The Living Bible: Pilgrimage to Jerusalem through Stereoscope Photography

Liliya Fisher FCRH’21

This piece is a stereographic set of 30 images taken on a trip to the Holy Land in 1896.  The images were taken by Bert and Elmer Underwood.  The photos were published by Underwood & Underwood, a well-known stereoscopic company, owned by Bert and Elmer Underwood.  The 30 images in this set are part of a larger collection from the Underwoods’ trip that consists of a total of 100 images of the journey to and at the Holy Land. 

Figure 1: Stereoscope with photographs of the Holy Land and Jerusalem

In 1900, a 220-page book, titled Traveling in the Holy Land Through Stereoscope; a personally conducted tour by Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, D.D., written by Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, D.D., was published to accompany the photos.  Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, D.D. was a clergyman of the American Episcopal Church and held positions all over New Jersey.[i]  The book contains corresponding texts to each of the 100 photographs as well as maps pinpointing the sites that guide the viewer through the images.  The current exhibit only contains 30 photographs and not the book. 

The 30 photographs in this series begin in the Port of Jaffa.  This port is a common entryway to the Holy Land for pilgrims, so it is fitting that the photo series begins there.  The photo of the camel caravan is used symbolically to show the pilgrims making their way out of Jaffa, further inland.  The Underwoods photographed the plains of Sharon, passing through Lydda, Mizpah, and Mount Scopus.  These sites are historical and can be traced to biblical narratives.  As the Underwoods approached Jerusalem, they photographed the Damascus Gate, with a great view of the city and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jaffa Gate, and the ancient walls.  Other photos specific to Jerusalem include the Valley of Kedron, Tombs of the Prophets, the Garden of Gethsemane, Mount of Olives, and other panoramic scenes.  The Underwoods also photographed lepers, pilgrims, the Dome of the Rock, the Rock itself, the Wailing Wall, David Street, and Christian Street.  They even staged two Syrian women for photographs at the tomb of Jesus, to reenact the finding of the risen Jesus. 

This set of photographs is diverse in a number of ways.  This diversity can be seen through the different subjects that the Underwoods chose to photograph.  In some photos, there are no people, such as the photo taken outside the Dome of the Rock.  In others, the streets and the frame are completely full of people, such as the photo of the Greek Easter procession of the Patriarchs.  The final photo in this specific exhibit shows the pass of Upper Beth-Horon, which is an ancient city northeast of Jerusalem.  The photos also capture the diversity of people who live in and visit the city.  There is no doubt that these photos encapsulated the various types of people in the city, including Greeks, Ottomans, and Jews.

Stereoscopic photography is a form of photography that was popular between 1870 and 1920.  To view these photos properly, you need a stereoscope, a device that looks similar to binoculars.  The card mount photo card has two images placed next to each other.  When the viewer looks through the stereoscope, the images appear 3-D.  This device was fascinating to users in this time period, as it was the first of its kind, and the art of photography was quickly evolving.[ii]  The hope, expressed by Hurlbut, was to create an experience beyond what a 2- dimensional picture provides.  The use of a stereoscope thus creates a super realistic depiction of its scenes.  Adding these depths and dimensions creates grander photographs that are beyond the simple, 2-dimensional photographs.  This also aids in the purpose of the photographs, allowing those who could not visit Jerusalem in person to experience the Holy Land from their homes and elsewhere.  Pairing the images with descriptions, which are written in English, Underwood, Underwood and Hurlburt created an all-inclusive experience.  With Hurlburt’s accompanying book, the addition of maps that traces the path of pilgrimage also creates inclusivity and immersion in the Holy Land experience.  These maps can be accessed in the back of Hurlbut’s book.

To the Underwood brothers, photography was powerful, especially in religious contexts.  According to Rachel McBride Lindsey in A Communion of Shadows, the power of photography “facilitate[s] access to the sacred site without physical travel.”[iii]  The photographs, especially when viewed in 3D through a stereoscope, transport the viewer to the Holy Land.  The 3-dimensional image is an involved experience.  Lindsey quotes a viewer, for example, who reported that the experience of viewing these photographs “is almost the same as if we were actually traveling in the Holy Land.”[iv]  In Hurlbut’s introduction, he states that the photos make “the Bible real to us.”[v]  Since the Bible does not contain photographs, these early photographs were important because they allowed viewers to visualize the places about which they read in their Bibles or heard in their church services.  Because most people could not make the journey due to financial or other reasons, these photographs transported them to the Holy Land while they remained, physically, at home in the United States or elsewhere.  The photos thus served as many people’s first images of the real Levant and Holy Land, making once ancient lands a little more accessible.  Importantly, these images represented biblical Jerusalem, not contemporaryJerusalem.  They thus transported the viewer not only through space but also through time, and specifically to the time of Jesus.  This is a different type of immersive experience, more than simply reading biblical texts.  As a minister, the words of Hurlbut were highly valued in his religious community and to religious users of this stereoscope series.  His support of stereoscopic photographs helped make them popular and relevant in religious educational settings.

One important image to highlight is this context is the “Tomb of Our Lord.”  According to Lindsey and the accompanying description on the card mount, the two women in the image were Syrian girls that Bert and Elmer staged for the photograph.  This staging is based on Biblical Protestant interpretation.  Hurlbut references three different versions of the same description of the tomb.  First, he mentions John 19:41, Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.”  He also refers to Luke 23:53, “Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock, where no one had ever lain before,” and Matthew 27:60, “and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed.” Hurlbut exclaims in the card’s description: “Even the possibility that we may be looking upon the rock walls which once enclosed the body of Jesus brings the scenes of the burial, the sealing and rising vividly before us.”[vi]

This stereoscope series was not unique: it was part of a broader photographic trend.  As stereoscope photography was the new craze in the mid 1800s, it made its way into the religious realm.  Popular religious sets include Holy Land Tours (1900) and The Life of Christ (1904).[vii]  Usually, when images of the Middle East, Levant, and holy sites therein were published, many were published as tourism or archeological photographs, not religious photographs.[viii]  To adapt them for religious purposes, they would be published as “scriptural interpretation.”[ix]  This framing as “interpretation” was important because the photographers and authors did not want them to be misunderstood as icons or sacrilegious images.  Moreover, the photographs and book were sold through the Bible Study Department of the publishing company. 

These images did not only serve as a form of travel from home.  They also served a pedagogical purpose as religious educational materials.  Some ministers actively supported the use of these stereographs as learning tools.  The stereoscope images of the Holy Land, for example, became teaching tools in Sunday school programs and home schooling for American Protestants.[x]  The cryptic description of the image, “Pilgrims in the Temple are: N. from El Aksa to Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem,” shown above, is a great example of this.  The description on the back of this card is an excerpt from Hurlbut’s book.  He first gives a general, geographical description: “We are standing in front of the Mosque El Aksa, just south of the Temple area, looking north to the Dome of the Rock.”[xi]  After Hurlbut establishes the location of the image, he acknowledges that the people seen in the photo are “Mohammedans,” and then he quickly shifts to describe the photograph’s biblical significance.  This gloss of a non-Christian pilgrim comes off as disrespectful, but Hurlbut seems mainly to be considering his Protestant audience, rather than Jerusalem’s local population.  Rather than dwelling on the mosque itself, Hurlbut explains how this is the site of Solomon’s newly built temple.  Then he jumps to explain how King Hezekiah held congregations in this same location.  Hurlbut continues to take his reader through the history of the site, with reference to Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles, stating that “That voice sounded out over this very area and before such a throng as this.”[xii]  It is not necessarily important to question how historically accurate Hurlbut is in his geography skills.  More important, for our purposes here, is to recognize that he sought to provide context for his congregation or whomever else was reading his descriptions.  The fact that Solomon, Jesus, and other famous religious figures were in the general vicinity of the site is proof enough for Hurlbut to keep the faith strong. 


The written descriptions of the images that appear on the back of the photographs play a key explanatory role. Without these explanations that come with the images, viewers would have a difficult time understanding some of the subjects of the images.  A worry in general with photography is that the framing of the image is decided by the photographer.  One must ponder not only what is included in the image, but also what is excluded.  The viewer must be wary of any hints of a forced interpretation of the image.  Consider, for example, image 18 of the Dome of the Rock, as seen in Figure 5.  The angle chosen provides a lot of foreground in the image.  Why did the Underwood brothers choose this angle?  It frames the Dome of the Rock nicely, but the disproportionate focus on the foreground is, at first glance, baffling.  The description explains, however, that this image was taken at the northwest corner of the Haram enclosure, and that the foreground shows the “native rock of Mount Moriah, just as Abraham found it when he climbed this hill for the offering up of his son.”[xiii]  We learn from this description that the focus of the photo is not the Dome of the Rock, as one might expect, but rather the ground before it, which is connected to Abrahamic history.


These stereoscopic images are a fascinating addition to the Fordham collection.  While the collection holds only 30 of the 100 images, they tell a great deal about Jerusalem in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as well as the relationship that American Protestants sought to cultivate with Jerusalem from afar.  The images contextualize modern pilgrimages and visits to the Holy Land with the new technology of the stereoscope.  Bert and Elmer Underwood worked to reimagine the world of photography.  These 3-dimensional images not only brought a new form of entertainment, but also changed how a biblical scene could be portrayed and viewed.  The role of stereoscopic photographs in religious devotion and education is likewise important as the photographs bring those who cannot make pilgrimage closer to the sites through the medium of photography.  Through such series, photography became an acceptable educational resource used to teach biblical narratives to children and adults.  


Liliya Fisher is a FCRH senior Psychology major and Bioethics minor from Albany, NY.  She is a hiker, animal lover, and proud vegetarian who is currently on her way to join the Catskill 3500 Club with her dog, Patch.

This blog post was originally written for Prof. Sarit Kattan Gribetz’s “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish Christian, Muslim Perspectives” course; the photographs and this essay will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Fordham’s Walsh Library.  


Bibliography:

Hurlbut , Jesse Lyman. “Introduction,” in Traveling in the Holy Land, through the Stereoscope: A Tour Personally Conducted by Jesse Lyman Hurlbut (Underwood and Underwood, 1900), pp. 10–14, archive.org/details/travelinginholyl00hurl/page/10/mode/2up. 

Lindsey, Rachel McBride. A Communion of Shadows: Religion and Photography in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 

Smith-Pistelli, Della Dale. Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut. 24 May 2018, www.geni.com/people/Reverend-Jesse-Hurlbut/6000000018605674334. 

“Stereographs.” Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.americanantiquarian.org/stereographs.htm

“Stereograph Cards – Background and Scope.” Background and Scope – Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (Library of Congress), Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/stereo/background.html. 


[i] Smith-Pistelli, “Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut.”

[ii] American Antiquarian Society, “Stereographs”; Library of Congress, “Stereograph Cards.”

[iii] Lindsey, A Communion of Shadows, 201.

[iv] Lindsey, A Communion of Shadows, 203.

[v] Hurlbut, Traveling in the Holy Land, 12.

[vi] Excerpt from image 3106; extract from Hurlbut, “Traveling in the Holy Land through the Stereoscope.”

[vii] Lindsey, A Communion of Shadows, 206.

[viii] Lindsey, A Communion of Shadows, 206.

[ix] Lindsey, A Communion of Shadows, 206.

[x] Lindsey, A Communion of Shadows, 210.

[xi] Back of card #10976, “Pilgrims in the Old Temple Courts.”

[xii] Back of card #10976, “Pilgrims in the Old Temple Courts.”

[xiii] Card #3109 image description, the “Dome of the Rock” where the Temple Altar stood, Mt. Moriah, Jerusalem, Palestine.”

Jerusalem Series: An Ashkenazi Maḥzor from Amsterdam and Diasporic Longings for Jerusalem

Ashley Conde FCRH’21

The Maḥzor ʻim kaṿanat ha-paiṭan in Fordham’s Special Collections was published by Kashman ben Joseph Baruch Printing House in Amsterdam in 1767.  It contains prayers for the holiday of Sukkot and was designed for the prayer leader’s personalized use.  The prayer leader is identified in the Maḥzor’s cover page as the “paytan,” which is a term that means a liturgical poet and refers to the person who leads services.  This Maḥzor features texts written in different types of script: traditional Hebrew block script, Rashi script, and Yiddish cursive script (see figure 1).  It was intended for Ashkenazi Jews living Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe.  The copy in Fordham’s collection contains 93 leaves with leaves 6 or 7 and leaf 9 missing from the digitized item.  It contains solely printed pages.  Unlike the printing house’s other publications, this Maḥzor does not bear the printer’s mark.

The Maḥzor s cover page claims to be “better than other maḥzorim today” and states that “nothing of its sort has been printed until now.”[i]  It advertises the addition of Yiddish explanations to and commentaries of the Hebrew prayers.[ii]  The prayers and Torah readings in traditional Hebrew script act as the headers of each leaf, followed by a smaller text in Rashi script, and concluding with commentary in Yiddish (see figure 2).  There are also smaller instructions inserted between prayers that detail the specific intentions and directions for the prayer leader (and for those using the prayer book as individuals as well).  Despite the Maḥzor’s lengthy commentary, it is possible that the book was also meant for the broader Ashkenazi community.  The numerous Yiddish books printed in 18th-century Amsterdam sometimes featured “marginalia in Yiddish explaining the order of the service, local liturgical customs, and various rules about worship.”[iii]  Ashkenazi Jews were encouraged to read the Yiddish explanations and recite the Hebrew prayers in synagogue.[iv]

Figure 1: Maḥzor ʻim Kaṿanat ha-paiṭan (Amsterdam: Kashman ben Yosef Barukh ha-ḥotem Hirts Levi Rofe ṿa-ḥatano Kashman, 527 [1767]). Title page of with examples of different scripts used. SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1767 1|V.3
Figure 2: Maḥzor ʻim kaṿanat ha-paitan. First page of the prayer text, featuring the “ma tov hu” prayer with commentary.

Amsterdam’s Ashkenazic community had been growing since the 17thcentury.  Individuals fled Germany after the Swedish invasion during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1630s and established themselves at the margins of the thriving Sephardic community already present in the city (who themselves settled in Amsterdam following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century).[v]  The Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam regarded the more recent Ashkenazi Jewish arrivals as a social blight but nevertheless provided minimal economic support for them.  Ashkenazi Jews continued to move to Amsterdam in waves. Jews from Lithuania and Poland left their home countries for Amsterdam in the 1650s.[vi]  As they became outnumbered by the Ashkenazim, the Dutch Sephardic Jews “encouraged the separatist tendencies” among Eastern Europeans in order to weaken intracommunal Ashkenazic relations.[vii]  Whereas Ashkenazim numbered around 500 in the 1640s, a century later Ashkenazim outnumbered their Sephardic brethren by 80 percent: of the 13,000 Jews living in Amsterdam, 10,000 were Ashkenazic.[viii]

Maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity was important to the Dutch Ashkenazim who were disconnected from their home countries and alienated by the contemptuous Sephardic Jews.  The Ashkenazim were more likely to retain their traditional attire than the Sephardim, as Dutch artists depicted Ashkenazi Jews as visually distinct from the assimilated Sephardic Jews.[ix]  Publishing texts in Yiddish allowed the Ashkenazim to further distinguish themselves from the Sephardim.  Yiddish books were previously printed in Poland and Italy, but many of these publishing houses had collapsed by the 1750s. Amsterdam printers thus filled the market void left by these printing centers.[x]

Printing was an economic enterprise that elevated Ashkenazic Jews whom the Sephardim had deemed tramps and beggars.[xi]  Jewish printers in Amsterdam produced an unprecedented number of Yiddish books and “declared that Dutch Yiddish books were better than those produced elsewhere.”[xii]   The Fordham Mazor reflects this pride in Dutch Yiddish identities when it proclaims itself superior to other maḥzorim.  The flourishing Yiddish printing industry in Amsterdam attracted literary agents from throughout Europe[xiii] and led the Dutch Ashkenazim to market to Jews in Europe.[xiv]  It is likely that copies of the Mazor in Fordham’s collections were distributed outside of Amsterdam.  As Dutch printers realized the potential for a broader European market, they developed an interest in reporting news in Yiddish— the first known Yiddish newspaper was published in Amsterdam.[xv]  Shlomo Berger posits that the Yiddish press’ ability to unite Ashkenazim both in Amsterdam and abroad “[testifies] to an interest in Jewish life outside the Holy Land that attaches a unique importance to Jewish existence in Europe.”  The ability to read Yiddish connected diasporic Jews who were unable to read Hebrew fluently. Furthermore, Yiddish offered a more contemporary appeal than Hebrew, which the Ashkenazim deemed archaic. Indeed, 18thcentury Jewish printer Hayyim Druker claimed that “building a Yiddish literary corpus was… about being involved in a process of change.”[xvi]

The Mazor in Fordham’s collection was thus part of a movement to modernize Jewish liturgical practice and strengthen Ashkenazic identity.  Amidst these changes, Ashkenazi Jews still maintained a sense of belonging to the city of Jerusalem.  The particular Mazor in Fordham’s Special Collections contains prayers for the festival Sukkot.  Jeffrey Rubenstein recounts how the biblical harvest festival of autumn gave way to the rabbinic festival of Sukkot, which celebrates God’s protection of the Israelites following their flight from Egypt.  Sukkot has long been linked with Jerusalem, as evidenced by King Jeroboam’s efforts “to prevent Israelites of the northern kingdom from making pilgrimage to Jerusalem” during the autumnal festival.[xvii]  During the time of Jerusalem’s First and Second Temples, Sukkot was one of three pilgrimage festivals. Jews traveled to Jerusalem to make the obligatory sacrifices involved with Sukkot,[xviii] and the sukkah built on Sukkot “originated as the temporary shelters erected by pilgrims.”[xix]  Even the timing of Sukkot links celebrants to Jerusalem, as Sukkot occurs at the “time of year that inaugurates the rainy season in the land of Israel.”[xx]

Beyond its pilgrimage ties to Jerusalem, Sukkot is intimately associated with the memory of the First and Second Temples.  Torah readings for Sukkot include accounts of the sacrifices that were brought by priests in the temple on each of the days of the holiday.  One of the haftorahs in the Mazor is 1 Kings 8: 2- 21, which contains Solomon’s Temple dedication address.  This liturgical reading connects Sukkot with the time of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, and reminded those who attended synagogue services and heard the Torah chanted of their connection with Jerusalem and its temple.[xxi]  The dedication of the second temple also fell around Sukkot.[xxii]

Rubenstein claims that Sukkot “gave expression to fundamental beliefs of the Israelites: the revelation and theosophy, salvation of Israel, the exodus, renewal of the covenant, and the inviolability of Jerusalem.”[xxiii] Observance of Sukkot, which survived the traumatic destruction of the First and Second Temples, continues to assert Jerusalem’s sanctity.  It is possible that Sukkot, with its themes of displacement, God’s protection, and Jerusalem’s “inviolability,” appealed to Ashkenazic Jews in Amsterdam.  Like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, the Ashkenazim left conflict and persecution in countries such as Germany, Lithuania, and Poland.  Another haftorah in the Mazor, Zechariah 14: 1-21, declares that Jewish survivors of a cataclysmic war must go to Jerusalem annually to pay homage to God during Sukkot.[xxiv]  The scripture associated with Sukkot refers to war, something with which the Dutch Ashkenazim were familiar.  Salvation from war, both in Zechariah’s time and the 18thcentury, involves reflecting on Jerusalem’s memory.

At the time of the Mazor’s printing, Jerusalem’s temples were long-destroyed and Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule.  The Ashkenazim yearned both for their homelands and Jerusalem.  As a commercial object produced by Ashkenazic printers for Ashkenazim around the world, the Fordham Mazor demonstrates the unique methods Jews employed in relating to one another as well as their Holy Land.  Reading texts in Yiddish allowed diasporic communities to understand and continue their religious practices despite their distance from Jerusalem and inability to read Hebrew.  At the same time the Ashkenazim were, as Druker believes, modernizing their language and faith, they were maintaining Jerusalem’s memory through their rituals.

The Mazor for Sukkot belongs to the exhibit’s “Regional Relations” section.  The objects in “Regional Relations” span different eras of Jerusalem’s occupation.  From Roman bottles to medieval European indulgences, the objects demonstrate how Jerusalem established itself in the imaginations and practical lives of those outside the city.  The Mazor is at once an emblem of a successful Ashkenazic printing industry and a symbol of diasporic longings for Jerusalem. 


Ashley Conde is a FCRH senior English and Theology major from Los Angeles, CA.  She is interested in Jewish Studies and enjoys listening to music and playing Animal Crossing.

This blog post was originally written for Prof. Sarit Kattan Gribetz’s “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish Christian, Muslim Perspectives” course; the Maḥzor and this essay will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Fordham’s Walsh Library.  


Bibliography:

Baskind, Samantha. “Distinguishing the Distinction: Picturing Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in 

Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam.” Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry 1, no. 1 (2007): 1-13.

Berger, Shlomo. “Books for the Masses: The Amsterdam Yiddish Book Industry.” European 

Judaism: A Journal for New Europe, 42, no. 2 (2009): 24-33, accessed online December 7, 2002. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41444027.

“First Days of Sukkot: Haftorahs in a Nutshell,” Chabad.org, accessed online December 2, 2020, 

https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/742779/jewish/First-Days-of-Sukkot-Haftorahs-in-a-Nutshell.htm.

Kaplan, Josef. “Amsterdam and Ashkenazic Migration in the Seventeenth Century.” Studia 

Rosenthalia 23, (1989): 22-44, accessed online December 7, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41481726.

Mazor for Sukkot, 1767, Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies— Judaica Collection, Fordham 

University Archives and Special Collections, Fordham University Libraries. https://www.library.fordham.edu/digital/item/collection/p17265coll5/id/5220

Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods.

Providence: Brown UP, 2020, accessed online December 2, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvzpv502.1.

“Sukkot in LBI Collections,” LBI.org, accessed online December 13, 2020, 

https://www.lbi.org/collections/jewish-holidays-lbi-collections/sukkot-lbi-collections/.


[i] Conversation with Professor Gribetz, December 2, 2020

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Berger, “Books for the Masses, “25.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Kaplan, “Amsterdam and Ashkenazic Migration in the Seventeenth Century,” 25.

[vi] Ibid, 37- 38.

[vii] Ibid, 38.

[viii] Baskind, “Distinguishing the Distinction,” 7. 

[ix] Ibid, 10.

[x] Shlomo Berger, “Books for the Masses,” 25.

[xi] Ibid, 27.

[xii] Ibid, 27.

[xiii] Ibid, 28.

[xiv] Ibid, 30.

[xv] Ibid, 31.

[xvi] Ibid, 28.

[xvii] Rubenstein, A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods, 19..

[xviii] Ibid, 25.

[xix] Ibid, 27.

[xx] “Sukkot in LBI Collections.” 

[xxi] “First Days of Sukkot Haftorahs in a Nutshell.”

[xxii] Rubenstein, A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods, 41. 

[xxiii] Ibid, 21. 

[xxiv] “First days of Sukkot Haftorah in a Nutshell.” 

Siddur Minḥat ‘Erev: A French/Hebrew Prayer Book from Cairo

Sophie Hamlin FCRH’22
Siddur Minḥat ʻerev: Minḥah Ṿe-ʻaravit = Office de preières: Min’ha et ‘arbit (Pour la semaine et le samedi), traduction francaise par un groupe de rabbins (Le Caire : Editions Dath, 1943). SPEC COLL Judaica 1943.

Measuring only 4.5 by 5.5 inches, the French and Hebrew prayer book Sidur Minhat ‘Erev[i], is not eye-catching in the slightest. It has a plain, peach-colored cover, void of any markings beside those accidentally added over time. The binding is falling apart but the pages are in good condition, suggesting that while this book was certainly used, it may not have been the well-loved, well-worn prayer book carried everywhere with a person. It appears to be cheaply made and boasts no grandeur in the slightest. However, this book can shed an interesting light on the life of Jews, specifically French-speaking Jews living in Cairo at the time of World War II. 

This prayer book was published in 1943 in Cairo, Egypt by the publisher Editions DathIt is a Jewish prayer book meant specifically for everyday use and the Sabbath as is described in the subtitle “Pour la semaine et le samedi”. It contains prayers written in Hebrew characters juxtaposed against French translations of the same prayers. There is no available information as to who precisely translated this prayer book, other than the ambiguous note “French translation by a group of rabbis”. In fact, the only name actually mentioned is that of Rabbi Dr. Moses Ventura, the chief rabbi of Alexandria (1937 – 1948), who wrote the French foreword to the text. Upon further research, there appears to be only one other reference to Rabbi Ventura on databases available at Fordham. In the footnotes of Dr. Nadia Malinovich’s PhD dissertation “Le Reveil D’israel: Jewish Identity and Culture in France, 1900 – 1932,”[ii] there is a reference to another book in which a man named Moishe Ventura wrote a foreword.[iii] Rabbi Ventura’s involvement in the two books book illustrates the vibrancy of the Egyptian Jewish community in the early-mid 20th century. Although the Sidur Minhat ‘Erev had limited circulation throughout Cairo, it still contained a foreword from the chief rabbi of Alexandria, a rabbi who had two works published in French, evidencing the widespread influence of French schooling in Egypt.

Another mystery lies in the publisher of this prayer book, Editions Dath. Editions Dath appears not to have published any other books, at least none on record. In fact, even the book at hand, Sidur Minhat ‘Erev, has only two recorded copies in the world. One at Fordham University and the other in The National Library of Israel[iv]. However, the lack of information concerning the publisher can actually reveal quite a bit about the circumstances of this book’s publication. It is more than likely that only one edition of these siddurim was ever circulated, due to the lack of surviving copies. Furthermore, it is clear that the printing was done cheaply, as many pages are printed quite crookedly. 

The book was printed specifically for the French-speaking Jews in Cairo, not for a large-scale audience, and Editions Dath was likely a publishing company set up by those in this community, influenced by schools founded by the French. The question remains, who precisely made up the French speaking Jewish community in Cairo? While one could a group of French immigrants, more likely it was educated Egyptian Jews. In the 20th century, many Cairo Jews went to French schools established by Alliance Israelite Universelle. According to Joel Beinin, “… the use of French in the community schools [was] a result of the proselytization of the Alliance Israelite Universelle”[v]. Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French Jewish organization focused on educating Jews in the Balkans and the Middle East on Jewish and French culture,[vi] came to Cairo around 1903. By the time this siddur was written, French was the language being taught in schools to most Sephardic Jews. Consequently, this prayer book could be used not only by the French Jews in Cairo, but by all French speaking Sephardic Jews.  

This book is not ornate; it has no pictures and is in mediocre condition. There are water stains throughout and, as earlier mentioned, is falling apart at the binding. This is not the book of a religious official, nor a remarkably wealthy man. This is the book of an average man, leading one to conclude that even the average man at the time spoke Hebrew. (It is clearly a man’s book because women at the time could not practice religion in the same way. This is evidenced by the distinct lack of mention of female prophets in prayers such as the Amidah, as is common in traditional Sephardic practice.)

The book in Fordham’s Special Collections likely belonged to an average, yet educated Cairo Sephardic man. The font is large enough that it can be assumed the book was meant for personal use. However, there is a distinct lack of transliteration meaning that either a) the intended user spoke Hebrew or b) simply would follow along with the French translation as the rabbi conducted a service. 

On the inside the front cover of this copy of Sidur Minhat ‘Erev at some point the owner wrote a note in Hebrew script about the owner’s migration to Israel with the book. The book was owned by an Egyptian family Mansour (Mantsur), and was still used after they migrated to Israel. Hebrew notes on the inside cover demonstrate that the owner of this book spoke Hebrew, at least after he and the family moved to Israel. 

Published in 1943, the book appeared at the height of World War II, soon after the Allied defeat of the Nazis in Egypt. In the 1940s, Egyptian Jews appear to have published other texts: at least two Haggadot,[vii], another siddur,[viii] and a fiction book.[ix] To contrast, WorldCat only revealed one French Jewish text originating in Cairo outside of that era – a siddur written in 1917.[x]Jews in Cairo were thriving in the early 1940s, and yet they were so close to a mass exodus out of Egypt.[xi] It is remarkable that just years before many of the Jews left for Israel, they were a thriving, intellectually stimulating community living with enough stability to produce a number of books.

The note inside cover of the prayer book lists family deaths of the Mansour (מנצור) family including one member who died in the Six-Day war. The note also mentions synagogue in Israel, Shaarei Asher in shikun bet.

An interesting picture is painted of 1940s Jewish Cairo. It seems to be a productive, educated community, and yet it is only a few years away from a major disruption. The fact that many would have spoken not only Arabic but, also French and Hebrew points to a level of literacy higher than average. The number of surviving volumes from this era also shows the emphasis placed on furthering Jewish education. This small, 213-paged, peach-colored book originated, Sidur Minhat ‘Erev, which, stand-alone, is certainly quite obscure, actually has much to tell about World War II era Cairo, and offers a glimpse into the lift of Jews there.


This essay was written in fall of 2018, during Sophie Hamlin’s first semester at Fordham, within a course on modern Jewish history (HIST 1851) taught by Professor Magda Teter. Their essays, some of which will be featured here, were published in a volume “You Can Judge Books by Their Covers Jewish History through Used Books.” Fordham’s Judaica collection prides itself in collecting books that were used and popular, often quite quotidian and ordinary, for they reflect a broader Jewish culture that might not be visible through expensive extraordinary items.


[i] Sidur Minḥat ʻerev: Minhav Ṿe-ʻaravit = Office De Preières: Min’ha Et ‘Arbit (Pour La Semaine Et Le Samedi). ‏ וערבית מנחה: סדור מנחת ערב = Office De Preières : Min’ha Et ‘Arbit (Pour La Semaine Et Le Samedi) /‏ ‏Traduction Francaise Par Un Groupe De Rabbins. Le Caire : Editions Dath, ©1943.

[ii] Nadia Donna Malinovich, “Le Reveil D’israel: Jewish Identity and Culture in France, 1900–1932 – Proquest” (Web, University of Michigan, 2000).

[iii] Judah Ha-Lévi, “Le Livre Du Kuzari,” Bibliothéque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Hébreu 757 .

[iv]  וערבית מנחה :‏ ערב מנחת סדור, 1 ed. (Le Caire: Editions Dath, 5704 – 1943).

[v] Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of Egyption Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[vi] “Alliance Israelite Universelle,” Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/alliance-israelite-universelle.

[vii] Hagadah Shel Pesah :Ke-Fi Minhag Sefaradim = La Haggadah De Pessach a L’usage Du Rite Sefardi (Cairo, Egypt: Feliks Mizrahi, 1945); Hagadah shel Pesah kefi minhag k”k sefardim im targum aravi be-otiyot araviot (Cairo: Hotsaʼat ha-Mizraḥ, 5706 [1945 or 1946]), SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1946 1.

[viii] Alexandre Créhange, Sidur Sha`Are Tefilah (Cairo, Egypt1946).

[ix] Segulah:Le-Hantsal Hu U-Vene Beto Min Ha-Sakanah Umi-Mikrim Ra`im (Cairo: Defus Yosef Yehezkel, 1940).

[x] Hillel ben Jacob Farhi, Siddur Farhi, 4th Edition ed. (Wyckoff, NJ; Cairo, Egypt2003, 1917).

[xi] Beinin.

Sefer mitsvot ha-gadol of 1546/7, a story of a used book

by Andrew Pace FCRH’22

The physical qualities of books, regardless of the content of the text itself, such as condition, format, design, fonts, and many more are valuable pointers to show how and by whom a book would have been used during its lifetime. Bibliographical records on the author and publisher can also help the reader understand the style in which the book was written and published. There is no better instance where this is the case than in Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy and published by the world-renowned Venetian publisher Daniel Bomberg in 1546/7. 

Moses of Coucy, Sefer mitsvot ha-gadol (Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1546/47). Fordham University, Walsh Family Library, O’Hare Special Collections, + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1546 1A

Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol is arguably Moses ben Jacob of Coucy’s most celebrated work. Fordham owns two copies of the 1546/7 edition. The Mitsvot ha-gadol, as it is commonly known, or “Se-Ma-G,” for short, includes the principles of the Rabbinic Oral Law and is divided into two sections: positive and negative precepts.[1] Due to its popularity and importance to rabbinic learning, the Mitsvot ha-gadol had been widely distributed in the Middle Ages and published in print several times as well.[2]

Its first publication took place in Rome sometime between 1469 and 1480, by Obadiah, Menasheh and Benjamin of Rome.[3] Subsequently, it was published in 1488 by Gershom Soncino in Soncino, the Duchy of Milan.[4] According to Israel Moses Ta-Shema, the final publication of this book during the pre-modern era took place in 1546 by Daniel Bomberg.[5] This edition was the last until the nineteenth century. Bomberg’s print shop in Venice, Italy, became famous for its Hebrew publications, including the first full edition of the Talmud, with what would be come a standard foliation of the work. There have also been a number of great scholars who have written commentaries on this work including, Isaac Stein, Joseph Colon, Elijah Mizrachi, Solomon Luria, and Hayyim Benveniste. However, as demonstrated by the lack of publications after 1546/7, the Mitsvot ha-gadol fell out of use, likely because it was replaced by the Shulhan Arukh around the time it was published in 1565.[6]

Fordham’s unexpurgated copy of Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol is bound in a green cardboard cover with brown leather spine. The book measures thirty-two-point-five centimeters by twenty-three centimeters (Figure 1). 

The large size of this book suggests that it was used as a reference book. The worn condition of the cover shows that it was frequently used. 

Although the outside of the book gives the reader a general understanding of its use, the pages tell a whole story in themselves. The title page of the Mitsvot ha-gadol has a large image of an archway with words embedded under the arch, known as a head-piece (Figure 2).[7]

Fig. 2

These words are divided into three sections. The topmost set of words is arranged in two lines of dark black letters which are written in the largest font size out of the four sections. This is the title of the respective section of the book which follows this page. The second section of words is split into two identically-shaped paragraphs, preceded by a line of words with a larger text size than the two paragraphs, but smaller than the first section of words. These paragraphs taper down from a full line to one word at the bottom, resembling two upside-down triangles on top of each other. Moreover, the size of the text of this section is quite smaller than that of the first section and is printed in a different typeset. This text briefly explains the purpose and usefulness the positives precepts which are held in the first part of the book.[8] The third and final section of text presents itself in three lines which are separated by a space. The first line is very similar to the second, except that the first line is written in more of a rounded Hebrew font, while the font of the second line seems to be much more boxlike or square. However, the third line is much different than both. This line is very short and has a larger, broader font than lines one and two. These three lines are likely the closing remarks of the paragraphs in the second section of words. 

While there is much to say about the text of the title page, the relatively poor physical condition of the page is immediately apparent as well (Fig. 2). There is tape all around the edges of the page indicating that there was damage which needed to be repaired. The binding is visibly very worn, weak and appears to have water damage. Finally, there is also writing which was done by hand in between the lines and letters of the above-mentioned three sections of words. Ironically enough, on the inside cover of the book and adjacent to the title page, someone had written, “Writing in this book is prohibited,” about fifteen times in Hebrew (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

The age of this book is apparent on the page following the title page as well (Figure 4). All over the page are spots and browning that come with the book aging process. This process is known as “foxing.” Besides the foxing on this page, there are also holes in the paper which are seen on the majority of the pages, known as “wormholes.”[9]

Fig. 4

As consistent with the title page, there is also water damage and tape on the edges of the paper. Besides the physical qualities of this page, there is also evidence of Daniel Bomberg’s employment of foliation in the top left corner above the text, which made it easier to navigate a large resource such as the Mitsvot ha-gadol.[10] Furthermore, this page has three large Hebrew letters at the top of the page boxed in by an ornate design, which is displayed in a similar fashion to a head-piece or vignette.[11] One may also note that at the top of the page and besides the ornate box there are large words which most likely identify the section of the book that the reader is currently in. Finally, where the text begins in the first paragraph, the first Hebrew word is capitalized. This typographical method is used to add emphasis and is known as an initial or drop cap.[12] While the first page holds many particular observations, the rest of the book is more or less quite uniformly designed.

Fig. 5

The standard page in the Mitsvot ha-gadol includes two columns of text (Figure 5). Beside the columns and in indented sections of the paragraphs are notes in a smaller font size than the text. These serve as references to the sources in which Moses ben Jacob used. Many of these, but not all, are direct references to the Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, which is said to be directly cited on at least every page.[13] These pages are numbered in the top outer corners and have large words at the top of the page which identify the section of the book as either the positive or negative precepts.[14] Additionally, at the end of the first section, there are large darkened words which specify that the section is over, and a new section begins with the same archway that is observed on the title page of the book (Figure 6).   

Fig. 6

The Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol was written by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, who was born in France and, in 1236, became an itinerant preacher in Spain.[15] During the rise of rationalization in Spain, the adherence to the precepts of the Jewish faith became fairly permissive. Consequently, Moses ben Jacob began his work on the Mitsvot ha-gadol to address the precepts and commandments. He arranged, as is traditional, the precepts into positive and negative sections of the book and organized them in such a way that the reader could distinguish which applied to their time and which did not.[16] Although educating its reader on the precepts may have been a primary motivating factor behind the writing of the Mitsvot ha-gadol, Moses ben Jacob also states in the introduction of the positive precepts that, “A man may learn his entire life and still fail to attain knowledge of a particular commandment, and this is due to the length of the Talmud, the dialectic reasoning, and to the fact that one commandment may appear in several places.”[17] So, this book was also meant to be used alongside the Talmud as a reference due to its complexity, and, therefore, the target audience would have been narrowed to scholars who were already immersed in Talmudic studies. Following the great success of the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol, Moses ben Jacob also went on to author another work. He wrote a commentary on the tractate Yoma which was titled “Tosefot Yeshanim.” This commentary, however, was not published until 1735 in Berlin.[18]

Daniel Bomberg, the printer of Fordham’s Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol, was one of the most prolific publishers of Jewish texts during the 16th century. Bomberg, a native of Antwerp, moved to Venice in 1516, which was the center of Jewish and Christian writing in the 15th century.[19] Here, he opened a print shop and began specializing in printing Hebrew bibles, famously printing the Rabbinic Bible, which became known as the Bomberg Bible in 1517. The Bomberg Bible solidified Daniel Bomberg’s reputation amongst 16th-century printers because, through its many successive printings, it became the golden standard for Hebrew scriptures in the Jewish tradition.[20] In dominating the competitive printing scene, Bomberg also took business from other printers, such as Gershom Soncino, the preeminent printer of medieval Hebrew works and one of the earlier publishers of the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol (in 1488).  Years later, Soncino wrote, “The Venetian printers copied my books and published, in addition, whatever they could lay their hands on. They tried hard to ruin me…”[21] Clearly referring to Bomberg as a “Venetian printer,” Soncino admits that Bomberg was outpacing him and, subsequently, ruining his career. The very notion that Bomberg could take a work, such as the Mitsvot ha-gadol, from the distinguished Gershom Soncino and print a superior version in his own style is a testament to his success.

         Daniel Bomberg also published dozens of other influential pieces of Hebrew literature. This included works like Sefer ha-shorashim by David Kimhi and Elijah Levita, which goes into detail about the Hebrew language itself, and Hamishah humshe Torah ; Neviim Rishonim; Arba `a Neviim Aharonim ; Ketuvim,” a collection of commentaries on the Old Testament of the Bible compiled from four volumes into one book in 1521.[22] Bomberg also famously printed the first full foliated edition of the Talmud in 1520. A specialty of his, the addition of page numbers made reading texts like the Talmud much more accessible because it allowed people to easily locate sections of the book without having to refer to the chapter and verse. This foliation became standardized in the printing of the Talmud.[23]

         The Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol has engraved its name as one of the most distinguished pieces of Hebrew works in medieval Europe. It presented the negative and positive precepts in a clear and usable way. When the printing press was invented, it was one of the first Hebrew works to be printed, and the book had such success that several distinguished scholars wrote commentaries on the work. Fordham’s copy of the Mitsvot ha-gadol was printed in 1546/7, by the notable printer, Daniel Bomberg, in Venice. This was the last publication of this important halakhic compendium in the pre-modern period and was not republished again until the 19th century. The fact that it survived throughout the centuries and was still studied by scholars in Europe even after it ceased to be published points towards its importance. Furthermore, as evidenced by the physical examination of this book, it was undeniably frequently used, its owners trying to repair and preserve the work. Although it was not published again until the 1800s, it is beyond doubt that the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol has left a lasting impact on the history of Jewish law and culture. 


This essay was written in fall of 2018, during Andrew Pace’s first semester at Fordham, within a course on modern Jewish history (HIST 1851) taught by Professor Magda Teter. Their essays, some of which will be featured here, were published in a volume “You Can Judge Books by Their Covers Jewish History through Used Books.” Fordham’s Judaica collection prides itself in collecting books that were used and popular, often quite quotidian and ordinary, for they reflect a broader Jewish culture that might not be visible through expensive extraordinary items.


[1] Israel Moses Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 14 (2018).

[2] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[3] of Coucy Moses ben Jacob, Sefer Mitsvot Gadol. (Rome: [Rome] : [Obadiah, Menasheh and Benjamin of Rome, ca. 1469-1472], 1469-1480).

[4] of Coucy Moses ben Jacob, Sefer Mizot Gadol (Book of Precepts). (Duchy of Milan Gershom Soncino, 1488).

[5] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[6] Conversation with Professor Teter; September 26, 2018

[7] John Carter and Nicolas Barker, Abc for Book Collectors, 8th ed. (New Castle, DE; London: Oak Knoll Press; The British Library, 2004).

[8] Yehuda Dov Galinsky, “The Significance of Form: R. Moses of Coucy’s Reading Audience and His ‘Sefer Ha-Miẓvot’,” AJS Review, no. 2 (2011).

[9] Dialogue with Professor Teter; September 26, 2018 

[10] Professor Magda Teter Class Lecture; September 6, 2018

[11] Carter and Barker, Abc for Book Collectors.

[12] Ina Saltz, Typography Essentials : 100 Design Principles for Working with Type, Design Essentials (Quayside Publishing Group, 2009).

[13] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[14] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[15] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[16] Galinsky, “The Significance of Form.”

[17] Galinsky, “The Significance of Form.”

[18] of Coucy Moses ben Jacob, Tosefot Yeshanim. (Berlin1735).

[19] “Bomberg, Daniel (1483–1553) [Bomberg, Daniel],” The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance.

[20] David Shepherd, “Before Bomberg: The Case of the Targum of Job in the Rabbinic Bible and the Solger Codex (Ms Nürnberg),” Biblica 79, no. 3 (1998).

[21] Jacob Rader Marcus, 1896-1995. and Marc. Saperstein, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315-1791, Rev. ed. ed. (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1999).

[22] Daniel Bomberg, Hamishah Humshe Torah ; Neviim Rishonim ; Arba`a Neviim Aharonim ; [Ketuvim]. Nidpas shenit ed. (Venice, Italy: Daniel Bomberg, 1521); David Kimhi and Elijah Levita, Sefer Ha-Shorashim. (Daniel Bomberg, 1546).

[23] Professor Magda Teter Class Lecture; September 6, 2018