenchantment of the universe,” what we would call the de-mythologization of the universe. Weber said if you want to see the roots of Western civilization, of science, and of rationality, you have to turn to Genesis, Chapter 1.

Max Weber, 1894

The question is, if God is so beyond the universe, how can we, frail, fallible and finite, relate to God who is infinite? How can we, who live within nature, relate to God who is beyond nature? That is the crisis in which Judaism is born. The answer the Torah gives is very simple. The answer is language. God speaks. And when we speak to God, God listens. That is the fundamental issue. Suddenly, language takes on an immense and fateful consequence with Judaism that it never had before. Indeed, God creates the universe by words: “Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). God creates the world with words. By creating humanity in His image, the great gift He gave us was the power of words, which Jews have used incessantly ever since.

Years ago the BBC did a series on the world’s great religions. The presenter finally came to his program on Judaism. He walked into a Jewish religious seminary and  interviewed  Elie Wiesel. The presenter said, “Professor Wiesel, Judaism seems like a very noisy religion. Do you have such a thing as silence in Judaism?” Wiesel thought for a moment, and replied, “Judaism is full of silences. It’s just that we don’t talk about them.”

In its translation of Genesis 2:7, that God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life, and man became a living being, the Targum says, “Ruach memallela“, man became a speaking being. It was that power of words which God gave Adam, and what gave Adam the ability to name the animals. God’s greatest gift is the gift of language. That then becomes the gesher tzar me’od –  the very narrow bridge – that crosses the abyss between finite humanity and the infinity of God.

Adam and Eve depicted in Sefer Evronot, Halberstadt, 1716. From the National Library of Israel collection

All of a sudden, everything rests on language, on God being able to speak to us and our being able to hear that speech. What that meant was that Judaism became much less a religion of holy places and of holy people, though we have holy places, Jerusalem the Holy City, and we have holy people, the kohanim – the priests. But above all, Judaism is a religion of holy words. That is where you will find God. Open a Torah scroll. Read. That is what made Judaism completely new in civilization.

This is a very subtle idea. There were two civilizations that thought in these terms, the two civilizations that become the first ever in history to break with myth. One was ancient Israel. The other one was ancient Greece. There is a subtle difference. They both take language very seriously. There’s a subtle difference between the Jewish view of language, “And God said let there be,” and the Greek understanding of language.

We know this because the theory of language developed by Plato was then taken up by a Jewish thinker, Philo, who was very much influenced by Hellenistic ideas and lived in Alexandria. Philo developed the concept of the Logos, “the word”, which had a huge influence on Christianity. The Gospel of John, which begins, “In the beginning was the word,” comes into Christianity through Philo, and thus Christianity develops a Platonic idea of language, which is different from the Jewish idea of language.

Philo of Alexandria

Suffice it to say that at the heart of Judaism is this remarkable idea contained in the description of the great festival Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. When Moses is at the end of his life recalling those events, in his final address to the Jewish people, the children of those that he brought out of Egypt, he reminds them of the great experience at Mount Sinai and uses a remarkable four-word phrase, remarkable only because it is so ambiguous. He says that what they heard was a “kol gadol v’lo yasaf“, “a great voice and it went on no more” (Deuteronomy 5:18). As the commentator Rashi points out, this could mean one of two things. “V’lo yasaf” means the voice sounded once and never again, or, as the Targum translates it, “pasak v’lo“, a great voice that sounded and never stopped. It is completely ambiguous. Did the voice happen once and never again, or did it sound once and ever again?

Of course, the reconciliation of that contradiction is that there were two modes of communication, the Torah Shebichtav, the written Torah, and the Torah She’be’al Peh, the oral Torah. The written Torah was written once and never again, but the oral Torah has never ceased. From the days of Moses to today, Jews have engaged in the mandate that God gave us to interpret His word afresh in every generation.

Judaism is, in short, an ongoing conversation between that once-and-once-only divine voice that sounded at Sinai, and the human interpretation of those words that has continued in every generation since. It is the great conversation that never ended. I call my commentary essays on the weekly Torah reading “Covenant and Conversation,” because “covenant” is mutual. God made it with Israel. Israel made it with God. But the whole of Judaism is that ongoing “conversation” between Israel and God as to how we understand God’s word for all time to make it God’s word for this time.

The end result of this was something quite extraordinary. We all know this, but we don’t often stop to remember it. What happened, having received the Torah from Moses, the Jewish people spent the next thousand years, from roughly the 13th century BCE to the third century BCE, writing commentaries to the Torah, which we call Nevi’im – Prophets and Ketuvim – Writings, the other books of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. They then spent the next thousand years writing commentaries to the commentary in the form of Midrash, Mishnah, and Gemara. Then they spent another thousand years writing commentaries to the commentaries to the commentaries, from Biblical interpretation to Jewish law to poetry, to philosophy, and to mysticism.

“Damascus Crown” Bible, Spain, 13th century. From the National Library of Israel collection

For 3,000 years, virtually every word that Jews wrote from 1,300 BCE to around the 18th century, was a commentary to the Torah. It was only in the 19th century that Jews began developing the literature of the Jewish Enlightenment, which was not directly a commentary to the Torah. Jews became a textual civilization, not only for the reason I made earlier, that we were there at the invention of the alphabet, but also because in Abrahamic monotheism, God, who is beyond nature, is to be found in a text, the text of Torah.

That text becomes the defining feature of Judaism, which could be understood in two different ways. The mystics and the prophets before them saw that text as a kind of ketubah, a marriage contract between the loving God and His beloved people, or to understand it, as I prefer to do, as the written constitution of Israel as a nation under the sovereignty of God. For these two reasons, Jews became a people of the text: because of the invention of the alphabet and because only through words could we fully enter into relationship with God.


The Global Nation

This brings me to the third and final point, in some ways the most poignant of all. It emerged out of two major crises. The first was the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE, and the second, much more seriously, was the tragic events of the first and second centuries of the Common Era, the Roman conquest, the destruction of the Second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, and the dispersion of Jews across the world. The question was, were Jews – no longer a sovereign nation in their own land, scattered instead around the world – still a nation?

In any conventional sense, the answer has to be no. What is a nation? It is a group of people who live in the same land, speak the same language, exist under the same government, share the same culture, and participate in the same fate. In any of those senses, Jews were not a nation. They didn’t live in the same land. They were scattered throughout the world. They did not speak the same language of everyday speech. Rashi was speaking French. Maimonides was speaking Arabic. They were not under the same government or culture. The medieval rabbis in France and Germany, Tosafists, were living under a Christian regime, and  Alfasi and Maimonides and others under a Muslim one. They did not share the same fate. While the Jewish communities of northern Europe were being massacred in 1096 during the First Crusade, Jews in Spain were enjoying their Golden Age. When the Jews of Spain were exiled in 1492, and the Jews of Portugal in 1497, and forced to wander the world for a century, the Jews of Poland were enjoying their Golden Age. Jews had none of the things that make a nation. Yet, they saw themselves and were seen by others as just that, one nation.

How was that possible? The answer lies in the one very unusual fact about Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks and Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah. This can be seen by asking a very simple question: What comes first in the history of any nation, the land or the law? The country or the constitution? The place or the political structure? The answer is obvious. First, there’s the place, then come the people. They eventually develop into a nation. They develop political structures. They create a ruler or a government who enacts laws. First the land, then the laws. No exception, except one, and that is Judaism. It is the only exception in all of history. The Torah was given in the wilderness. First came the law, and only later, as it turned out, an entire generation later, came the land. There is no other example of this in all of history.

The Giving of the Torah, depicted in a Jewish National Fund poster, 1960. From the National Library of Israel archives

The result of this was incredibly fateful, because what it meant was, even in exile, even in dispersion, they may have lost the land, but they still had the law. They may have lost their country, but they still had their covenant. That alone sustained them as a nation in the Diaspora. It is the only thing. God said so explicitly. Believe it or not, we read it in the Torah. In the midst of the curses, the Rebuke in the weekly Torah reading of “Bechukotai“, God says through Moses these words, “And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly” (Leviticus 26:44). God says, “Even in the land of their enemies, I will not break my covenant with them.” Because the covenant preceded the country, it survived the loss of the country.

The result was, even in the Diaspora, that the covenant was still in force. It was  Saadia Gaon in the tenth century, who was wrestling with this idea – it puzzled him. How come we, who are scattered all over the world, are still a nation? Saadia Gaon famously said, “Our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah.” Because of the Torah and only because of the Torah, Jews throughout the world kept the same religious laws, read the same religious texts, celebrated the same holy days, said more or less the same prayers. They even faced the same point, Jerusalem, when they prayed.

Two men rolling a Torah scroll, ca. 1900 (Publisher: E. A. Schwerdtfeger & Ce). From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Because of that, Jews became the circumference of a circle whose center was here in Jerusalem. Jews therefore became the first virtual community, the Torah became the first Internet, and the Jewish people became the world’s first global people and for 2,000 years, the world’s only global people.

What is for everyone else in the 21st century the newest of the new – the concept of globalization – is for us the oldest of the old. That was brilliantly summed up by Heinrich Heine in his wonderful phrase that the Torah became “the portable homeland of the Jew.” Wherever Jews carried Torah, they were at home. As we say, and I find this line almost unbearably poignant, we say in one of the liturgical poems at the climax of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, in Ne’ilah – the closing prayers, as the cry of Jews before the State of Israel was recreated, “ein lanu shiur rak hatorah hazot.” This is all we’ve got left, Master of the Universe. We’ve lost everything. All we have is this Torah. It was that text, that they could carry wherever they went, that allowed Jews to be at home even when they lost their home, because they knew that Torah would carry them back one day here to the Land of Israel and here to Jerusalem, the Holy City.

Jerusalem as it appears on a late 19th century map of the Land of Israel. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection, National Library of Israel

It was those three things, each one of them unique, that shaped the whole essence of Jewish identity. Not only by virtue of being there for the first alphabet did Jews become the first People of the Book. Jews not only by virtue of monotheism found, and were forced to find, God in words. They were also connected globally to one another by this book that they all read, they all engraved on their souls, and they all kept. That text kept Jews together and united as a single nation. The Torah can be seen as in every sense shaping this unique phenomenon, a people that only existed because of the book.

Indeed, we can see the Torah, we can see the Jewish people in this way, just as you see when you open Mikraot Gedolot, a central text surrounded by commentary, so the Jewish people has its central text here in Jerusalem the Holy City. All the world’s communities are like commentaries on that central text, because wherever Jews were, in every community, in every age, they added their own commentaries so that even though they lived in different cultures, and countries, and languages, and land, they remained part of that single extended conversation between the Jewish people and the God of heaven in dialogue with the terms of our destiny and our covenant.


Realizing the Vision: The Renewed National Library of Israel

Each of those three is a remarkable phenomenon considered in and of itself, but put them all together, and you get something quite extraordinary. Together they open up extraordinary possibilities when they become the backdrop for this project of a new National Library in Jerusalem, and there are three implications.

Simulated image of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem (© Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect).  Click image to enlarge

Number one, we began by saying Judaism was born in a revolution in information technology, the birth of the alphabet. If that is so, then we must use this new information technology, much of it shaped by Jews, after all, such as Sergey Brin of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, to enhance the new National Library, creatively, innovatively, to achieve our version in our time, in the 21st century, of what the invention of the alphabet did 38 centuries ago. Then, the alphabet opened up to everyone, democratized access to information. That democratic access to knowledge is what Judaism sees as fundamental to human dignity and equality.

Incidentally, the Jewish idea is the only one that has a chance of working. Let me explain why. Every other form of equality has been based on either equality of power or of wealth. But there is an inherent problem with democracy and equality of power. The problem is that power and wealth are both what I call material goods. The trouble with material goods is the more you share, the less you have. If you have total power but you decide to share it with nine other people, the result is you only have a tenth as much power as you began with. If you have 1,000 dollars and share it with nine other people, you’re left with only a tenth as much money as you began with. If you have a certain amount of knowledge and you share that with nine others, do you have less? Maybe you have more. Mikol melamdai hiskalti, the more we teach our knowledge to others, the more we learn. Wealth and power, at least in the short term, are zero-sum games, which means the more I share, the less I have. It means that wealth and power, the economy and the state, economics and politics, are always arenas of conflict. Knowledge is not, because the more I give away, the more I have.

That is why the Jewish version of an egalitarian society, a society in which everyone reaches his or her own full dignity by having access to education and to knowledge, is the only form of egalitarianism that really has worked and will continue to work. If somehow this National Library can open up its wealth of knowledge by using digitization and the Internet, and making all its materials available to everyone through a modem or through a Bluetooth connection, that would be revolution number one.

Simulated image of the Main Reading Hall in the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem (© Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect). Click image to enlarge

Number two, the National Library is a library that can form connections between Jews in this very, very fragmented Jewish world that we have now, where the gap between religious and secular continues to grow. As I began by saying, if there is one thing that even secular Jews believe profoundly, it is that we have a share in this heritage of literature and literacy. That is what makes the Jewish people what it is. That’s what Amos Oz was trying to tell us. That is what that wonderful MK Ruth Calderon, was doing in her maiden speech in the Knesset, when as a woman and as a secular Jew, she gets up and gives a Talmud lesson to the members of Knesset. It was a brilliant lesson, and it was a lovely way of saying, “You know what? This text belongs to all of us.” “Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). It belongs to all of us.

A campaign, a way of extending the National Library so that everyone can plug into it, is a way of opening up the Jewish text and the Jewish commentary to what Torah She’be’al Peh – the oral Torah – is really supposed to be, the ongoing conversation scored for many voices of Jews in conversation with the terms of their destiny. We like argument. In fact, I don’t think we know any other form of conversation. When I did a public conversation with Amos Oz, his opening sentence was, “I don’t think I’m going to agree with Rabbi Sacks about everything, but then, on most things, I don’t agree with myself.” That is how we use a National Library to say, “You are all a letter in this scroll. You are all a part of the Jewish conversation.”

Finally, my point about the Torah sustaining Jews as a global people means that I believe that this new National Library to be built here in Jerusalem, the Holy City, cannot be simply and merely a national library. It must be a global library, because it was only books that kept us together as a global people. How wonderful if, through the Internet and through digitization of all the manuscripts and books and journals in this library, we could allow any Jew anywhere in the world to access this heritage. Would it not be wonderful if coincidentally with the building of this new Jewish library went a worldwide campaign of Jewish literacy, which really could engage the imagination of Jews throughout the world, regardless of whether they are religious or secular?

It is therefore my hope and my dream that the day will come when visitors to the State of Israel, be they presidents, prime ministers, or popes, will be taken not first to Yad Vashem, however important that is, but here to the new national and international library, which I propose should be subtitled, “The Home of the Book for the People of the Book.” Let us show the world not only how Jews died but how Jews live.

Simulated image of the Main Reading Hall in the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem (© Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect). Click image to enlarge

My personal favorite atheist, Nietzsche, was one of the greatest of all time because he was the most honest. Nietzsche was a very profound thinker. Many people think that Nietzsche was anti-Semitic. Nietzsche wasn’t anti-Semitic. He did not dislike Jews, but he deeply disliked Judaism. In fact, many people hated Jews because they didn’t become Christian. Nietzsche hated Jews because they gave birth to Christianity. He regarded Judaism and Christianity as what he called “the slave revolt in morals.” Judaism and Christianity is what happened when slaves defeated their masters and imposed their code on everyone.

Nietzsche rightly saw the Jews were his most formidable opponents. Nietzsche defined his own philosophy as the will to power. I define Judaism as the will to life. They are opposed principles. The way I want to define it very simply is that Nietzsche framed the eternal human choice between, on the one hand, the idea of power, and on the other hand, the power of ideas. Judaism showed the world the power of ideas, simple ideas that can transform the world not through war but through education. That is what I would like a new national and international Jewish library to be.

Those who built this land and this State, the heroes of the land and the State, were motivated by one idea, by the prophetic vision of Shivat Tzion – the Return to Zion – articulated by all the prophets, by Jeremiah’s insistence, “And there is hope for thy future, saith the Lord; and thy children shall return to their own border” (Jeremiah 31:16).  The day will come when Jews will return to their land. If that idea motivated people to create this State, so may those who design and build this new National Library be lifted and inspired by a no-less-famous vision and a no-less-magnificent one. The words of Isaiah that we all know, “There will come a time when many nations say, ‘Let us come and visit the mountain of the Lord, Jerusalem; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem'” (Isaiah 2:3).

Simulated aerial view of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem (© Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect). Click to enlarge

The time will come when the nations of the world will recognize that the power of ideas is greater than the idea of power. On that day, from Zion will go forth the Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem. Let us show the world that other face of Israel, the People of the Book in the land of the book, whose language is the language of the book and whose landscape is the landscape of the book. That book that inspired some of the greatest moral visions and greatest religious poetry the world has ever known. To build this home of the book dedicated to the people of that book is a project that could bring blessing not just to Israel, and not just to the Jewish people worldwide, but to the entire world. May that great project materialize here in our time. Bimhera beyameinu, Amen – speedily in our days, Amen.


Rabbis Sacks’ speech has been published here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Origin of the Jewish Hat

How did the pointed hat of European aristocracy become an anti-Jewish Symbol? And was it the forerunner of the modern skullcap?

The yellow badge is undoubtedly the most infamous item of clothing in Jewish history. The practice of forcing Jews to wear this piece of cloth on the lapel of their clothing first appeared in parts of Western Europe during the 13th century. With their invasion of Poland, the Nazis revived the use of this insidious custom. In this article, we look at another article of clothing, the pointed hat, Pileus Cornutus in Latin, which some consider to be the precursor of one of the most recognizable Jewish symbols today.

Exactly when and where the pointed hat made its debut atop the heads of Jews in Europe is difficult to pinpoint. We know what the “Jewish hat” may have looked like mainly from images which appear in illuminated manuscripts.

One of the earliest illustrations of such a hat perched atop the head of a Jew is found in the early 14th-century Codex Manesse. In the image, we see the figure of Süßkind von Trimberg, a Jewish poet and troubadour, wearing just such a hat. In this medieval German poetry anthology, Süßkind is credited as the author of six of the poems inscribed in its pages. He happens to be the first German-Jewish poet whom we know by his full name.

Codex Manesse, Bibliotheca Palatina of Heidelberg

Interestingly, the pointed hat was not always identified with Jews. This style could be found in various places in medieval Europe and was worn by aristocrats and high-ranking officials, among others. Before the 12th century, even English peasants would wear the hat in imitation of the upper classes. How then, did this popular hat eventually come to be associated uniquely with Jews?

At the height of its fashion, at the turn of the 12th century, the pointed hat suddenly fell out of favor, around the time of the tragic and violent encounter between West and East during the First Crusade. Before making their way to Constantinople and the Holy Land, some crusaders led pogroms against German Jewish communities. These fueled anti-Jewish sentiment and imagery, which featured negative depictions of Jews wearing the pointed hat. Thus the item began to be associated in the medieval European mindset with the “killers of Christ” and with treachery in general. What self-respecting Christian would want to wear such a hat after that?

Jews’ lives and dress changed dramatically following the decisions of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, which decreed that Jews living in Christian lands must dress in a manner that distinguished them from the Christian population. This may also be the reason behind the change in the design of the Christian clergy’s headdress. As you can see in the illustration below, a second point was added to the traditional single-pointed miter.

The Fourth Lateran Council, a 13th-century illustration

England was the first among several Western European regions to adopt the identifying badge. The German-speaking cities added to this also the pointed hat. In 1266, the city of Breslau, now Wroclaw, located in western Poland, became the first to adopt the pointed hat as an indicator of Jewish ethnicity. City legislators ruled that the Jews must wear the badge, and “return to wearing the pointed hat (Pileus Cornutus) identified with the Jews in these areas, which in their impudence they have ceased to wear.”

As opposed to the badge, which was clearly defined by size, shape, and the motif at its center, the shape of the pointed Jewish hat was not. As a result, several types of “Jewish hats” appeared in German areas. Some were immediately prohibited, while others were permitted to be worn. However, any attempt to enforce a single agreed-upon form failed.

As was often the case throughout history, rather than object, the Jewish communal leaders chose to view the decree as a positive commandment. Thus, various rabbis, from Menachem Hameiri (1249–1310) in Spain to Yosef Karo (1488–1575), author of the Shulhan Arukh, in Safed, ruled that a believing Jew may only utter the name of the Lord or pray when his head is covered. Some, like Rabbi Yaakov ben Rabbeinu Asher (1270–1340), recommended that Jews not leave their homes with their head uncovered. Thus, one can view the modern yarmulke or kippah as the direct descendant of the attempt to transform the “Jewish hat” into something to be proud of – an integral part of their religious life.

Below are a few examples of pointed hats in Hebrew and other manuscripts:

Mahzor of the Western Ashkenazi Rite, 13th Century, Bibliotheca Palatina of Heidelberg


Bird’s Head Haggadah, 13th Century, the Israel Museum


Tripartite Mahzor, early 14th century, the British Library


Depicted here is a religious debate between Christian scholars (left) and Jews (right), in a woodcut from 1483 by Johann von Armsheim:


In this Yiddish ad from the early 20th century published by Yefet in Jaffa, we see various types of Jewish hats from Ashkenazi communities. The headline reads: “Jewish hats from different periods.”


Lastly, in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a 15th-century Christian Book of Hours, we see the Magi arriving to worship the newborn Jesus in the manger. They too wear the pointed hat.

For further reading:

Naomi Lubrich, The Wandering Hat: Iterations of the Medieval Jewish Pointed Cap, Jewish History, Vol. 29, No 3/4 (December 2015), pp. 203-244

Raphael Straus, The “Jewish Hat” as an Aspect of Social History, Jewish Social Studies , Vol. 4, No. 1 (January, 1942), pp. 59-72

The Missing Tomes: Gershom Scholem’s Wandering Talmud

The story of how Gershom Scholem's Talmud set finally found its way to the National Library of Israel

Gershom and Fania Scholem in their Jerusalem apartment

The Gershom Scholem collection at the National Library of Israel is known as the world’s most comprehensive collection of texts on Jewish mysticism, including such sub-topics as Kabbalah, Hasidism, messianic writings and Jewish magic. However, it is worth noting that Scholem did not restrict his book collecting to this field only. His library was much broader and contained books and articles in all the classical fields of Jewish studies: Biblical texts, rabbinic literature, Jewish philosophy and even some halakhic books (especially those noticeably influenced by Kabbalah). Scholem prized this section of his library and thought it should not be separated from the main part. He even addressed this point in a note titled “Regarding my library after my death”:

As regards my library after my death, the university library [today’s National Library of Israel – Ed.] should be aware that outside of my collection on Jewish mysticism there are several comprehensive units on certain topics that should remain together. . . I list here such units in which I invested great effort to assemble. [Details in English]. General Mysticism, Schelling, Meister Eckhart, Neoplatonism, Gnosis, Ancient Magic, Demonology, Witchcraft, Indian Religions, Esoteric Cults in Islam, Christian Mysticism and Christian Cults, Jewish Philosophy through the Generations, Sources and Studies on the Aggadah and Aggadic Motifs, Walter Benjamin.

Indeed, perusing the Scholem collection, one cannot help but be impressed by the wealth of these and other sub-collections, such as German literature, Kafka’s books, Jewish history, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Festschrifts and Yizkor books (memorial books to destroyed Jewish communities). The rich selection of midrashic and aggadic literature includes critical first editions, and in addition to the huge collection of books by Scholem’s friend, Walter Benjamin, the library also contains impressive studies about the famous German-Jewish intellectual. As a side note, I recall that a few years ago a professor of religion from China  who was on sabbatical at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University, would devote a few hours each day to sitting in the Scholem Collection and reading books on Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism and Confucius.

On the other hand, an occasional peruser of the collection will sometimes marvel at a “basic” book or books that seem to him or her to be “missing” from the collection. Sometimes they even exclaim: “How can it be that Scholem didn’t have . . . ?

The truth is that this approach is fundamentally mistaken, for one must not assume what Scholem did or did not have in his book-filled apartment at 28 Abarbanel Street in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood based on the books which appear in the collection today. And why is that? In answer, we must consider another note Scholem wrote as an addendum to the 1965 sale agreement of his collection to the Hebrew University.

“Books my wife is permitted to keep.” (Arc 4 1599 02/22)


Books my wife is permitted to keep.

Reference books


All art and art history books


Maimonides, Moreh Nevukhim

Midrashim according to her choice

Literature in Hebrew and foreign languages, according to her choice

Books in Jewish Philosophy the Library does not need


The “wife” referred to in the note is Scholem’s second wife, Fania (Freud) Scholem (1914–1999).

Many of these books were eventually added to the Scholem Collection at the National Library. But not all. Note that the list also includes mention of a “Talmud,” and thus, Scholem’s Talmud was not in the collection at the National Library. The collection contains a different Talmud set brought up from the Library’s stacks.

Many years ago, at one of the events at the National Library held in memory of Gershom Scholem, an elderly couple approached me and introduced themselves as Jeremy Freud, Fania’s nephew and his wife Dr. Michal Zilberberg. Among the things they told me was that Scholem’s set of Talmud was located in the library of the Israeli Supreme Court! I could not understand the details of their story and was left wondering – why the Supreme Court, of all places? And when and how did the set get there? But more to the point, I decided to try to track down the books and return them to their original home—the Scholem Collection. I immediately called the Court’s chief librarian and asked her to look into the matter. Were the books in fact there? And if so, could they be transferred to the National Library in exchange for another set of Talmud? She promised to investigate the matter, but she came up emptyhanded to my deep disappointment. The physical books were nowhere to be found in the library, and a thorough check of the card catalog and inventory came up blank. Either the couple had relayed to me incorrect information, or I just did not understand what they had told me. I did not give up and consulted some of the Scholem Collection experts, but no one had any idea about it. Sadly, I decided to give up the search and forget about it.

That was . . . until a few months ago, when out of the blue I received a phone call from the Supreme Court’s current chief librarian, Talia Zonder. (I had spoken with the previous chief librarian, whom Talia had recently replaced.) She told me (without her having any prior knowledge of the above story) that Scholem’s set of Talmud is in the private chambers of one of the Supreme Court justices located in the Supreme Court building. The judge was about to retire (she would not tell me who), and would like to donate the set to the Court library. Immediately, I understood that what Fania Scholem’s nephew told me years ago had indeed been true, but just somewhat inaccurate. Indeed, Scholem’s set of Talmud was at the Court, but not in the Court’s official library, which explains the fruitless results of my search. At any rate, she continued, the Court library had no interest in keeping the set, especially since it was not in good condition and was in need of rebinding. She then asked whether the Scholem Collection would be willing to take the books!

I imagine you already know my answer! Eagerly, I filled her in on the entire story, and said that we would be delighted to receive the set, subject to the approval of Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the National Library’s Curator of Judaica (who of course immediately agreed). The next step was for the librarian to obtain the judge’s consent to donate the Talmud to the National Library. After some time, the judge agreed. At that point, I involved the Library’s Receiving Department to organize the transfer of the set of Talmud to the Library and its repair. After some more waiting, the coveted books at last arrived. Unfortunately, I then discovered that the set was incomplete, some volumes were missing. Nevertheless, it is indeed the set of Babylonian Talmud that belonged to Gershom Scholem (printed in Vilna in 1921, without the commentary of Rif [Rabbi Isaac Alfasi]), as one can see from Scholem’s stamp on the title page.

Frontispiece, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Vilna, 1921

And finally, we can at last divulge the identity of the judge who donated the set…

Israeli Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, photo: Judiciary Authority of Israel Website

It is retired Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubenstein, who served as Vice President of the Supreme Court and before that as Attorney General as well as Cabinet Secretary. Rubenstein, who was apparently a close friend of Fania Scholem’s nephew, had received the set of Talmud from them as a gift, and made sure to record this fact in each and every volume.

“Donated by Dr. Michal Zilberberg and Jeremy Freud, nephew of the late Mrs. Fania Scholem”

The set is now undergoing disinfection. It will then make a few more stops—including rebinding and cataloging — after which it will reclaim its natural place among the books of the Scholem Collection. Researchers will be able to browse the pages and their margins in search of Scholem’s comments, which he famously jotted down alongside his thousands of texts and which often contain hints of links to other, related works. Perhaps yet another aspect of Scholem’s multifaceted personality (Scholem the Talmudic scholar?), will be revealed to us…

Eating by Example on Yom Kippur, an Epidemic Story

When cholera ran rampant, saving lives superseded all else

"Yom Kippur" by Jacob Weinles. Publisher: Levanon, Warsaw; from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem via the National Library of Israel Digital Library

It once appeared in an Israeli newspaper and had the elements of a good story.

An epidemic.  A famous rabbi. Public eating on Yom Kippur to prove a point.

The epidemic took place somewhere in Europe, sometime in the 19th century.

The protagonist was Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as “The Malbim”, the scholar, biblical commentator and crusader against non-traditional Judaism who was once imprisoned and exiled from Romania following particularly heated ideological disagreements with his co-religionists. Formerly chief rabbi of Bucharest, the aged scholar spent much of the end of his life on the road, including stops in Istanbul, Paris, Prussia and the Russian Empire.

Sketch of the Malbim, possibly drawn by the noted Polish Jewish artist, photographer and writer Haim Goldberg (also known as “Haggai”). From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel archives

According to the story, this staunch advocate of Orthodoxy commanded the normally forbidden act of eating on the holiest day of the year due to the dangers posed by an epidemic. The preservation of life, after all, supersedes virtually all other considerations and rules according to Jewish law.

When he realized that those attending synagogue had not listened to his instructions and were clearly fasting in any event, he had a bowl of grits and peas brought up to him. He made a blessing over his food and finished off the portion in front of his congregation, declaring:

“I said there is no obligation to fast at this time. ‘Preserving your lives’ overrides many commandments in the Torah, but I was nonetheless concerned that you would close your hearts and put your lives at risk, and so I had to serve as an example so that you would see me and do so yourselves…”

The problem?

The story doesn’t seem to have been about the Malbim at all.

While a number of epidemics plagued Europe during his lifetime, a survey of works ranging from children’s stories about him to doctoral theses and scholarly books revealed no clear mention of this perhaps apocryphal story.

A nearly identical – and better documented – tale is told of another famous rabbi of the period, Yisrael ben Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin, better known as Israel Salanter, the father of the modern Mussar Movement, which emphasizes the centrality of ethics and personal morality and growth to Jewish practice.

Accounts of the Rabbi Salanter story, which took place in Vilna in 1848, differ.

Some closely mirror the very public display recounted above, with an additional element of the rabbi making blessings over wine and cake before partaking of both on the dais.  Though he doesn’t mention Rabbi Salanter by name, the well-known Hebrew author David Frischmann dramatized this version decades later in his short story “Three Who Ate“. Other accounts over the years, some first-hand, offer a more nuanced take on events where the rabbi encourages the infirmed to eat virtuously, but does not command everyone to eat, nor make a spectacle of it himself.

Cholera ran rampant in those years, killing some one million people throughout the Russian Empire in 1848 alone. In addition to the Yom Kippur ruling, Rabbi Salanter physically and practically helped those in need, instructing his many students to do the same.

Outside the Old Synagogue of Vilna. Publisher: J. Ch, W. Verlag, from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

While his story may be the most well-known and provocative, Rabbi Salanter was certainly not the only major rabbinic figure of the period to condone and even encourage eating on Yom Kippur by those at risk during the seemingly constant cholera epidemics of the 19th century.  They were, of course, not arbitrary decisions, but ones often made after intensive consultations with leading physicians and based on thousands of years of Jewish legal precedent emphasizing the preservation of life over pretty much everything else.

That precedent is clearly laid down in the Talmud – the seminal work of Jewish law, philosophy and lore – which also includes many cases of stories for which the sages themselves debate the protagonist’s identity.

Ultimately, some would argue, it often doesn’t really matter who did what, as the story itself and the accompanying lesson are what’s truly important.

It is possible that, like Rabbi Salanter, the Malbim once ate in front of his congregation on Yom Kippur.

Perhaps he did it in a less provocative and less memorable way.

Perhaps it never happened at all and perhaps that doesn’t really matter.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.