The Return of the Lost Siddur of the Jews of Catalonia

Following years of work, we take a look at a reconstructed medieval prayer book used by the Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca

“May the Creator who conceived the entire world in His glory be sanctified and exalted. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. A day when a new window has opened in the heavens and the streams of our prayers return to their stead. I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, to have been privileged to publish the prayer book of the holy community of Catalonia in an edition adapted to our times and to restore the original splendor and administer the customs of the holy communities that lived and thrived in the Middle Ages in the lands of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca.”

With these words Dr. Idan Perez begins the Siddur Catalunya—the first complete reconstruction of the lost prayer book once used by the great pre-expulsion sages Nachmanides, Rabenu Yonah Gerondi, and Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, as well the Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca, then independent kingdoms before their unification under the crown of Aragon and later Spain.

Dr. Perez, now head of the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Israel, worked on the restoration project for three years. The prayer book, which was never printed in its entirety (except as a Mahzor for the High Holy Days), was recreated based on six separate manuscripts. The earliest (a manuscript preserved in the Ginzburg collection in Moscow) dates to around 1352, more than one hundred years before the expulsion. The last of the manuscripts, preserved in Rome in the Biblioteca Casanatense, was copied in the year 1507, less than twenty years after the expulsion. “I didn’t add a single word of my own, everything came from the manuscripts,” he explains.

The primary (and earliest) manuscript on which Dr. Idan Perez relied, Moscow, Ginzburg 821

The first major obstacle facing the restorer was the inaccurate information that appeared in the catalog of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts. “Sometimes other rites of prayer were (wrongly) mentioned in the manuscripts as being the Catalan rite (nusach), and the manuscripts that were written in the Catalan rite were marked as other versions. The errors in the catalog stem from the fact that in the past, the information was copied from printed catalogs and not checked, and also because the Catalan prayer rite had not been thoroughly researched until now.”

Dr. Perez consulted with experts of the relevant prayer rites and with their help, prepared a list of manuscripts that contained without doubt the Catalan rite. “I then prepared a list of characteristics of the rite and the various customs that I found in the manuscripts (this list appears in the introduction to the prayer book).

I used Manuscript A (Ginzburg) as the basis. As a first step, I prepared tables of contents for all the manuscripts. I compared all the parts of the prayer book as they appeared in all six manuscripts and recorded the differences. In the prayer book, I used the earliest version as the basis, noting differences in versions or spelling in the footnotes and sometimes in square brackets in the text. The parts of the prayer book that are not found in Manuscript A were copied from the other manuscripts and this was noted in the footnotes.”

A request put forth by Nachmanides, published for the first time ever in the Siddur Catalunya, from the latest manuscript on which Dr. Idan Perez relied, Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome, 2741

Whoever speaks with Dr. Idan Perez cannot help but notice his Spanish (more precisely, his Catalonian) accent. I asked him how he came to reconstruct the lost prayer book, “I am a native of Barcelona and I was always intrigued to know what the ‘Catalan nusach’ which the sages referred to actually was. As we know, this ancient prayer style did not survive because the communities of the Catalan Jews did not survive the riots, persecutions and the Holocaust. Today, there is no community that prays according to this nusach. I began my historical research about the Jews who fled Catalonia after the riots of 1391 and the expulsion in 1492 and reached important findings in the communities of the expelled Catalans in Italy, the Ottoman Empire and Algiers.” Thus, he learned about the lost prayer book and his ultimate goal became clear: “To restore the full text and be as faithful as possible to its earliest version.”

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Frontispiece of the Siddur Catalunya, according to the rite of the Holy Community of Catalonia


Morning prayer rite from Siddur Catalunya


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The Jewish Connection of a Jamaican Almanac

An almanac published in Jamaica in 1798 containing a special page dedicated to Jewish holidays is preserved in the National Library collections – a glimpse of a forgotten Jewish island community


Towards the end of the 18th century, an almanac intended for traders was published on the island of Jamaica. It contains a special page dedicated to the holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar. The Hebrew years 5558 and 5559 are cited near the top of the page, with the line “Every Shabbat throughout the year” appearing just below and alluding to the fact that every Shabbat is a holy day observed by those of the Jewish faith. Further down the page, the Jewish months, holidays, and festivals are noted: Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Chanukah. Fasting holidays are also included: the Fast of Esther, the Fast of Tamuz, the Fast of “Guedalya”, and the Fast of “Tebeth”.

Jewish holidays and festivals, Jamaica, 1798

The British had captured the Caribbean island from the Spanish crown some 140 years before the publication of the rare almanac. The island’s Jews played an important role in the early stages of local British rule.

A small Portuguese minority lived on the island whose members were hated by the Spaniards, largely due to the fact that many of them were in fact Conversos (Sephardic Jews forced to convert to Christianity) who had immigrated to the New World in an attempt to escape the grip of the Spanish Inquisition. Thus, the Converso Portuguese were only too happy to help the British capture the island by feeding them valuable intelligence.

Jamaica Survey, 18th century

As fate would have it, in the same year that the British captured Jamaica (1655), Oliver Cromwell granted the Jews permission to resettle in England. This important development meant that Jews could now immigrate freely and openly to the English colony of Jamaica while the local Coversos could return to the free practice of Judaism without fear of persecution by the authorities.

Prior to the English seizure of the island, Jamaica was already an economic success story. The island produced copious amounts of sugar and its derivatives (relying, of course, on African slave labor, forcibly imported to the island). Over the years, as British rule took hold, Jamaica became an important commercial center for gold, silver, and precious gems. It was also a hotbed for piracy against Spanish ships crossing the Caribbean Sea on their way to Spain.

But let’s get back to the rare almanac acquired by the National Library:

Almanacs of the day were usually thick journals or small books that contained useful information for the calendar year. This almanac is entitled The New Jamaica Almanack and Register, and its content indicates that its target audience consisted of merchants who were involved in the maritime trade in Jamaica at the time. To this end, many of the almanac’s pages contain information about celestial bodies that were essential for navigation at the end of the 18th century.

The almanac’s title page

It is quite evident that the printer who composed the almanac was not overly familiar with Hebrew. There are several glaring errors, presumably originating from the laying of individual letters one by one. Some of the letters appear out of order and some are altogether incorrect. For example, the nonsensical phrase “רח פכת” appears in place of “רח טבת” (meaning “The first of the month of Tevet”). In the case of the festival of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה), the printer completely confused the order of the letters, resulting in the non-existent word “אשנההשר-” (“Ashanahhashar-“). The printer also apparently lacked the letter “י” (“yud”) in his collection, and opted to use an apostrophe in its stead – similar perhaps, but noticeable.

The Jamaican almanac’s curiosities extend beyond the page dedicated to Jewish holidays and festivals. This almanac was designed as an ever-evolving composition, a collection of information gathered over decades. We can track the life of the leather bound book by flipping through its pages: the dedication written by a man who gifted the book to his brother, documentation of its receipt in 1799, as well as various drawings and notes scrawled on the blank pages that were intentionally left at the end of each month. Different hands recorded events that occurred in the years following the printing of the almanac: the death of a beloved servant, repairs on ships in the harbor, and the strange remark – “I heard the cuckoo” – recorded twice in the same handwriting, in the month of April, in different years. May’s page is empty, perhaps because it is a month typified by rough seas and fierce storms in the Caribbean. Toward the end of the almanac, more pages were initially left blank but were later filled with fragments of Christian literature and hymns by the various owners of the almanac. One of the pages features a quote from Voltaire in French. The handwritten additions were all recorded in a beautiful cursive script, still easily readable today.

February, 1799

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The Strange Correspondence Between Albert Einstein and a Lawyer from Bnei Brak

“I am neither a mathematician nor a physicist, but I have, nevertheless, discovered a fantastic philosophical method that I will soon be publishing under the title 'The Logic of the World.'”

Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna, 1921

By Chen Malul

It was in the year 1947 that Professor Albert Einstein first encountered the name of Dr. Eliezer Goldwasser, when a letter appeared in his mailbox at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Upon reading the first few lines, a warning light must have gone off in his head. “Yet another letter from an amateur physicist…” he may have told himself.

Dr. Goldwasser sought financial assistance for his own unorthodox research in the field of physics, and this underlying motivation for did not go unnoticed by the renowned physicist. However, many of the abstract ideas in the letter were incomprehensible, even to Albert Einstein, who sent no reply.

The first two pages of the four-page letter Dr. Goldwasser sent to Professor Einstein. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People

Abandoning Religion, Abandoning Homeland

Just weeks before his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the 13-year-old Einstein had lost the religious drive that had characterized his childhood. Max Talmey, a medical student who often visited the Einstein family home and who served as young Albert’s mentor, gave him a number of books on science. These books led the the curious boy to the conclusion that most of the stories of the Bible were false.


14-year-old Albert Einstein, 1894

The poems he had composed and dedicated to the greatness of God all of His creations were now replaced by mathematical formulas. This was the inception of young Albert’s attempts to understand the principles of mathematics and physics and eventually the secrets of the universe itself.

Albert Einstein’s revolutionary research would reshape humanity’s concepts of of time, space, mass, motion, and gravity and would make him famous the world over. It would also make the Jewish physicist a target of the Nazi regime.

At the time of Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933, Einstein was already residing in the United States. The news of what was happening in Germany and the venomous attacks published against him in the German press convinced him to renounce his German citizenship. He also resigned from the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He would never again set foot in Germany.

Einstein received many proposals from academic institutions across the world, including universities in Europe, the United States, and even Mandatory Palestine. In the end, Einstein chose the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University in New Jersey. Though Einstein never forgave the Germans, he continued to use the German language as his main method of communication. This was also the language in which Dr. Eliezer Goldwasser wrote to Einstein. Goldwasser was also a Jewish expatriate from Germany, who, unlike Einstein, chose to settle in the Land of Israel.


Albert Einstein, 1947


Reconciling Religion and Science

Goldwasser resent his letter in January of 1948. This time, Einstein took the time to reply:

“I received and read the first letter. Because the content was unclear to me and because I was inundated with letters from amateur physicists, I was unable to reply to your letter, as well as many others.

I apologize and appreciate your understanding.

-Albert Einstein”


Professor Einstein’s reply to Dr. Goldwasser, January 1948


The curt answer from the great 20th century physicist did not dissuade Goldwasser who had fled from Germany to Mandatory Palestine in 1939. In 1941 he arrived in the town of Bnei Brak, known as a center of Hasidic Judaism. Goldwasser held a doctorate in the field of law and ran a full-time law practice, conducting his research of physics in the little spare time he had left. After reading Einstein’s letter of reply, he set about writing yet another letter describing the research he was working on to Einstein – work that he believed was of great importance.

Goldwasser began this letter by stating “I respect your principles of not answering letters from amateur scientists.” He went on to apologize for sending the letter, “I wrote to apologize to you for venturing to contact you, in light of my 25 years of experience of matters of space, with the purpose of suggesting ideas that in my non-expert opinion can improve your research, and bring you closer to the solving the problems with which you are struggling.

Goldwasser added that if such a renowned scientist as Einstein did not understand his groundbreaking ideas, this must mean that standard scientific thought had not yet caught up to the theory he developed – a theory that would “revolutionize the study of space.” He finished the letter in an enigmatic tone, “The last word has not yet been said.”

The quick response letter drafted and sent by Dr. Goldwasser to Professor Einstein, January 1948

Indeed, as Goldwasser predicted, the last word – his, that is – had not yet been uttered. Four years later, Goldwasser sent another letter. This time, it was addressed to Einstein’s team of researchers at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study:

“I know that Professor Einstein is bombarded by letters from people who ish to offer him ‘scientific advice’. Therefore, I turn to you, the scientific team, and ask you to thoroughly read my letter. If you reach a positive conclusion please bring it to Prof. Einstein’s attention.

I am neither a mathematician nor a physicist, but I have, nevertheless, discovered a fantastic philosophical method that I will soon be publishing under the title The Logic of the World. I am currently writing my theory in a methodical manner and this work will keep me busy for some time yet. At best, it will be complete in a year or two. I can only work on it at night.

My theory, as opposed to common philosophy, is based on proof of God’s existence through a clear, scientific method. I believe that as soon as the book is published, I will be able to prove His existence, His divine essence, and His ability to manipulate the world without effort.


I am not saying this merely to shower praise on myself. Anyone with an interest in your field of study would understand and appreciate the work I have already done.

I see the mission of my life in the scientific reconciliation of humanity with God.”

It is unknown who received the letter at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, or whether the letter was actually read and the requested experiments conducted. Goldwasser received no reply to his third and final letter.


The final attempt? The letter Dr. Goldwasser sent to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, October 1952

The Story of the Book that Never Was

A search of the National Library catalog, and catalogs of other libraries, showed no evidence that the book Goldwasser promised to publish ever saw the light of day. The correspondence between Einstein and Goldwasser was recently discovered in Dr. Eliezer Goldwasser’s personal archive, and is now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

In conclusion, we would have loved to explain the revolutionary theory that Dr. Eliezer Goldwasser (later Mei-Zahav) conceived – a theory which (as he promised to Professor Einstein’s team) was intended to reconcile science and God. But, if this theory left one of the most brilliant minds in history perplexed, what chance do we really have?

The article was compiled with the help of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, archivist Inka Arroyo Antezana Martinez, and Franka Metz.


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A New School Year for the Children of Europe

In honor of the "Back to School" season, we bring you several stories about children from across Europe on their first day of school.

Hillel Kempler on his first day of school, 1932. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Starting school for the first time is a rite of passage – a child moving on to the next stage in life begin his or her studies in a formal setting, leaving the comforts of home behind for the great big world that lies beyond.

Germany: A Cone of Sweets for the Sweet New Pupil

In Germany, there is a custom that dates back to the early 18th century, where parents, grandparents or godparents would present a young child starting school for the first time with a Schultüte, a large paper cone filled with sweets, as a way to alleviate some the anxieties that come with new beginnings.

While over the years the contents of the cones have shifted to more practical gifts such as crayons and pencils, the tradition has held strong for both Jewish and non-Jewish children in Germany. These cones create a sweet memory on the first day of school, sending the child off into the big world of a new school with a smile and a happy heart.

Hillel Kempler remembers his first day of school as a seven-year-old lad in Berlin in 1932 fondly thanks to this tradition. “I was enrolled in elementary school in Gipsstrasse in 1932,” said Kempler.  “Of course I received a cone of sweets for this event, as it was customary in Berlin back then. Both Jewish and non-Jewish kids received it.”

“I do not know how many children in my class were Jewish,” Kempler explained. “That did not interest me at the time. Before I came to school, I could already read. I have always loved reading. I read anything that came to my hands. And when I went out on the street, I read the signs at the shops. Maybe it was thanks to my brothers and sisters, who always gave me newspapers and journals. I was in Berlin for only half a year, and I still read German well today, which is amazing.”

Hillel’s sister Miriam on her first day of school in 1929. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Hillel also remembers his sister’s first day of school in 1929 – a day that was, of course, marked with a cone of sweets. “Miriam came to school two years before me. She was more of a frightened child, always hanging on the apron of her mom, as they say. Everything was an adventure for me, everything was a difficulty for her.”

Czechoslovakia: Counting, Grammar, and Friendships  

Eva Duskova remembers her first day in school fondly. After being walked to school by her father, she found herself hungry to learn – at least when she remembered to listen to the teachers instead of creating trouble with her best friend, Anita during class.

“I remember my first day of school,” said Eva. “I went to the first grade with my girlfriend Anita Frankova, nee Fisherova. We had known each other since the age of four because our parents were friends… In fact, back then we insisted on sitting next to each other in school. And in the end, we did. Of course, right the next day we were separated for misbehaving. We were simply talking to each other. What the teacher was saying wasn’t as interesting. But I very much looked forward to school, I was hungry for knowledge.

Eva Duskova’s first day of school in 1937. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

The first day Anita and I were accompanied by our fathers. I know that the gentlemen in the back behind the desks stood beside each other, and I think that they were quite amused. I think that our fathers took it as this personal prerogative. Whether there were mothers too, that I don’t remember. Very early on I went to school unaccompanied, because it was a short way off, without any sort of danger along the way.

I very much loved going to school. Summer holidays always took too long for me, I couldn’t wait until I could go to school again. I liked studying, in elementary school I had, I think, liked everything. Perhaps less counting and more grammar. And I had a hard time coping with drawing. And in high school, I loved all the humanities, while the natural sciences remained somewhat foreign to me. Though I must say that even so they interested me and I liked studying them.”

Latvia: Connecting with the Hebrew Language

Mera Shulman describes her time in a Jewish school in Riga as a beautiful time in her life where she learned to love learning – despite losing nearly all of her classmates in the Holocaust.

“I went to school when I was seven. I started from the second form at Jewish Hebrew school. At that time, it was common to skip the first grade, if you were well prepared. I studied perfectly well. Everything was interesting for me, I cannot name my favorite subject, I liked them all, except history. In history, I also had an excellent mark, but it was the most laborious one.

Pupils of the 1st form at the Hebrew school. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

She loved her teachers and appreciated them for their specific specialties and what knowledge they could impart.

“Our teacher Korz was very talented for music. Under his guidance, we played a Haydn symphony using pipes and penny whistles. He did his best to invent something unusual for each holiday. In the second form, we put on a very interesting performance, ‘Alphabet.’ I was the shortest, and he gave me [the Hebrew letter] Yud because it was the smallest one. But at the same time, it was explained to me that the words Jew and Israel began with that very letter. [Yud is the tenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, in its written form it is only a small line. In Hebrew both Yehudi (Jew) and Israel start with Yud.] I was very proud to get that remarkable letter.”

Later in life, after surviving the war, Mira could still remember her teachers with great fondness.

Not only did Mira not experience any anti-Semitism in school, she couldn’t even imagine such hatred ever infiltrating the walls of her classrooms.

“Certainly, at this sort of school, there were no anti-Semitic manifestations (and it had no possibility to exist there). By the way, the teacher of the Latvian language, Madame Frei (a Latvian) used to say that she liked Jewish children very much and preferred to work with them.”

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


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