Natan Sharansky’s Little Book of Psalms that Survived the Soviet Prison

During the darkest period of his eventful life, a small black book gave light to the imprisoned Natan Sharansky, symbolizing his connection with his wife and with the Land of Israel

Natan Sharansky's Book of Psalms

“On January 20th, 1980, my birthday, I was impatiently waiting for a congratulatory telegram from home…The next day I received an unexpected surprise – a real birthday gift! – when the official in charge of storing the prisoners’ belongings brought me a tiny book with a black binding, my Book of Psalms!”

(Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky, translated by Stefani Hoffman, Random House New York, 1988)

This is how former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky describes a rare moment of joy which he experienced on the 21st of January, 1980, when his prison officer gave him back his little black Book of Psalms. The book provided Sharansky with renewed hope throughout the long years of his imprisonment. He was never to be separated from this book ever again.

Natan Sharansky with his Book of Psalms

The book accompanied Sharansky during his most difficult years in prison. In his autobiography, Sharansky tells of how the book, given to him by his wife Avital on the eve of his arrest, was confiscated. As a religious book printed outside the Soviet Union, it wasn’t exactly recommended reading material in the Soviet prison system. At one point, when Sharansky was being transferred from one prison to another, the book was temporarily returned to his possession.  The prisoner took advantage of this opportunity and tore out the page which indicated the book had been printed in Israel. When asked about it later, Sharansky described it as a “book of folklore”. It was only thanks to this that the prison authorities finally agreed to return the book to him.

“The Psalm book was the sole material evidence of my mystical tie with Avital. What impelled her to send it to me on the eve of my arrest? And how did it happen that I received it on the day of my father’s death? The reading of the Psalms not only reinforced our bond but also demystified their author. King David now appeared before me not as a fabled hero or as a mystical superman but as a live, indomitable soul – tormented by doubts, rising against evil, and suffering from the thought of his own sins.”

In 2014, Natan Sharansky visited the National Library of Israel. One of his meetings was with the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, Timna Elper.

“I was so excited to meet Sharansky,” she said, “I told him of the impact that the story of his Psalm book, as he described it in his autobiography, had on my life.” Sharansky then pulled the tiny book out of his pocket and showed it to her. It wasn’t in great shape, as could be expected after years in a Soviet prison.

Upon seeing the state of Sharansky’s book, the Library administrators who accompanied the visit offered to restore it.


Natan Sharansky’s Book of Psalms, before and after restoration

The book was given thorough treatment in the Library’s facilities.  The heavily damaged cover was restored, torn pages were mended and and the many eroded page corners were treated using the Conservation and Restoration Department’s unique techniques. Finally, on the 8th of May 2014, the Psalm book was returned to its excited owner.

Sharansky receives his Psalm book after its restoration

Towards the end of his autobiography, Sharansky writes about his very last moments of imprisonment, all those years ago, just before he stepped onto the plane that would take him to freedom:

“Where’s my Psalm book?

“You received everything that was permitted,” answered the intellectual in an unexpectedly rough tone. He signaled to the tails to take me away. I quickly dropped to the snow.

“I won’t move until you give me back my Psalm book.” When nothing happened, I lay down in the snow and started shouting, “Give me back my Psalm book!”

The photographers were aghast, and pointed their cameras to the sky.

After a brief consultation the boss gave me the Psalm book. I got up and quickly mounted the ramp.

In a dark world of suffering and injustice, one small black book gave light to the imprisoned Sharanksy. It was a reminder of his Jewish heritage. It was a reminder of his wife, Avital, who gave him the book before his arrest. It was what provided him with the strength to survive those most terrible times.


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The German Martin and the Jewish Mordechai: When Buber and Heidegger Met in 1957

Hidden away in the Mordechai "Martin" Buber’s archives is a series of photographs in an envelope, labeled: “unidentified.” Why was the evidence of a friendly meeting between Buber and Martin Heidegger downplayed?

A photograph of the participants in the meeting. Front center: Heidegger and Buber

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, became a controversial figure after WWII. Heidegger was among the most prominent of the many German intellectuals who collaborated with the Nazi regime during the Third Reich, or at least, identified with it and took no position against it. As an original and seminal thinker who placed human experience at the center of his thought and viewed humanity as the supreme cause of everything, Heidegger had a profound influence on Jewish intellectuals of his day, mainly among German Jewry.

Marin Heidegger to the right of Martin Buber, 1957. The Martin Buber Archive in the National Library of Israel

Heidegger was an outstanding student of the German-Jewish philosopher Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and with the latter’s retirement in 1928, was selected to replace him at the University of Freiburg. His most important book, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit), published in 1927, was dedicated with admiration to his teacher Edmund Husserl, even though in effect, the book took a stand against some of Husserl’s foundational assumptions, and some viewed this dedication as a key to understanding the deep and complex relationship between two generations of philosophers.

In 1933, with the Nazi rise to power in Germany, Heidegger warmly welcomed their emergence. Just a few months after Hitler took over the national government, Heidegger officially joined the Nazi Socialist Party, and as a mark of distinction for this step, he was appointed rector of the University of Freiburg, a job from which he resigned after just one year of office. During that year, Heidegger took various steps intended to gratify the government, including various racially based attacks on Jewish colleagues.

One of the symbolic acts for which Heidegger was condemned and his reputation blackened as a Nazi collaborator was the directive to revoke the privileges of his elderly teacher, Husserl, as a Professor Emeritus at the University of Freiburg, due to his Jewish origins (even though Husserl had converted to Christianity). In the second edition of Being and Time, published in 1941, Heidegger, apparently under pressure from the publishers, removed the dedication to Husserl. Hannah Arendt, who was one of Heidegger’s best known students, and of whose intimate relationship with him much has been written, claimed that with this harsh attack of a student against his teacher, Heidegger hastened Husserl’s end, and even indirectly caused his death. Heidegger’s problematic relationship with Hitler and Nazism was even more clearly manifested by the way in which it percolated into his philosophical thought. His book Introduction to Metaphysics (Einführung in die Metaphysik), published in 1935, for example, included excerpts from a speech he delivered at the University of Freiburg in which he justified the supremacy of Hitler’s rule and the Third Reich.

After WWII, Heidegger was a pariah. The attempts to clear his name, – even by Jewish students such as Hannah Arendt – actually led to a reverse result. His philosophy, like his personality, was considered an abomination among many within and outside of Germany. The connection between him and Martin Buber after the Shoah therefore seems impossible, even for a liberal person such as Buber, who preceded many in his forgiving approach to Germany and the Germans. In Martin Buber’s biography by Maurice Friedman, Friedman quotes Buber’s writings, according to which “Heidegger the man was much more, in my view, than his writings.” Elsewhere, Buber is quoted as saying that all he had to state in condemnation of Heidegger had already been written when it happened, and therefore, there was no point in revisiting past events. However, Buber never related to Heidegger in his writings or public statements. Heidegger, for his part and quite surprisingly, testified in one of his interviews in the West-German media that he knew Buber’s name “from hearsay only,” and never knew him personally. At the same time, there is no doubt that Heidegger was very familiar with Buber’s writings, and even pressured the publisher of the festschrift in honor of his fiftieth birthday to approach Buber and ask him to translate an article for the volume. Buber refused, claiming that his failing health due to age prevented him from accommodating the request.

Buber and Heidegger by the coffee table. Second on the left: Martin Buber, second on the right: Martin Heidegger

Any mutual fear of public friendship and the fog surrounding the personal relations between the two evaporates in this series of photographs, which documents a friendly and warm meeting held in the late spring of 1957. With the picturesque Alps in the background, the two men met for two full days at the castle of Prince Albrecht von Schaumburg-Lippe, during which they discussed the preparation of an international conference on language (“Die Sprache”). The prince who hosted the two philosophers in his castle was the brother-in-law of Clemens Graf von Podewils, 1905-1978, who at the time was director of the Bavarian Academy of the Arts in Munich. Another partner in organizing the historical meeting between the German philosopher and the Jewish philosopher was Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, a physicist and philosopher of science in his own right, and the older brother of the president of West Germany elected in 1984. These two facilitators were organizing the conference under the auspices of the Bavarian Academy and wanted to summon Buber and Heidegger to a discussion on its content and goals. The meeting between the two was held, therefore, in a pleasant atmosphere, far from the public eye.

Buber conceded, according to the testimony of one of the participants, that immediately a bold friendship took hold between these two elderly men, who were unafraid of mocking the prejudices against Jews on the one hand, and against the Nazi rector on the other. In the photographs, the two can be seen smiling, and in a few of them, Paula Buber appears, sitting alongside her husband at one of their shared outdoor meals. Ultimately, due to Paula Buber’s sudden death just a few months later, Martin Buber cancelled his participation in the conference, and it was therefore not held as planned.

Martin Buber, 1946

The fascinating discussions between Buber and Heidegger at that historic meeting were recorded with characteristic fastidiousness and precision by von Weizsäcker, who understood the historical significance of this once in a lifetime dialogue. Blame, atonement and forgiveness were some of the topics discussed between the two, a Jewish philosopher of religion and a Christian philosopher who denounced religion, united to a great extent by their interest in the relationship between man and the Divine.

A personal dedication by Heidegger in his book about Hebel:

“To Martin Buber, with honest admiration, Martin Heidegger, Altreuthe, 29th May, 1957”

Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past

Organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in partnership with the National Library of Israel (NLI), a stunning exhibition of Islamic manuscripts, including twenty-four from the NLI's own collections, is set to open in New York City.

Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past, opening on February 14, 2018 brings together an exceptional group of rare Islamic manuscripts that testify to the fertile relationship between medieval Islam and the classical world. Covering medicine, philosophy, the exact sciences and poetic retellings of the Alexander Romance in Persian and Turkish, the exhibition includes lavish illustrations of Alexander the Great’s adventures and intricate mathematical, astronomical, and medical diagrams.

Nicomachus, the father of Aristotle, teaching Iskandar while Aristotle looks on, “Khamsa”, Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), India, 17th century. From the collections of The National Library of Israel / Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama

This exhibition provides an engrossing visual record of how, over the course of centuries, scholars, scientists, doctors, artists, and others in the Islamic world transformed ancient Greek material for their own day. Conceived and organized by ISAW in partnership with the National Library of Israel, Romance and Reason is curated by Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Research Associate, ISAW; Samuel Thrope, Selector, National Library of Israel, and Raquel Ukeles, Curator, National Library of Israel. Jennifer Y. Chi is curatorial and design manager for the project.

“This exhibition is an extraordinary opportunity for the Library. Including 24 manuscripts from the NLI’s Islam and Judaica collections, it is the largest exhibition of NLI manuscripts outside Israel, and the largest exhibition of our Islamic manuscripts ever,” said Raquel Ukeles, Curator of the National Library’s Islam and Middle East Collection. “Not only does Romance and Reason give us a chance to showcase some of the finest manuscripts from our Yahuda Collection to an international audience, it also allows us to build and strengthen relationships with leading cultural institutions in New York City and beyond.”


From about 750 CE to the end of the tenth century, Muslim translators, scholars, and commentators rendered a large portion of the extant classical Greek works of literature, science, philosophy, medicine, magic, and astronomy into Arabic. Seeking to learn from and make use of the knowledge the translations contained, these scholars expanded, updated, reimagined, corrected, and otherwise remade the documents to serve contemporary use.

In so doing, they shaped the intellectual contours of the Islamic world up to the dawn of modernity.

Romance and Reason opens a window into this fruitful interaction between Islam and the classical world with two thematic installations: one devoted to Islamic versions of the story of Alexander the Great, the other to scientific and mathematic topics.

Romance and Reason presents some thirty illuminated versions of the Persian accounts of the life of Alexander: the Shahnamah, or Book of Kings, an epic poem written by Abu al-Qasim Firdausi between 977 and 1010 CE, and the Khamsa, or Quintet, by Nizami Ganjavi, dating from the late 12th century CE. With a variety of exquisitely executed illuminations, the manuscripts in the exhibition were created over the course of five centuries. Together, they portray the evolution of Iskandar’s character and identity, showing him as warrior, king, seeker of truth, prophet, and more.

Iskandar and his retinue meeting with a hermit who then opens the gates of the Fortress of Darband by his prayer, “Khamsa”, Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), India, 17th century. From the collections of The National Library of Israel / Photography by Ardon Bar-Hama

The second section of Romance and Reason is devoted to Islamic developments in medicine, mathematics, astrology, and astronomy, with manuscripts that illustrate the ways in which Muslim physicians, mathematicians, and scientists elaborated on their classical predecessors’ discoveries, transforming works of the past into materials of use in their own place and time.

For example, highlights of the exhibition’s especially rich assortment of medical materials include four 12th century manuscripts, all by different artists, illustrating vignettes from the Greek physician Dioscorides Pedanius’s De materia medica; as well as one of the most important medical works written by an Islamic scholar: The Canon of Medicine, by the physician and philosopher Avicenna (980-1037 CE). Avicenna’s work remained a major medical textbook until the nineteenth century, as important to the Islamic world as Hippocrates was to the Greeks.

Diagram of the Eye, “Revision of The Book of Optics for Those Possessing Sight and Insight by Ibn al-Haytham,” Kamal al-Din al-Farisi (1260–ca. 1320), Ottoman Turkey, 1511, From the collections of the National Library of Israel

The exhibition will run until May 13, 2018 and will be held at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 15 East 84th St., New York, NY.

Into the Depths of Evil: How the Nazis “Recruited” the Talmud for Anti-Semitic Propaganda

It was the Talmud, more than any other book, which the Nazis used as conclusive proof of Jewish inferiority and the racial danger posed by the Jewish people.

The burning of books in Berlin, 1933. Source: Bundesarchiv, Germany

In the previous article, we discussed religiously motivated Christian attacks on the Talmud. As we saw, the Talmud was identified with the refutations and lies the Jews (allegedly) spread against Jesus, and Christianity in general.

The Nazis too did not remain neutral regarding the Talmudic period. They did so with racist motives. The Nazi party took power in 1933 at a time of an increasingly anti-Semitic atmosphere in Germany due, amongst other reasons, to their defeat in the First World War.

The anti-Semitic publications were not long in coming.

One of the harshest anti-Talmudic publications of this period is a booklet of caricatures published by the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Hammer named “The Jewish Appearance“. The artist Karl Relnik drew 35 clearly anti-Semitic illustrations and connected them all to words from the Talmud. On each picture is a quote from the Talmud, but the editor “forgot” to state the exact source of each quote, making it impossible to check its accuracy. Some of the pictures also have explanatory sentences from the writings of August Rohling (see the previous article) and others.



Der Judenspiegel, Leipzig 1926


One of the prominent figures in Nazi Germany was Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer. Many Nazi intellectuals published venomous and detailed attacks on Judaism and its literature in that newspaper, primarily against the Talmud. During his trial in the Nuremburg Trials, Streicher admitted that he had read the Talmud at great depth and considers himself a leading expert in Jewish works, mainly the Talmud.

However, the highest-ranking Nazi to write about the Talmud was undoubtedly Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi movement’s chief ideologist and later the one responsible for the occupied territory in Eastern Europe. Rosenberg claimed self-righteously that, “When we attack the Jews, we are not doing so out of disregard of freedom of thought, as they claim, but to attack a legal viewpoint which completely contradicts that of all countries.”

He claims that the more moral thinking is entrenched in a nation, there is less need for instructions and orders about behavior. The fact that Jews have so many commandments and that Jewish law delves into the most minute details of Jewish life, proves their lack of moral understanding. Therefore, the Jews only adhere to and emphasize control of technical instructions.

In a booklet which he published, Unmoral im Talmud (“Lack of Morality in the Talmud”) in 1920 and again in the 1930’s, Rosenberg quotes a selection of sayings from the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law), which ostensibly attest to the Jewish people’s moral inferiority. He begins with an introduction which describes the significance Jews attach to the Talmud, and says that approximately two thirds of the Jewish people still adhere to it 2000 years later.

Rosenberg contends that the opinions of Jews who are seemingly unaffiliated with the Talmud is also impacted by what is written in the Talmud, as its content is ingrained in the Jewish people. The Jews have double moral standards, and act among themselves with different moral standards than those they display toward gentiles. Rosenberg’s book is divided into six chapters: Jewish dialectics, love and marriage, law and justice, about service, Jesus and non-Jews and the Shulchan Aruch. Each chapter begins with a short explanatory foreword, followed by a list of relevant quotes.


Unmoral im Talmud, München 1933


One of Rosenberg’s senior staff members was Dr. Johann Pohl, who was responsible for the looting of many of the Jewish libraries in Eastern Europe. Pohl studied Catholic theology and wrote two doctorial works, one on the prophet Ezekiel and the other on the Jewish family during the period of the prophets. He visited the Land of Israel and studied Bible and Hebrew at the Hebrew University. He even published articles about the archeology of the Land of Israel. He later became a librarian in the field of Judaism and advanced to the important role of managing the library of the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. He wrote articles on the topics of Judaism, Zionism and Talmud, and even an article about the libraries in the Land of Israel in the Germany librarianship journal Zentralblatt fur Bibliothekswesen. Interestingly, in that article he refers to the Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) and its collections. He mentions its founder, Dr. Joseph Chasanowich; the library’s director, Dr. Hugo Bergman; and other important figures such as Gershom Scholem and Avraham Schwadron.

Pohl also wrote two books about the Jewish Talmud – a booklet named Die Religion Des Talmud and a longer book named Talmud Geist. In this book, Pohl explains the structure of the Talmud and each Jew’s obligation to fulfill what is written in it, including Jews who do not define themselves as religious. The book is replete with quotations emphasizing the Jewish hatred of gentiles and the belief that Jews are the chosen people. It is interesting to note that the book’s cover picture was from a censored edition of Maimonides’s Hilchot Avodah Zara [Laws of Idolatry].


Talmudgeist, Berlin 1941


Karl Georg Kuhn, one of the foremost experts on Judaism in Nazi Germany, presented a different approach to the Talmud. He studied Protestant theology, Semitic languages and New Testament Studies in the Jewish Theological Seminar and in Tübingen University. He was appointed as a lecturer there years later and taught courses on Talmud, Zionism, the Jewish question and Judaism’s attitude toward Christianity in the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. In contrast with previous attackers of the Talmud, he avoided provocative words of hatred and even wrote critically about those who did. He focused on the Talmud as scientific research. He did not use the writings of Eisenmenger, Rohling and their ilk, but based his writing on more academic and neutral sources.

Kuhn’s attacks on the Talmud were much more complex and scholarly than those of his predecessors. Instead of attacking the books’ content, Kuhn attacked the entire structure of the Talmud. He saw the Talmud as a legal, spiritually empty text, which embodies the entire spirit of Judaism and the Torah as a collection of different narratives. He dated Judaism itself to the period of Ezra the scribe, who he claimed to be the one to link the Torah to the Jewish religion as a Godly work. He directed his in-depth attacks toward rabbinical Judaism and its form of thinking. He published his thoughts on this matter in three long articles in the journal of the Institute for the History of New Germany, Forschungen zur Judenfrage, and later in a booklet which he published in 1939.

The Quote That Never Was

The same quotes repeat themselves over and over again in the various publications. One of the most “condemning” quotes, which appears in articles and books over the past 120 years, is from a non-existent source.

This popular source is “Libbre David 37”. There, according to the common quote, is written that “If a Jew should wish to explain some of the Rabbinic literature, he must only provide a false explanation. One who transgresses this commandment will be put to death. Providing information about our attitude toward the gentile religion would be equivalent to killing all the Jews, for if the gentiles would know what we teach about them, they would kill us.”

There is no source named “Libbre David” in any Talmudic tractate or any other Jewish book.

It could be referring to the Book of Psalms, as “liber” is book in Latin and most of the psalms are attributed to King David, but there is still no text there matching this “quotation”. Psalm 37 tells of the fall of enemies of the Jews, but does not make any mention of keeping the secrets of Judaism and the danger in revealing them. There are those who claimed it to be a spelling mistake and as referring to the book “Divrei David”. It is indeed written in this way in the introduction to Alfred Rosenberg’s book, where he quotes it. There are several books named “Divrei David”. The first published (Lublin, 1671), was the book of Rabbi David Lida. Interestingly, one of Rabbi David Lida’s acquaintances was none other than Eisenmenger (a Christian philosopher we discussed in the previous article), who claimed at the time to be interested in Judaism in order to convert. I went through the entire book and did not find any connection to the quotation under discussion. The theologist and orientalist Hermann Strack wrote that he went through three different books named Divrei David and did not find any mention of the quoted words of hatred. Theodor Fritsch, in his book Beweis-Material gegen Jahwe, and Joseph Bloch, in his book Israel und die Völker , attribute the “Libbre David” to two vague sources.

A search for the words “Libbre David 37” in an online search engine will yield thousands of results from different forums, Neo-Nazi websites and radical religious websites. All provide the same quote, but none of them explain what the book Libbre David is.

Anti-Semitic publications do no have to be accurate.

Many books and articles were written against the Jewish Talmud over the past hundred years. In this article (and the previous article) we only discussed some of the most influential of them. All the books mentioned are found on the shelves of the National Library, not far from the thousands of different editions of the Talmud itself.