A Rare Find: The Prayers, News and Blessings Concealed Within the Pages of Visitors’ Books from Rachel’s Tomb

The difficulty of daily life in the Jewish Yishuv, coping with the Holocaust and the breakout of the War of Independence revealed.

Every morning, except for Sabbath and festivals, Shlomo Eliyahu would board bus no. 22 from Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem and arrive at Rachel’s Tomb at around nine o’clock in the morning. Armed with a pistol out of fear of attacks from the local Arabs, he would open the entrance door with his long iron key and receive the visitors who came to pray at the Tomb. This was relatively novel in comparison to his predecessors: in their time, the Tomb was open to visitors mainly during the month of Elul and during the festival period.

Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman prepares the oil lights in Rachel’s Tomb. The picture is taken from the book “Al Em HaDerech: Sippuro Shel Kever Rachel” by Nadav Shragi

There is Hope for your Future

And they journeyed from Beth el, and there was still some distance to come to Efrata,

 and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult.

 It came to pass when she had such difficulty giving birth, that the midwife said to her,

 “Do not be afraid, for this one, too, is a son for you.”

And it came to pass, when her soul departed for she died that she named him Ben oni,

 but his father called him Benjamin.

So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Efrata, which is Bethlehem.

 And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.

(Genesis 35, verses 16-20 – English translation from www.chabad.org)


Fifty eight words in the original Hebrew. Five verses. One of the most tragic events of the book of Genesis is told with familiar Biblical brevity: On the way to the house of Isaac, the father of her beloved husband, Rachel gives birth to her second son and dies in childbirth. She did not even hear her child’s (final) name – Benjamin.

The tragedy of Rachel’s death is intensified by the fact that Jacob’s voice is unheard. What did he feel? What did he do? The Bible does not provide details. The only tears to fall in the Bible are those of Rachel herself. In the book of Jeremiah, the third matriarch is mentioned as one weeping for her children’s fate: “So says the Lord: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not. So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your work, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border” (Jeremiah 31: 15-17 – English translation from www.chabad.org).

It is this image of Rachel which has been preserved through the generations: the mother who prayed for her children throughout her life continues to worry about them after her death. So too the traditional place of Rachel’s burial is perceived as a place of prayers and pleading for the sons and daughters of the  “tearful mother”s .

The Last Caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb

The last Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb, Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman. The picture is taken from the book ““Al Em HaDerech: Sippuro Shel Kever Rachel” by Nadav Shragi

Shlomo Eliyahu inherited the position of Ashkenazi caretaker of Rachel’s Tomb from his father, Yaakov “Yankele HaShamash” Freiman, who served as caretaker for only two short years until his death in 1918. Shlomo Eliyahu had a lot to live up to and he was determined to fulfill the mission he had received.

From as soon as he began his role until it ended under tragic circumstances 29 years later, Shlomo Eliyahu conducted a daily record of the events at the Tomb in the visitors’ journal. The National Library of Israel recently received the last two surviving volumes of the visitors’ journal, out of 24 that are known to have existed. The period they relate to is a crucial period in Jewish history and that of the “State in the making” – the third and fourth decade of the 20th century.

For the ledger from 1932 click here

For the ledger from 1942 click here

What is in the Journal?

The cover of the visitor’s journal. View the complete visitors’ book

The visitors’ journals were arranged in chronological order on a wooden shelf in the room where Rachel’s tombstone is situated. Most of the journals’ pages are full of the names of the various visitors. The many visitors and the varied places they came from show the significance of Rachel’s Tomb, not only to the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora, but also to the many Christian visitors – some of them pilgrims, others soldiers in the allied forces or commanders in the British Mandate. There were visitors who did not suffice with simply writing their names, and added requests from “Mama Rachel”.

Most of the names are unfamiliar to a modern day reader of the journals; others will immediately conjure up images of key figures in the Jewish settlement and in the future State of Israel: Dr. David Yellin, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, Henrietta Szold, and even a 7 year old Ezer Weizmann who came to visit together with his mother Yehudit and his sister Yael.

Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi visits Rachel’s Tomb, page 4 of the first visitor’s journal

The anonymous visitors are objects of greater interest: What became of Rachel Frank from Lithuania who visited in 1932, a decade before the Holocaust? Was the couple Esther and Rachamim’s dream to have children fulfilled? Who were the visitors from Persia – new immigrants or tourists who returned to their native country? Each page brings more and more questions.

“Esther Rachamim daughter of Chanina with her husband Rachamim son of Pericha”, page 24 of the first Rachel’s Tomb journal

Eliyahu Freiman made slightly different use of the journals: dozens, and perhaps hundreds of his comments and observations in the two journals provide a more in-depth glimpse into the impact of the dramatic events in the Land of Israel and Europe on the Tomb’s activities. For him, the journals were a way to document the daily activity at the Tomb and his impression of the various visitors. They served as an account of the renovations and repairs, which Freiman himself (usually) carried out, out of fear of the Arab workers, and contain a description of his tense relationship with the local Arabs while mentioning the dramatic events taking place in the world.

“Please do not forget the caretakers who are here daily throughout the year and who endanger themselves to maintain and supervise this holy place and to keep it clean and tidy.” A notice enclosed in the second visitors’ journal

From 1940 onward, the terrifying descriptions of the Second World War and the decimation of the Jews take a central place in the journal. As well as the emotional pleas for help to which Freiman was accustomed. The Holocaust, which the Jewish people was enduring, awakened criticism of “Mama Rachel” as abandoning her sons and daughters.

It is doubtful that Freiman, or any of the visitors at the Tomb, were aware of the extent of the destruction taking place in Europe. Nonetheless, prayers for the salvation of the Jews “who are in danger of destruction” began to fill the journal’s pages. A fixed wording appears in the journal almost daily: a group of Jews comes to the Tomb, and they pray for the welfare of their brethren in occupied territory. One of the detailed examples is on the page dated April 5, 1943. On this day, Freiman notes there was a mass prayer of “several thousand visitors, including schools from throughout the country and several hundred soldiers”. Due to the crowdedness “there were several hours when it was impossible to visit inside due to the multitudes who stood and prayed.” In this emotional prayer “the cries and weeping…were unnatural.” The sights and things said in the Tomb were so disturbing that “several people fainted in distress upon hearing details of the anguish of our brethren who are suffering in the occupied countries.”

“May it be God’s will that we merit to see the complete redemption and the building of the Holy Land this year, speedily in our days, Amen.” Page 94 of the second visitors’ journal

A few days before the end of the War, on April 26, 1945, Freiman records a touching event which took place, when “an historical parokhet [curtain for a Holy Ark] which was preserved from several dozens of synagogues in Poland from the time of the riots which took place in several cities, and still has blood stains on it” was brought to the Tomb. It can be assumed that the parokhet was brought to the Tomb in the early days of the War, as the Freiman family brought the parokhet to the Tomb for several years “And now, on the 14th of Iyar 5705 [April 26, 1945], it was mended and brought once again as a memorial in the holy place.”

The story of the historic parokhet. Page 312 of the second visitors’ journal

Five days before the German surrender, on May 3, 1945, Freiman began the victory celebrations by drawing a large ‘V’ on page 314 of the diary. On the next page he wrote in large letters, perhaps in a very emotional state, the words: “Germany surrendered unconditionally, the war in Europe has ended, today was officially declared Victory Day”.

“Germany surrendered unconditionally, the war in Europe has ended”. Page 314 of the second visitors’ journal

Frieman dedicated the following two pages to writing a blessing of thanksgiving for victory day and a prayer of thanks. The victory celebrations continue at the top of the next page as well.

“On this day, we gather the glorious victory of the allied countries against the forces of darkness and tyranny… to give thanks to Your great name which is praised in bravery.” Page 316 of the second visitors’ journal
“Today was officially declared victory day” Page 318 of the second visitors’ journal

Rachel’s Tomb as the Arena of the National Struggle

Even though many of the visitors expressed concern for the survival of the European and North African Jews during the Holocaust, Freiman dedicated the lion’s share of his writing in the journal to the Jewish-Arab battle around Rachel’s Tomb. Even some of his most banal reports contain expressions of the escalating battle around Rachel’s Tomb. Freiman, who tried to remain on warm terms with the local Arabs as much as possible, found himself, together with them, in an impossible situation. He tried to help his Arab neighbors whenever they approached him for help, but never denied his identification with the Zionist mission and the nation to which he belonged.

When the time came to carry out repairs and renovations in the ancient building, Freiman and his Sephardi counterpart were forced to do the work themselves, out of concern of creating a precedent supporting employment of Arab workers on the site.

On 3, 4, 5, 6 Shevat we repaired the roof and all of the floors, it was scary and fearful but went successfully,” Shlomo Eliyahu Freiman’s comment, page 33 of the first visitors’ journal

Throughout his years as caretaker, Freiman was concerned that the Mufti and the Waqf would attempt to take control of the site by creating small de facto precedents. On March 26, 1936, the secretary of the Mandate government came for a visit and ordered the caretakers to file a report about the tensions with the local Arabs. 

The Secretary of the Mandate Government’s visit to Rachel’s Tomb, page 358 of the first visitors journal

As the years passed, even the most encouraging visits turned sour. When a number of Arabs came to ask for water during Passover of 1940, they told him that they want “the Arabs and the Jews to live in peace”, and did not forget to mention that “the situation is very bad for them because they are not gaining.”

In 1946, a pipe bomb was thrown on Freiman and two Arab neighbors who he was spending time with. This was an omen of what was to come. As the security situation in the Land of Israel became increasingly unstable, and with the mutual preparations for war, the feeling of security at Rachel’s Tomb was lost.

Leading up to the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1947, Rachel’s Tomb becomes unsafe. Freiman relates the throwing of a pipe bomb from a car. Page 382 of the second visitors’ journal.

In one of the last entries in the journal, Freiman copied the letter which he sent to the National Committee in March 1947, in which he informs them about the worrying developments: the appointment of an Arab guard by the Waqf. Ibn Hassan, the guard stationed in the nearby cemetery, antagonized the two caretakers and told the local Arabs that he is the guard of the Tomb. Whenever Ibn Hassan dared approach Freiman and threaten him with commands, Freiman made clear to the National Committee, “I shout at him and he leaves immediately”.

A few days after the U.N. vote on the Partition Plan, Freiman arrived at the Tomb and prepared it as if it was a regular day. The tremendous tension in the area eventually convinced him that he should pack up his belongings and leave. He did so, not before giving the journals to an Arab sheikh who lived nearby. This was last time he saw Rachel’s Tomb.


A news report published on July 3, 1967 about the discovery of Rachel’s Tomb’s visitors’ journal. The report was published in the Davar newspaper.


The two journals belong to an anonymous donor who chose to give them over to the National Library of Israel for safekeeping.



How Did Napoleon Bonaparte Invent a Rabbinical Court?

With the breakout of the French Revolution, the supporters found themselves having to face what was called “the Jewish question”.

With the breakout of the French Revolution, issues of civil rights, freedom of religion and from religion moved to the top of the popular agenda. The revolution’s supporters found themselves having to face what was called “the Jewish question.”

When they were not engaged in destroying the old world order and creating a brave new one, the Jewish question gnawed at the French revolutionaries until it came to symbolize the most difficult question of all for the Enlightenment: Is it in the power of man to change? The Jew, who more than any other group symbolized the “Other” (and mainly an “other” who was not Christian), was now at the top of the great “Renewal” project that the French revolution had intended for its people.

Bound up with the idea of “Renewal” was also a cold political calculation: it considered which of the groups in post-revolutionary French society will be prepared to accept political rights and contribute their share toward the establishment of a more enlightened, rational world that was free of prejudices. The initial inquiry carried out by the revolutionaries touched on the question of citizenship: whether France’s poor, among them the Jews, were entitled to “active citizenship” – that is, the right to elect and be elected to the revolution’s political institutions or whether they were entitled only to “passive citizenship” embodied most clearly in the defense of the patrimony of the Republic? Even for the most ardent supporters of emancipation of the Jews there was a precondition: France’s Jews must renounce any aspirations of Jewish nationalism and assimilate as individuals within the French nation. The Judaism of the Jews of France was, therefore to be solely an expression of their faith and nothing more.

The most interesting expression of the ambivalent, yet also positive, attitude toward the Jews in the revolution is found in an essay by the revolutionary Henri Gregoire who argued that the poor condition of the Jews stemmed from two main reasons: Christian discrimination against them and the ridiculous theories spread by their rabbis. He called upon the French nation to extend their hands toward its Jews in order to raise them up from the gutter, and for the Jews to respond in kind and make themselves over into more modern individuals.

Advocate of the Jewish Renewal, Henri Gregoire, etching by S. J. Le Gros

In September 1791, unprecedented legislation called for the abolition of any legal distinction between Jews and non-Jews in the French Republic. From a legal standpoint, during the decade of the revolution, the Jews had stopped being a distinct group. However, this step was both a blessing and a curse. Their unexpected emancipation allowed for Jews to more easily integrate into French society as individuals. However, as a society with a distinctly communal nature, there was no collective body – rabbinic or other – that could approach the government to bargain for its collective rights.


The French Giant Steps onto the Stage of History

In 1789, the glorious general Napoleon Bonaparte stepped into the revolutionary fray.  In a military coup, he unseated the Republic and established the short-lived Consulate regime.  At the head of this new governing body, which replaced the failed revolutionary directory, stood the first consul, Napoleon himself, along with two other consuls below him.

Out of a deep desire to learn from the failures of the revolution, First Consul Napoleon, who had meanwhile crowned himself emperor in 1804, sought to reach a series of historic agreements and compromises, among them reconciliation with the pope (the Concordat) in 1801, and recognition of the legitimacy of the Lutheran and Calvinist churches in France. Rabbinic authority in France which, with the revolution, had lost much of its power and its role turned to the new regime demanding a similar solution.

In an attempt to legitimize the dictatorial regime whose origins lay in an illegitimate military takeover, Napoleon chose the Jews as a case study in propaganda. After solidifying his position as liberator of the Jews with the abolishment of the obligation to reside in ghettos, on 30 May 1806, he invited an assembly of Jewish leaders that included rabbis, enlightened Jewish officials and leaders and other well-known figures. The meeting was arranged following a complaint filed against the usurious practices of the Jews of Alsace. Napoleon’s aim was to bring about the integration of the Jews and even to their full assimilation into French society. Napoleon was especially eager that Jews give up their erroneous ways – mainly the source of their livelihoods as moneylenders to the Christian populace – and adopt crafts and occupations that will benefit them and the French nation.

The Emperor Napoleon Grants Emancipation to the Suppliant Jews, from a French print, source unknown


Between Church and State: The New Sanhedrin

In order to formalize, consolidate and expand the conclusions of the meeting, Napoleon convened an even larger gathering not only from France but from across Europe. As with everything the emperor did, behind this step was an ambitious vision for the future: Napoleon demanded the creation of a religious constitutional codex for Jews to which they would be beholden as they were to the Talmud. He called the new body established in February 1807, “The Great Sanhedrin,” and decreed that like its ancient counterpart it have seventy-one members. But unlike in the past, twenty-five of its members would not be clerics.

The document issued by “The Great Sanhedrin”, which was written in French and translated into Hebrew, offered twelve answers to twelve questions posed by Napoleon. The members of the Sanhedrin tried their hardest to offer solutions that would please both sides: they declared that Jews must work toward integrating into the realm in which they lived but must also preserve their religious identity. But when loyalty to state conflicted with loyalty to halakha, apparently loyalty to the state took precedence. An example of this is the sixth amendment in the document, which states that when a Jew’s military duties clash with religious observance, he may refrain from certain religious observance in order to defend his country.

Introduction to the document issued by “The Great Sanhedrin,” printed in 1814. The complete document can be downloaded from Hebrew Books


In the rest of the amendments, an attempt was made to integrate the two authorities – the French state and the Jewish religion – and find a middle way. The most prominent example is the wedding ceremony: in order for the wedding ceremony to be “kosher” according to the Sanhedrin, the couple must register the marriage with a government official in addition to the religious ceremony performed by a rabbi.

The Sanhedrin debate the questions: Is a Jewish man permitted to take more than one wife? The complete document can be downloaded from Hebrew Books

With the Sanhedrin’s presentation of its learned answers to the twelve questions posed by Napoleon, the Emperor called it to disband and in its stead called for the establishment in France of six consistories, official bodies whose role it would be to enforce the rulings of the Sanhedrin.

If all this sounds somewhat familiar, you would not be mistaken. This was in fact the first modern incarnation of the “Chief Rabbinate,” an idea that made its way across various communities in France and Germany, and even to the State of Israel. As a mark of appreciation for the tireless efforts of the French Emperor (and of the French Jews), the Jews of Napoleon’s expanding empire composed dozens of songs, sermons and religious texts hailing Napoleon as “God’s chosen one.” The Jewish community used every opportunity to celebrate every positive event in the life of Napoleon: his escape from an assassination attempt, the victories of his army, his crowning as emperor, his birthday, his royal marriage, the birth of his son and more.

“A Blessing for the Emperor” from the National Library collections

Chilling Testimonies: How Christians Twisted the Talmud to Harm the Jews

For centuries, scholars deliberately distorted Jewish teachings to confirm their antisemitic views

A theological debate between Jews and Christians, 1483, unknown artist

Just like the Jews who own and study them, the books of the Talmud have also experienced challenging times. They were also burned at the stake in town squares, such as in Paris in 1240 and Rome in 1553.

The physical assault on the Talmud was usually preceded by attacks regarding the work’s content. Jew-haters understood that the books themselves could be used to harm the Jews.

The topic often arose in debates between Christians and Jews, such as in Paris, Barcelona and Tortosa, when Christians or apostate Jews accused the Talmud of containing anti-Christian content. Many clergymen tried their luck at studying Talmud, even learning Hebrew and Aramaic for this purpose. It was easier for them to make claims against the Talmud if they were armed with “knowledge” of its content, even if they did not always interpret it correctly. One of the first Christians familiar with the Talmud who recorded its teaching was a Spanish Dominican monk named Raymundus Martini (1220-1285). He wrote two anti-Jewish works. One of them was called “The Dagger of Faith Against the Moslems and the Jews” (Pugio fidei adversus Mauros et ludaeos), in which Martini attempts to prove the falsehood of the Jewish religion. The lion’s share of the book is dedicated to quotes from our Sages. Martini claims that the Jewish sources collaborate the authenticity of Christianity, and that the Tosefists and the rabbinic commentaries distort the truth.

Pugio fidei adversus Mauros et ludaeos, Leipzig 1687

Many anti-Talmudic works were written, and the invention of the printing press enabled these slanderous works to reach wider audiences. The sources were usually distorted and falsified. Even when exact quotes were supplied, they were usually taken out of their original context, or partially translated, translated erroneously, or related to and interpreted in a modern way despite being ancient texts.

Martin Luther was an expert in utilizing the invention of the printing press to promote the ideas behind his reform. Toward the end of his life, the founder of Protestantism published a treatise called “On the Jews and Their Lies”. In this treatise, Luther attacks the Talmud, describing the work as “Idolatry, lies, curses and apostasy.” Some consider Luther’s works to be the basis of German antisemitism.

Luther was not the first German to print works against the Talmud. In 1475, the Catholic writer Peter Schwartz published the book “The Star of the Messiah”, in which he writes, among other things: “The cursed book – the Talmud, which German princes should no longer tolerate, but rather should burn forcibly”. It is interesting to note that the first Hebrew letters printed in Germany appear in this antisemitic book.

Another German, Johann Christoph Wagenseil (1633-1705), despite having a close relationship with several Jews and even studying Hebrew, wrote against the Jews, mentioning the Talmud as well. He published his views in his book Tela ignea Satanae. Among other things, he translated the Talmudic tractate of Sotah into Latin. Photographs of Jewish manuscripts which Wagenseil owned and which he used to get to know his “enemy” are kept in the National Library.

The greatest attacker of the Talmud in Germany and overall was Johann Andreas Eisenmenger, who was born in Germany in 1654. He was educated in England and Holland, where he learned Hebrew and other Semitic languages.

In 1700, Eisenmenger published his magnum opus in Frankfurt, Entdecktes Judenthum – “Judaism Unveiled”. In this work, he attacks the Jewish religion, and claims that Jewish literature such as the Talmud and Midrash spread nonsense about belief in God, defame Christianity and Jesus and permit the Jews to relate to Christians in a hurtful and derisive manner.

This work was printed in two thick volumes and is approximately 2,000 pages long.

Entdecktes Judenthum, Frankfurt 1700

In this book, he compiled quotes from 193 Jewish sources in Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish, such as the Babylonian Talmud, the Zohar, prayer books, the works of Maimonides and Nachmanides.

Eisenmenger read the sources as they are and refused to interpret them in the historical context they were written in. He claimed that Jews are commanded to take false oaths, to murder children who converted to another faith, to test medication on Christians and to sell them rotten meat.

Emperor Leopold’s court Jew, Rabbi Samson Wertheimer (an ancestor of the author of this article), requested that the Emperor halt the circulation of the book. Later, the Austrian banker and diplomat Samuel Oppenheimer persuaded the Emperor to confiscate all two thousand copies. After Eisenmenger’s death, his successor printed new copies of the book in 1711. In 1740, the confiscated books were released from the Emperor’s storehouses, where they had been kept under lock and key. One complete copy is currently found in the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library.

Edtdecktes Judenthum, Frankfurt 1700

Eisenmenger’s book was the first attempt to publish a “scientific” book which quotes the very Jewish sources which ostensibly attack Christianity and Christian society. It was followed by other books printed in various countries.

However, there were also other ways to “prove” the authenticity of Christianity: in 1836 in England, a missionary named Alexander McCaul printed a weekly journal named The Old Paths. The journals were later compiled into a book which was also translated into Hebrew by a Jew who had converted to Christianity. As a missionary trying to bring Jews closer to Christianity, McCaul did not attack Jewish literature, attempting instead to write in a more pleasant manner and to prove the veracity of Christianity. The book contains quotes from the Bible, Talmud, Maimonides, Arbah Turim and the Shulchan Aruch.

The Old Paths, London 1837
Netivot Olam – the Hebrew translation of The Old Paths, London 1851

Isaac Baer Levinsohn of Kremenetz was one of the foremost Russian Maskilim and had close ties with the Czar and the Russian government. In 1863, he wrote his book Zerubbabel refuting McCaul’s claims. A comment at the beginning of a later edition of the book states that McCaul rescinded his claims about the Jews before his death.

The Slyness of the Talmud’s Opponents Is Revealed

Two blood libels revealed the true faces of the Christian slanderers: antisemites who distort Jewish literature to prove whatever they desired at any price.

In 1871, August Rohling, a professor of ancient Judaism in Prague, published Der Talmud-Jude, which contains distorted and falsified quotes from the Talmud. The book was mainly a copy and re-working of Eisenmenger’s work, to such an extent that some even claim it to be plagiary. Rohling was so sure of himself and of the things he wrote that he challenged Austrian Jewry to find mistakes or lies in the book. Rabbi Shmuel Yosef Bloch raised the gauntlet and accused Rohling of ignorance and lies. Rohling sued Bloch but withdrew the suit from fear of undesirable exposure. Rohling was a witness in the blood libel in the Hungarian village of Tiszaeszlar in 1882, where he testified that the Talmud commands Jews to use Christian blood.

Der Talmud-Jude, Leipzig 1891

Another famous Talmudic scholar is Father Justinas Pranaitis (1861-1917), a Catholic priest and professor of the Hebrew language in Saint Petersburg. In 1892, he wrote a book in Latin named Christianus in Talmude Iudaeorum, where he brings quotes in Hebrew and Aramaic with their Latin translation. He took most of the material from Eisenmenger. There are indeed sharply worded expressions in the Talmud against apostates, Kutim [non-Jews settled in the Land of Israel by the King of Assyria after the exile of the Ten Tribes], Amei ha’Aretz [uneducated people] and idolaters. Pranaitis considered all the above to be synonyms for Christians, hence his desire to attack.

Like Rohling, Pranaitis was called on as an expert witness in a blood libel case. This time it was the Beilis Trial in 1912 in Russia, in which a Jew named Menachem Mendel Beilis was claimed to have murdered a Christian child in order to use his blood to bake Matzah. Pranaitis’s expertise was challenged during the trial after it became clear that he did not know the names of the Talmudic tractates. This is most surprising, as the names of the tractates appear at the beginning of his book. He also claimed the Pope’s letter opposing blood libels to be a forgery. The documents were proved to be genuine – which again damaged the expert witness’s legitimacy.

Christianus in Talmuda Iudaeorum, Petropoli 1892

But make no mistake, even after the two modern slanderers of the Talmud were exposes as frauds, the Talmud continued to come under attack from Jew-haters and the negative attitude toward it (and the Jewish people in general) went from bad to worse. In the next article, we will examine the Nazis’ approach to the Talmud.


Hava Nagilah – The Birth of a Song

The story of ecstasy that produced the most famous Jewish song in the world.

General Allenby entering Jerusalem, and the famous song inspired by the event

During the First World War, the small Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel experienced a series of tragedies which threatened its very survival. The residents of Jaffa and Tel Aviv were expelled from their homes, export to Europe – the new settlement’s source of financial support – was completely ceased, and the threat of a repeat of genocide to the Jews of the Israel seemed more and more like a practical reality. There were very few reasons for happiness and rejoicing during that time, but this was all soon going to change.

The arrival of the British forces in the Land of Israel in late 1917 was the development which led to cautious hope in the hearts of many people in the Jewish Yishuv and throughout the Jewish world. There were those who translated this hope into bold deeds: the N.I.L.I network led by the Aaronsohn brothers and their friend Avshalom Feinberg who acted against Ottoman-ruled Palestine, others in the Jewish world in Europe and the USA enlisted in the British army. There were those who chose to exploit their natural talents to encourage the armed forces, and as soon as the British fight to capture the Land of Israel ended – to celebrate the new state of affairs.

The researcher, composer and music teacher Avraham Zvi Idelsohn belonged to the latter group. Idelsohn may have encountered General Allenby’s name for the first time when hearing about the victories in his glorious campaign of conquests throughout the Land of Israel but, this did not prevent him from being swept away by the waves of enthusiasm which flooded his city of Jerusalem with the two great tidings of 1917 – the Balfour Declaration on November 2 and the surrender of Jerusalem to the British on December 9.

A portrait of Avraham Zvi Idelsohn, from the Schwadron Collection in the National Library

The musicologist Eliyahu HaCohen fills in details about the writing of the song Hava Nagilah: “When they began to celebrate the day of redemption in Jerusalem, all eyes turned to Idelsohn, in the hope he would provide the ultimate song to express the events and the public emotion” (quoted from: Eliyahu HaCohen, ‘The First Ten Years: From the Songs of Jerusalem at the Beginning of the Mandate Period, 1918-1928’, Jerusalem During the Mandate Period: Activity and Heritage, 2003, pp. 480-481).

Avraham Zvi Idelsohn was a great researcher and scholar of Jewish music.  Idelsohn published ten volumes of tunes which he compiled from the various musical traditions under the title “Otzar Neginot Yisrael”, the first five volumes of which were dedicated to the Jews from the East and the remaining five volumes to the music of European Jewry. The original tune appears in the tenth volume of the “Otzar” of Hassidic tunes which was only published in 1932, but was written years earlier. The original tune is number 155, but in the song Idelsohn switched the parts of the tune.

The original notes

Idelsohn was also a cantor, music teacher and composer. He was an avid Zionist and wanted to create Israeli music based on traditional Jewish music. So, consciously or unconsciously, he grafted the words “Hava Nagilah” “Uru Achim” onto the Hassidic niggun he had heard from Hassidim.

As a researcher of Jewish music responsible for the revival of the Jewish source in the age of Zionist renewal, Idelsohn chose, instead of composing a completely new tune, to graft new words onto an old Hassidic niggun which he most likely heard in the ‘Tiferet Yisrael’ synagogue of Sadigura Hassidim in Jerusalem as early as 1915. Eliyahu HaCohen suggests two accounts of the manner the words of the song were composed – either Idelsohn alone or with the help of his students in the Lemel School in Jerusalem. Either way, the new words hint to verse 24 of chapter 118 of the book of Psalms, “This is the day God made, let us rejoice and exult in it’.

Let’s rejoice, let’s rejoice

Let’s rejoice and exult.

Let’s sing, let’s sing,

Let’s sing, let’s sing,

Let’s sing and rejoice.

Awaken my brothers with a glad heart.