A Receipt for Funds to Redeem Captives Signed by Maimonides

Did you know that Maimonides' first public activity in Egypt was a large-scale mission to get Jews out of Crusader captivity?

The Cairo Geniza is a famous collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments, which for many centuries rested in the dusty storeroom of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue. It contained around 300,000 items, some of them over a thousand years old. The collection was only discovered by European scholars in the 1750s, and it has since been dispersed among different intitutions around the world, including the National Library of Israel.

In a letter found in the Geniza (which has since disappeared) the great Jewish rabbi and philosopher Maimonides, who spent much of his life in Egypt, makes an appeal to various Jewish communities “regarding the captives, may our God release their bonds”, and asks them to donate as much as they are able.

Maimonides describes how he and his colleagues “all the Dayanim [Rabbinical court judges] and the elders and the Torah scholars have all been going day and night and encouraging the people in Alexandria, in the synagogues and the marketplaces and at the gates of the houses” in order to raise the hefty sums of money required to redeem the captives. The letter mentions that the funds are being stockpiled by the emissary of Maimonides, Rabbi Aharon Halevi.


A receipt for sale of the maidservant

Several other documents dealing with this redemption of captives were also preserved in the Geniza. It is important to remember that at the time, Maimonides was not yet the renowned Rabbi he would become, but simply Moshe son of Maimon, a young 30-something year old scholar, a newly-arrived luminary who had fled from the terror of the Almohad Caliphate in Morocco. The actions he took to redeem captives were dynamic and effective and they may have been one of the reasons for his rapid ascent in becoming a leader of the Egyptian Jewish community.

One of the documents preserved in the Geniza is an order of payment, with a receipt on the back of it for an amount donated for the redemption of captives in the city of El Mahalla on the Nile Delta, signed by Maimonides himself. The sum was donated by Hiba (Arabic for gift, the equivalent of the Hebrew name Natan or Netanel), who raised the money by selling a maidservant named Nassrin.

The receipt documents the sale of “the maidservant…whose name is Nasrin”. In the payment order the seller of the maidservant testifies that “I authorized our Rabbi Moshe” to receive the sum, “and these nine dinars and when our Rabbi will receive them, he will spend them in order to redeem captives.” The payment order was signed by the same ‘Aharon Halevi’ mentioned above as Maimonides’s emissary and the date of confirmation of the order is “the middle ten days of the month of Elul” in the year 1170.


“I authorized our Rabbi Moshe…”

On the back side of the page is the ‘receipt’, in the handwriting of Maimonides himself (which we are familiar with from other documents): “I, Moshe son of Maimon, received it from Hiba son of Elazar may he rest in peace who is mentioned on the front of this document… and I wrote to him about this in the last ten days” most likely during the month of Elul. In other words, several days after the payment order.

(The payment order and the receipt can be found in the Cambridge University Library, TSNS309.12, and were published, together with other documents on the topic, by S.D. Goitein in an article in his book ‘The Settlement in the Land of Israel at the Beginning of Islam and During the Crusader Period’ (Hebrew) page 312 onward)

This article first appeared in Hebrew on Moshe Yagur’s Facebook page, Cairo Geniza Micro-history.

Purim Special: The ‘Azores Megillah’

The Azores Megillah at the National Library of Israel provides beautiful and early textual evidence of Jewish life in the Azores, and it has has recently been digitized for the first time.

Measuring just 12.7 cm (5 in) in height, this exquisite scroll was written in the 19th century and dedicated to David Sabach [i.e. Sabath], a well-known member of the Azorean Jewish community and a man eulogized as having great Torah knowledge. He was born prior to 1847, probably in Sao Miguel, Azores and died in 1915 in Portugal.

The Azores Islands belong to Portugal and are located some 1500 km (950 miles) from Lisbon. Jews fleeing persecution fled there in the 16th and 17th centuries, though they left no known written record of their Jewish lives or practices. The first written record we have of Jewish life on the islands comes with the arrival of Moroccan Jews in 1818. By the mid-19th century, the Azorean Jewish population was about 250, most of them living in Ponta Delgada, on Sao Miguel Island. The historic Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Ponta Delgada has recently been renovated and converted into a museum about the history of Azorean Jewish life.

The Azores Megillah came to the National Library of Israel as part of the famed Valmadonna Trust Library, the finest private collection of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world, which was purchased jointly by the National Library of Israel and archaeology, book and Judaica collectors Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn through a private sale arranged by Sotheby’s. The Valmadonna collection is currently being digitized and it will be showcased in the National Library of Israel’s landmark new building, designed by award-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron, and currently under construction in Jerusalem.

The Esther Megillah (or Esther Scroll in English) contains the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is read in Jewish communities throughout the world every year on the holiday. The National Library of Israel holds hundreds of handwritten Esther Scrolls from across the world, some of which are hundreds of years old. Each was written in a different community. Many of them are decorated in a style which may reflect their origins, and they are often dedicated to prominent members of the community, sometimes the individuals or families who commissioned them.

The digitized Azores Megillah may be viewed here in its entirety.

A Spectacular 400 Year-Old Scroll of Esther

​Take a look at the Scroll of Esther of Ferrara, Italy, whose magnificent illustrations show the expected fate of anyone who threatens to harm the people of Israel.

Esther Ferrara Scroll

The Scroll of Esther is different from the other books in the Hebrew Bible. Not only is God not mentioned at all in its pages, but Halakha (Jewish religious law) allows the Scroll of Esther to be illustrated without rendering it unkosher. Thanks to this, there are dozens of illustrated scrolls of the Book of Esther.

The Banquet of Queen Vashti from the Esther Scroll of Ferrara

Among the treasures preserved at the National Library of Israel is a unique Scroll of Esther that is over 400 years old. What is particularly interesting about the scroll, inscribed in 1617, are the illustrations that adorn it.

They seem almost cartoonish, and the scribe and illustrator, Moshe ben Avraham Pascarol, was not afraid to look directly at the atrocities described in the scroll, and accentuate them in order to achieve a dramatic effect. Many of the violent scenes, such as the decapitation of Vashti as well as the hanging of Haman and his sons, are graphically illustrated on the pages. The promotion of modesty is also apparent. While the violence and colorful gore are celebrated, the sexual aspect of the Scroll of Esther is completely downplayed.

The Beheading of Vashti

Each illustration ascribed to a verse in the Scroll of Esther illuminates it in a certain light. But one illustration is known to be inspired from other sources beyond the Scroll; in this image, Haman is seen offering Mordecai, who is dressed in mournful attire, the garments of the king. We also see three children who are asked to interpret what is happening, and they do so with three additional verses, all taken from other books in the Bible.

The third verse is the most telling – “I will wreak My vengeance on Edom through My people Israel” (Ezekiel 25:14).

Haman arrays Mordecai. The children interpret

This statement reveals a deliberate message from the illustrator. Traditionally the nation of Edom is linked not with Persia (the kingdom mentioned in the Book of Esther), but with the Roman Empire, and thus all of Christendom. Since the scroll is Italian and influenced with paintings of figures from the Italian Renaissance, the hidden message of the scribe and illustrator was very likely there for the Jews of Italy to interpret.

The message was probably meant as encouragement, calling on the Jews to take heart, for in every generation and in every place where the people of Israel reside – the Almighty will avenge any assault on them.

The Coronation of Queen Esther
The Hanging of Bigthan and Teresh, who plotted to kill the king

A Rare Photo Album Reveals the Lives of the Samaritans in Early 20th Century Nablus

The fascinating series of photographs documents ceremonies and traditions, some of which no longer exist in mainstream Judaism.

Like the majority of ancient nations, the truth regarding the origins of the Samaritan sect is lost in the mists of time. Samaritan tradition claims that the members of the sect are the Shomrim [guards] – the guardians of the true Torah who refused to accept what they saw as the false Jewish version, which considers Mount Moriah in Jerusalem as the holiest site in the Jewish faith and which was traditionally compiled during the Second Temple period.

According to this tradition, only the Samaritans – “the true Israelites” – live according to God’s law. This is because they sanctified Mount Gerizim, the sites of the temporary alter built by Joshua when the Israelites people entered the promised land, and built their temple there.

The book of Kings II 17:24, the most ancient source containing information about the origins of the Samaritans, presents a different version:

“And the king of Assyria brought [people] from Babylonia and from Cuthah and from Avva and from Hamath and from Sepharvaim, and he settled them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel, and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities.”

Based on this source, the Jews believe the Samaritans do not originate from the ancient Hebrews who were faithful to the original tradition concerning Mount Gerizim, but rather from a considerably later period. In their opinion, the Samaritans originate from nations brought by Esarhaddon king of Assyria, son of Sennacherib (who ruled between 681-669 BCE) to Samaria to take the place of the ‘ten lost tribes’. According to the book of Kings, the new settlers began to worship the God of Israel out of fear of the lions God sent against them (Kings II 17:26) and were therefore also referred to as ‘lion converts’. This is also the reason why the Jews who returned from Babylonia to the Land of Israel in the period of Cyrus refused to allow the Samaritans to help them rebuild their destroyed Temple.

Over time the two groups became so detached that the Samaritans, who branched off from the Jewish people over a thousand years ago, have their own version of the Torah, which they refer to as Sefer Abisha. The Samaritans do not accept the books of Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”), only the Torah, and they continue to use an ancient script known as Daatz. They similarly reject the Oral Torah.

Researchers who compared the traditional wording (that accepted by Jews) of the Torah and Sefer Abisha found some 6000 differences between the two versions. The majority stem from differences in spelling but others relate to the crux of the dispute between the two nations. The most prominent example is the question of the precise location of the holy place chosen by God.

“And it will be, that the place the Lord, your God, will choose in which to establish His Name there you shall bring all that I am commanding you: Your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and the choice of vows which you will vow to the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 12:11)


The Samaritans continued to live in Samaria for centuries. However, the sect which had extensive influence and resources during the Byzantine period underwent a process of gradual, constant decline following the quashing of the violent revolts during the Byzantine period, and later with the influx of Arab tribes into the region following the Muslim conquest.

By the beginning of the 20th century the sect had only a hundred and fifty adherents and Western travelers who toured through Israel at the time predicted their impending demise. Despite this, the sect continued to cling to its holy sites and to hold its traditional ceremonies, including the ceremony of the Passover sacrifice on Mount Gerizim as in the days of old. The renewed interest of the Western world in the history of the sect and later the establishment of the State of Israel improved its social and economic standing. Due to this, the tiny sect expanded, and currently consists of eight hundred members some of whom live in the city of Holon and some who continue to live in Nablus, adjacent to their holy mountain.

A rare photograph album preserved in the National Library of Israel offers a rare glimpse into one of the most important of the Samaritan customs – the pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim on the festival of Passover.

View the entire album

We are unable to determine the precise year the photographs were taken, but it appears to be a ceremony held in the early 20th century, no later than 1911, the year of the death of the tour guide Rolla Floyd whose name appears on one of the tents in the photographs.

Pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim

The Samaritans are commanded to go on a pilgrimage to the holy mountain on three different festivals – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The pilgrimage on Passover is considered the most significant, a fact clearly seen in the photographs themselves.

The pilgrimage to Mount Gerizim is conducted as a journey infused with grandeur and holiness, during which the worshipers recite a series of special prayers.

After ascending to the holy mountain, the sacrifices must be prepared. In the photograph we see young boys in the camp of tents established on Mount Gerizim at the foot of the alter together with the sheep brought to be used as a Passover offering.

At sunset, as the sun begins to sink behind the hills of Samaria, the High Priest (who we identified as Yaacov son of Aharon) recited the sacrificial prayer while lifting up the Torah scroll he brought with him. The Aramaic piyut which accompanies the ceremony deals with Isaac and the ram Abraham sacrificed in his stead – an event which the Passover offering sacrificed by the members of the sect comes to replicate. This is an ancient custom no longer found in Judaism and was therefore an object of curiosity for contemporary European researchers and tourists.

Two final preparations for the central event – the offering of the sacrifices: shearing the fleece and igniting the coals.


When everything is ready for sacrificing the offerings, the sheep are slaughtered and hung to be roasted.


Guests who are not members of the sect are permitted to attend the ceremony, and several curious figures in European dress appear in the ceremony documented in the photograph album.

The Passoverl offering was the only festival in the Samaritan calendar in which women were permitted to ascend the mountain and participate in the prayers together with the men.

Only members of the sect are permitted to eat from the offerings, which are eaten under the supervision of the High Priest – standing in the center leaning on his staff. The parts not eaten are burned on the alter.