What Does Your Simchat Torah Flag Say About You?

Join us on a fascinating journey through the history of Simchat Torah flags: From the Middle Ages, through the early Zionist movement and to this very day

The custom of waving specially designed holiday flags on Simchat Torah (‘The Rejoicing of the Torah’, the day after the festival of Sukkot in which the annual cycle of the Torah reading is completed, and the congregants dance and celebrate with the Torah scrolls) has been part of Jewish life for hundreds of years, with its roots firmly in the diaspora, and yet it seems that in the modern Jewish State of Israel, these decorated flags have undergone their most significant design and stylistic changes.

When not busy elbowing each other during the hakafot in an attempt to touch and kiss the Torah scroll leading the procession, the Jews of 16th century Eastern Europe grappled with the question of how to involve the children of their communities in the Simchat Torah celebrations. In order to solve the problem, the community adults designed a symbolic item which fit the children’s dimensions – the Simchat Torah flag.


A woodcutting on paper from 1870. This flag was made in Lviv, Ukraine, from the Bill Gross Collection

The enjoyable custom soon spread to different communities throughout the Jewish world. We find Simchat Torah flags wherever we look: 18th century woodcuts from Amsterdam, greeting cards from 19th century New York, and Eastern European communities of the early 20th century. But it was in Israel that the flags underwent their most interesting changes and development.


An illustrated postcard from 1888 depicting a Simchat Torah procession in Krakow, Poland

The Jews of Eastern Europe designed Simchat Torah flags reminiscent of the banners of European knights and cities, but replete with Jewish motifs. Thus, the members of the community hinted that the flags of the Jewish people – in contrast with medieval Christian tradition – were flags of the Torah and its commandments, and not symbols of warfare and bloodshed.


A Simchat Torah flag made in Warsaw in 1902. The flag depicts Moses, Aaron the Priest and Theodor Herzl as the key figures of the Jewish people. From the National Library Collections

This changed drastically in the period of the Zionist pioneers. A plethora of nationalistic messages began to appear on Simchat Torah flags: Theodor Herzl’s picture was woven into the fabrics, the Star of David was drawn together with the Torah scrolls, and the banners were embroidered with nationalistic Zionist slogans: “For our nation, land and Torah”.


A Simchat Torah flag made in Jerusalem in 1923. From the Bill Gross Collection

From the very outset of the Zionist settlement, Jewish heroes were “used” for Zionist purposes. In 1902, the figure of Moses appeared on a Simchat Torah flag in Belarus, holding what appears to be the new law book of the Jewish people, in which it says, among other things: “Our hope is not yet lost” (a line from “Hatikvah”, which would become the national anthem of the Jewish State).

In the 1930s, the pioneers abandoned the pious figures which traditionally adorned the Simchat Torah flags, replacing them with Israeli children dressed in youth movement garb. Immigrants from the various diasporas sometimes joined these sabras, dressed in more traditional attire. With the establishment of the State of Israel, drawings of exultant young girls waving flags together with their classmates or neighbors finally began to appear on the flags, something the Jews of Eastern Europe would never have envisaged.


A Simchat Torah banner from the 1950s depicting Israeli children. From the National Library Collections


A flag from the 1960s. From the National Library Collections

The joy and celebration of the early Zionist period and the foundation of the state were slightly dampened in the 1950s and 60s. Flag designs from this era clearly reflect the longing and desire to be reunited with meaningful historical and religious sites: the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and the Tower of David repeatedly make appearances.

The Israeli victory in the Six Day War changed all of this. As soon as Jerusalem was reunited and the Old City came under Israeli control, the Western Wall (together with Rachel’s Tomb) became the site where the young boys and girls depicted on the flags rejoiced. The nation’s new heroes, IDF soldiers, began to appear on the flags. The architects of the military triumph took the place of the devout Jews of the past.


Rabin, Dayan, Sharon and other architects of the victory on a flag from the late 1960s. From the National Library Collections.

The 1980s ushered in a rift we are familiar with to this day: congregations of a more secular nature continued to produce flags showing girls and boys together, and went even further, adding popular cartoon characters whose connection to the holiday is questionable, while the more religious communities reinstated religious figures (new and old), or depicted only boys with skullcaps in the synagogue on their banners.


A Simchat Torah flag from a secular community. From the National Library Collections


A Simchat Torah flag of the ultra-orthodox Shas party. From the National Library Collections
A Simchat Torah flag of the National Religious Party. From the National Library Collections.


The Simchat Torah Flag Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

The Case of the Headless Man and Insufficient Repentance

Learn about a Kabbalistic tradition that will tell you if you have been sealed in the Book of Life or Death following the High Holy Days.

This woodcut appears in the book "Customs" ("Minhagim"), published in Amsterdam in 1661 by Uri Weibash

In 1661 a book of Jewish customs was published in Amsterdam. It was originally written in Hebrew, but, being a book of Ashkenazi traditions and customs, it was translated into Yiddish. The book contains woodcuts of Jewish practices as described by the 14th century Austrian Rabbi, Yitzhak Ternau, who provides an overview of the traditions of Ashkenazi Jews including the rituals of the High Holy Days and the festival of Sukkot.

One woodcut shows a man building his sukkah, the traditional hut built by Jews in celebration of the festival.

Building a sukkah

In another image, two Jews are seen examining arba’at ha’minim, “The Four Species” used in the Sukkot prayer services.

Carrying the plenty

The third woodcut depicts the custom of throwing fruit for children to pick up during Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that immediately follows Sukkot and which celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah.

Giving fruit to children

But of all the woodcuts in the collection, it was the fourth one that truly caught our attention. Why you may ask? Well, perhaps because it is simply so… eye-catching. The woodcut features two men holding one of the four species. One of them is inexplicably headless!

In our attempts to solve this mystery, we asked ourselves and everyone around us if they know why one figure had a head and the other seemed to have lost his?

The picture that piqued our curiosity.

For some, the image was bizarre and jarring but the National Library experts who came to our aid were surprised people weren’t aware of this common Kabbalistic practice.

Here is some of what we learned:

A discussion of common Sukkot practices


As per Kabbalistic tradition, on the night of Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh and last day of Sukkot and just one week after Yom Kippur, a devout Jew may find himself wondering, “Have I been sealed into the Book of Life or rather the Book of Death?”

What is a devout Jew full of uncertainty to do in such a scenario? An ancient Kabbalistic custom which can be found among the writing of Nachmanides from the 13th century offers a solution.

On the night of Hoshana Rabbah, one should step outside and examine the shadow they cast by the light of the moon. If the shadow that is cast is that of a whole person, then the believer should have no qualms, for he has been sealed in the Book of Life. If the shadow appears to be headless, the devout Jew should begin getting his affairs in order.

17th century Yiddish that reads, “He struck with the willow for he has no head.”

This custom seems to raise more questions than it answers. After all, according to age-old tradition, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day when those of Jewish faith are judged and sealed into the Book of Life or Death by God. Kabbalistic tradition explains that, though we are judged on Yom Kippur, the verdict is only signed on the night of Hoshana Rabbah, and in this window of time it is said that we can catch a glimpse of what the final verdict will be.

Who Spilled Honey on the 18th Century Manuscript?

You really should listen to your mother when she tells you not to read at the dinner table...

Take a look at this manuscript entitled, “The Collection of Hoshaanot, Songs and Prayers, Annulments of Vows, Tashlichs and Other Things,” and written by Shlomo Latis in Italy in 1790. The name describes the book well; a collection of various prayers and descriptions of Jewish ceremonies that were compiled into one manuscript.

In addition to the beautiful calligraphy, the 18th-century manuscript features some unusual and mysterious stains. The stains themselves are odd as they are only present in the first section of the book, the portion that focuses on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

Typically, when we come across an old manuscript we assume that stains found on the pages are simply the result of ordinary wear and tear, with time itself leaving its inevitable mark. But this was not the case here, for two main reasons: the first being that the stains only appeared in the first section of the book and second, because of the content of the text featured on the stained pages.

The year is 1790 – the year the manuscript was completed, or perhaps, a short time after. The book is opened to the prayers for the eve of Rosh Hashanah. A Jewish- Italian family sits around the table to celebrate the holiday. Each member of the family is dressed in their holiday best, the table is beautifully set and the head of the family is reading the prayers aloud from the manuscript.

Who spilled honey on the manuscript?

They reach the portion of the services which includes the Simanim (symbolism) and the “Yehi Ratzon” (May it Be Your Will) prayers which are recited on Rosh Hashanah along with the consumption of different foods that symbolically represent the prayers of a sweet and positive New Year.  The foods are eaten one by one following the recitations of the Yehi Ratzon prayer in accordance with tradition; the fish head so that we may be considered a head and not a tail, the apple in honey so that we may have a sweet year, the pomegranate so that our good deeds may multiply. The list is long and the blessings are plentiful.

As the diners recite the prayers and eat the related foods, the honey is passed from person to person, as are the pomegranates, the beets, the carrots, the fish heads and the rest of the symbolic foods. The food, as is typical of food, falls off the serving dishes and the forks, staining anything around it – from the tablecloth to the manuscript.

At the end of the ceremony, the person at the head of the table closes the book and sets it aside. The manuscript has finished its job for this portion of the holiday and the stains are left to set until next year when the book will once again be brought to the table. This explains why the stains only appear in the first portion of the book.

Albeit, without a proper lab test we cannot confirm with absolute certainty that this scenario is what actually happened. But still, our deduction based on the set of circumstances surrounding the stains seem plausible. The book, along with the stains, is now preserved for future generations to study in the National Library of Israel Collection.

So, we beseech you – this Rosh Hashanah, be careful with the food during the meal. After all, there was a reason your mother always told you not to read at the dinner table.

Is the Shofar Really the Voice of God?

What is the Freudian complex behind the origins of this mysterious instrument? What is the shofar's connection to the High Holy Days? And does it have anything to do with music?

The Blowing of the Shofar, 1943, photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

There is nothing like the cry of the shofar. The startling burst of sound will instantly grab the attention of any who hear it, and few will remain indifferent.

The shofar is the main musical instrument used during the Jewish High Holy Days, while also appearing in a number of key moments in the history of the Jewish people as well as in the lives of ordinary Jews – to this day it is customary to blow the shofar during funerals of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, among Yemenite Jews, for example.

The shofar first appears in scripture in the story of Jethro (Yitro), in the fifth Torah portion (“parasha”) of the book of Exodus, which tells of the Revelation on Mount Sinai, where the sound of the shofar was heard:

Chapter 19, Verse 16: “And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.Verse 17: “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.”

Verse 18: “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.”

Verse 19: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice…”

And again, after the giving of the Ten Commandments –

Chapter 20, Verse 18: “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off…”

But what is the connection of the shofar to the High Holy Days? What is the connection between the shofar and Jewish “music” and is the shofar even to be considered a musical instrument?

Williamsburg Art Co., the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The psychoanalyst and anthropologist Theodor Reik wrote an entire book titled “The Shofar,” in 1919, and in it claimed that the sound of the shofar was no less than the voice of God.

Is it possible that the only thing which makes the shofar special is that which is missing from it? Meaning: Is the shofar’s advantage and uniqueness as a vocal religious utensil derived from the fact that it is not a musical instrument at all, but rather nothing more than a primitive noise-making tool? Is its significance merely the result of the traditional religious tendency to glorify all that is ancient?

Theodor Reik, a Vienna-born Jewish student of Freud, was certain this was not the case, and he set out to explain, in a bold and original study, the secret holy magic of one the most central symbols in Judaism.

Reik felt, quite logically, that the traditional Jewish explanations of the significance of blowing the shofar during the festivals of the Hebrew month of Tishrei were unsatisfactory. Tradition, beginning with the Talmud, links the blowing of the shofar to the Binding of Isaac since the shofar is made of a ram’s horn and it was a ram that took the place of the beloved son on the altar at the last minute, thus certifying Abraham’s passing of the cruel test he was given, as well as certifying the special covenant between him and God. But is the memory of the covenant the only thing that passes through the hearts and minds of those who hear the sound of the shofar? Does it not have an awe-inspiring effect? Does the sound not call one back to a primeval point of deep religious emotion? It should not be forgotten that in biblical times the sound of the shofar was used to signal danger, to declare war, to accompany the anointment of a king and to celebrate redemption – so could it really only be an aid used to jog one’s personal and national memory?

Reik says no. To trace the sources of the shofar he turns to the book of Exodus, chapter 19, where he interprets certain verses differently. Verse 19, for example, reads: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.”

Did God and Moses have a conversation, accompanied by the shofar in the background? Reik claims that is exactly what happened. He also shows that the biblical father of music, Yuval (Genesis 4, 21), is connected to the subject (his name can also mean “ram” in Hebrew), and points out that music itself was always used for religious or liturgical purposes in ancient times with its origins in attempts to imitate totemic animals. Thus, the shofar is actually the voice of God. What then does this say about the significance of the ancient ritual?

Reik delves into detailed psychoanalytical explanations that incorporate Freud’s theory of “Totem and Taboo,” which had been published in a book of the same name (1917), released only seven years before Reik’s study. Freud saw Totemism as a primitive form of religion (experienced by humanity in its early stages), in which a certain animal is chosen by a community to be its “Totem,” the embodiment of the community’s essence and power. The animal acts as a substitute for an ancestor who has become semi-deified over the years, an “alpha-male” who forcefully claimed ownership over the women of the community (including the mothers, whom the sons, according to Freud, lusted after). This “alpha-male” was then murdered by the other males, whom, once  overcome with guilt over the slaying of their father-figure, chose an animal as their new object of submission and obedience. In the later stages of religious development, Freud believed the animal was replaced by a human-like figure, who eventually ascended to the heavens to become the Father-God. For Freud religion was nothing more than an illusion triggered by niggling feelings of oedipal guilt.

The totemic animal of the ancient Hebrews, which Reik believes was either a ram or a bull (since the sound of the shofar resembles the mooing of a bull or cow), and the emergence of the shofar-blowing custom during the period of Jewish ritual sacrifice, indicates a subconscious need to remember the murder of the primordial ancestor and to ask for forgiveness.

Jewish Museum, N.Y., the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

But even without all of the Freudian baggage which can at times appear unbearable, Reik’s study raises some fascinating points: Is the voice of God in the Hebrew Bible really the shofar? If this is the case, it sheds new light on well-known biblical events. It must be remembered that in the ancient period, the religious object embodied the full essence of its subject, and not just its representation. Meaning, the sound of the shofar did not just symbolize the voice of God – it was the voice of God. Only in later stages of religious development did a gap open up between artifacts and their meanings, with objects becoming symbols. As a result, it is clear to us that the very voice of God is what knocked down the walls of Jericho, and not the symbolism of the blowing of the shofar, as we might be led to believe by an anachronistic reading of the text.

Just as the object was charged with symbolic significance, so was the ritual charged with mythological significance. In other words, it was given a storied and historical interpretation such that today, when we hear the sound of the shofar, we know only that we are supposed to remember the story of the Binding of Isaac and the covenant with God bequeathed to us by our ancestor Abraham. Any other feelings brought forth by the cry of the shofar come from a different, hidden, place, withholding a truth our conscious minds may not have access to.

The Blowing of the Shofar, 1943, photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

In her book “The Music Libel Against the Jews,” Ruth Hacohen discusses the Christian view which interpreted the sounds of the synagogue as noise. The sounds of prayers unaccompanied by musical instruments and lacking a conventional western melody were perceived as disharmonious cacophony from a musical point of view. Even the “instrument” known as the shofar which was used during prayers would emit unrecognizable foreign sounds that were heard as noise. As a result, Christian anti-Semites attributed nefarious magical powers to the Jews which they believed were used to cause harm to others.

The shofar heard in the synagogues during the High Holy Days brings about a union of the inner and outer voices of those who listen to it. To those who gather in prayer, the sound of the shofar is music to their ears, while to foreigners it is nothing but noise. To this day, in Jewish culture, the shofar remains unrivalled, sitting high above all other musical instruments.

A soldier wearing a talit and blowing a shofar. Photo by Uzi Keren, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel



How does one become a Baal Tokea – a master of shofar blowing? What should Rosh Hashana tekias sound like? Gila Flam interviews Calman Feinberg, a Baal Tokea for over 39 years who says he is the only person who can do it right!


Click here to listen to our collection of shofar recordings!