The Rabbi Who Performed Scientific Research From a Hungarian Prison

In 1920 Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, the chief rabbi of the Hungarian city of Szeged was arrested by Hungarian authorities who interrogated and imprisoned him for a year.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Belle Breuning

Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Belle Breuning, 1944

In 1920, Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, one of the most important contributors to the lexicons of Wilhelm Gesenius for the Bible and of Carl Brockelmann for the Aramaic Language, was accused of making political statements against the authorities and against the new governor of Hungary, Admiral Miklós Horthy.

During his 13 month imprisonment, Rabbi Lőw continued working on his famous work, Die Flora der Juden (“The Plants of the Jews”), which deals with the various vegetation mentioned in Jewish sources with a focus on Rabbinic literature. Written in German, the four-volume series was published between 1924-1934 and is available at the National Library of Israel. The series went through a second printing after the death of the author.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw - Statement of defense
Available at the National Library of Israel: The statement of defense from the trial of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Rabbi Lőw, who was charged with defamation of the Hungarian governor, was imprisoned and released a year later as a result of an international intervention.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw was born in 1854 in the Hungarian city of Szeged. As an orientalist, he was interested in the names of plants in Semitic languages since his youth.

Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Rabbi Immánuel Lőw in his youth

In addition to his studies at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin (Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums), he studied Semitic linguistics at the University of Leipzig, Germany. It was there in 1879 that he submitted his doctoral thesis on plant names in Aramaic (Aramäische Pflanzennamen). His scientific publications and notes on the animal and mineral issues in Biblical and Talmudic sources attest to his intention to publish two additional books, thus creating a series: “The Fauna, the Flora and the Minerals in the Jewish sources.”

Aaron Aaronsohn to Rabbi immanuel Löw
Aaron Aaronsohn’s 1908 letter to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Aharonson, the discoverer of emmer (“the mother of wheat”) describes his journey to Constantinople to report on his research. He requests information from Lőw about specific plants from these areas, from the NLI collections.
Lewis Ginsberg to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
A letter from Ginsberg Lewis of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw, from the NLI collections

After his death on July 19th, 1944, the estate of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw was preserved in the Jewish community of Szeged. On the day of the declaration of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, the community decided to donate the collection to the new State of Israel. The Hungarian government had other ideas and forbade the transfer of the collections to anywhere outside the borders of  Hungary. After a long negotiation, the State of Israel successfully purchased the collection instead of simply receiving it for preservation.

Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Rabbi Leopold (Lipót) Lőw

The collection was permanently deposited in the National Library archive in 1958. It includes correspondence, manuscripts, various documents, lists, speeches and essays by Immanuel Lőw and several pieces of correspondence and speeches given by Immánuel’s father, Leopold (Lipót) Lőw.

Isaac Samuel Reggio to Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Letters from Isaac Samuel Reggio to Rabbi Leopold Lőw in Hebrew and German, from the NLI collections.
Rabbi Abraham Geiger to Rabbi Leopold Lipot Löw
Three letters by Rabbi Abraham Geiger to Rabbi Leopold Lőw, father of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw. Frankfurt 1865-1867, from the NLI collections

Rabbi Leopold Lőw was born in Czerna Hora, Moravia, a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was imprisoned following the plots of his enemies who denounced him at the end of the revolution in 1848 but was pardoned by the Austrian general Julius Jakob von Haynau. Leopold Lőw was the rabbi of Szeged from 1850 until his son Immánuel took over the position in 1878. He also corresponded with many important personalities of his time.

Isaiah Luzzatto to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Letter from Isaiah Luzzatto (son of Samuel David Luzzatto – Shedal) in French to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw – Padova, 1880, from the NLI collections.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw’s father, Rabbi Leopold Lőw was the first rabbi who gave speeches to his congregation in Hungarian and the first who introduced the Hungarian Language into the Jewish prayer. He was an important rabbi whose rulings influenced the policies of the Austrian and Hungarian governments. His son Immánuel inherited his affinity for public speaking. This talent accompanied Rabbi Immánuel Lőw during his tenure as head of the Jewish community of Szeged, from 1878 until his death.

Abraham Shalom Yehuda and David Yellin to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Letter from the Hebrew Language Committee to Rabbi Immánuel Lőw on his election as an active member of the committee. Signed on the letter: Abraham Shalom Yehuda and David Yellin, from the NLI collections.

Immánuel Lőw was a representative of the Neolog communities in the Supreme Council of the Hungarian Parliament of 1927. He was a Zionist and served as head of the umbrella organization of the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod. He corresponded mainly in German, Hungarian and English with distinguished academic institutions, publishers, personalities and scholars of his time, among them Aharon Aharonson, Theodor Nöldeke, Nathan Shalem, Ephraim Hareuveni and others.

Theodor Nöldeke to Rabbi Immanuel Löw
Correspondence between Rabbi Immánuel Lőw and famous German Semitic languages researcher Theodor Nöldeke, from the NLI collections.

Rabbi Immánuel Lőw wrote more than 10 books on politics and religious topics. According to some sources, when the transports of Hungarian Jews to extermination camps began, he was allowed to leave Hungary as part of the Kasztner deal. He was removed from the deportation train, but he was gravely ill and he later died in the Jewish hospital in Budapester on July 19th, 1944.

Joint passport of Rabbi Immanuel Löw and his wife Bella Breuning
The joint passport of Rabbi Immánuel Lőw and his wife, Brenning Bella. Apparently, this passport was supposed to serve them when boarding the train to Switzerland as part of the Kasztner-deal in 1944, from the NLI collections

(For the records of Immánuel Lőw Archive click here).

The Jewish Stew Made of Anything but the Kitchen Sink

With very few fresh ingredients at their disposal, the Jews created a plethora of dishes that took full advantage of the limited components that were available.

Bialystok, November 20, 1932. Bringing pots of Cholent to the baker's oven on a Friday afternoon, YIVO Polish Jewish Archive

There is a level of unappreciated genius behind the Jewish culinary experience. With very few fresh ingredients at their disposal, the Jews created a plethora of cultural dishes that took full advantage of the limited options that were available.

There is a certain magic that comes with eating a bowl of carefully prepared, piping hot, aromatic Cholent on a cold Shabbat afternoon. The dish can only be described as a masterpiece of ingenuity and a work of art that has withstood the test of time to make it from the Middle Ages to modern day food establishments, cook offs and the typical Shabbat table.

The “anything goes” style dish can best be described as Jewish comfort food, came into being as a result of the Jewish law that forbids cooking on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. The dish is cooked on Friday afternoons and left on the heat for a long, slow overnight cook. The traditional, rich stew is comprised of whatever fixings are available on hand with ingredients and styles varying by country and continent, wherever Jews can be found. The typical Ashkenazic Cholent, stemming from Eastern Europe, is made from dried beans or barley, chicken or beef scraps, potatoes and assorted spices.

All you need to know about Cholent, The Sentinel December 20, 1945.

The name of the stew typically varies by location as well. The term Cholent is believed to stem from the French word, chald, meaning warm, referring to the low and slow method of cooking the meal in a pot. Others believe it stems from the Hebrew SheLen, meaning rested, referring to the overnight cooking method that would ensure a hot meal on Shabbat afternoon. In the Sephardic tradition, the dish is called Hamin, derived from the Hebrew word, Ham, meaning hot.

Heinrich Heine, the famous poet who converted from Judaism to Protestantism due to political pressures, was so enamored by the traditional dish that he wrote a poem professing his love and sharing his feeling that the recipe for Cholent must have been given to Moses by God Himself.

“Cholent is the food of Heaven,
And the recipe was given
By the Lord himself to Moses
One fine day upon Mount Sinai

Cholent is God’s bread of rapture,
It’s a kosher-type ambrosia.”

A recipe for Cholent, not given by God. “Foods to Remember,” from the Bnai Brith Messenger, December 16, 1955.

While this may seem like some serious love for a good pot of Cholent, a little parodic pamphlet written in the early 1800’s from the National Library’s Ephemera collection tells a tale of a lost love and the adversity and horror faced when a pot of Cholent gets tragically burned.

The pamphlet tells the story of an old man sitting at his Shabbat table surrounded by his family, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the traditional pot of Hamin. The dish arrives at the table and the old man opens the lid expecting the beautiful aroma of a perfect stew to wash over him but instead, to his horror- the contents of the pot have been completely burned. So deep is his sorrow at the sight of the smoky pot of food that he feels compelled to eulogize the poor stew.

That poor Cholent…He was so young. From the National Library Ephemera Collection.

“Hamin the son of Hamina, may his memory be a blessing, may the King in his mercy who rests between the stovetop and the oven and between the tongue and the lips, between the smile and the teeth, that was burned on the Shabbat through no fault of his own the death of his food is an absolution for all those who keep the Shabbat. May the King in his great mercy, have compassion on its consumers.”

The satirical eulogy concludes with a Mi Shebeirach (a public prayer or blessing recited aloud for an individual or a group), calling for God to bless the poor anonymous man who was served a pot of burned Cholent on the holy Shabbat.

This dedication and commitment to Cholent also found itself in the shtetls of Europe, where, on Friday afternoons, each family would walk their hot pot of freshly prepared Cholent down the road to the local bakery. There, the assorted pots, sealed with a paste of flour and water, would be placed in the baker’s oven to keep warm overnight. On Saturday afternoons, following the conclusion of prayer services, the reverse pilgrimage would take place when families would carefully fetch the hot pot from the oven in time for lunch.

Today, Cholent has its own cult of following. On Thursday evenings in Israel, there are many who flock to the eateries in the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to treat themselves to a pre-Shabbat Cholent to ring in the weekend. For those who don’t live near a restaurant where Cholent is served, the dish is also readily available in easy to prepare packets and, in some countries, you can even buy it ready made in a can from your supermarket shelves- although we definitely recommend the homemade version.

We are not in the Shtetle anymore! Advertisement for Osem’s Cholent “Ready Meal” Packets from the National Library Ephemera Collection.

The consumption of the heavy, aromatic stew tends to cast a spell on diners – one that can only be compared to the lethargy that comes following the perfect Thanksgiving turkey – lending to the perfect atmosphere for a good nap on the day of rest.

There is an old saying that claims you cannot consider yourself a good Jew unless you eat Cholent on Shabbat – but we believe a good pot of Cholent can be enjoyed any day! Perhaps it is time to break out the old cookbooks and give it a try?

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

Leafing Through the First Printed Book: The Gutenberg Bible

History is being preserved at the National Library of Israel with the conservation of two pages from an original Gutenberg Bible.

Though there is no doubt that the Chinese were initially ahead of the curve when it came to printing technology, the printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg took Europe by storm in just a few short years. Initially Gutenberg printed only single sheets of paper, leaflets containing poems, games, and short stories, but once he managed to convince investors to fund his invention, he printed the first edition of the first printed book in history in 1455: 180 copies of the world’s all-time best seller – the famed Gutenberg Bible.

A replica of Gutenberg’s printing press in Bermuda. Photo credit: Wikipedia

There may have been earlier attempts at developing a quick and efficient way of copying text, but Gutenberg’s method was the one that caught on in Europe and is still the basis of printing technology today, even in the electronic and digital era. In 1500, less than 50 years after the first printed book made history, there were already millions of printed books available throughout the European continent – some of which were printings of the Bible and other works that pre-dated the printing press, along with other, brand new works.

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed book, deserves an additional title: The First Printed Work of Art. It’s a 1,286-page masterpiece written in Latin using artisanal engraved Gothic script. Additionally, it features illustrations and decorated letterheads that were engraved and painted by hand. Of the initial 180 copies printed by Gutenberg, only 49 have survived over the centuries. The National Library of Israel doesn’t have a full copy in its possesion, but does hold two pages from an original copy of the Bible.

A page from the Books of Kings, the Gutenberg Bible, from the National Library of Israel Collection.

The invention of the printing press changed the world entirely. It enabled unprecedented distribution of knowledge and information, intrigued and intimidated authoritarian regimes, was a contributing power behind the Protestant Reformation, brought about the common layout of the Talmud, jump-started literacy, and was, according to historians and other researchers, a major enabler in the rise of nationalism in the modern era.

Though you may be reading this article on a digital screen, even now, 600 years after the first publication of the first printed book – print is far from dead; the same can be said about the first work brought to print by Gutenberg: The Bible itself.

If you liked this article, try these:

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The Maharal’s Robot: The High-Tech Golem of Rehovot

What do the Golem of Prague and one of Israel’s first computers have in common? Gershom Scholem explains.

In just 70 short years, Israel has become known worldwide as the Start-Up Nation. What began as the little country that could, has become a leading nation in the world of technological innovation.

While in today’s day and age we are lucky enough to have a computer in every home and an even smaller computer in the form of a cellphone in every pocket, it is hard to imagine that the world’s first computers once filled entire rooms and sometimes, entire buildings.

Israel’s first computer, a project that was spearheaded by Professor Chaim L. Pekeris at the behest of Chaim Weizmann, the WEIZAC, an acronym for Weizmann Automatic Computer, took up the space of a large auditorium. The project cost about $50,000, approximately 20% of the Weizmann Institute’s annual budget at that time. After a year of dedicated work and preparation, the project was completed in 1955 and the WEIZAC performed its first calculations.

In 1959, after about four years of work, the WEIZAC began to fail and a new computer was designed to takes its place. The new machine was completed in 1963 and the WEIZAC was shut down to make room for the next model. Upon hearing of completion of the next generation computer, Gershom Scholem reached out to Pekeris and suggested he name the machine, “Golem Aleph.”

The Sentinel, April 22, 1965

Dr. Pekeris agreed to the suggestion but only on condition that Scholem would come to the dedication ceremony for the new computer and explain why it should be named so. Gershom Scholem was invited to attend and give the opening remarks at the dedication at the Weizmann Institute on June 17, 1965 for what he referred to as “The Golem of Rehovoth.”

In his remarks, Scholem provided what he felt was an obvious comparison between the classic tale of the Golem and the brand new computer.

Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, known in Jewish tradition as the Maharal of Prague, is credited by Jewish popular tradition with the creation of a Golem.

The Golem of Prague was built from clay and, once the body was complete, the rabbi put the ineffable name of God in the figures mouth and the Golem came to life. The Golem performed for his master, protecting the Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. With all of his powers, the Golem was not granted the power of speech.

One Friday, the rabbi forgot to put the Golem to rest for the Sabbath as he was accustomed to do. The Golem suddenly grew in size and in a fit of rage, went on a destructive rampage. When the news reached the synagogue where the rabbi was praying, he rushed out into the street to confront his own creature. Rabbi Loew stretched out his arm and tore the Holy Name out of the Golem’s mouth, returning him to his original form as a lump of clay.

Scholem gave several reasons for the name be bestowed on the new computer. He explained that at their foundation, the Golem- “Rabbi Loew’s robot,” and the Golem Aleph had the same most basic function. The Golem was brought to life by the combination of the 22 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet that took shape as the name of God. The Golem computer knows only two symbols, the zero and one that make up the binary system. Everything can be translated into just these two terms so the Golem Aleph can process it. “I daresay the old Kabbalists would have been glad to learn of this simplification of their own system. This is progress,” said Scholem.

The Golem computer, at the Weizmann Institute of Science, photograph by Yuval Madar

Both the Golem and Golem Aleph function through energy, Scholem explained. The Golem, through the ineffable name of God and the computer, through the use of electric energy.

As for the shape, it is there that Scholem hit a tough spot for the computer cannot be compared to the shape of man. He did draw a physical comparison when he explained that unlike the Golem of Prague who was given the beautiful form of man, the Golem Aleph computer was not the most beautiful of creations but- for the computer, the beauty of the creation is what lies within. “External beauty has been denied to him,” said Scholem of the computer. “What kind of spiritual beauties lurk inside, we shall learn in due time, I hope.”

Lastly, Scholem compared the growth potential of the two creations. The Golem, after flying into a fit of rage, grew in size wherein the Golem computer was expected to only shrink as improvements are made in the future.

“Whether the Golem of Prague could correct his mistakes, I doubt,” said Scholem. “The New Golem seems to be able, in some ways, to learn and to improve himself. This makes the modern Kabbalists more successful than the ancient ones, and I may congratulate them on this score.”

Gershom Scholem from the Schwadron Portrait Collection, National Library of Israel

Scholem closed his remarks with a simple request to the inventors of the Golem Aleph:

“All my days I have been complaining that the Weizmann Institute has not mobilized the funds to build up the Institute for Experimental Demonology and Magic which I have for so long proposed to establish there. They preferred what they call Applied Mathematics and its sinister possibilities to my more direct magical approach. Little did they know, when they preferred Chaim Pekeris to me, what they were letting themselves in for. So I resign myself and say to the Golem and its creator: develop peacefully and don’t destroy the world. Shalom.”

Computers may have morphed from auditorium sized machines to electronic devices that fit into the palm of your hand, but Gershom Scholem’s request is timeless- else the computer may have a violent end similar to the one brought on by the Golem of Prague.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.