Thursday, August 30, 2012

The top 10 Facebook apps from Israel and more

The top 10 Facebook apps from Israel

If you play games, share referrals, recognize friends and purchase gifts through Facebook, it's probably thanks to an Israeli startup.

Make way for a hand-drying revolution 

Move over paper towels and jet dryers. Israeli-manufactured UltraClean is coming to transform the way we dry our hands in public restrooms.

A smarter inhaler for asthmatic kids

This Israeli invention delivers the medication better, gives the patient real-time feedback and provides hard data for the physician.

Arab-Israeli solar company wins EUREKA grant

Yafa Energy could be a bridge over which Arab-Israeli technology finds its way to industries in the Arab world seeking renewable energy solutions.

Step out on the Israel Trail

Running from one tip of the country to the other, the trail allows hikers to experience all Israel has to offer in one embrace.

Doron Merdinger goes for gold

The latest upscale merchant in Tel Aviv creates golden heirloom pieces with cutting-edge CAD tech, based on ancient mysticism.

The First Zionist Congress and the Basel Program

The First Zionist Congress and the Basel Program

The first Zionist Congress was called by Theodor Herzl as a symbolic Parliament for those in sympathy with the implementation of Zionist goals. Herzl had planned to hold the gathering in Munich, but due to local Jewish opposition he transferred the gathering to Basel, Switzerland. The Congress took place in the concert hall of the Basel Municipal Casino on August 29, 1897.

There is some dispute as to the exact number of participants at the First Zionist Congress; however, the approximate figure is 200 from seventeen countries, 69 of whom were delegates from various Zionist societies and the remainder were individual invitees. In attendance were also ten non­Jews who were expected to abstain from voting. Seventeen women attended the Congress, some of them in their own capacity and others who accompanied representatives. While women participated in the First Zionist Congress, they did not have voting rights. Full membership rights were accorded them the following year, at the Second Zionist Congress.

Following a festive opening in which the representatives were expected to arrive in formal dress, tails and white tie, the Congress got down to the business at hand. The main items on the agenda were the presentation of Herzl's plans, the establishment of the World Zionist Organization and the declaration of Zionism's goals-the Basel program.

In the version submitted to the Congress on the second day of its deliberations (August 30) by a committee under the chairmanship of Max Nordau, it was stated: "The aim of Zionism is to create for the Jewish people a home in Eretz­Israel secured by law."

To meet halfway the request of numerous delegates, the most prominent of whom was Leo Motzkin, who sought the inclusion of the phrase "by international law," a compromise formula proposed by Herzl was eventually adopted:

Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz­Israel secured under public law. The Congress contemplates the following means to the attainment of this end:

1. The promotion by appropriate means of the settlement in Eretz-Israel of Jewish farmers, artisans, and manufacturers.

2. The organization and uniting of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, both local and international, in accordance with the laws of each country.

3. The strengthening and fostering of Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness.

4. Preparatory steps toward obtaining the consent of governments, where necessary, in order to reach the goals of Zionism.

At the Congress, Herzl was elected President of the Zionist Organization and Max Nordau one of three Vice-Presidents. Thereafter, the Zionist Congress met every year (1897­1901), then every second year (1903-1913, 1921-1939). Since the Second World War, meetings have been held approximately every four years.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Israel Police arrests women for wearing prayer shawls at Western Wall

Israel Police arrests women for wearing prayer shawls at Western Wall

Women of the Wall hold a special prayer service at the sacred site each month; Western Wall rabbi urges authorities to prevent this 'repeated behavior.'


Jerusalem police arrested and detained four women on Sunday, for wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall. The women, members of Women of the Wall, were arrested during morning prayers, which included special prayers for the new Hebrew month of Elul.

Women of the Wall hold a special prayer service at the Western Wall each month for Rosh Chodesh, or the beginning of new month. The group has met once a month at the back of the women's section at the Western Wall for the last 20 years.

A blog post filed on the Women of the Wall's website Sunday described the arrest of the four women, saying that they were wearing traditional-looking prayer shawls, or talitot – white with blue or black stripes, and "were arrested mid-prayer" as they "stood amongst dozens of women who wore colorful prayer shawls and were left alone by police."

The women were arrested for “behavior that endangers the public peace” and wearing prayer shawls. They have been forbidden to enter the Western Wall Plaza for the next 50 days, according to the organization.

“The time has come to reclaim and liberate the Kotel from the grasp of a handful of Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) extremists who, with the cooperation of the Israeli authorities, exclude the majority of Israelis and Jews from the Western Wall,” said Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall chairwoman, in a statement.

The rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz , in a statement issued Sunday expressed "shock and deep sorrow" over the behavior of the group. "Many worshippers who came to pray Sunday morning instead were forced to witness a fanatical political struggle by an extremist group which undermines the sanctity of the Wall," the statement said, calling the Western Wall "a place of unity. "

"I urge the authorities to prevent this repeated behavior, aimed at provocation and hurt feelings," the rabbi's statement concluded.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallitot, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.

In June, Israeli police detained a woman wearing a tallit at the Western Wall and later questioned her for four hours after asking her to wear her prayer shawl as a scarf. In May, three women from Women of the Wall were stopped for questioning after praying at the Wall in prayer shawls. They also had been asked to wear the tallitot as scarves rather than shawls.

European Jewry rushes to defend rabbi charged for performing circumcision in Germany

European Jewry rushes to defend rabbi charged for performing circumcision in Germany

David Goldberg says he will continue to perform religious ritual; incident ‘is reminiscent of far darker times,’ warns European Jewish Congress.


Outraged European Jewish organizations rallied in defense of a rabbi in Germany who faces charges after performing a ritual circumcision.

As the wave of support for Jerusalem-born Rabbi David Goldberg gained momentum Wednesday, the man at the heart of the incident remained defiant. Goldberg said in an interview on Army Radio that he will continue to perform the religious rite, known as a “brit mila” and traditionally performed on the eighth day after the birth of a Jewish boy. “If they call me to do a circumcision,” Goldberg said, “I will go to do it.”

Rabbi David Goldberg 
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Earlier this week, the chief prosecutor in the Bavarian town of Hof confirmed that a local doctor had filed charges against Goldberg after the rabbi performed a circumcision. The charges were based on a June court decision in Cologne that ruled circumcision causes “bodily injury.”

European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor expressed his concern regarding the charges and said he hoped the case would be closed quickly, and the wider issue resolved, to prevent intimidation of German Jews who wanted to practice their religion.

Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress. (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)

“The charges laid against a Jewish religious leader for performing a fully legal action is outrageous and a very troubling escalation, sending a deeply problematic message to the Jewish community,” Kantor said in a press release. “It has been many decades since a Jew was charged for practicing Judaism openly and is reminiscent of far darker times. We hope that in Germany, of all places, the authorities would remain far more sensitive to this issue.”

Since the June court ruling, which alarmed Jewish and Muslim communities by condemning all non-medical circumcisions, German authorities have sought ways to protect traditional religious circumcisions from legal action. The threat against circumcisions has also spread to other European countries, with officials in Switzerland, Austria, and Norway examining the legality of the procedure.

The Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE) said it received an overwhelming response from business executives, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have pledged to assist in all legal fees required to defend Goldberg should the matter go to trial.

Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg, deputy director of the RCE, said in a press release that “the Jews in Europe feel that this is a struggle against Judaism. On the one hand it makes them angry, and on the other it creates a great deal of sympathy and solidarity in the non-Jewish population.”

Kantor called on authorities to step in and lay to rest the dispute over circumcision in order to preserve Jewish life in Germany.

“We hope the government will immediately intercede, especially after the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel reaffirmed the right of Jews to continue practicing circumcision,” Kantor said. “The government needs to send a clearer message that Jewish religious life should be allowed to continue and thrive in Germany and to enact legislation without delay to clear matters, as there is obviously a lot of confusion.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a statement on Tuesday in which it said it expected Bavarian authorities to remain committed to their pledge that the government would not press charges against rabbis who practice ritual circumcision on infant boys in keeping with Jewish tradition.

Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger said Wednesday he thought German politicians would find a solution to end the circumcision ban. Metzger was in Berlin Tuesday for talks over the crisis.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

At the start of haredi draft, no significant problems—or optimism

At the start of haredi draft, no significant problems —              or optimism

By Ben Sales

A haredi man and his son standing next to the Israeli army recruiting office in Jerusalem on the day the Tal Law was voided

TEL AVIV (JTA) – The controversy had sparked a national debate, raucous protests in the streets and the collapse of a historic government. That came in the months after the Israeli Supreme Court had nullified a law exempting haredi Orthodox Israelis from military service and given the government until Aug. 1 to draft a replacement law.

More than one week after the law’s implementation, the Israel Defense Forces has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting haredi men through the draft process, according to a military source with knowledge of the issue.

The IDF had no official comment on the new process.

In previous weeks, thousands of haredim had gathered in the streets, holding protest signs declaring that they would rather spend their lives in prison than serve in the “Zionist army.” Another protest in Tel Aviv declared that secular Israelis, who had always served, would no longer be “suckers.”

But political stalemate won out. No law was passed and a broad government coalition created to solve this issue broke up.

The day before the Aug. 1 deadline, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sent out a news release stating that the IDF had one month to formulate guidelines on haredi military service that would accord with the Military Service Law of 1986, which subjects haredim to the same service requirements as all other Jewish Israelis. Haredim have been subject to the law since Aug. 1, and will be until the Knesset passes a new law on haredi service.

Under the 1986 law, 18-year-old haredi boys -- until now exempt from the military draft while studying in a yeshiva -- are eligible for the draft; their summons may come even before their 18th birthday. The penalty for refusing the summons: three years in prison.

The law includes a clause on religious exemptions from military service for women who observe Shabbat and keep kosher, but they do not apply to men. Men up to the age of 26 may be drafted, haredi or not.

Now haredi men born in 1994 and 1995 are or soon will be undergoing competency tests in math, Hebrew and general knowledge, as would any draftee. The first language of many haredim is Yiddish, not Hebrew, and their schools do not focus on math or general studies.

The military source could not give any details on the formulation of guidelines for haredi enlistment, but said the monthlong period was granted in part to allow the army time to prepare for absorbing thousands of haredi soldiers.

According to Haaretz, there are 54,000 haredi men of enlistment age who have not served in the IDF.

But even as the protests have died down, observers on both sides of the issue do not expect the controversy to be solved or a new law to be passed anytime soon.

“Right now there’s not a general feeling that something major is going to happen because of the political consternation,” said Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, a columnist for Mishpacha magazine, a major haredi publication.

Rosenblum, of Jerusalem, said that when the coalition broke up, “the sense of panic diminished considerably” in the haredi world.

Although the Military Service Law is in effect, Rosenblum was not worried that any of his seven sons, including a 17-year-old, would be putting on a uniform. Would the IDF be “subjecting them to military trial and imprisonment? No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think the government has a plan. There was nobody who was talking about putting people in jail.”

During government negotiations on a new law on the matter last month, the major proposals suggested fines for draft dodging, while others eschewed the idea of personal penalties.

A leading official in Hiddush, an Israeli organization that advocates for religious pluralism and equality, also does not expect new legislation -- and a haredi draft with teeth -- to move forward soon, despite his best hopes.

“The government won’t draft one yeshiva student,” said Shahar Ilan, Hiddush’s vice president. “The government isn’t doing anything. “This is a huge violation of the law.”

Ilan said that though most of the Knesset wants to see a new law enacted, no one is willing take the necessary political risks.

“Netanyahu does not want to hurt the haredi parties” in his coalition, Ilan said. “There’s a majority for a mandatory draft but it’s theoretical because the parties that support a mandatory draft are not ready to break up the government for it.”

Rosenblum said that even were such a law to pass, the IDF would not have the resources or will to absorb so many haredi youth, whose strict observance of Jewish law puts them in special circumstances.

“There’s no way in the world that the vast majority of haredi boys are going to go into mixed units,” he said. “There’s no way in the world that the army is going to put in place haredi-accommodating units within 30 days.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Israeli scholar completes ‘definitive’ version of the Bible

Israeli scholar completes ‘definitive’ version of the Bible

In correcting some 1,500 inaccuracies, Prof. Menachem Cohen, 84, has carried out the first major textual overhaul in 500 years. By ARON HELLER

RAMAT GAN, Israel (AP) — For the past 30 years, Israeli Judaic scholar Menachem Cohen has been on a mission of biblical proportions: Correcting all known textual errors in Jewish scripture to produce a truly definitive edition of the Old Testament.

His edits, focusing primarily on grammatical blemishes and an intricate set of biblical symbols, mark the first major overhaul of the Hebrew Bible in nearly 500 years.Poring over thousands of medieval manuscripts, the 84-year-old professor identified 1,500 inaccuracies in the Hebrew language texts that have been corrected in his completed 21-volume set. The final chapter is set to be published next year.

The massive project highlights how Judaism venerates each tiny biblical calligraphic notation as a way of ensuring that communities around the world use precisely the same version of the holy book. Cohen does not call for changes in the writing of the sacred Torah scrolls used in Jewish rites. Instead, he is aiming for accuracy in versions used for study by the Hebrew-reading masses

According to Jewish law, a Torah scroll is considered void if even a single letter is incorrect or misplaced. Cohen does not call for changes in the writing of the sacred Torah scrolls used in Jewish rites, which would likely set off a firestorm of objection and criticism. Instead, he is aiming for accuracy in versions used for study by the Hebrew-reading masses. For the people of the book, Cohen said, there was no higher calling.

“The people of Israel took upon themselves, at least in theory, one version of the Bible, down to its last letter,” Cohen said, in his office at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. The last man to undertake the challenge was Jacob Ben-Hayim, who published the Mikraot Gedolot, or Great Scriptures, in Venice in 1525. His version, which unified the religion’s varying texts and commentaries under a single umbrella, has remained the standard for generations, appearing to this day on bookshelves of observant Jews the world over. Since Ben-Hayim had to rely on inferior manuscripts and commentaries, numerous inaccuracies crept in and were magnified in subsequent editions.

The errors have no bearing on the Bible’s stories and alter nothing in its meaning. Instead, for example, in some places the markers used to denote vowels in Hebrew are incorrect; or a letter in a word may be wrong, often the result of a centuries old transcription error. Some of the fixes are in the notations used for cantillation, the text’s ritual chants. Most of the errors Cohen found were in the final two-thirds of the Hebrew Bible and not in the sacred Torah scrolls, since they do not include vowel markings or cantillation notations.

Cohen said unity and accuracy were of particular importance to distinguish the sacred Jewish text from that used by those sects that broke away from Judaism, namely Christians and Samaritans.To achieve his goal, Cohen relied primarily on the Aleppo Codex, the 1,000-year-old parchment text considered to be the most accurate copy of the Bible

To achieve his goal, Cohen relied primarily on the Aleppo Codex, the 1,000-year-old parchment text considered to be the most accurate copy of the Bible. For centuries it was guarded in a grotto in the great synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, out of reach of most scholars like Ben-Hayim. In 1947, a Syrian mob burned the synagogue, and the Codex briefly disappeared before most of it was smuggled into Israel a decade later.
Now digitized, the Codex, also known as the Crown, provided Cohen with a template from which to work. But because about a third of the Codex — nearly 200 pages — remains missing, Cohen had to recreate the five books of Moses based on trends he observed in the Codex as well as from other sources, such as the 11th-century Leningrad Codex, considered the second-most authoritative version of the Jewish Bible.

Cohen also included the most comprehensive commentaries available, most notably that of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known as Rashi.The result is the completion of Ben-Hayim’s work. “It was amazing to me that for 500 years, people didn’t sense the errors,” said Cohen, who wears a knitted skullcap and sports a gray goatee. “They just assumed that everything was fine, but in practice everything was not fine.”

He’s not the only scholar to devote decades to the task. In 1976, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer published a version of the Torah based mainly on the Aleppo Codex. The Hebrew University Bible Project in Jerusalem has also been working on a scientific edition of the Hebrew Bible, but theirs is directed toward scholars, while Cohen’s output is aimed at wider consumption. Rafael Zer, the project’s editorial coordinator, called Cohen’s work “quasi-scientific” because it presents a final product and does not provide the reader a way of seeing how it was reached. He credits Cohen for bringing an exact biblical text to the general public but said it “comes at the expense of absolute accuracy and an absolute scientific edition.”

With the assistance of his son Shmuel, a computer programmer, Cohen launched a digital version he hopes will become a benchmark of the Israeli education system. He said his ultimate goal was to “correct the past and prepare for the future.” As a former teacher, Cohen said he took particular pride in a sophisticated search engine that allows even novices to explore his work with ease. He called computers a “third revolution” to affect Jewish scripture, following the shift from scrolls to bound books and the advent of the printing press.

“I want the Bible to be user-friendly,” said Cohen, a grandfather of eight. “Today, we can create sources of information and searches that allow you to get an answer to everything you are wondering.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sikh temple shooter thrived as neo-Nazi musician

Sikh temple shooter thrived as neo-Nazi musician

By William M. Welch and Judy Keen

OAK CREEK, Wis. – Few can know what goes through the twisted mind of a mass killer, but Wade Michael Page left behind plenty of signs that he was consumed by one thing: hate. Page, 40, was identified by police Monday as the gunman who killed six worshipers Sunday morning at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis. Local and federal authorities said they were investigating whether the shooting was an act of domestic terrorism.

The bald, heavy man decorated in tattoos and shot dead in an exchange with police played in hate bands and used hate-filled heavy-metal music to recruit white supremacists to the cause. Page played at gatherings around the country including Hammerfest, the biggest festival of the obscure neo-Nazi genre, the "Lollapalooza of hate," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Though police are still seeking clues as to what, specifically, triggered the rampage, Page had immersed himself in a skinhead music scene that is small yet virulent and off the radar screen of most Americans. Even so, the loosely aligned movement is active enough to alarm those who monitor hate groups and believe their activity is on the rise. "There is an entire underworld out there of white supremacist music that the public basically has no idea of," says Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Montgomery, Ala.-based center, which tracks hate groups.

"The lyrics to the songs these bands sing could not be printed in any newspaper in this country. They are incredibly vile. They call for the murder of all Jews, all black people. When we say it's hate music, we're not kidding," Potok said. Just weeks after the nation reeled in the horror of a gunman's massacre in an Aurora, Colo., theater, a familiar ritual was taking place Monday night as Sikhs and non-Sikhs gathered at a Brookfield temple in suburban Milwaukee to show their respect for those killed across town while merely practicing their faith.Teresa Carlson, the FBI special agent in charge, confirmed that investigators are probing Page's ties to white supremacy groups.

Indy Trewal, 28, said it is time for healing. "We don't have any anger," he said. "It is time for peace." Lori and Bill Raczynski made their first visit to the Sikh temple because they were horrified by the shootings and wanted to share their pain with those most affected. "This violence has got to stop," she said. Three people wounded in the shooting remain in critical condition, including one of the first Oak Creek police officers on the scene, Lt. Brian Murphy, 51, who was shot repeatedly while attending to a victim. Police said an officer shot and killed Page outside the temple.

Page grew up in Colorado and enlisted in the Army in 1992, where he served at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and other U.S. posts, according to Army documents. He worked in psychological operations. He plunged into the white supremacist music scene after he was demoted and discharged from military service in 1998. The Army did not disclose what caused him to be disciplined. The Associated Press, citing unnamed defense officials, said he was demoted for getting drunk while on duty and going AWOL.

FBI and local authorities converged Monday on Page's rented home in the Milwaukee suburb of Cudahy, scouring it for clues. They reported finding more ammunition and weapons in his apartment. Federal ATF agent Bernard Zapor said the 9mm handgun recovered at the temple had been purchased legally.

In 2011, Page wrote an e-mail — with a subject line reading, "No registering of long guns" — to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: "Wake Up!!!! No more restrictions on law abiding gun owners! These restrictions do nothing about the criminals they are meant to affect. Why punish and render defenseless the very people that deserve to be protected while HELPING the offenders with such laws? The only other use for such laws is for government to gain control over the people. This is America, and I AM THE GOVERNMENT, not you! Remember who you work for, and your oath!"

Page is the fifth person on the Southern Poverty Law Center's tracking list who has been tied to crimes in recent years. Among the others was James Von Brunn, who was charged with killing a black security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2009. He died awaiting trial.After his name, Page added: "Stop tying the hands of the good guys!"

Behind the music

Page was a guitarist, bassist, lyricist and singer for a series of bands, and the Internet is littered with pictures of him and his bandmates. He looks like others in his crowd — bald, heavy, white men bearing tattoos that are emblems of a racist world. He founded bands and joined in others, with names such as Definite Hate, End Apathy and Youngland that were affiliated with Hammerskins, one of the oldest and largest skinhead organizations in the country, says Mark Pitcavage, director of research for theAnti-Defamation League, which tracks such groups. The Hammerskins promote bands and hold an annual music festival, called Hammerfest, at private venues around the country. This year it was in Richmond on St. Patrick's Day.

Label 56, a Maryland-based record label specializing in the genre, posted a statement on its website distancing itself from Page and saying it was halting sale of music by his band End Apathy. "Please do not take what Wade did as honorable or respectable and please do not think we are all like that," the statement said. "We have worked hard over the years to promote a positive image and have posted many articles encouraging people to take a positive path in life, to abstain from drugs, alcohol, and just general behavior that can affect one's life negatively."

In an interview with Label 56, Page once said of his lyrics: "The topics vary from sociological issues, religion, and how the value of human life has been degraded by being submissive to tyranny and hypocrisy that we are subjugated to." It is a type of music that devotees of more mainstream metal music — with graphic names such as Cannibal Corpse and As I Lay Dying — distance themselves from. Bill Werde, editorial director of Billboard, which follows the music business, said the genre is tiny in terms of sales, though the Internet and digital distribution have opened new avenues for the music to be heard. "Hate music is definitely fringe," Werde says. "You're not seeing these groups selling many albums or selling albums where the mainstream buys music." Albums by headlining acts at the last Hammerfest have not surpassed sales of 500 each, but totals are likely higher given music is sold in non-traditional outlets not tallied by Nielsen SoundScan.

A 'hero' died

In Wisconsin, Kurt Weins said Page moved in with him June 23, responding to an online ad for a roommate.
"He seemed pretty calm. He didn't seem like the type to raise his voice," Weins said. Just weeks later, on July 16, Page moved out and into a duplex across the street. A neighbor, Peter Hoyt, remembers Page having a "9/11" tattoo on an arm. "I can't believe it was him," Hoyt said.

At the temple, the gunman took aim at a crowd filled with Sikh immigrants and their families who gather weekly to worship. The religion was started in India and the Punjab, which straddles the border with Pakistan. In the United States, the religion is most known for the colorful turbans and long beards that men commonly wear — symbols that Sikh activists say has caused them to be confused with Muslims and targeted as if they were Islamist extremists. Satwant Kaleka, 65, founder and president of the temple, died in the shooting. He was among four priests killed. "I feel a fire inside me," his son, Amardeep Kaleka, 34, said Monday morning. He said his mother, Satpal, hid in a closet during the attack and survived. Amardeep Kaleka said his father, who had three grandchildren, came to the USA in 1982 with $30 in his pocket. He said he was found with a knife just 2 feet from his body, indicating he was fighting off the shooter. "My dad has always been a protector," he said. "He was a hero yesterday." Simran Kaleka, 24, a niece of Satwant Kaleka, said she was just "broken." "My whole world just fell apart," she said.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ancient High Holiday Text

A High Holy Whodunit

Michal Chelbin for The New York Times

The Aleppo Codex, the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible, in its vault at the Israel Museum.


One day this spring, on the condition that I not reveal any details of its location nor the stringent security measures in place to protect its contents, I entered a hidden vault at the Israel Museum and gazed upon the Aleppo Codex — the oldest, most complete, most accurate text of the Hebrew Bible. The story of how it arrived here, in Jerusalem, is a tale of ancient fears and modern prejudices, one that touches on one of the rawest nerves in Israeli society: the clash of cultures between Jews from Arab countries and the European Jews, or Ashkenazim, who controlled the country during its formative years. And the story of how some 200 pages of the codex went missing — and to this day remain the object of searches carried out around the globe by biblical scholars, private investigators, shadowy businessmen and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency — is one of the great mysteries in Jewish history.

As a small group of us stood in a circle inside the vault in which the codex now resides, Michael Maggen, the head of the museum’s paper-conservation lab, donned a pair of gloves and carefully lifted one of its unbound pages, covered with three columns of beautiful calligraphy, for us to see. The pages were made from animal hides that were stretched and bleached and cut to make parchment; the scribe’s ink was made of powdered tree galls mixed with iron sulfate and black soot. “Considering the difficult conditions that the manuscript suffered over a great many years,” James Snyder, the museum’s director, said, “it is in remarkably excellent condition.” Snyder was happy to talk about how fortunate the museum was to be able to display the codex alongside the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls and about the painstaking restoration that has taken place. But he refused to speculate on the sensitive question of where the missing pages, which constitute about 40 percent of the codex and whose value is estimated to be in the many millions of dollars, might be and how they might have disappeared.

To talk to the many individuals who are obsessed with finding the missing portions of the codex or solving the mystery of who stole them, or whose histories are somehow bound up with the story of the book, is to get a glimpse of the power it has held over people for more than a thousand years. In Aleppo, Syria, where the codex was safeguarded for six centuries, it was believed to possess magical properties. It was said that women who looked upon it would become pregnant, that those who held the keys to its safe were blessed, that anyone who stole or sold the codex was cursed and that a terrible plague would wipe out the Jewish community if it were removed from their synagogue. At the tops of some of the pages, the Aleppo elders inscribed a warning to would-be thieves: “Sacred to Yahweh, not to be sold or defiled.” And elsewhere: “Cursed be he who steals it, and cursed be he who sells it.” Among some parties, those fears persist even today.

For a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, the Jewish holy scriptures — the five parts of the Torah and 19 other holy books — were copied and passed down in the various Jewish communities from generation to generation. Some of these texts, according to Jewish faith, were handed down directly by God and included signs, messages and codes that pertained directly to the essence of existence. The multiplicity of manuscripts and the worry that any change or inaccurate transcription would lead to the loss of vital esoteric knowledge created the need for a single, authoritative text. And beyond its mystical significance, a unified text was also necessary to maintain Jewish unity after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire. As Adolfo Roitman, the head of the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls and parts of the codex are displayed, said: “One can regard the thousand years between the scrolls and the codex, the millennium during which the standardization of the text was carried out, as a metaphor for the effort of the Jewish people to create national unity. One text, one people, even if it is scattered to the four ends of the earth.”

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Israeli Kids in MindLab Olympics

 Israeli kids take gold in MindLab Olympics

For the seventh straight year, a team of Israeli schoolchildren bests peers from several countries in games of strategy.

By Abigail Klein Leichman   

The Israeli team at play in Romania.

A team of four Israeli sixth-graders captured first place at the seventh annual MindLab Olympicsinternational championships, a “thinking games” competition for children from 10 countries.

It wasn’t the first time, either. In fact, Israel has brought home the gold all seven years of the competition.
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Each national team consists of the highest-scoring school’s top contenders in each of four games: Abalone, Quoridor, checkers and Octi. In Israel, 18 schools competed for the privilege of representing their country in the Romanian resort city of Sinaia against teams from Brazil, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Australia, Panama, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

ISRAEL21c spoke with Avi Klein, the checkers champ of this year’s Israeli team from the Ma’aleh HaTorah school in Ma’aleh Adumim. This was the same school that won last year, too.

“I started learning the games in fifth grade and I didn’t really like them,” Avi admits. “Then I saw checkers and I wanted to play that. Checkers teaches you to think before you act, because after you play [a move] you can’t go back.”

He was accompanied to Romania by teammates Yehuda Klein (his first cousin), Ori Lifshitz and Aviad Loberbaum, chaperoned by adults including his father, David. Aviad, who was also on last year’s team that competed in Portugal, carried the Israeli flag as the boys made their entry to the playing floor to the melody of the Israeli folk song “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” (“We bring peace to you”).

The boys were coached by teacher Moshe Ben-Ami as part of an enrichment program.

Patience is a winning virtue

The young contestants perfected their skills by playing game after game during recess and over weekends at home. “You need to be very patient,” says Avi.
The winning Israeli team: From left, Ori Lifshitz, Aviad Loberbaum, Yehuda Klein and Avi Klein with coach Moshe Ben-Ami.

At the international MindLab Olympics, the only competitor who gave Avi a run for his money was a girl from Hungary who seemed to think out her strategy in exactly the same way that he does. He bested her in one game, while their other match ended in a draw.

“I was a little worried,” Avi recalls. “She almost won, so I did something to make a draw.” The Hungarian team came in second overall.

One of the benefits of making the international round is the opportunity to get acquainted with peers from different countries. Conversing mostly in English, the kids chatted between games, at meals and during activities over the four days. One of the places they visited was Bran Castle, a.k.a. Dracula Castle, near the Transylvanian border.

According to David Klein, the experience had value beyond the trophies the kids brought back to Israel for ranking No. 1 in both individual and team play.

“This whole process of mind games puts an emphasis on proper behavior, concentration, persistence, thinking, planning, perseverance, losing well and winning well,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “The fact that you can enjoy thinking hard is an important lesson also.”

Thinking games

Checkers is well known, but what about the other three “thinking games” in the MindLab Olympics?

Abalone is a strategy board game in which each player is represented by marbles of opposing colors. The board consists of 61 circular spaces arranged in a hexagon, five on a side. Each player has 14 marbles. The objective is to push six of the opponent’s marbles off the edge of the board.

Quoridor, which received the Mensa Mind Game award in 1997, is played on a game board of 81 square spaces. The goal of the game is to be the first player to move his or her pawn to any space on the opposite side of the board, navigating around “walls” that the opponent puts up to block the path.

Octi is similar to checkers and chess but more complex. It allows for multiple jumping, capturing and other special movements. On each move, players decide whether to bring in new pieces, upgrade their existing pieces, or move a piece.