The Three Jewish Monsters Charged With Saving the World
How is the balance in nature maintained? Well, with the help of three monsters from Jewish mythology, of course! One that lives in the sea, one that moves through the air and another that roams the earth. Naturally, no other creature dares to mess with these guys…
Leviathan, Ziz and Behemoth. Ambrosiana Bible, 1238, Ulm, Germany. Ambrosiana Library, Milan
There is an entire subgenre of disaster movies devoted to terrifying monsters like King Kong or Godzilla, who are hell-bent on destroying everything around them. The monster is typically either created or set free by human intervention, wreaking havoc and chaos on the citizens of the world, or at the very least, New Yorkers.
Medieval Jews saw these matters differently, however. Long before anyone noticed the catastrophic damage human civilization was causing to the environment, the people of the Middle Ages (Jews, Christians and Muslims), whose worldview was dominated by a religious viewpoint, perceived nature as a harmonious system in which no single factor could overtake the others and thereby disrupt the world balance and tilt the scales towards disaster.
This thinking is reflected in the traditions surrounding the three great beasts mentioned in the Bible and Jewish mythology. Each represents a different category of animals: a beast of the sea, a beast of the land and a beast of the air. And each one, in its own terrifying way, maintains nature’s delicate balance.
“In that day the Lord with His sore and great and strong sword shall punish Leviathan the piercing serpent, even Leviathan that crooked serpent; and He shall slay the dragon that is in the sea”
The first great monster-beast is the Leviathan, who rules the creatures of the sea and is mentioned in the Book of Job and elsewhere in the Bible. Leviathan is sometimes referred to as a being that challenged the rule of God, much like the taninim (mentioned in Genesis 1:21 and translated alternatively as “great sea creatures”, “great sea monsters” or “great whales”). Bible scholars see this as proof that the biblical Leviathan is a remnant of even more ancient mythologies, for example that of the Ugaritic culture, whose lore influenced and penetrated the Bible. Christianity adopted the image of the Leviathan as a symbol of satanic power and of evil. The gradual evolution of this theme has had a lasting cultural effect – think Moby Dick, the great white whale of Herman Melville’s classic novel.
Jews in the Middle Ages, however, were able to reconcile with the Leviathan and made the beast one of the three guardian monsters presiding over the world order. And so it was transformed from a kind of mighty sea serpent or giant crocodile (some even described it as a terrible dragon) into a fish of gigantic proportion that ensures that none of the other fish in the sea overtakes and destroys their brethren. In modern Hebrew, the word leviathan means “whale”.
The second monster-beast rules over the creatures of the air, in simple terms – birds. But to complicate things slightly, we’ll just let you know it has two names: Ziz and Bar Yochnei. Unusual names for sure, but both appear in the Bible. Ziz is mentioned in Psalms 80:14 in the original Hebrew (the word is generally lost in translation to English).
Although it is not clear who or what is the ziz mentioned in the Hebrew biblical text, the Jewish sages understood this mysterious name as belonging to a miraculous bird that was so big, its wingspan could block out the sun. As in this midrash in Genesis Rabbah 19:4:
“Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said the bird Ziz is pure and when it spreads its wings it covers the sun … and Adam was created after all to rule over all.”
In Jewish mythology, Ziz is identified with the legendary bird Bar Yochnei mentioned in the Talmud: “Once an egg of the bird called Bar Yochnei fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees” (Bekhorot 57b). If you missed the hint, what the sages are saying is that if one egg of this bird could do all that damage, just imagine how big the bird must have been!
The third monster rules over the creatures of the land. In Hebrew writings is it called Behemoth and is described as a gigantic bull.
“Behold now Behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.
Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly.
He moveth his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his stones are wrapped together.
His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.
He is the chief of the ways of God; He that made him can make His sword to approach unto him.
Surely the mountains bring him forth food, where all the beasts of the field play.
He lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed and fens.
The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about.
Behold, he drinketh up a river and hasteneth not; he trusteth that he can draw up the Jordan into his mouth.
Will any take him with his sight, or bore his nose with a snare?”
However, with all due respect to the supremacy of the three monsters over other beasts, it was important to subordinate them to God because none were mightier or stronger than Him or could threaten His unwavering rule. Therefore, Jewish lore tells us that the first two beasts (Leviathan and Ziz) were created on the fourth day, and the Behemoth on the fifth day.
Needless to say, the three monsters are busy all year round. At the beginning of the summer, autumn and winter seasons they take part in a special ceremony. Each sounds a special warning to all the other animals – the Behemoth roars, the Ziz screams and the Leviathan stirs the sea – in case any creature feels tempted to multiply or grow excessively and thus bring life in the world to an end.
These three mighty beasts were also given a messianic role. A fierce battle between the Leviathan and Behemoth is described as taking place in the End of Days. At its climax, both will be killed, and their meat will be served to the righteous at a spectacular banquet in heaven.
No doubt, the significance of the three monsters sounds strange to our modern ears. But perhaps there is still something to learn from them regarding the balance of nature. After all, experts have been warning us now for decades of the excessive dominance of one animal in particular – the human – who has been wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem for a quite a while now: on land, in the air and in sea.
Boldness of Invention and Falsification: Gershom Scholem on Elias Gewurz
Gershom Scholem's acerbic wit was on full display in the notes he scribbled on works written by a particular Theosophist author…
Gershom Scholem (left), the founder of modern academic study of the Kabbalah, and Theosophist author Elias Gewurz (right)
Elias Gewurz (1875-1947), a Jewish Theosophist author, who wrote about Kabbalah, has until this point, not merited an entry in Wikipedia. Rather his biography is recorded here, on the “Theosophy Wiki” website. According to the site, Gewurz was born in Krakow and educated in Vienna. He later moved to the Canary Islands and during World War I immigrated to the United States, where he settled in Los Angeles. Gewurz lived at first in the “Krotona Colony” of the American Theosophical Society, which was located in Hollywood. He moved around a bit in California, and eventually settled in Ventura, where he died, apparently a bachelor.
Gewurz was quite active in the “Theosophical Society” and a number of his published works made their way to Gershom Scholem’s personal library, which can be found today in the Gershom Scholem Reading Room the National Library of Israel.
The follow-up volume to The Hidden Treasures, The Mysteries of the Qabalah, was “written down by seven pupils of E. G.” (“Yogi Publication Society – Masonic Temple”, Chicago 1922).
The first volume, based upon lectures given at the “Krotona Lodge” and the “Krotona Institute” of the Theosophical Society in 1915, includes a brief introduction into the nature of the Kabbalah.
Needless to say, Scholem was unconvinced by the dating of Rabbi Moses de Leon to the 12th (as opposed to the 13th) century and noted that with a “?” in the margin.
The Mysteries volume, which was composed not by Guwerz himself, but by his devotees, includes an interesting dedication as well:
In it we learn that the tract was composed by “one of the seven”, to whom Gewurz had pointed out the path, that he himself had trodden with “bleeding feet”. We also learn that this was to have been part of a much larger work on the Hebrew language that apparently was never completed.
But it was his 1924 volume Beautiful Thoughts of the Ancient Hebrews, published in New York by the mainstream Bloch Publishing Company: The Jewish Book Concern, that was to draw the ire of Gershom Scholem.
The work was published with an introduction by California Reform Rabbi Martin A. Meyer, a colorful figure, whose mysterious demise aroused much speculation at the time. Some of his remarks regarding Kabbalah are worth noting:
The truth is that Scholem had previously commented on the 1914 Diary of a Child of Sorrow volume, referring to Gewurz’s early work as one of “Pseudo-Kabbalah”.
He also noted that Gewurz’s family hailed from the Polish town of Dembitz and that he was a “theosophist”. The Dembitz connection was also noted in Scholem’s copy of Sefer Dembitz (a memorial volume, Tel-Aviv 1960), where information of Gewurz’s somewhat illustrious ancestors was preserved.
In his copy of Beautiful Thoughts, Scholem shared some of his own not-so-beautiful thoughts regarding our author and his work.
Scholem’s comments in English and in Hebrew are quite different. In the English, perhaps addressed more to the Bloch Publication Company than to the author himself, Scholem informs us that; “[Gewurz is] remarkable by boldness of invention and falsification of nearly all the quotations contained herein! And nobody has taken pains to examine his ‘sources’ and the swindle is going on!” As we shall see, some of Scholem’s terms here (“swindle” and “invention”) made their way into his marginalia as well.
Scholem’s Hebrew notes are of a biographical nature and inform us that;
“The author’s name was Eliyahu ben Alter ben Daniel ben Henich, a son of a prominent family in Dembitz. And I heard from Mr. Daniel Leibel [the author of Sefer Dembitz] the author who knew him as a youth, that around 1899 he travelled to England and it was rumored that he converted, and this is apparently an error. Rather he become a Theosophist, and see now in Sefer Dembitz…”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not Gewurz was actually from Dembitz, as claimed here, or from Krakow, as purported on the “Theosophy Wiki”, we learn from Sefer Dembitz that Gewurz’s ancestors included Chief Rabbis and rabbinic judges, as well as wealthy community leaders, until “the Rabbinate was conquered by the Hasidim of Ropshitz”.
Returning to Scholem’s critical comments on Beautiful Thoughts, they are interspersed throughout the volume, and continue the theme of Guwerz’s falsification and/or invention of sources. A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this point:
Scholem was, however, significantly more charitable (or more sarcastic?) towards the book in his brief review in Kiryat Sefer (1:4, 1925), describing it as “a slim anthology of Kabbalah. The sources are a bit strange and much…is not that of ancient Jewish thought, but rather of the author himself, and that is also good. Perhaps the author could inform us, which ancient Jewish book he was referring to under the title of ‘The Golden Gate’, for we have not heard of this book and blessed is the one who knows.” This is the book that Scholem had described in the margins as having “never existed”.
Lastly, returning to the rumors alleging that Gewurz had converted to Christianity in England that Scholem had discounted since “he became a Theosophist”, one could ask if the two categories are in fact mutually exclusive or if he could have either progressed from Christianity to Theosophy, or if he had in fact become a Christian Theosophist who retained an interest in his native Judaism, including Kabbalah, as well.
In his work The Hidden Treasures of the Ancient Qabalah, in a fascinating chapter intitled “The Feminine Elements in Man and Their Redeeming Power”, Gewurz, seemingly ahead of his time, argues for the need for men to take on more feminine qualities and to balance their “masculine strength” with “feminine beauty”, even though they are “in reality one and the same thing”. He ends the chapter waxing eloquently about the figure of Jesus, whom he claims “was of a feminine nature. He only wore the body of a man, but His soul was womanly”. Leaving the gender issue aside, it is hard to imagine anyone other than a committed Christian lavishing such praise upon Jesus. Nonetheless, his call to the reader, that “we may grow juster and fairer and purer, more kind and more true, more silent and more humble”, is still relevant, more than one hundred years after his words were written.
Why Did Moroccan Jews Bring Moses Into the Passover Haggadah?
Moroccan Jews (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) to this day begin the Passover Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic at the center of which is the figure of Moses…
MS Bill Gross 168. Long version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors,” Tafilalt, 20th century
As we all know, the Passover Haggadah deals entirely with story of the Exodus from Egypt, followed by the crossing of the Red Sea, all the while praising the Creator and expressing gratitude for the many miracles and wonders He performed to liberate and bring the Israelites from slavery to freedom.
According to the story told in detail in the first chapters of the Book of Exodus, Moses was a major player in all the events of the Exodus from Egypt, from the moment God spoke to him before the Burning Bush and entrusted him with the mission to go and speak with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea as though crossing dry land, and then across the desert for forty years until his death before entering the land of Canaan. And yet, throughout all the pages of the Haggadah, the dominant biblical figure of Moses is not mentioned even once. Furthermore, in the Haggadah we read: “And God brought us out of Egypt not by the hand of an angel, nor by the hand of a fiery being, nor by a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be He, and He Himself in His glory.”
Why was the figure of Moses erased so completely from the Passover Haggadah? The Haggadah text we know today was formulated in the fourth century CE. It was around this time that the figure of Jesus was enshrined as a central divine figure of the Christian faith which was rapidly spreading across the known world. Some believe that the Jewish sages, fearing the rise of a similar popular movement among the Jewish people that would counter Jesus with the figure of Moses as the true divine figure, attempted to expunge the figure of Moses even from the memory of the constitutive events associated with him. These events are of course recounted in detail in the Haggadah, the central text of the Passover Seder, which shaped Jewish consciousness for generations.
Yet, to this very day, the Jews of Morocco (and the Jews of Western Algeria in the areas adjacent to Morocco) begin the Seder with a short text in Judeo-Arabic, in which the central figure is none other than Moses. The text is recited at the beginning of the fourth stage of the Seder – yahatz – before the reading of the Haggadah, when the person conducting the Seder picks up the three matzot, takes out the middle matza and breaks it in half (reserving one half to be eaten later during the Tsafun ritual).
The Judeo-Arabic text is recited while the broken piece of matza is held up for all to see. According to this short text, God parted the Red Sea for our Ancestors into twelve paths through Moses, our rabbi and prophet. This is followed by a prayer that asks God to save the members of the communities from exile and bring them to the Holy Land just as He delivered our ancestors out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. The Judeo-Arabic text eventually crystallized into two different but closely related main versions, one used in the Tafilalt and adjacent communities in the southeast and northeast of Morocco, and another, shorter version, customary in other communities. The wording of the text varied slightly from one community to another, as often occurs with a text that is primarily transmitted orally.
Why did Moroccan Jews see a need to bring Moses to the Seder and return him to the story of the Exodus? And when did it happen? As can be discerned from the Arabic language of the two versions discussed here, the text about Moses was formulated at the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. During this period, the last incarnations of medieval literary Judeo-Arabic, called Middle Judeo-Arabic, were still in use. Despite losses to the text over the generations because of its oral transmission, many traces of this ancient language can still be found in it.
What is the connection between the language and the consolidation of this special text? It seems that the return of the figure of Moses and his role in the Exodus story came at a time when the Jewish communities in Morocco and other lands of North Africa and Andalusia, that is, Muslim Spain, were allowed to return to open practice of their Judaism at the end of the thirteenth century under the rulers of the first Marinid Sultanate. The connection is a dramatic and even tragic event of long duration that nearly destroyed all the North African and Andalusian communities at the beginning of the reign of the fundamentalist Muslim Almohad Caliphate.
The first rulers of this dynasty coerced all the Jews under its rule to convert, to become anusim by forcing them to hide their Jewish observance for more than one hundred and twenty years; those who refused to convert to Islam were immediately sentenced to death. The period of the forced conversion began in approximately 1140, at the beginning of the Almohad sect’s takeover of Morocco and North Africa, including Libya and Andalusia, and ended after the empire’s disintegration in 1269, when Marrakesh was conquered by the Marinid tribes, who gradually regained most of Morocco’s regions.
At the beginning of the period of forced conversions, when Maimonides and his family lived in Fez (1160–1165), conditions had at least permitted Jews to live as Jews inside their homes if they wished, while behaving as Muslims in public. Praying in synagogues and the performing of Jewish ceremonies in public were strictly forbidden. In 1167 or 1168, during the period that has been termed the “gentle apostasy” ((השמד הרך, Maimonides wrote what has become known as the “Letter of Apostasy” (איגרת השמד) – a letter of encouragement to the Jews of Fez who were secretly holding onto their Judaism: “And the works of His hands will be done in secret because never has there been anything heard like this marvelous apostasy [author’s emphasis, JC] in which there is no objection except for speech alone.”
However, conditions worsened immeasurably afterwards under the rule of Sultan Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (ruled from 1184 to 1199) and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser (ruled from 1199 to 1214). The two rulers imposed even harsher regulations on the Jews of North Africa and Andalusia, in their communal and religious life and economically, but the memory of the persecutions is recorded only among the Jews of Morocco. The religious commentator and physician Rabbi Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin (1150?-1220?), who lived through the difficult events in Fez before he was able to leave Morocco, wrote a personal account of the persecutions and humiliations imposed on the Jews of Morocco. His testimony also included a harsh rebuke of those Moroccan Jews who did not leave Morocco to save themselves from the ruin. His story appears in the sixth chapter of his treatise Tibb al-Nufūs (“The Hygiene of the Souls”). In it he describes first-hand the persecutions that were the lot of the Jews of Morocco: the contempt and daily humiliations suffered at the hands of the Muslims; the constant fear of being reported to the authorities for not keeping the laws of Islam, which would lead to loss of their property, wives and even their lives as punishment; the prohibition against any sign of Jewish life even inside the homes, and the prohibition against educating children in the Jewish religion and the Torah; the forgetting of the Torah and the Hebrew language that resulted; the humiliating clothing they were forced to wear; the removal of children from Jewish homes to educate them in the religion of Islam; and finally, the prohibition against practicing commerce, the trade which put food on their tables.
This second period of the great apostasy dealt a fatal blow to the remnants of the “gentle apostasy.” Accounts of this period are almost entirely absent from historical research due to the lack of documentation. Only Maimonides’ temperate description of the “marvelous apostasy” remains in the historical consciousness, though it barely captured the severity of the decrees subsequently imposed on the Jews of Morocco in particular, as the seat of the rulers Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansour and his son Muhammad Al-Nasser was in Fez. For about eighty years, the anusim were forced to live as Muslims in every sense, to participate in prayers in mosques and to abolish all Jewish symbols. It is true that in these strict conditions came some relief with the disintegration of the Almohad Empire, but even then, the prohibition against practicing Judaism continued. With the Marinid tribes’ eventual takeover of Morocco and other large parts of the Almohad Empire, Jews were allowed to return to their Judaism, but they did not do so demonstratively for fear of antagonizing the Muslim populations whose hatred of the Jews had grown under the Almohad caliphate. The hidden Jews saw their return to Judaism as a second exodus from Egypt.
Moreover, because of the forced Muslim education they received, and the Muslim sermons they were forced to hear in the mosques, the central figure etched in the minds of the converted Jews was the figure of the Prophet Muhammad, who has always been at the center of Islamic worship and belief. The community leaders who sought to restore Jewish life and Jewish consciousness among the survivors of the apostasy needed to obliviate the image of the Prophet of Islam and counter it with a central Jewish figure that would overshadow it. Hence their need for the image of Moses, which Maimonides had already established as one of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, as described later in the piyut –Yigdal Elohim Hai [Acclaim and Praise the Living God] composed at the beginning of the fourteenth century by Rabbi Daniel ben Yehuda Hadayan: “In Israel there never arose another prophet like Moses, able to see God’s likeness.”
From the end of the thirteenth century and through the fourteenth century, the image of Moses appeared in other Judeo-Arabic poems and texts that were at the core of the Judeo-Arabic culture and poetry that developed from that time among Moroccan Jewry and until the community’s dispersal in the third quarter of the twentieth century. These poems, most of which were written in late Medieval Judeo-Arabic, include poems recited in the home of a new mother on the eve of the circumcision of her newborn; poems about the Exodus from Egypt and its wonders according to the Midrash; poems in praise of Moses; the repertoire of Passover texts known as Dhir, which are unique to the Jews of Morocco; and the long text of the Ten Commandments read on Shavuot. In the fourteenth century, the biblical texts and other para-liturgical texts were also translated into late Medieval Judeo-Arabic – the translations of the Sharḥ – i.e. the traditional calque translations familiar today. In these Judeo-Arabic texts, Muslim terms used to describe the supreme qualities of Muhammad were used to describe Moses, to emphasize him as the true messenger of God (Rasul Allah) and chief of the prophets, who spoke directly with God (Kalim Allah).
In the manuscript seen above, the long text of “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors” appears twice, on the right in square script and on the left in cursive:
“Thus did God part the sea for our ancestors into twelve paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace be upon him; He rescued them and delivered them from hard work to rest and from slavery to freedom. He sent him, may His name be exalted, so that He may lead us today also in the same way; May He gather our communities to His destroyed holy house, and save our captives from this exile for the sake of His great and holy name.” The forcibly converted Jews referred to themselves in these various poems as “captives.”
You can listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:
The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the long text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea into twelve separate paths when the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him. He rescued them and delivered them from hard labor to rest and from slavery to freedom. God, may His name be exalted, sent him. Thus shall He do to us now and save us for the sake of His great and holy name; Amen.”
Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text in the recording below:
The manuscript above contains a shortened version of the text “Thus Did God Part the Sea for Our Ancestors”: “Thus did God part the sea when our ancestors were brought out from the land of Egypt by our rabbi and prophet Moses son of Amram, peace and love be upon him. Just as He saved them and delivered them from hard labor to freedom, so God will save us from this exile. May it be His will and let us say Amen.”
Listen to a reading of the original Judeo-Arabic text below:
This article is a preview of a forthcoming comprehensive essay I am preparing on the beginning of the development of Judeo-Arabic poetry and culture in Morocco in which I will expand on much of the material that has been described here in brief. This large essay is now in advanced preparation for publication under the title: Destruction and Restoration: The Destruction of Jewish Life in Morocco under Forced Conversions of the Almohads and its Restoration, Joseph Chitrit, Haifa: Pardes Publishing House, 2023 (three volumes, in Hebrew).
Pigs in a Shtrayml
An image of a pig wearing a shtrayml, a fur hat often associated with hasidic Jews, understandably raises some eyebrows. One could be forgiven for thinking such images are part of an antisemitic propaganda effort, but in fact, the concept of animals wearing shtraymls has commonly been featured in works of Jewish satire…
There is a saying: "You can't make a shtrayml out of a pig's tail". Image courtesy of Johanna Kovitz, https://www.yiddishwit.com.
On December 19, 2016, a rally was held in Jerusalem attended by girls in grades five and six studying in Bais Yaakov seminaries in Israel. The Thursday evening rally was held at the Jerusalem Arena, a multipurpose sports center and one of the largest indoor spaces in Israel’s capital city. With eleven thousand seats, the arena is the home of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball club. But the girls had not gathered for a sporting event. The goal of the gathering was to discourage and deter girls from pursuing academia – meaning degree- or diploma-granting higher education – even in institutions or programs that seek to cater to the Haredi population or that operate under Haredi auspices.
One of the speakers, Rabbi Pinhas Erlanger, summed up proceedings by declaring, “Academia is a stumbling block for the House of Israel, and the entire content stands in contradiction to it, and therefore one should not study in these places…not even online.”
The first speaker was Rabbi Baruch Shapira, a high school teacher in Kol Torah – a renowned non-hasidic Haredi educational institution in Jerusalem that includes a high school and a rabbinical academy. Rabbi Shapira related a conversation he had earlier that day with Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman (1914–2017). At the time of the rally, Rabbi Steinman was widely regarded as the foremost religious authority of the non-hasidic Ashkenazic world. Besides being a renowned Torah scholar, Steinman was also the head of the Degel HaTorah faction of the Agudat Yisrael political party in Israel’s Knesset. Consequently, a message from the respected and influential centenarian carried significant weight.
According to the message delivered by Rabbi Shapira as reported by news outlets, Rabbi Steinman supported the rally, summing up his distaste for Haredi academic programs with a pithy remark: “Haredi academics?! That is a pig with a shtrayml.”
In Jewish imagination, the pig is the paradigm of something non-kosher and the very antithesis of holiness. Hence, when a Jew refers to something or someone as a pig it is nasty and can be particularly hurtful. The flip side of a bellicose statement like “a pig with a shtrayml” is that it conjures up an incongruous image with a powerful message.
Rabbi Steinman’s crisp – though offensive – quip may have been drawing on a Yiddish expression. For example: ‘From a pig’s tail, you cannot make a shtrayml.’ The expression is often taken to mean that from something bad you cannot make something good. Alternatively, the expression may mean that something holy, like a shtrayml, cannot or should not be made from something that is impure. Another possibility was that Rabbi Steinman was thinking about a different Yiddish expression: ‘If you put a shtrayml on a pig, does that make him into a rabbi?’ If these Yiddish expressions were Rabbi Steinman’s points of reference, then he was suggesting that holy Haredi society cannot include non-kosher academia.
A shtraymlwould not be found among the clothing of the primary school girls in attendance, nor in the wardrobe of the women who were the target of the rally’s larger message decrying academia. Why then did Rabbi Steinman mention the shtrayml? He himself did not wear a shtrayml, so he was not talking about his own headwear. Moreover, most of his followers were kneitsch wearers, that is, non-hasidic Ashkenazim who wore fedoras rather than fur hats. The shtrayml, however is a symbol. In the image that Rabbi Steinman conjured up, the traditional fur hat represents the Haredi community, while the pig represents academia. Putting a shtrayml on a pig is absurd; so too is Haredi academia. The two just do not go together.
Animals wearing shtraymls are not a common image in Jewish consciousness, though the Yiddish expressions indicate that Jews have toyed with the notion of shtrayml-wearing livestock. The truth is that other farm animals have also been topped with the furry headwear.
In 2011, an American Yiddish magazine that caters to hasidic communities advertised a shtrayml sale before Passover. The full-page advertisement showed a lamb wearing a shtrayml, tied to a bed in the desert with pyramids in the background.
The image evoked the biblical Exodus where lambs were procured four days before the children of Israel left slavery (Ex. 12:3-6 – “let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household…”). According to the sages, the lamb was tied to the corner of the bed before Passover evening when it was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten.
The shtrayml-wearing lamb is a bizarre sales pitch: Which shtrayml-wearing Hasid would want to be tethered to a bed in the desert for four days before being slaughtered? Presumably the peculiar image was designed to capture the attention of the magazine’s readers. Furthermore, the image relayed a message: a new shtrayml – just like securing a lamb in Egypt – was an essential, perhaps even divinely mandated, element of Passover preparations.
Indeed, as Passover approaches, many shtrayml sellers advertise their wares. For those who cannot treat themselves to a new fur hat, specialized cleaning services are offered.
It is possible that the earliest source for an animal donning a shtrayml comes from Lubavitch lore – an interesting fact in itself given that Lubavitch Hasidim no longer wear fur hats. The story which I will presently recount, harks back to the dawn of Hasidism.
The tale – as so often happens with this fabulous literary genre – appears in different versions. The earliest recorded version appears to be an 1879 discourse delivered by Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn of Lubavitch (Maharash, 1834–1882). The discourse would have been delivered in Yiddish, though a Hebrew transcription is what has reached us. The exact term shtrayml does not appear; rather, a more general term is used: kova shel shabbat, a Shabbat hat. Maharash’s son and successor, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn (Rashab, 1860–1920) also recounted the tale, as did his son and successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (Rayatz, 1880–1950).
When retelling the story in 1941, Rayatz specifically referred to the shtrayml. So too did Rayatz’s son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), when he recalled the tale in 1984. The numerous retellings suggest an abiding lesson which transcends a specific context.
According to this story, the Besht (Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, ca.1700–1760) instructed his disciples to close their eyes, and they suddenly perceived an ox wearing a shtrayml. The Besht explained that this was a Jew who sits and eats ox meat in honor of Shabbat. Alas, instead of savoring Shabbat, he relishes the ox meat.
The power of this colorful image lies in its ability to evoke a response in the audience – which in this case was the followers of the Lubavitch hasidic masters. Pondering the odd scene, the hasidic audience would be able to imagine themselves as shtrayml-wearing oxen. The shtrayml in the tale is what indicates that the figures are not real oxen; rather, they are Hasidim who are acting like oxen. The moral of the tale is compelling. You may be decked out in hasidic garb, but you are behaving like an animal.
Of course, the enduring lesson is not limited to the shtrayml wearers. No type of respectable clothing can justify behavior that is unbecoming of a human being. Whether that timeless message has anything to do people studying in academic institutions is another matter.
The shtrayml and other elements of the hasidic wardrobe are discussed in Levi Cooper’s forthcoming book Hasidic Relics: Cultural Encounters, to be published later this year by Maggid Books.