Religious Anarchist and Unobservant Orthodox: On Gershom Scholem, Harry A. Wolfson and Agnostic Sermons

Though they were both among the leading scholars in their field, Gershom Scholem had some fascinating critiques of his contemporary, Harry A. Wolfson

Gershom Scholem (left) and Harry A. Wolfson (right)

Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887-1974) is widely remembered as one of the greatest scholars of Judaic Studies in general, and of Jewish Philosophy in particular, of all times. The first full time professor of Jewish Studies in an American university (Harvard, where he also matriculated), Wolfson was a prolific author of wide ranging studies, not only in Judaica, but also in religious studies, penning major works on classic Christianity and Islam, as well.

At Harvard, where he taught for some fifty years, he trained two generations of scholars in Jewish studies, including Prof. Isadore Twersky, Prof. Arthur Hyman and many others. This is all the more remarkable considering that he grew up in a small shtetl in today’s Belarus and came to America at the age of 16 with excellent Talmudic training under Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein at the famed Slabodka Yeshiva, but with no formal secular training. Despite quotas limiting Jewish students at the time, Wolfson gained admittance to Harvard, studying with a diverse range of great scholars including George Foot Moore and George Santayana. He remained there for the rest of his long life.

His major studies in the realm of Judaica include those on R. Hasdai Crescas (1929), Spinoza (1934) and Philo (1947). He also published books on the Church Fathers (1956) and two volumes on the philosophy of the Kalam (posthumously, 1976, 1979). Wolfson quipped at one point that the Kalam became “his Vietnam” in the sense that he felt bogged down in the topic and unable to extricate himself.

Although he never traveled to Israel, Wolfson had occasion to meet Prof. Gershom Scholem on the latter’s trips to the United States. Here our story begins. On a visit in 1956, Wolfson presented Scholem with what, according to Scholem, he described as “my shortest work which, one day, will be a collectors’ item”. That work, a six-page pamphlet with only a page and half of text was the Morning Chapel Talk, based on a sermon that Wolfson had delivered in Appleton Chapel at Harvard on March 17th, 1955. According to Harvard tradition, every day at noon a different faculty member delivered a brief sermon. Wolfson, who had managed to avoid giving the sermon for many decades, finally acquiesced and delivered one based upon the verse “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (Psalms 14:1).  Wolfson inscribed the pamphlet, tongue in cheek:

 לידידי הפרופסור גרשם שלום

צבי וולפסון

מ”מ דק”ק קמברידז

(To my friend Professor Gershom Scholem

Zvi Wolfson

Preacher of the holy community of Cambridge)

Morning Chapel Talk, Harry A. Wolfson, the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

This time volume, which truly pales in comparison to Wolfson’s enormous books, and of which the National Library of Israel possesses only one copy, is found in the rare book division of the Gershom Scholem Collection.

There it would perhaps have been forgotten were it not for a series of events some twenty years later, after Wolfson’s death. One of Wolfson’s students and admirers, Leo W. Schwartz, had penned a biography, Wolfson of Harvard: Portrait of a Scholar (1978), which only appeared in print after the deaths of both Schwartz and Wolfson.

Wolfson of Harvard: Portrait of a Scholar, Leo W. Schwarz, 1978

As it happens, Scholem was invited by John Gross, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, to write a review.

John Gross’ letter to Scholem, the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Scholem threw himself into the project, filling the 310-page volume with extensive marginalia and adding several additional pages of notes as well, which are preserved today in the Gershom Scholem Archive at the National Library. What comes to light in perusing these notes is that while Scholem was impressed with Wolfson’s scholarship (although he has some criticism as well; Wolfson was considered a “daring” scholar and many of his theories were considered controversial), he seems to have had a more complex view of Wolfson the individual. As we shall see, Scholem was peeved by Wolfson’s never having visited Israel. Additionally, he apparently found this somewhat reclusive life-long bachelor to be rather odd. Thus we find in the notes that Scholem scribbled, references to Wolfson’s “eccentricities”, especially in his later years.

Scholem’s reference to Wolfson’s “eccentricities”. The Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Elsewhere, Scholem, apparently exhibiting a touch of sarcasm, even felt the need to comment on Wolfson’s favorite leisure time activity – the cinema, noting that, “he slept there!”

“He slept there!” – A note in the margins. The Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

The result of this was Scholem’s one-page review, published in the Times Literary Supplement on November 23rd, 1979 (p. 16). The very curious title was “The Sleuth from Slobodka”. It is striking that whereas the book he was reviewing chose to describe him in the title as “Of Harvard”, Scholem instead chose to emphasize Wolfson’s yeshiva background rather than his Harvard career![1]

After describing Schwartz’s book as “a curious book about a thrice-curious man”, Scholem does admit that Wolfson was “one of the towering Jewish Scholars of his period”. However, the tone quickly changes and Scholem states, “That the first professor of Jewish studies at Harvard should be a Yeshiva Bocher…may not be so surprising, given the background of most Jewish scholars who came to America. What is surprising is that…all his life he remained essentially a Yeshiva Bocher and transplanted the mind…of this species into the august halls of Harvard and into a method…given a modernist name: in his words, the ‘hypothetico-deductive method of text interpretation’”.[2] While Scholem is not the only scholar to have noted the methodological affinity between Wolfson’s research methods and that of the Talmudic inquiry that he had learned from Rabbi Epstein,[3] his highly critical response may be unique.

Scholem goes on to take Wolfson to task for “declining – often at the last minute – invitations to Europe and Israel where the universities were eager to have him as a guest or, in the case of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as a full professor.” Clearly Scholem, whose life trajectory was “From Berlin to Jerusalem”, was unimpressed by the strident Americanism of the scholar who had come “from Slobodka to Cambridge”! He also stresses Wolfson’s declining to express his own opinions upon the great issues facing the Jewish People in his time and goes so far as to accuse him of hankering for Gentile praise. Thus the critique of Schwartz’s highly sympathetic book spills over into a caustic critique of the book’s subject as well. Scholem was also bothered by the fact that Schwartz chose not to discuss Wolfson’s scholarly opponents, and he singles out Leo Strauss in the context of Spinoza, and Erwin Goodenough regarding Philo. It is certainly plausible that Schwarz, in his somewhat popular biography, had chosen not to go into the academic depth that Scholem felt was lacking.

Scholem, after pointing out that Wolfson defined himself as “an unobservant orthodox” chose to end his review by discussing our very own “Morning Chapel Talk”. After presenting Scholem with the pamphlet and explaining how he had finally agreed to give the sermon, Wolfson said, “So I gave them this talk, you can read it now”.

Scholem recounted, “When I had finished he asked me, with a wily expression on his face: ‘What do you think it is that I like best about this piece?’ I must have looked helpless. He said triumphantly: ‘You see, nobody will ever know whether I believe anything or not’. Among the many characteristic and passionate sentences I have heard from Wolfson, this was certainly the most remarkable one.”

In fact, Scholem had written a draft of this concluding paragraph on one of the pages that he inserted into Schwartz’s book. There he described the booklet as a “curious bibliographical item” and characterized Wolfson’s stance regarding his successful concealing of his personal beliefs as “great pride”. In the final version, Scholem replaced “great pride” with “triumphalism”. I’m not sure which is worse but it appears that Wolfson’s seeming smugness regarding his own agnosticism also rubbed Scholem the wrong way.[4]

With great pride he said: “Nobody reading this will ever know whether I believe or not”. From the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel

Thus a “curious bibliographical item” emerges as the tip of the iceberg of a complex relationship between two of the greatest Judaic scholars of the twentieth century, Wolfson of Harvard and Scholem of Jerusalem.[5]



[1] In the interest of fairness, we must admit that it is possible that the journal, and not Scholem, chose the title. Nonetheless, as we shall see, the title quite fits the content.

[2] The same personal style could have been viewed more favorably, such as in this quote from Wolfson’s student Prof. Isadore Twersky, “He was reminiscent of an old-fashioned gaon, transposed into a modern university setting, studying day and night, resisting presumptive attractions and distractions, honors and chores”. “Harry Austryn Wolfson, 1887–1974”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 95 (2), pp. 181–183.

[3] See Hillel Goldberg, “Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish Transitional Figures from Eastern Europe”, Hoboken 1989, pp. 37-62.

[4] Scholem’s caustic review did not go unanswered. Prof. Judah Goldin, in a long rebuttal, entitled “On the Sleuth of Slobodka and the Cortez of Kabbalah” (The American Scholar, vol. 49, Summer 1980, pp. 391-404) took Scholem to task for what he believed to be unreasonable criticisms of both Wolfson and Schwartz. To the best of my knowledge, Scholem did not respond. This debate is mentioned briefly by Yaacob Dweck in his article “Gershom Scholem and America”, New German Critique, 132, (2017), pp. 61-81.

[5] Scholem did contribute an article to the Hebrew section of Wolfson’s Jubilee Volume, which appeared in Jerusalem in 1965, pp. 225-241.

The Gershom Scholem Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

Introducing Naamah, the “Mother of All Demons”

How the biblical figure of Naamah evolved into a terrifying demon that rises from the depths of the sea to seduce the men of the world

Four demonic mothers are mentioned in Jewish magical and Kabbalistic texts: Lilith, Naamah, Igrat and Machalat.  Only one of these, however, is dubbed the “mother of all demons,” and described as the mother of Ashmedai, the prince of demons. This would be the figure named Naamah—which happens to be a fairly common name among women in modern Israel.

Unlike the more famous Lilith, little has been written about Naamah. In this short article, we will try to review what we know of her and the beliefs and traditions surrounding her character.

Her name first appears in the fourth chapter of the book of Genesis. The text describes her as the daughter of Lamech and sister of Tubal-Cain, a member of a dynasty that originated with the infamous Cain, who murdered his brother, and continued with Enoch, himself a fascinating figure who “was no more, for God took him”, and who is sometimes associated with the angel Metatron. Like Enoch and the rest of his family, not much is written about Naamah in the Bible, a fact that has enhanced the sense of mystery surrounding her figure,  and which led storytellers through the ages to embellish her character with various biographical details. According to one midrash, Naamah was the wife of Noah. Another interpretation has her as the wife of one of his sons. Yet other traditions identify Naamah with another woman altogether. We will return to those a bit later.

And Zillah also bore Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.  Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah” (Genesis 4: 22). From the Kennicott Bible, 1476, the Bodleian Library, Oxford

In the same midrash that mentions the marriage of Naamah, sister of Tubal-Cain, to Noah, the sages also give two seemingly contradictory origins of Naamah’s name. Some believed that the name was given to her because “all her deeds were pleasant [ne‘imim]” while the other interprets her name as “she would beat [min‘emet] on a drum to draw people to idol worship” (Bereishit Rabbah, 23). Another midrash states that Naamah was so beautiful that she was responsible for the incident mentioned in Genesis 6: “The sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.” In other words, claims the midrash, Naamah was one of the daughters of humans that caused the angels to descend to earth and to fornicate with them.

Her demonic character appears more clearly in the Zohar Hadash.

Yitshak said “Why is it written And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Na’amah?”

Well, Rabbi Yitzkak said , “She was a righteous woman and pleasing [ne’imah], in her deeds.”

Rabbi Abbahu said, “The simple sense of Scripture indicates that she was learned in metal-working, like her brother Tubal-Cain, as implied by what is written: he was the progenitor of every implement of bronze and iron – and the sister of Tubal-Cain, Na’amah. He invented this craft and his sister with him, as is written: and the sister of Tubal-Cain, Na’amah – she was skilled like him. The ‘and’ of ‘and the sister’ joins the preceding statement.”

Rabbi Bo said, “She was the mother of demons; she bore them. For look, the mother of Ashmedai, king of the demons, is named Na’amah

 (Zohar Hadash, Bereishit 33b; author’s emphasis)

Bronze amulet in Aramaic from the Byzantine period which mentions a demon described as a “Son of Naamah.” This is apparently the earliest extant appearance of Naamah on a magical amulet.

Evidently, there were two different traditions concerning the character of the biblical figure Naamah. The difficulty here is clear; it is, after all, impossible that Noah, “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time,” would marry a woman who became the mother of demons. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that in chapters 4 and 5 of the book of Genesis are two different lineages in which the names of Enoch and Lamech appear. Noah himself, according to the book of Genesis, is the son of Lamech—which, as we recall from the verses mentioned above, is the name of Naamah’s father. Apparently, it was difficult to reconcile the traditions, hence in later versions the characters split, and so Noah married another Naamah – Naamah the daughter of Enoch – a much more logical relationship, given the sacred nature attributed to Enoch over time. She is said to be the only woman in the generation of the flood who maintained her purity. If so, are these really two sides of the same Naamah, or are these two different women called Naamah—one “pleasant” and one an idolater? One a righteous woman and one a beautiful temptress? We have no definitive answer for now, so we will continue to examine the demonic version.

As we mentioned above, the demonic Naamah is called the mother of demons, and she is identified in particular as the mother of Ashmedai. Other stories give other genealogical details: sometimes Naamah is the wife of a demon king named Shamdon, and sometimes of other demons. Sometimes she is the mother of Ashmedai and sometimes of demons with different names. In any case, her name appears in quite a few genealogies of demons, such as: “Hanad begat little Hanad and took as his wife Naamah and she gave birth to Bilad and Bilad ruled from the seed of Ashmedai in the year four thousand eight hundred and forty to [the] Creation . . .” (Gershom Scholem in “New Contributions to the Discussion of  Ashmedai and Lilith” [Hebrew]).

And the sister of Tubal-Cain, Naamah, is the wife of Shomron, mother of Ashmedai, from whom demons were born who evoke her always during the demon oath taking” – Commentary on the Bible, Rabbi Menachem Recanati

Rabbi Bahya ben Asher wrote the following about the four demon mothers, among them Naamah, in his commentary on the Torah (Genesis 4):

We have a tradition that four women became the mothers of demons. They were Lilith, Naamah, Igrat and Machalat. Each one of them disposes of whole camps of followers and a spiritually negative aura emanates from them all. It is said that each one of them is dominant during one of the four seasons of the year and that they gather at the mountain Nishpeh. This mountain is located near mountains called Hoshekh [darkness] and each one holds sway during one of the four seasons of the year from sundown until midnight, they and all the members of their respective camps.

The gathering on the mountain is perhaps reminiscent of stories from European folklore about witches who would gather for communal celebrations at certain times of the year. Interestingly, the sages did divide the year into four periods, beginning in the months Tishrei, Tevet, Nissan and Tammuz. However, I have not been able to determine which demon is responsible for which period.

Naamah and Lilith appear quite often side by side in various writings. Like Lilith, Naamah’s main task was to seduce men in their dreams. In addition, she was Lilith’s accomplice in strangling babies. It is said that Naamah’s abode was in the depths of the sea. For example, in his Book of Mirrors (Sefer Mar’ot Hatsov’ot), David Ben Yehuda Hahasid (grandson of Nahmanides) writes: “And Naamah exists to this day, and dwells in the depths of the great sea and emerges and trifles with humans and seduces them in their dreams . . .” From there she would set off on her night journeys in the minds of human beings.

In the Zohar, it is written:

Rav Shimon: She [Naamah] was the mother of demons, having issued from the Side of Cain and was appointed together with Lilith over children’s diphtheria.

(Zohar 1:55a:7)

“I swear on all the families of the nations and sects of the demons and evil spirits . . . and all the sects of Igrat daughter of Machalat and Naamah and Zimzumit . . .” Naamah is mentioned here in an amulet for the “sick with urges and restless of body.” From Sefer Refuah Vehayim by Rabbi Haim Palachi, 10, 37b.

The demons Lilith and Naamah are considered so evil and frightening that they  are commonly identified as the two harlots (in other versions they are Lilith and Igrat) who seek a judgement before King Solomon in their quarrel over the child they each claim as their own, as described in 1 Kings 3.

The Jewish sages have not been able to reconcile the various traditions about Naamah’s character, and we will certainly not pretend to do so. Whether it was one Naamah or two, it’s always better to be on the alert…

Prof. Gideon Bohek and Prof. Yuval Harari assisted in the writing of this article. Special thanks to Prof. Elhanan Reiner for his help with research and writing.

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…