Simon Levis Sullam on The Italian Executioners

Levis Sullam Italian Executioners book coverMost historians have long described Italians as relatively protective of their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. But Simon Levis Sullam’s gripping new history The Italian Executioners shows how ordinary Italians actually played a central role in the deportation and genocide of Italian Jews during the Second World War. Levis Sullam recounts in vivid detail the shocking events of this period, dismantling the seductive popular myth of italiani brava gente—the “good Italians” who sheltered their Jewish compatriots from harm. Here, Levis Sullam answers several questions about the Holocaust in Italy, the book, and the misconceptions it corrects.

How does your book supersede previous historiography on the fate of the Jews of Italy during the Holocaust?

Historians have long represented Italy during the Holocaust as a safe place for Jews, due to the many rescues of Jews by Italians, in particular by members of the Catholic clergy.  Some of the founders of Holocaust historiography, such as Léon Poliakov or Raul Hilberg, viewed the Italians’ benevolent national character as antithetical to violence and genocide. But following a new stream of research starting with the work of Michele Sarfatti and Liliana Picciotto, The Italian Executioners claims that Italians—including ordinary Italians—were accomplices in the genocide of the Jews. Over 8,000 Jews, about 20% of the Italian Jewish population, were arrested and deported from Italy. Nearly half of these arrests were carried out by Italians.

Why do you prefer the category of genocide to those of Holocaust or Shoah? How do you apply it?

In the book, I use “genocide” as it was coined by the Polish Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin during the Second World War, to indicate the attempt to eradicate a group, in whole or in part, based on ethnicity or race. I underline how genocide does not take place only in foreign or distant lands, but can happen during circumstances of distress in any society, when next-door neighbours are persecuted as internal enemies. On the footsteps especially of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, I stress the role of the fragmentation of tasks and the bureaucratization of functions in the machinery of destruction, which required the large-scale involvement of ordinary citizens.

What was the role of antisemitism among Italian executioners?

Italy had a centuries-old tradition of particularly Catholic anti-Judaism and, since the nineteenth century, had also developed a racially based anti-Jewish hostility of the type that had already spread throughout Europe. In the twentieth century, antisemitism was not a founding principle of Italian Fascist ideology, although certain streams of the Fascist movement used anti-Jewish propaganda, especially in the 1930s. The racial question rose within Fascism first with the proclamation of an Italian empire in Ethiopia in 1936 and later, starting in the fall of 1938, with Mussolini’s enforcement of antisemitic laws.

But were ordinary Italians who participated in the Holocaust motivated by antisemitism?

Some of those who participated in the arrest of Jews were ideologically motivated. The Fascist Party, which was reborn during the German occupation of Italy in the fall of 1943, declared Jews to be “foreigners” and “enemies.” Ideologically committed members of the Fascist Party and the Fascist press adopted this line. However, the arrest of Jews was mostly conducted by policemen and by military police (“carabinieri”) who obeyed higher orders from the government and from the prefects and chiefs of police who represented the State locally. Many Italians, however, participated in the arrest of Jews and the confiscation of their property while performing bureaucratic functions, such as drafting lists of people to be arrested or registering confiscated property. Other Italians were motivated by greed.

Speaking of greed, can you tell us what happened to Jewish property?

Greed, revenge, and sometimes envy were important motivating factors in ordinary Italian citizens’ involvement in anti-Jewish activities during the Holocaust. Very often, arrests were the result of Italians informing about the whereabouts of Jewish next-door neighbors or former business partners. Informants aimed to take hold of Jewish property or move into vacated houses or apartments after the arrests. Fees were also promised for those who reported Jews.

After the war, what happened to those Italians who were responsible of the deportation of Jews?

There was never an Italian Nuremberg trial. Only a few postwar trials considered anti-Jewish persecution among the defendants’ responsibilities, and anti-Jewish action was never treated as a specific crime. In 1946, a general amnesty for Fascist crimes was enforced. Major war criminals served short sentences of only a few years. Most, if not all, of the police personnel who had been active during Fascism and the war remained in place. And there were paradoxical episodes such as that of a police officer who had been in charge of the confiscation of Jewish wealth, and who after the war was put in charge of the return of Jewish property. The role of Italians in the Holocaust was basically never examined by Italian justice.

What motivated you to write this book?

I was concerned about the relatively benevolent representation of Fascism by international historiography, which often still considers it a lesser evil compared to Nazism. The criminality and violence of Fascism began, at the latest, in the mid-1920s, when the movement started persecuting and even killing political opponents. In this case, I wanted to look at one of its most criminal phases: Fascism’s active participation in the Nazi project of extermination. On a more personal level, I was motivated also by my family’s history. Part of my family was rescued during the war, and that is how my parents survived and I could come to life. Another part of my family, including elders and months-old children, were arrested by Italians and killed by Germans in Auschwitz. I wanted to tell this story, the story of the Italian executioners in the Holocaust, which has been too often overlooked both by historians and in the public memory.

Simon Levis Sullam is associate professor of modern history at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. His previous books include Giuseppe Mazzini and the Origins of Fascism.

How Did the Ba’al Shem Tov Observe the Days of Awe?

David Biale Hasidism A New History book coverIsrael Ba’al Shem Tov, also called the Besht, is known as the legendary founder of the Jewish movement of Hasidism. During his lifetime, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the Besht and his followers practiced a mystical, pietistic Judaism. Hasidism: A New History, by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński, pieces together what is known about the Besht’s life and spiritual practices in order to examine his role in the development of what became Hasidism.

Like other holy men known as ba’alei shem, or masters of the name, the Besht was a shaman who used practical applications of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, to communicate with the divine, perform healing acts on earth. He tried to use his ability to communicate with heavenly powers to avert disaster for his community—not just the Jews in his own area, but the Jewish people everywhere. On rare occasions, he visited heaven in what was called an aliyat neshamah, or “ascent of the soul.” These events tended to occur during the High Holidays, also known as the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The Besht claimed that on Rosh Hashanah in two different years he ascended to heaven. During each ascent, he learned of an impending catastrophe that would befall the Jewish community, and attempted to avert it.

    For on Rosh Hashanah 5507 [1746] I performed an adjuration for the ascent of the soul, as you know, and I saw wondrous things in a vision, for the evil side ascended to accuse with great, unparalleled joy and performed his acts—persecutions entailing forced conversion—on several souls so they would meet violent deaths. I was horrified and I literally put my life in jeopardy and asked my teacher and rabbi [Ahiah the Shilonite (I Kings 14:2)] to go with me because it is very dangerous to go and ascend to the upper worlds. For from the day I attained my position I did not ascend such lofty ascents. I went up step by step until I entered the palace of the Messiah where the Messiah studies Torah with all of the Tannaim [the rabbis of the Mishna] and the righteous and also with the seven shepherds. . . .

—cited in Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov, 2nd ed. (Oxford and Portland, OR, 2013), 106-107

    And on Rosh Hashanah 5510 [1749] I performed an ascent of the soul, as is known, and I saw a great accusation until the evil side almost received permission to completely destroy regions and communities. I put my life in jeopardy and I prayed: “Let us fall into the hand of God and not fall into the hands of man.”

—ibid., 107

These mystical experiences were sometimes precipitated by his entering a self-induced trance. One of these trances, which occurred on Yom Kippur, is described in the Shivhei ha-Besht, a book of hagiographical stories about the Besht published over fifty years after his death:

    Before Ne’ilah [the final prayer of the Yom Kippur liturgy] he began to preach in harsh words and he cried. He put his head backward on the ark and he sighed and he wept. Afterward [when] he began to pray the silent eighteen benedictions, and then the voiced eighteen benedictions … the Besht began to make terrible gestures, and he bent back- ward until his head came close to his knees, and everyone feared that he would fall down. They wanted to support him but they were afraid to. They told it to Rabbi Ze’ev Kutses, God bless his memory, who came and looked at the Besht’s face and signaled that they were not to touch him. His eyes bulged and he sounded like a bull being slaughtered. He kept this up for about two hours. Suddenly he stirred and straightened up. He prayed in a great hurry and finished the prayer.

—Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz, In Praise of the Ba’al Shem Tov, The Earliest Collection of Legends about the Founder of Hasidism, (Lanham, MD, 2004), 55. Translation slightly modified.

Are you observing the Days of Awe this year? The gates of heaven are open, just as they were to the Ba’al Shem Tov two hundred and fifty years ago. You can learn more about how eighteenth-century Jewish mysticism developed into modern Hasidism in Hasidism: A New History. A sweet new year!

Jack Wertheimer on The New American Judaism

Jack Wertheimer The New American Judaism book coverAmerican Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. In The New American Judaism, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. What emerges is a quintessentially American story of rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation. Here, Wertheimer provides insight on why and how he wrote the book, and what readers of all faiths can learn from it.

What led you to write this book?

Twenty-five years ago, I published a book offering my take on contemporary Jewish religious life. When I revisited that book in recent years, I realized an entirely different approach, not merely an update, would be needed to do justice to today’s scene. I also was curious to learn more about the proliferation of new settings for Jewish religious expression and the remaking of existing places for congregating.

You interviewed 220 people for this book. How did you decide whom to interview and what questions to ask?

I mainly interviewed rabbis situated in different corners of Jewish life, and then turned to other observers to help me understand new developments. My overall questions were straightforward: What are you seeing among the Jews in your orbit when it comes to religion? And what are you doing to draw Jews into religious life? From there, the questions led us down fascinating byways. I learned about the re-appropriation of long-discarded Jewish religious traditions, and creative efforts to engage attendees at religious services; about the self-invented forms of Jewish practice taken for granted by some Jews and also the return to traditions by others. I heard about startling religious practices one would not have seen in synagogues even twenty years ago, and also learned of Jewish religious gatherings in unlikely places.

So what is new about the new American Judaism?

I could be flip and answer: “that’s why you have to read the book.” But to begin addressing the question, I’d say the environment in which American Jews find themselves is new. In some ways, it is remarkably open to all religious possibilities—or none; in other ways, American elite culture is highly dismissive of religion in ways that was not the case but a few decades ago. This has further eroded what Peter Berger called “the plausibility structure” for religion. Jews in our time are less likely than in the past to regard their religion as a package of behaviors and, as the old saw put it, “a way of life.” Now religious settings have to contend with Jews who wish to connect only episodically and only on their own terms. This has led both to religious participation as a “sometime thing” for many Jews, and simultaneously has spurred a great deal of experimentation to create enticing religious environments in the hope of drawing more participants. Congregations of all types are reimagining the use of space, the choreography of prayer service, the impact of music and visual cues, the ways they extend hospitality and mutual support to fellow congregants, and the messages they deliver about how Jewish religious practice enriches one’s life.

Is all of this unique to Judaism?

Not at all. One cannot really understand Jewish religious developments in a vacuum. Even the seemingly most insular of Jews who deliberately live in their own enclaves cannot escape the impact of the powerful culture all around us. (One of the rabbis I interviewed put this colloquially when he said: “culture eats mission for breakfast”—i.e. it overwhelms religious ideology.)

Many internal Jewish developments described in this book are quintessentially American (though some have parallels in other countries). New ways of thinking about religious experiences can be found in American churches, mosques and synagogues. Religious leaders across the spectrum recognize that they face common challenges, such as the well-documented retreat from institutional engagement, the quest for spirituality among some, the disenchantment with religious leadership, the DIY mindset when applied to religion and the desire for a more engaging worship experience. Experimentation is a hallmark of American religious life, as it is in many Jewish religious institutions.

Can you talk about one challenge you faced in your research?

There are a great many ways Jews practice their religion. One challenge facing anyone attempting to survey the scene is how to capture American Judaism in all its complexity and variety. To be clear, the term Judaism is used in many different ways. Some see it as synonymous with all of Jewish life. Others as the expression of a distinct theology and package of do’s and don’ts. The book endeavors to examine how “average” Jews incorporate Jewish religious practices into their lives, what they believe, what in their religion is important to them, and what is available to those who seek out Jewish religious settings.

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of American Judaism. Do you agree with them?

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future health and vitality of Jewish life in this country. Some also worry about the long-term future of this or that denomination of American Judaism. There are good reasons to worry about both. But given the explosion of creativity in the Jewish religious sphere, I don’t worry about the future of Judaism. It’s the adherents, the Jews in the pews or those who rarely show up, that require our attention. I devote attention in the book to writing about some approaches to this challenge that I regard as short-sighted, if not wrong-headed. I also suggest some guidelines that might make for a stronger Jewish religious life.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

First, that like so much in life, American Judaism is complicated, anything but static, and replete with pluses and minuses. Second, by stepping back to behold the entire scene, there are some remarkably fascinating things to observe. And related to that, perhaps readers will join me in appreciating a bit more the enormous investment of energy, creativity and good-will that so many rabbis and other religious leader are pouring into efforts to revitalize Jewish religious life. We don’t have to find every effort personally congenial to appreciate the explosion of energy at precisely a time when religion is not held in the highest esteem.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish LandscapeFamily Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.

Chaim Saiman on Halakhah

Chaim Saiman Halakhah book coverThough typically translated as “Jewish law,” the term halakhah is not an easy match for what is usually thought of as law. In his panoramic book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law, Chaim Saiman traces how generations of rabbis have used concepts forged in talmudic disputation to do the work that other societies assign not only to philosophy, political theory, theology, and ethics but also to art, drama, and literature. Guiding readers across two millennia of richly illuminating perspectives, this book shows how halakhah is not just “law,” but an entire way of thinking, being, and knowing.

What is halakhah and why did you decide to write a book about it?

Literally, halakhah means “the way” or “the path,” though it is typically translated as Jewish law.

I grew up in a home and community where I was expected not only to obey the law, but to study and master complex legal texts in Hebrew and Aramaic.

I was about eight years old when my father proceeded to pull out two massive tomes from the shelf and inform me that I had to learn with him before I could escape to the Nintendo console located in my friend’s basement. We began to study the section of Mishnah (the earliest code of Jewish law, from around the year 200 CE) detailing the responsibilities of different bailees—those who watch over the property belonging to someone else. This book is a grown-up attempt to answer why an eight-year-old should care about bailees and the ancient laws of lost cows.

Did you really start a book on Jewish law with Jesus?

Yes. I take Jesus and the Apostle Paul as some of the earliest in a long line of halakhah’s critics. Both lived before the tradition crystallized in the form of the Mishnah. Yet even at this early stage, Jesus pokes fun at the Mishnah’s forebears for obsessing over legal rules and formalities at the expense of true spiritual growth. Jesus would have most likely considered it a bad idea to initiate young children into religious life by analyzing the laws of bailments.  But whereas Jesus saw the law as a set of regulations and restrictions, the Talmudic rabbis understood it as a domain of exploration and study, a process they called Talmud Torah.

 What is Talmud Torah?

It is hard to translate, mainly because the idea does not exist in Western or American culture. Word-for-word it means the “study of Torah,” but its impact extends beyond what is usually thought of as “study.” Talmud Torah means that Torah is not studied merely for pre-professional reasons, and not (only) to know the rules relevant to living a Jewish life, but because it is a primary religious activity, an intimate spiritual act that brings the learner into God’s embrace.

The closest analogy in general culture is the idea once practiced at elite universities when the curriculum was focused on Greek, Latin, philosophy, ancient civilization, and classical literature. Unlike today, the goal was not to make students more attractive to employers, but to educate them into ennobled citizens who would fully realize their humanity. The rabbis had a similar idea, but rather than literature or philosophy, study was grounded in the divine word of the Torah, and especially the legal regulations set forth in the Mishnah and Talmud.

What does Talmud Torah have to do with law?

Though Talmud Torah arguably applies to any area of Jewish law and thought, longstanding tradition places special emphasis on the areas that correspond to contract, tort, property and business law—the very topics covered by secular legal systems.  According to the Talmudic rabbis, the subjects taught in law schools across the country become a spiritual practice when learned in the halakhic setting. Lawyers get many adjectives thrown their way, but godly is rarely one of them. The book aims to understand what it means to hold that legal study is a path to the divine, and what are the implications of this idea for a legal system.

Is halakhah the law of any country?

Not really. One of the unusual aspects of halakhah is that it first becomes visible in the Mishnah several generations after the independent Jewish state was dismantled by the Romans. Further, the most fertile periods of halakhic development took place when Jews did not govern any territory but lived as a minority under non-Jewish rule. This is the opposite from how legal systems typically develop.

From at least the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, Jews tended to live in tight communities whose internal legal affairs were heavily influenced by rabbis and halakhah. But even here, close investigation shows that the civil laws that applied often deviated from Talmudic rules studied under the rubric of Talmud Torah. In the case of civil law there were effectively two systems of Jewish law. One used by tribunals when disputes arose in practice, and the other that lived mainly on the pages of the Talmud and realized though Torah study.  The relationship between these two forms of halakhah is a central theme of the book.

What about the state of Israel?

One of the ironies of modern Jewish life is that while Judaism historically defined itself through devotion to law, when the state of Israel was established there was little consensus about the role of halakhah in the state. Israel’s Socialist Zionist founders saw halakhah as a relic of the outmoded European Judaism that had to be overcome before a modern, Zionist, and self-determined Judaism could take hold. Most observant Jews by contrast, viewed secular Zionism as religiously invalid, if not dangerous. Since their primary concern was maintaining halakhah’s integrity in a secularizing world, they had little interest in adapting it for use in the modern state. Hence with the exception of marriage and divorce law, halakhah was not reflected in early Israeli law.

But the ground has shifted in the intervening years. Though Israeli law remains distinct from halakhah, there is a much wider constituency today that looks to define Israel as a Jewish state where concepts and norms inspired by halakhah find expression in state law. The book’s final chapter discusses the possibilities and pitfalls of infusing state law with halakhah.

Chaim N. Saiman is professor in the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism as Seen by a Cartographer

Historical Atlas of Hasidism book coverby Waldemar Spallek

The Historical Atlas of Hasidism, its title notwithstanding, is not a typical historical atlas. It does not illustrate the past glory of any state or nation by means of historical maps showing former borders, conquests, trade routes, or the strategies of great battles. It presents, unusually, the birth, development, and current status of an extraordinary mystical religious movement. This movement, Hasidism, originated in the eighteenth century in the lands of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, from whence it was almost entirely erased due to a series of historical events.

The Atlas is, in part, an attempt to recreate this lost world. The maps are complemented by numerous illustrations and tables as well as commentary, which is an excellent introduction to the content presented on the maps. Unlike typical atlases of the world’s great religions, the Historical Atlas of Hasidism does not focus on the non-religious history of religion. It pinpoints political limits and demographic centers, but it discloses above all the spatial dimension of a religious experience.

The maps in the atlas were designed in GIS, or Geographic Information System (ArcGIS from ESRI), due to the massive amount of spatial data sets that needed to be processed and visualized. The largest of the databases used contains almost 130,000 records obtained from difficult-to-access sources. The map created on the basis of this database (using Dorling’s cartograms) clearly shows where contemporary Hasidic centers are located, but it also reveals how the place where Hasidism originated became an area bereft of Hasidim.

The Atlas is unique also because the co-author, Marcin Wodziński, reached for the impossible. As a person without a cartography background, he posed questions that cartography does not generally deal with. In order to meet his expectations, we plotted maps that are innovative not only because of the size of the source database used and the questions asked, but also because of the new forms of cartographic visualization that we perforce had to develop.

In preparing the Atlas, I had to recreate the historical space of places that no longer exist, and information regarding their historical appearance is scant. I reconstructed, for example, visualizations of Hasidic courts and Jewish towns in Eastern Europe primarily on the basis of recollections by former residents. Unlike many historical atlases, our atlas does not use a single anachronistic background map.

What did we achieve?

Maps as spatial perspectives allowed us to embed Hasidic history in a geographical context. This in turn allowed us to illuminate and understand a great variety of events and processes from the past.

Map 4.2. Petitions submitted to R. Eliyahu Guttmacher, c. 1874. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

One such example is map 4.2, which illustrates the relationship between the number and distribution of requests sent to a given rabbi (the map was based on an extant set of approximately 7,000 petitions sent to one tsadik alone) and various spatial factors: the distance between the tsadik’s court and the place from which supplicants traveled, the railway network utilized, the extent of the local renown of the tsadik, and so on.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 3.1.2

Map 3.1.2. Major dynasties. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

 

Historical Atlas of Hasidism Map 5.3.1

Map 5.3.1. Dominant Hasidic groups c. 1900-1939. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

In turn, map 3.1.2 demonstrates more clearly than any previous research the regionalization of the main Hasidic groups’ areas of influence. Marking the Hasidic leaders’ place with different colors precisely demarcates the borders of the areas into which individual Hasidic dynasties expanded. Map 5.3.1, created on the basis of spatial analysis of data from nearly 3,000 Hasidic prayer halls, delineates the areas in which various Hasidic groups were dominant before World War II.

Historical Atlas of Hasidism map 7.4

Map 7.4. The Holocaust, 1939-1945. Cartography by Waldemar Spallek.

The map of the Holocaust is the most moving, as it tracks the destruction of Eastern European Jews on the basis of the tragic fate of 80 Hasidic leaders. Fortunately, the atlas does not end with this bleak image. Successive maps reveal that Hasidism has since been reborn in America, Israel, and Western Europe, and it thrives today. With the maps extending from the earliest Hasidic leaders in the mid-eighteenth century to the cultural geography of Hasidism today, the atlas covers the whole history of Hasidism and surprisingly many of its aspects. I feel I was privileged to work on such an unusual, comprehensive, and innovative project.

Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Marcin Wodziński on Historical Atlas of Hasidism

WodzinskiHistorical Atlas of Hasidism is the very first cartographic reference book on one of the modern era’s most vibrant and important mystical movements. Featuring sixty-one large-format maps and a wealth of illustrations, charts, and tables, this one-of-a-kind atlas charts Hasidism’s emergence and expansion; its dynasties, courts, and prayer houses; its spread to the New World; the crisis of the two world wars and the Holocaust; and Hasidism’s remarkable postwar rebirth. Historical Atlas of Hasidism is visually stunning and easy to use, a magnificent resource for anyone seeking to understand Hasidism’s spatial and spiritual dimensions, or indeed anybody interested in geographies of religious movements past and present.

What exactly is the Historical Atlas of Hasidism?

This is the first cartographic interpretation of the mystical movement of Hasidism. 280 pages of large-format, full-color maps, images, and text about Hasidism, from its origins in the mid-eighteenth century until today.

What is the appeal of the Atlas?

Whoever gets it into his or her hands will notice that the atlas is simply beautiful. With more than one hundred charts, tables, and unique images, and with 74 beautifully designed full-color maps, this is simply a pleasure to flip through. But I believe there is much more to it. The atlas presents in a visually attractive, easy-to-understand cartographic form the spatial, physical, and visual dimension of a mystical movement. More than that, it demonstrates the meaningful interrelations between the movement’s spatiality and spirituality: Hasidism has been conditioned by its geographic characteristics not only in its social organization, but also in its spiritual life, type of religious leadership, and cultural articulation. On the more general level, this atlas offers an innovative way of looking at a religious movement that might be inspiring for anybody interested in the history, sociology, or geography of religions. This is why I believe the atlas will have a wide readership.

Why does Hasidism require a special Atlas?

Hasidism is one of the most important religious movements of modern Eastern Europe, contemporary Israel, and North America, and this for a number of reasons. For example, this is one of very few successful attempts at creating a religious movement that is both egalitarian and mystical, a real exception in the history of world religions. In addition, many people today are captivated by the extraordinary social and political success of the Hasidim, far beyond their rather moderate numbers. But maybe most importantly, even for those who have never heard the name of Hasidism, the image of traditional Jewry, of the “authentic Jewishness,” is informed mostly by Hasidism. Even though I disagree with this over-simplifying narrative, I believe it vividly represents the importance of the phenomenon.

But why maps, why an atlas as opposed to a standard monograph?

How otherwise could we capture the spatial dimension of the movement? If you believe, as I do, that the Hasidim were not only otherworldly mystics, but also down-to-earth residents of specific locations in very specific historical context of Eastern Europe, then you need to ask what is relation between these two. The maps are not only the easiest way to show it, but they allow for much more than textual exposition. And, besides, today in the digital age, visualization might be the only way to get through with a complex message.

To put this same question another way: you’ve written on Hasidism before; what is unique about this book?

I published my first book in Hasidism twenty years ago and I am still proud of this juvenile publication, as I am of other books I published later. But this book is indeed special. My previous books on Hasidism were more specialist, addressed mostly to the academic readers. This one is addressed to a wide group of readers, academic and lay. Each of the nine chapters introduces in a short, accessible way some central features of Hasidism, such as emergence, development of leadership, relation between religious centers and peripheries, demography, crisis of war and the Holocaust, etc. This very accessible introduction leads to the analysis of how these phenomena were affected by and found representation in space. In other ways, each chapter attempts to be accessible, but at the same time to offer some innovative understanding of the movement (and of a spatial dimension of any religion by implication). The same way, the maps have been conceptualized so that they communicate both the big message, something that you might grasp in the blink of your eye, and a far more developed, complex message, something that you need to read the map carefully for in order to see and understand. In this sense, the atlas both makes the history of Hasidism accessible to a freshman and introduces an expert knowledge on aspects that will be hopefully novel to both the students of Hasidism and a larger group of historians, sociologists, and geographers of religions.

Is it really a book for everybody?

I wouldn’t put it that way. The book is academic. But we, the cartographer and I, made a lot of effort to make it accessible, attractive, and engaging for a wide group of non-academic readers, too, e.g. those interested in Jewish history, Judaism, and history of religion more generally. Also, as the maps contain much geographical detail, e.g. thousands of places of residence of Hasidic leaders, thousands of Hasidic prayer halls, this will be of interest also to lay readers interested in local history, family histories, etc.

The scope of the Atlas sets it apart from other publications. Can you explain how?

This atlas broadens our understanding of Hasidism in three important ways. First, it looks at the movement beyond the Hasidic leaders at thousands of their followers living far from Hasidic centers. This is new, innovative, and I think very needed corrective to the dominant trends in research on Hasidism. Second, it examines Hasidism in its historical entirety from its beginnings in the eighteenth century till today. Very few publications are similarly comprehensive. Most importantly, responding to the challenge of digital humanities, it uses the diverse collection of qualitative, but above all quantitative data of diversified origin, including extensive GIS-processed databases of historical and contemporary records. The largest database is nearly 130 thousand records! Several others have thousands of records. I don’t know any similar publication on Hasidism, or, indeed, on any other religious movement.

Does the Atlas have real world applications?

I believe every knowledge has real world applications, at least by making us wiser. Well, of course, some sections might have direct application. For example my mapping of the settlement patterns among Israeli Hasidim might be successfully used by the Israel city planners or government administration in allocation of resources. For some others, the atlas might become an inspiring guidebook for cultural, or, indeed, spiritual tourism in Eastern Europe. Hasidism pilgrimages are today enormous enterprise with tens of thousands of Hasidim and non-Hasidim visiting graves of the tsadikim and other Hasidic sites. Finally, many maps are simply beautiful, so my wife says they will make perfect print for tablecloths, T-shirts, and postcards. We can’t wait to open a souvenir shop!

Marcin Wodziński is professor of Jewish studies at the University of Wrocław in Poland. His many books include Hasidism: A New History (Princeton) and Hasidism and Politics: The Kingdom of Poland, 1815–1864. Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on The Talmud: A Biography

TalmudThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia. An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.

 

What is the Talmud?

The Talmud has been the central authoritative text for Judaism for the last millennium. An originally oral collectively authored work that was completed by the eighth century CE, the Talmud ranges across topics both sacred and mundane with a nonlinear style that replicates the feel of an intellectual conversation. People have routinely looked to the Talmud for guidance in their ritual, spiritual and legal lives even as many of the Talmud’s most studied passages are about torts like the effects of a goring ox on a neighbor’s property. This combination of sometimes profound content alongside seemingly banal material is one of the things that makes the Talmud so unique.

Is this an introduction to the Talmud? Will it teach me how to read the Talmud?

It is an introduction to the Talmud, but not one specifically designed to train someone to read this unique work. There are some pretty good print and digital resources that help new learners figure out how to make sense of a talmudic passage. This book provides an overview of how the Talmud was composed and subsequently received. More than explaining a passage or two of Talmud, The Talmud: A Biography examines the historical contexts in which the Talmud was initially produced and subsequently canonized. It attempts to highlight the unique literary and religious features that have made the Talmud so compelling to so many for so long.

The Talmud is a religious classic written by dead white men. Is it still relevant?

Despite the Talmud’s antique background, it is a surprisingly fresh text that seems to have a limitless potential for reinterpretation. One of the claims of the biography is that different factions of Judaism (Zionism, Reform Judaism, Hasidism) throughout history established themselves with a self-conscious opposition to the Talmud and its vision of Judaism, but eventually came back to reclaim the Talmud and its authority through reinterpretation. The Talmud is of a different time and place. Contemporary readers occasionally bristle at sections that are challenging by today’s ethical standards. If one can create distance as a reader from some of the text’s more challenging opinions or assumptions, one can find sections that seem to speak directly to our age. Because the Talmud is written in a conversational style with multiple opinions it invites readers to join the conversation and talk back to it. The Talmud: A Biography ends with a discussion of some artists who are talking back to the Talmud. One of the discussed artworks is featured on the book’s jacket cover.

Biographies are stories of people’s lives. You’ve written a biography of a book. What were the challenges of applying this genre to a book and what are the advantages?

We’re so used to the genre of biography that we don’t think much about the fact that it’s challenging to turn a life into a textual narrative. This book compounded the problem because I had to turn a text into a life to reduce that life to a textual narrative. The advantage of writing a biography of the Talmud rather than an introduction is that the living Talmud more naturally lends itself to a dynamic treatment that recognizes that the work changed over time. The Talmud’s cultural position and impact were not the same in the eleventh century as in the eighteenth; the Jewish diaspora is so vast that there were major cultural differences inherent to the different places in which Jews lived. 

The Talmud has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend. Is the reputation deserved? What makes the work so difficult?

People sometimes think that what makes the Talmud difficult is its language—the Talmud is written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. The language is a barrier for English readers, but there are several translations available which bridge that gap. The real challenge of the Talmud lies in its logic. Much of the Talmud’s text is about fine- grained debates around the interpretation of the Bible and Mishnah (an early rabbinic legal code). The Talmud assumes a lot about its reader (that the reader knows the bible, knows the full gamut of Jewish ritual and can process logic very rapidly). There are also many places where an attentive reader will pick up on flaws in the textual logic and even contradictions within a local passage. What makes the Talmud so difficult (but in a satisfying way) is figuring out a way to make sense of these flaws and contradictions.

When did you first read the Talmud?

I had an intense traditional Jewish education. At 8 I started competing in intra-school and inter-school competitions for memorizing Mishnayot (individual passages of Mishnah, the early rabbinic law code); for five years I averaged a hundred memorized Mishnayot a year. By the time I started studying the Talmud (in summer camp after fourth grade), I was so eager to get started because I had been exposed to story after story about the Talmud’s greatness and the satisfaction it provided to its learners. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the satisfaction piece until a decade later, when I had the intellectual maturity to read the Talmud and understand all its complexities.

Does the book offer something for those who read Talmud regularly?

Many Talmud scholars and students rarely get the opportunity to reflect on the work’s origins, its unique qualities as a work of literature or the way the Talmud was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts and various print editions to our current digital age. The book is as interested in the life the Talmud lived off the page—as a symbol of Jews and Judaism that has been perpetually implicated in fights between religions or between competing religious factions. The Talmud: A Biography interprets two talmudic passages and sustains these examples from chapter to chapter. While designed to be understood by beginners, these interpretations will engage even the most experienced Talmud scholars.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.

Jan Assmann: Remembering the Exodus

Almost 30 years ago, friends in Jerusalem invited my family to a Passover Seder. It might be fun, they said, to have me on board as an Egyptologist to professionally depict the sufferings in the house of serfdom. As the youngest child at the Seder, my daughter Corinna had to learn and ask the question, “Ma nishtana?”,  triggering a chain of liturgical and improvised recitations. I began to think about how an Egyptologist would reconstruct and ‘remember’ the Exodus. After all, I was a complete outsider at the Seder. My only legitimation lay in the fact that it was Egypt that the children of Israel left in order to start a new form of community in Canaan. I wondered, was there a specifically anti-Egyptian gist in this narrative?

When I was asked to write a book on Exodus for Princeton University Press, I felt the time had finally come to set to work. As an Egyptologist, I knew for sure that there was no Egyptian evidence that could corroborate the historicity of the story. There was no use inquiring into what really happened in the time of Ramesses II. Instead, I asked, “How was this event remembered?” This approach allowed me to read the book of Exodus not as a historical account, but as an act of remembering in itself. It also allowed me to locate the story not in the Late Bronze Age, but rather in the time of its narration­—probably the sixth century BCE.

Re-reading the book of Exodus, I remarked with surprise that the Exodus proper—from the sufferings of serfdom to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea—fills just one part of the book. The two other parts contain the revelation of the Law at Mt. Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle. The theme of revelation, however, is present in all three parts:

  1. First, God reveals his name to Moses at the Burning Bush and commissions Moses to lead his people to Canaan, the Promised Land (chs. 3-6). God reveals his power by hitting Pharaoh and his land with ten plagues and drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds (chs. 7-15a).
  2. In the second part, God reveals himself to his chosen people, with whom he forms a covenant, and whom he instructs about the rules to remain true to this covenant (chs. 15b-24).
  3. In the third part, God reveals to Moses the structure of the Tabernacle in the cloud (chs. 25-31) and—in a scene of reconciliation after the crisis of the Golden Calf—his view from behind and his merciful or unforgiving nature.

The book’s narrative arc starts with trauma and ends with triumph: from extreme God-forsakenness to God living ‘in the midst of his people’, ‘sitting on the cherubim.’ Near the middle of the book, the text even contains God’s detailed prescription as to how this story should be remembered by future generations. This prescription is implemented and acted out in the feast of Passover, starting with the Seder night.

The book of Exodus, it turns out, is about much more than just the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. It is about the foundation of a new, revealed religion based on covenant, faith and law, and of a nation chosen to be the carrier of this religion, serving as a prototype that at the end of time will be adopted by all nations on earth.

So where, one may ask, is the “anti-Egyptian gist”? It lies in the opposition of serfdom and freedom. Egypt represents the old system of sacral kingship, where religion and state are the same and the king rules as a god on earth. This system is overturned by the religion of covenant and faith that liberates its members from serving Pharaoh into the service of God. Freedom means autonomy as a diasporic nation—forced to obey the host country’s laws, but at the same time obeying a higher authority whose laws are meant to last forever, untouched by any mundane government. This is religion in a new key, independent of state and country, religion that is able to resist oppression and persecution—religion, that is, as we understand it today. This is why I finally titled my book The Invention of Religion.

Freedom is the major theme of the Passover Haggadah. Freedom in times of exile and persecution—this is what the Seder celebrates. Yet kherût, or freedom, is not a biblical word. It became a keyword only in the Diaspora, when Egypt came to stand for any country and any period where and when the Jews were oppressed. “Wherever you live,” wrote Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution, “it is probably Egypt.” Remembering the Exodus means exiting Egypt.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

Read PUP’s 2017 National Jewish Book Award winners!

We’re proud to announce that four Princeton University Press titles were winners and/or finalists for the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards. These four books examine the lives of Jewish women in medieval Islamic society, a famous case of anti-Semitism in eighteenth-century Germany, the origins of Jews as a people, and the meanings of the Hebrew language.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies (Barbara Dobkin Award)

Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship (Nahum Sarna Memorial Award)

Much of what we know about life in the medieval Islamic Middle East comes from texts written to impart religious ideals or to chronicle the movements of great men. How did women participate in the societies these texts describe? What about non-Muslims, whose own religious traditions descended partly from pre-Islamic late antiquity?

Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt approaches these questions through Jewish women’s adolescence in Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria (c. 969–1250). Using hundreds of everyday papers preserved in the Cairo Geniza, Eve Krakowski follows the lives of girls from different social classes—rich and poor, secluded and physically mobile—as they prepared to marry and become social adults.

Krakowski also suggests a new approach to religious identity in premodern Islamic societies—and to the history of rabbinic Judaism. Through the lens of women’s coming-of-age, she demonstrates that even Jews who faithfully observed rabbinic law did not always understand the world in rabbinic terms. By tracing the fault lines between rabbinic legal practice and its practitioners’ lives, Krakowski explains how rabbinic Judaism adapted to the Islamic Middle Ages. Read the introduction.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award)

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.”

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial. Drawing on a wealth of rare archival evidence, Yair Mintzker investigates conflicting versions of Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in the criminal investigation, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a masterfully innovative work of history, and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity. Check out this Q&A with Mintzker, or read the introduction.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity (In Memory of Dorothy Kripke)

In The Origin of the Jews, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be.

This is the first book to trace the history of the different approaches that have been applied to the question, including genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. Weitzman shows how this quest has been fraught since its inception with religious and political agendas, how anti-Semitism cast its long shadow over generations of learning, and how recent claims about Jewish origins have been difficult to disentangle from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not offer neatly packaged conclusions but invites readers on an intellectual adventure, shedding new light on the assumptions and biases of those seeking answers—and the challenges that have made finding answers so elusive. Read the introduction!

Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award)

The Story of Hebrew takes readers from the opening verses of Genesis—which seemingly describe the creation of Hebrew itself—to the reincarnation of Hebrew as the everyday language of the Jewish state. Lewis Glinert explains the uses and meanings of Hebrew in ancient Israel and its role as a medium for wisdom and prayer. He describes the early rabbis’ preservation of Hebrew following the Babylonian exile, the challenges posed by Arabic, and the prolific use of Hebrew in Diaspora art, spirituality, and science. Glinert looks at the conflicted relationship Christians had with Hebrew from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation, the language’s fatal rivalry with Yiddish, the dreamers and schemers that made modern Hebrew a reality, and how a lost pre-Holocaust textual ethos is being renewed today by Orthodox Jews.

The Story of Hebrew explores the extraordinary hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and Christians, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Check out this Q&A with Glinert, or read the book’s introduction.

Illustrating the Passover story: Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink

One of the most beloved books in the Jewish tradition is the Haggadah. This is the text used to conduct a Seder, a Jewish gathering of family and friends that celebrates the holiday of Passover by retelling in story, prayer, and song the biblical account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Modern observers have a diverse array of Haggadot available to them—from political to comic, from juvenile to literary, and from Broadway-inspired to online dating-themed. But this diversity of Haggadot isn’t unique to our century. As early as the fourteenth century, scribes and artists were producing unique and beautifully illuminated Haggadot for use at Passover. Over subsequent centuries, much of the Jewish visual tradition found its most creative expression in exquisitely illustrated editions of this narrative.

The following examples of illuminated Haggadot (and one page from a hand-illustrated Pentateuch, or collection of the first five books of the Bible) are taken from Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein. This sumptuous volume offers the first full survey of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, ranging from their origins in the Middle Ages to the present day.

A community of scholars: the Five Rabbis at B’nei Brak. Haggadah, German rite with the commentary of Eleazar of Worms and illustrations by Joel ben Simeon Feibush (The Ashkenazi Haggadah). South Germany, perhaps Ulm, ca. 1460. London, British Library, MS Add. 14762, fol. 7v.

Joseph’s dreams. Haggadah (The Golden Haggadah). Spain, Barcelona, ca. 1320. London, British Library, MS Add. 27210, fol. 5rb.

Decorated opening world. “And these [are the names] . . . ,” the first word of the book of Exodus. Pentateuch with targum intercalated (Aramaic translation inserted after the Hebrew line by line) (The Duke of Sussex Pentateuch). Germany, Lake Constance region, early 14th century. London, British Library, MS Add. 15282, fol. 75v.

The Four Children in the full spectrum of contemporary male dress. Haggadah written and illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 6v.

Israelites building store-cities for Pharaoh. Haggadah illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Germany, Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 11v.

Observing Passover throughout history: A History of Judaism

This week, Jews all over the world are celebrating Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. What is the history of this ancient festival, and how has it been observed over the centuries? Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism, a sweeping history of the religion over more than three millennia, includes fascinating glimpses of how Passover has evolved through the various strains, sects, and traditions of Judaism.

While the Second Temple stood, Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) was one of three annual pilgrimage festivals. Every adult Jewish male was obligated to journey to the Temple for the festival. On the first night of Pesach, men, women, and children enjoyed a huge barbecue of roasted lamb along with a narration of the exodus story. For the following seven days, they abstained from leavened foods. Jews who couldn’t make it to the Temple ate roasted lamb and retold the exodus story at home. In the late fifth century BCE, the Jews of Elephantine, on the island of Yeb in the Nile river, received the following instructions in a letter from Jerusalem:

  • On the 14th day of the month of Nisan, observe the Passover at twilight.
  • Observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread from the 15th of Nisan to the 21st of Nisan, eating only unleavened bread for these seven days.
  • Do not work on the 15th or 21st of Nisan.
  • Do not drink any fermented beverages during this period.
  • Remove and seal up any leavened products, which must not be seen in the house from sunset on the 14th of Nisan until sunset on the 21st of Nisan.

-paraphrased from B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (Berkeley, 1968), 128-33

Over two thousand years after the Elephantine Jews received their instructions from Jerusalem, rabbis and students were still discussing the exact meaning of the festival’s proscriptions. In this passage, Aryeh Leib b. Asher Gunzberg, a Lithuanian rabbi who died in 1785, weighs in on a disagreement between the Talmud commentaries of Rashi and those of the tosafists, medieval commentators writing after Rashi:

“The Talmud says that the search for and removal of leavened matter on the eve of the Passover is merely a rabbinical prescription; for it is sufficient, according to the commands of the Torah, if merely in words or in thought the owner declares it to be destroyed and equal to the dust. Rashi says that the fact that such a declaration of the owner is sufficient is derived from an expression in Scripture. The tosafot, however, claim that this cannot be derived from the particular expression in Scripture, since the word there means ‘to remove’ and not ‘to declare destroyed’. The mere declaration that it is destroyed is sufficient for the reason that thereby the owner gives up his rights of ownership, and the leavened matter is regarded as having no owner, and as food for which no one is responsible, since at Passover only one’s own leavened food may not be kept, while that of strangers may be kept. Although the formula which is sufficient to declare the leavened matter as destroyed is not sufficient to declare one’s property as having no owner, yet, as R. Nissim Gerondi, adopting the view of the tosafot, explains, the right of ownership which one has in leavened matter on the eve of Passover, even in the forenoon, is a very slight one; for, beginning with noon, such food may not be enjoyed; hence all rights of ownership become illusory, and, in view of such slight right of ownership, a mere mental renunciation of this right suffices in order that the leavened matter be considered as without an owner. R. Aryeh Leib attempts to prove the correctness of this tosafistic opinion as elaborated by R. Nissim, and to prove at the same time the incorrectness of Rashi’s view, from a later talmudic passage which says that from the hour of noon of the eve [of Passover] to the conclusion of the feast the mere declaration of destruction does not free a person from the responsibility of having leavened matter in the house; for since he is absolutely forbidden to enjoy it, he has no claim to the ownership, which he renounces by such a declaration.”

-Excerpted and adapted from the article on pilpul by Alexander Kisch in I. Singer, ed., The Jewish Encyclopaedia, 12 vols. (New York, 1901-6), 10:42

More pragmatic concerns were also on the agenda for nineteenth-century thinkers. In a discussion unimaginable to their Second Temple forebears, Solomon Kluger of Brody and Joseph Saul Nathansohn of Lemberg clashed in 1859 over whether matzo-making machines were allowable. Even today, handmade is often preferred to machine-made matzo.

The millennia of discussion over Passover and its observance are reflected – and predicted – by this timeless story from the Mishnah:

“‘It is related of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon that they once met for the Seder in Bnei Brak and spoke about the Exodus from Egypt all night long, until their disciples came and said to them: ‘Masters! The time has come to say the morning Shema!’”

-Ch. Raphael, A Feast of History (London, 1972), 28 [229]

Forget speaking about the exodus all night long – we could speak about speaking about the exodus all night long! To learn more about the diversity of practices and opinions in Judaism through the ages, check out Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism.