The Lost Story of Hebrew’s First Female Author, Now Discovered

Sarah Feiga Foner's story is found in an obscure handwritten text inscribed in Solitreo script from Ioannina, Greece...

Sarah Feiga Foner née Meinkin (Zager, 1954 – Pittsburgh, 1937) was, as far as is known, the first woman to publish original Hebrew fiction. Between the years 1881 and 1903 she published a novel, two historical-national stories and a memoir about her childhood town Dvinsk in Latvia. In addition to her Hebrew writing, she also wrote a novella in Yiddish, titled Der Froyen Bunt (“The Women’s Revolt”), which she printed on her own, without a date, though she did note the printer’s address in London. On the front cover of Der Froyen Bunt there is a list of the author’s Hebrew publications, which include, in addition to her four known works, an additional story titled “The Annals of the Holy Sh’lah”. This story, which revolves around the Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz (often referred to with the Hebrew acronymn – “the Sh’lah” – after his main composition, Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit [“The Two Tablets of the Covenant”]), was never found. The assumption was that the author printed it on her own, like the Yiddish novella.


This – until in November 2021 a Hebrew manuscript written in Solitreo (the cursive form used in Ladino) from Ioannina, Greece, arrived at the Manuscripts Department of the National Library in Jerusalem. The manuscript included three copied pieces: one is titled “On the Counting of Years” and consists of a dispute between Yosef Halevi of London and Menashe Grassberg of Trzcianne (near Bialystok, Poland); another includes a story about Rabbi Gershom ben Judah’s boycott of polygamists – this work omits the author’s name, and the third is titled “The Holy Sh’lah” and is attributed to “Sarah Feiga Foner”.

Dr. Yacov Fuchs from the National Libraryof Israel’s Manuscripts Department, who received the manuscript from Ioannina, searched for information about Sarah Feiga Foner and contacted me since I had written a dissertation about her. I was excited to hear about the discovery, but could not read the story since I am not familiar with Solitreo. I hoped to find the source from which the story was copied. The manuscript indicated that the three pieces were copied from “Ha-Yehudi”. A search of the Serials catalog of the National Library of Israel pointed to “Ha-Yehudi: a periodical letter concerning all matters of Jews and Judaism in all the countries,” which was published in London between 1897-1913, under the editor Yitzhak Sovalski. The newspaper’s geographic location and time period fit Foner’s biography, since during the first decade of the 20th century she immigrated from Lodz to London, lived there for a while and in 1909 immigrated to the U.S. with her son Noah.


The National Library of Israel is in possession of the “Ha-Yehudi” back issues, but the newspaper has not yet been digitized for the Historical Jewish Press project. As a result, it is not possible to conduct a quick search for the keywords “Holy Sh’lha” or “Sarah Feiga Foner”. I had to conduct a manual search for the story, page after page. I began the search in 1905, the year when I estimate Foner arrived in London, following the pogroms in Lodz after the failed Polish revolt against the Russian regime. At first I found the dispute over the counting of the years between Yosef Halevi and Menashe Grassberg, which began in late 1906 and lasted well into 1907. Then I found the story about Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, which turned out to be a translation from German by Aharon Leib Bisko for a story by Marcus Lehman. Finally, I located the story “The Holy Sh’lha” which appeared in five installments during 1907.

From the first installment of “The Holy Sh’lah”


The content of “The Holy Sh’lah” fits well into the transformations which are apparent in Foner’s writing – from an Enlightenment (Haskalah) novel advocating integration into European society and culture to historical-national stories in the spirit of the Revival (Techiya), to childhood memories of daily life in the traditional Jewish community in Eastern Europe. The author’s preference of highlighting a rabbi and Kabbalist who settled in the Land of Israel in the 17th Century and is buried there, confirms her return to the Orthodoxy of her family in her childhood, and her shift to religious Zionism in the vein of the Mizrahi movement.

The search for Foner’s story ended on a pleasant note when I found two ads which appeared in “Ha-Yehudi” early in 1908. In those ads Foner announced that she printed the first part of a story in Yiddish titled Der Froyen Bunt, which she offered for sale from her address in London. As said, in 1909 Foner immigrated to the United States, and no additional ads were found in the newspaper about the subsequent parts of the story.

I am grateful to Dr. Yacov Fuchs and all those who took part in discovering the manuscript from Ioannina and sending it to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People near the National Library of Israel. Thanks to their conscientious work a new Hebrew story has been added to the corpus of the first Hebrew woman writer. The search for other lost writings by Sarah Feiga Foner still continues. At the top of the list is the second part of the novel “Ahavat Yesharim” which was not published due to lack of funds, followed by a historical story about Don Isaac Abravanel, as well as additional stories in Yiddish.

For further information about Sarah Feiga Foner see the Encyclopedia for Jewish Women.


Michal Fram Cohen works as a seminar paper supervisor at the Open University of Israel. Her book about Sarah Feiga Foner (in Hebrew) is in print by Resling Publishing, Israel.


Pamphlets on Reincarnation: A Unique Set of Articles in the Scholem Collection

One particular set of booklets compiled by Gershom Scholem in his famous library raises a series of interesting questions...

A young Gershom Scholem alongside the emblem of the Theosophical Society

One of Gershom Scholem’s collection habits, which is a boon for researchers, but a nightmare for cataloguers, was to bind together various pamphlets or articles, either by subject or by author. There are probably several hundred bound volumes of this type in the Scholem Collection.

One such item is a hefty red-bound volume, upon which Scholem embossed in gold letters the title “Pamphlets Reincarnation”.

The collection includes eight pamphlets and booklets, seven in English and one in German, published between 1894 and 1928 in New York, San Francisco, London and Leipzig. Among the publishing houses, we find the “Theosophical Society”, the “Metaphysical Publishing Company”, and the “Lotus Publishing Company”.

The titles are in and of themselves a delight to prevue. They include,

“Reincarnation: The Hope of the World” by Irving S. Cooper and “The Doctrine of Rebirth Scientifically Examined” by W. Y. Evens-Wentz, which came out as part of the “Reincarnation Series”.


Note the symbols that appear on the cover of the lower pamphlet seen in the image above. These in fact form the emblem of the Theosophical Society, which features a Star of David, an Egyptian Ankh, an Ouroborous (a serpent swallowing its tail), a Hindu Aum and even a swastika, which of course was an ancient Hindu religious symbol long before the Nazis expropriated it. Below the emblem is the society’s motto: “There is no religion higher than truth”.

The emblem of the Theosophical Society


We have in addition, the German “Die Irrlehre der Theosophie über Re-Inkarnation” (“The Mistaken Teachings Regarding the Theosophy of Reincarnation”), by the famous spiritualist Madame Blavatsky and the “medium” Prof. Dr. Petersilea.


One shocking item to our eyes is Jerome A. Anderson’s 1894 tract “Reincarnation: A Study of the Human Soul”, which, again, prominently features a swastika on the cover.


Other interesting titles include “The Memory of Past Births” by Charles Johnston,


“When a Man Dies, Shall He Live Again?” and “The Necessity for Re-Incarnation”, both by Annie Besant.

In recent years, the topic of reincarnation has garnered much attention, and numerous works, both scholarly and popular, have been composed about it. However, these early tracts, which Scholem collected and bound together, but did not annotate, await further research regarding the surge of interest in the doctrine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Gershom Scholem himself did address the issue of reincarnation in Jewish mysticism in several publications. He penned the entries on “Gilgul-Neshamot” in the Encyclopedia Hebraica (1964) as well as the entry on “Gilgul” (not “reincarnation”) in the Encyclopedia Judaica (1971). He also published “An Investigation of the Doctrine of Gilgul in 13th Century Kabbalah” (1945), and “Gilgul: The Transmigration of Souls” in his book “On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah” (1991, Hebrew original 1976).

Revealed: 90 “New” Pages from One of the Oldest Printed Hebrew Books

Pages come from the only existing copy of a ca. 1492 edition of "Arba'ah Turim", one of history's most important codes of Jewish law

The National Library of Israel (NLI) has acquired 90 singular pages from the earliest period of Hebrew printing. The pages come from the only known copy of a late 15th century edition of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher’s “Arba’ah Turim”, a seminal codification of Jewish law. Yehoshua Soncino, a leading figure in the early Hebrew printing industry, published the edition in Italy around 1492. No complete copies of it have survived, and the pages acquired by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem are not found in any other collection in the world, public or private. Prior to the acquisition, the NLI already held 59 pages from the book.

Works published prior to 1500 are known as “incunabula”. During this period, less than 200 total Hebrew titles were printed, of which around 150 have survived until today. The NLI has copies of more than 80 of them.

“Arba’ah Turim”, meaning “Four Columns” in Hebrew, was written by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (approx. 1269-1343 CE), a leading medieval rabbinical authority also known as “Rabbeinu Asher” and “Ba’al ha-Turim” (“Master of the Columns”). Its name refers to the four sections into which the work is divided, each of them covering different areas of Jewish law: “Orakh Khayim”, “Yoreh De’ah”, “Even Ha’ezer”, and “Khoshen Mishpat”. The pages just acquired by the NLI come from the first two of these sections. The four-part division of the “Arba’ah Turim”, and the work more generally, have served as a foundation for countless commentaries and later attempts to codify Jewish law, including Rabbi Joseph Caro’s 16th century “Shulkhan Arukh,” which is widely considered to be the most important code of Jewish law until today.

According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, curator of the Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, “Incunabula like these provide a rich and unique resources for the research of Jewish textual culture, and they have additional aesthetic and bibliographic value. These pages in particular provide exceedingly rare tangible evidence of one of the very first religious Jewish texts to be printed. Even though the complete edition has not survived, it is exciting that these pages – part of an exceedingly important Jewish text – have come down to us and will now be preserved and made accessible to scholars and the general public by the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.”

The Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel includes the vast majority of Hebrew and Jewish books, journals and magazines ever published; thousands of Hebrew-letter manuscripts, as well as digital and microfilm copies of some 80,000 such manuscripts from collections across the globe; the world’s largest collection of Jewish music; and hundreds of personal archives of leading figures. Cherished treasures in the Collection include Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishna in his own handwriting; some of the earliest Talmudic manuscripts and printed Hebrew books; the world’s largest collections of ketubot and haggadot; archival collections of leading rabbinic figures; and the Gershom Scholem Collection – the world’s foremost resource for the study of Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism.

Cracking the Tu B’Shvat – Shmita Conundrum

How does Israel honor Tu B'Shvat – the Jewish Arbor Day – in a year when planting is forbidden? Through celebration, education – and the occasional workaround.

Landscaping encompassing the new National Library of Israel construction zone – an unusual sight to see, as landscaping is usually the last stage before a building is completed. Photo: Albatross

The year 2022 marks a brand new beginning for the National Library of Israel as the new Library building and campus, nears completion. Over the past year, the structure, designed by noted architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, has emerged as a stunning addition to the Jerusalem cityscape.

Further to the magnificent building, the surrounding gardens and statuary will be an attraction in themselves. Specially selected plants and trees, native to this region, celebrate Israel’s rich, varied vegetation, while the landscaping and winding trails reflect the natural terracing characteristic of Jerusalem.

Yet, oddly enough for a construction site, although the building is still being finished, the surrounding gardens, including the Idan and Batia Ofer Park, have already been planted. Landscaping is usually the final stage, but in the Land of Israel, shmita, the Jewish agricultural sabbatical, must be taken into account.

During shmita, all agricultural activity is forbidden by Jewish law. Therefore, the landscape architects raced throughout the summer to prepare the gardens before the advent of the Jewish New Year. And so, passers-by are treated to the lovely if unusual sight of flourishing plants and budding trees encompassing a construction zone.

Landscapers worked throughout the summer on the gardens, including the Idan and Batia Ofer Park, to “beat the clock” before the advent of the shmita year. Photo: Albatross.

Shmita Workarounds

The Library found a solution to its specific planting challenge by beating the countdown to shmita. More generally, however, how does Israel honor Tu B’Shvat – the Jewish Arbor Day – in those years when planting is forbidden?

In 2008, the Knesset passed a law concerning the Sabbatical year, according to which a National Shmita Commission would refer questions concerning the laws of shmita to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The Chief Rabbinate then issued shmita guidelines for KKL-JNF, which carries out handling and management of forests on behalf of the government. During shmita, according to these guidelines, there is no ceremonial tree planting (other than special exceptions at sites where planting has been preapproved by the Chief Rabbinate), no public tree plantings with schoolchildren or tourists, and no distribution of saplings.

These dismal directives are offset by positive and proactive actions to engage in continued preservation and upkeep of existent forests, including pest and disease control as well as the all-important business of fire prevention measures. In lieu of Tu B’Shvat tree-plantings, schoolchildren will be able to participate in activities ranging from forest clean-ups to preparing saplings that will be seeded, transplanted, and potted on special soil-free substrates, unconnected to Mother Earth, and therefore not planted.

Tu B’Shvat seders were held everywhere from Italy and North Africa to Oman and Persia. (Left) Frontispiece of Seder Tu B’Shvat “Pri Etz Hadar”, Venice, 1762. NLI Collections. (Right) Page from “Seder Limud Tu B’Shvat – the New Year for the Trees”. Ṣuḥār (Oman), 1805. The National Library of Israel collections

Celebrate with a Seder

The modern-day tree-planting festival of a “Jewish Arbor Day”, notes Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem, Director of the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel, is a part of the Zionist enterprise. A Tu B’Shvat Seder was the more traditional –and mystical – way of celebration.

This tradition was started, perhaps sometime in the 18th century, by followers of the 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (also known as “Ha’ARI Hakadosh”). These disciples created a festive meal with prayers, readings, and eating the seven species of grains and fruits native to the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, as well as drinking four cups of wine.

Leshem says, “A common misconception is that the Seder Tu B’Shvat originated with a little booklet from 1762, Pri Etz Hadar, which took the custom from the book Hemdat Yamim, which was published in 1731. But Hemdat Yamim was thought to be Sabbatean [of the followers of the false messiah Sabbatai Zvi] and therefore suspect. However, in my research, I discovered an earlier source, Birkat Eliyahu, from 1728, which is pre-Hemdat Yamim and also mentions Ha’ARI, and so there’s an ante-Sabbatean version, too.”

The ceremony spread throughout the Jewish world with Seders held everywhere from Italy and North Africa to Oman and Persia. Its popularity, however, was superseded in the 19th century with tree-planting in the Land of Israel, and – because you can’t keep a good mystic tradition down – it was revived in the latter 20th century.

Leshem says, “I truly think I participated in the first Seder Tu B’Shvat that the vegetarian Jews in the upper west side of New York started in the mid-70s. Within a short time it spread like wildfire and became super-popular among all the denominations.”

In Israel, the non-kabbalistic Seder Tu B’Shvat was revived by Israel Prize-winner Nogah Hareuveni, founder of the biblical nature reserve known as Neot Kedumim. Leshem notes that in recent years the Israeli versions “have become more elaborate, often including the Pri Etz Hadar list of 30 fruits with Zoharic readings.”

The National Library of Israel website offers educational resources, from lesson plans and photos to puzzles to posters, to learn from and enjoy.

Plant Educational Seeds

Like the JNF-KKL, other organizations are also focusing their Tu B’Shvat activities and educational efforts this year on ecology, sustainability, and community.

The Library is no exception. NLI’s Education Department has a pack of educational resources to help expose students to different aspects of Tu B’Shvat, including lesson plans, posters, newspaper articles, photos, activities, puzzles – plus, the thing kids love most: a Kahoot quiz.

NLI’s website, too, has a special page dedicated to all things Tu B’Shvat, from historic photographs to musical recordings piyyutim (liturgical hymns), Hebrew melodies, and ethnographic recordings of a Hasidic Tu B’Shvat tish, and of a Seder Tu B’Shvat.

While circumstances of shmita may prevent tree-planting activities this year, they have conspired to create a happy accident whereby, by the time the Library opens in fall 2022, the trees, plants and flowers will be in full bloom. These will be fully accessible to Library visitors who will be able to enjoy the gardens, enter the building, view galleries, sit and study in the reading halls, listen to recordings and songs, examine original documents, participate in educational programs, and – after a year of lying fallow – celebrate new beginnings.

The new National Library of Israel building and campus will open to the public this autumn. Photo: Albatross.