Literally, ruler, possessor. Pagan god of rain and fertility; foremost among Canaanite gods. Baal was not the name of one particular god, but the presiding deity of a given locality. He was killed each year by the hosts of Mot, the god of drought and death. Fertility and growth ceased until autumn, when Baal came to life, bringing back the rains. In spring, Baal married the goddess of fertility and war, returning fruitfulness to the land and its inhabitants. The Canaanites worshiped Baal with idolatry and fertility rites. The Bible records how judges and prophets opposed Baal worship among the people of Israel. (See also Elijah.)


Founder of Hasidism. The life of the pious Baal Shem (literally, “master of the name,” or “miracle worker”) has been the subject of so many legends and stories that it is often difficult to separate fact from myth. He left no written works, but his sayings were collected by disciples, especially Rabbi Baer of Mezhirich. Israel was orphaned at an early age and raised by the community. Though deeply religious, he was not an eager student, preferring solitary prayer and meditation. In his early life his occupations were varied: he was an assistant teacher in charge of Heder children, a synagogue helper, a ritual slaughterer, and even a charcoal burner. Upon his marriage to Anna Kuty, whose brother was the well-known scholar Rabbi Gershon Kutower, the Baal Shem moved to an isolated town in the Carpathian mountains. There he spent long hours with God and nature. Rabbi Gershon had given the couple a horse and wagon, and they made a bare livelihood by selling one wagonload of lime to the villagers every week. On his wedding day, Israel revealed to his bride that he was a divinely chosen tzaddik, or righteous man, but swore her to secrecy until the time was ripe for him to make himself known. He lived in obscurity until he was 36 years old. Then he began to travel through towns and villages, healing the sick and performing miracles.

Israel’s personality, piety, and imaginative expression gradually brought him fame. He became known as a man of deep religious feeling and enthusiasm, with a gift for communicating these emotions to the simplest and most ignorant person. His consideration and love for lowly people are illustrated by his comment to a disciple: “The lowliest person you can think of is dearer to me than your only son is to you.” His followers’ awe of him is apparent in legends. Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezhirich once asked Heaven to show him a man who was completely holy, and he was shown a fiery vision of the Baal Shem Tov. The image had no shred of matter; it was nothing but flame.

The Baal Shem yearned to go to the Holy Land, a longing which was never satisfied. In 1740, he settled in Podolia, a province in the Ukraine, where many scholars, rabbis, as well as common folk to form the nucleus of the Hasidic movement. Israel stressed devotion to God and dedicated prayer. He taught that joyful and enthusiastic worship, even that of an ignorant man, finds more favor in the eyes of the Maker than cold scholarship and dry knowledge of the Law. These teachings had great popular appeal and this new Hasidism which the Baal Shem had initiated spread like wildfire through East European Jewry.

BABEL, ISAAC (1894-1941).

Russian author; one of the great short story writers of the 20th century. He served in the Soviet cavalry during the Russian Revolution. Accused of betrayal, he perished in a prison camp.


The Bible, after the story of creation, tells of a tower built in Babylonia that reached to heaven to defy God. Incurring divine fury, the tower was destroyed, and humankind, which until then only spoke one language, was now made to speak many different languages to prevent future rebellion against God.

Ancient Asiatic land lying between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, today southern Iraq, Babylonia was the cradle of ancient civilization and the seat of empires, occupying an important place in Jewish history. Ur, the capital of the Sumerian Empire


See Stage and Screen.


Aramaic; literally, to cheer up, to make laugh. A professional merrymaker, dating back to the Middle Ages, whose duty was to entertain the guests at weddings. A badhan was a sort of poet who spontaneously made up and sang appropriate rhymes to suit the important persons he met at the wedding. One of the last badhanim to become well known was Eliakim Zunser (1836-1913). Many of Zunser’s lyrics were popular among Eastern European Jews.

BAECK, LEO (1873-1956).

Leader of German Jewry before and during the Holocaust, Baeck was one of the great theologians of the Reform movement. He explained his views of Judaism in his book Essence of Judaism, and later in This People Israel, which grew out of his experience at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. After the war he taught at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. A college in England, an institute in New York, and a high school in Haifa, Israel are named after him.


See Sports.


In the midst of World War I, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote the following letter to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, of the Zionist Federation in England:

Foreign Office

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achieve_ment of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

I should be grateful if you would bring this Declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour

The three sentences of this document giving international recognition to Zionist aims were the result of three years of diplomatic negotiations reaching out from London to France, Italy, and the U.S. The Balfour Declaration was issued with the support of the French government, and with the backing of Woodrow Wilson, then President of the U.S. Official approval came from France on February 14, 1918; from Italy on May 9, 1918; and from President Wilson in a letter to Stephen S. Wise on August 31, 1918. The U.S. Congress voted in its favor, and President Harding approved the declaration on September 21, 1922. The Balfour Declaration became the basis for a mandate for the creation of Palestine. This mandate was given to Britain by the League of Nations and affirmed on July 24, 1922. The news of the Declaration was received with waves of joy and spontaneous celebrations all over the Jewish world, and today, November 2nd is celebrated as Balfour Day. (See also Zionism.)


One of the most representative and historically significant Jewish communities in the U.S., dating back to the late 18th century. The first synagogue was founded in 1830. German Jews settled in the 1840’s. During the Civil War, Baltimore Jewry was divided between North and South. Reform Rabbi David Einhorn supported the North, and had to flee the city, which was part of the South.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a large influx of east European Jews settled in Baltimore. The poet Israel Efros founded the Baltimore Hebrew College (later Baltimore Hebrew University), and the Baltimore Jewish Times, one of the finest Jewish weeklies in America, was started in 1919. Baltimore became a stronghold of Zionism, with leaders like Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah. In 1933, the Ner Israel Rabbinical College was founded, making Baltimore a center of Orthodox Judaism. American culture was enriched by such Baltimorean Jews as Gertrude Stein, who helped shape the literary style of writers like Ernest Hemingway, and the poet Karl Shapiro. The novel Exodus, by Baltimorean writer Leon Uris, had a positive impact on explaining the birth of the State of Israel to the world.

Today, Baltimore has a well organized and diversified Jewish community of 92,000, with several day schools, and the full range of Jewish communal services.


Founded in 1919 in Baltimore; one of the first institutions in America to offer a full Hebrew teachers’ training program. In addition to the Teachers’ Training School, the college offers a four-year afternoon high school program and adult education courses.


See Numbers.


A leader of the Zealots, a party of extremists who were most responsible for the Judean rebellion against Rome from 67-70 C.E. Simon Bar Giora was a man of great physical strength, boundless courage, and ceaseless ambition. During the siege of Jerusalem, he fought ruthlessly not only against the Roman legions, but also against the moderate party in Jerusalem, until the commander of the garrison forced him to flee the city. Bar Giora fortified himself in Masada, a mountain fortress on the western shore of the Dead Sea. There he gathered a large army, and with the help of the Edomites, moved into Jerusalem and massacred many of his Zealot opponents. The incessant fighting among the Zealots stopped only when the Roman Emperor Titus surrounded Jerusalem in a bitter siege and Roman battering rams pounded down its walls. Then, Bar Giora fought the Romans with single-minded fury, but when the Temple was destroyed by Titus, he retreated to the Upper City. When that, too, was captured, Bar Giora hid in a cave and then tried to escape, but fell into the hands of the victorious Romans. As he was brought back to Rome with the other Judean captives, Bar Giora was forced to march in chains behind Titus’s chariot at the head of the triumphal procession. Later, he was executed as a chief of the rebellion.

BAR-ILAN (BERLIN), MEYER (1880-1949).

World Mizrachi leader. Born in Volozhin, Russia, Rabbi Bar-Ilan went to Berlin in 1910 where he served as general secretary of the world Mizrachi movement. In Berlin, he founded and edited the weekly Ha-Ivri. In 1913, he came to the United States where he developed local Mizrachi branches into a national organization of which he was president from 1916 to 1926. Afterward, he settled in Palestine. Bar-Ilan was a man of tremendous energy, with an erudition and attitude that embraced all Jewish life. In addition to playing a primary role in international Zionism, he edited Mizrachi’s Hebrew daily Ha-Tzofeh, organized support for Israeli Yeshivot, or Talmudic academies, and worked on the publication of a new edition of the Talmud. When the First Knesset, or parliament, convened, he was a leading representative of the religious bloc. On April 18, 1949, while pleading against the internationalization of Jerusalem, Bar-Ilan died. In his honor are named the central World Mizrachi building in Tel Aviv, Bet Meir, the Berlin Forest, and the Mizrachi-sponsored Bar-Ilan University in Israel. His memoirs, Fun Volozhin Bis Yerushalayim (From Volozhin to Jerusalem), written in Yiddish, were first published in 1933.


See Music


Founded in 1955 as an “American University in Israel” with an initial class of eighty students; chartered by the Regents of the State of New York. Bar-Ilan is the only American-chartered university in Israel, being conducted and administrated in the manner of American universities. The essence and uniqueness of Bar-Ilan springs from the will of its founders to create in Israel a university espousing traditional teachings of Judaism. Secular training in liberal arts is blended with religious orientation, providing an environment in which the pursuit of knowledge is coupled with an understanding of heritage and a devotion to humanity. By 1996, the student body had grown to 20,000 men and women from Israel, the U.S., and nearly 35 other nations. In addition to baccalaureate programs, it now provides master’s and doctoral degrees in 32 disciplines. The Jacov Herzog School of Law, opened in 1970, seeks to integrate Jewish law into the analytic study of each area of the law. A new post-high school program, Tochnit Achat, has been developed for American students living in Israel. The university awards a number of maintenance and tuition scholarships.


Leader of the rebellion against the Romans (132-135 C.E.). His name, meaning “son of a star,” is believed to be derived from the Messianic interpretation of the prophecy, “There shall step forth a star out of Jacob.” Known also as Simeon ben Koziba, Bar Kokhba won numerous enthusiastic followers who believed in his mission to free Judea from the Roman Empire. Among his supporters were famous scholars and his host of disciples. In particular, Rabbi Akiva considered him the Messiah and changed his name from Ben Koziba to Bar Kokhba. At first, Bar Kokhba and his heroic men conducted guerilla warfare against the powerful garrison in Palestine. His army grew steadily, attracting zealous fighters from all over Palestine and the Diaspora. According to legend, he tested the valor of his soldiers by requiring each to cut off one of his fingers. After the rabbis protested this needless mutilation, Bar Kokhba devised a less cruel test. Every prospective soldier was required to uproot a cedar tree while charging on horseback. Within a short time the army was strong enough to meet the Roman legions in open battle. Over the next two years, the Jews captured ninety forts and a thousand cities and villages, including Jerusalem.

The Roman emperor Hadrian, fearing that the Jewish revolt would encourage the uprising of more subject countries, dispatched his best legions to squash the revolt. At the head of his legions he placed Julius Severus, the general who had distinguished himself in the campaign against Britain. Severus recaptured all the fortresses, including Jerusalem, forcing Bar Kokhba to concentrate on the mountain stronghold of Betar in the Judean hills. The siege of Betar lasted a year. After a bitter struggle, the Roman legions entered the city on the ninth of Av, 135 C.E. Bar Kokhba and his men continued fighting to the end, dying with sword in hand. The number of Jewish dead reached half a million. Scores of Jews were sold as slaves. The rest hid in caves or fled to neighboring countries. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina, in honor of Hadrian. The subjugation of Palestine was now complete, but the story of the Bar Kokhba revolt would become a living symbol of the Jewish desire for freedom and independence.


Literally, “son of the Commandment”; a boy who has reached the age of thirteen and is expected to accept adult religious responsibilities. The female equivalent of Bar Mitzvah is called Bat Mitzvah. This “coming of age” is the occasion for a ritual in the synagogue, where on the first Sabbath of his fourteenth year, the boy is called for the first time to read from the Torah and the prophets. It is a joyous occasion, accompanied by gifts for the bar mitzvah boy from friends and family. Traditionally, the Bar Mitzvah boy delivers a learned speech. Though the Bar Mitzvah is usually observed on the Sabbath, it may, in fact, take place any other day of the week when the Torah is read at the synagogue, i.e. Monday, Thursday, the New Moon. The beginnings of this ceremony are ancient. References to the custom are found as early as the 5th and 6th centuries. (See also Confirmation.)


See Music.


American Jewish immigrant pioneer. Barsimson left Holland with a Dutch passport and arrived in Nieuw Amsterdam on August 22, 1654. He was one of the 23 refugees who fled the threat of the Inquisition in Brazil to seek asylum in the Dutch West India Company’s settlement. During a lawsuit four years later he demanded and won the right to be exempt from giving testimony on the Sabbath.


American financier known as “advisor to Presidents.” During World War I, President Wilson entrusted him with the task of heading various commissions to direct the war industries of the entire nation. At the end of the war, Baruch served as a member of the American Peace Commission. He served on the President’s Agricultural Conference in 1922, and continued to give valued aid to American agriculture, helping to promote legislation for farm relief. Baruch was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisor on national problems, and is credited with planning the National Recovery Act of 1933. In World War II, Baruch acted as advisor to the war mobilization director, and in 1944 prepared a report for President Roosevelt on war and postwar plans. In 1946, he served as U.S. representative on the UN Atomic Energy Commission, and presented the American proposal for the international control of atomic energy on June 14, 1946. As a philanthropist, Baruch’s interests led him to contribute large sums for the investigation of the causes of war and for possible means of preventing its outbreak. Baruch wrote articles and books on a variety of subjects. His autobiography, My Own Story, was published in 1957. The School of Business and Civic Administration at Manhattan’s City College was renamed Baruch College after him.

BARZANI,ASENATH (1590 – 1670).

Renowned Jewish-Kurdish woman who lived in Mosul, Iraq. She was among the very first Jewish women in history known to have been given a rabbinic title. The daughter of the illustrious Rabbi Samuel Barzani, she studied Kabbalah, was a poet, and an expert on Jewish Literature.


Ancient town in Israel in the northern Negev, where Abraham dug a well and planted a tamarisk tree and where the biblical tribes of Israel gathered. Currently the site of Ben-Gurion University. In Roman and Byzantine times it was a prosperous station on the route from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Under Arab rule it declined, and during the 1948 Israeli War of Liberation it was a market town of about 3,000 Arabs, who fled after the Israeli occupation. Since then, it has developed into a bustling town of 375,000 residents, and has become the administrative center of the Negev. To this day, one can still see Bedouins riding their camels near Beersheba.

BEGIN, MENACHEM (1913-1992).

Israeli statesman, born in Russia. He received a nationalist-religious education and studied law in Warsaw. As a teenager, he became a devoted follower of Jabotinsky and an active member of the Betar, or Revisionist Zionist, youth movement. In 1939, on the eve of World War II, he was commander of Betar in Poland. In 1940, he was arrested by the Soviet secret police for his Zionist activities and sent to a Russian jail. Freed in 1942, he made his way to Palestine. A gifted orator, writer, and organizer, he became the commander of the Irgun Z’vai L’umi (IZL) in 1943, and led this underground organization in its fight against British rule. The IZL sought to sabotage British installations and speed up the termination of the British Mandate, without causing unnecessary loss of life.

After the establishment of Israel, Begin and his followers founded the Herut party (See Revisionist Zionism), a right-wing, strongly nationalist faction which he led in the Knesset for three decades. On the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967 he joined the National Unity Government as a minister without portfolio but left the cabinet in 1970 over a disagreement on foreign policy with Premier Golda Meir. In 1973, he became the leader of the Likud bloc which, led by Herut, opposed the Labor alignment. In May 1977, after almost 30 years in the opposition, Begin became Israel’s first non-socialist prime minister. He was the first Israeli chief of state to make peace with an Arab leader when he invited Egyptian President Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977. He subsequently participated in the Camp David talks with President Carter, which led to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1983, disappointed over the outcome of the Lebanon War, he resigned as prime minister and went into retirement. Until his death in 1992, he stayed away from public life.

BEILIS, MENDEL (1874-1934).

Central figure in a notorious ritual murder trial in 1913 in Kiev, Russia. Beilis, a worker in a brick kiln, was accused of murdering a Russian boy whose body had been found near the kiln in March 1911. Although an investigation soon established that the boy had been murdered by non-Jewish thieves, the “Beilis Affair” dragged on for more than two years. The government of Czarist Russia stepped in and accused Beilis of committing this crime to use the boy’s blood in the baking of matzos for Passover. To discredit the Jewish people, the antisemitic Russian government revived the centuries-old yet preposterous belief that Jews use Christian blood for such ritual purposes. The atmosphere surrounding the trial was charged with hate. Russian “experts” gave false testimony, and the judges and jury were prejudiced. Yet Beilis was acquitted thanks to his brilliant team of defense lawyers and because of international protests of the trial. Shortly after his acquittal, Beilis settled in Palestine, where he lived for eight years. He came to the U.S. in 1924 and lived there until his death in 1934 at Saratoga Springs.


Jewish history in Belgium before and during the Middle Ages is not a happy one. In 1370, after the Black Death, the brutal Brussels Massacre wiped out the Belgian Jewish community. Jewish life did not flourish until the beginning of the 18th century, when Belgium became part of Austria, subsequently of France and the Netherlands. In 1830, when Belgium was granted independence, religious equality was established, and for first time Jews were able to have their own communal organization with a chief rabbinate in Brussels.

When the Allied armies entered Belgium in late 1944, they found 19,000 Jewish survivors. These were the remnants of a community numbering 100,000 before the Nazi occupation. Another 30,000 survived by escaping, being hidden by Belgian neighbors, or by having false documents. In 2006, there were about 31,000 Jews living in Belgium, mainly in Brussels and Antwerp. The majority of Antwerp Jews work in the diamond industry. It is the center of Orthodox Jewry, while Brussels Jewry is mostly non-Orthodox. The Zionist Federation of Belgium is the only organized Jewish body conducting cultural, educational, and social programs on a nationwide basis. The federation’s biweekly paper is the Tribune Sioniste, the only Jewish publication in Belgium.

BELLOW, SAUL (1915-2005).

Leading American novelist, born in Canada. Bellow’s novels, mainly The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog (the main character, Moses Herzog, has strong Jewish roots), established him as one of the finest observers of the predicament of modern man, and won him the Nobel Prize in Literature.

BEN-GURION, DAVID (1886-1973).

Pioneer builder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister. Born David Gruen in Poland, he inherited from his father a strong love for Zion into which he blended his own socialist ideals. In 1903, at age 17, he was already one of the founders of the Socialist Zionist Party, Poale Zion, in Poland. Even as a youth, he manifested great determination to fulfill his ideals, and pursued his aims with unusual courage.

In 1906, at 20, Ben-Gurion went to Palestine where he worked as a common laborer, experiencing all the hardships of the young pioneer. He became active in the Galilee, which had scarcely been opened for Jewish colonization. Work was hard, and the danger of Arab attacks lurked everywhere. Ben-Gurion led in founding the Jewish self-defense movement, and took an active part in organizing the Socialist Zionist worker’s movement. When Turkey, which then ruled over Palestine, entered World War I, Ben-Gurion was expelled from Palestine. He came to the U.S. where he helped found the American Jewish Congress and organized the Jewish Legion, which he joined as a private. In 1921, he returned to Palestine and became general secretary of the Histadrut, or General Federation of Labor, participating at the same time in other Zionist activities. In 1933, he was elected to the Executive of the World Zionist Organization, and from 1940 on he acted as chairman.

Ben-Gurion played a decisive role in the struggle for the establishment of the State of Israel. Despite heavy pressure from the U.S. Department of State to postpone the proclamation of independence for Israel, he was largely instrumental in bringing it off as scheduled on May 14, 1948. As prime minister and minister of defense during the formative years of the state, he may be credited with many of its achievements. His scholarly articles and orations served the movement for years in clarifying Zionist ideals and aims. During his pioneering days, he wrote, “A land is built only by pioneers who know how to give their lives to realize their ideals.” He became the embodiment of this pioneering spirit. Ben-Gurion retired at age 67 to the isolation of the Negev, but returned to assume leadership in 1955. He initiated the Sinai Campaign. He retired from the premiership in 1963 and was succeeded by Levi Eshkol. In 1965, he broke away from Mapai and formed Rafi, or Israel Labor List. He resigned from the Knesset in 1970 and retired to his kibbutz, S’de Boker, where he engaged in study and writing until his death.

BEN SIRA (ca. 200 B.C.E.).

Joshua ben Simeon ben Eliezer ben Sira or Sirach. Author of a book of proverbs, Ben Sira lived in Jerusalem. The Book of Ben Sira, part of the Hebrew Wisdom Literature, presents through its proverbs an interesting record of Jewish social life of that time. It includes praise of the high priest’s function and of the Temple ritual. Originally written in Hebrew, the book was translated into Greek by a descendant of Ben Sira around 132 B.C.E. During the Middle Ages the Hebrew and Aramaic versions were lost. Finally in 1896, most of the original Hebrew text was discovered by Solomon Schechter among the fragments of the Cairo Genizah.

BEN YEHUDA, ELIEZER (1858-1922).

Father of the modern Hebrew language, Ben Yehuda’s life was an example of single-minded devotion to a cause: the revival of the ancient Hebrew language.

At the age of 19, Ben Yehuda left Lithuania, where he had been brought up in a traditional environment, to study medicine in Paris. At first he was attracted to socialism. Later, the struggle of the Balkan countries to gain their independence made him aware of the need for a Jewish national homeland. In 1880, Ben Yehuda decided to settle in Jerusalem where he immediately set out to realize his cherished ideal of adapting the Hebrew language to daily use. He was subjected to ridicule by many people who considered theIt took Ben Yehuda many years of persistent work to convince the skeptics that Hebrew could be revived. His home was the first in Palestine in which Hebrew was the only language spoken.

Ben Yehuda concentrated all his efforts on his monumental lifework: The Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, Old and New, which appeared initially in fifteen volumes. The sixteenth and seventeenth volumes appeared in 1959. Numerous words for daily use were coined by Ben Yehuda and became part of modern Hebrew. Ben Yehuda also published newspapers, composed textbooks for Hebrew schools, and was one of the founders of the Committee for the Hebrew language, now the Academy for the Hebrew Language.

BEN-ZVI, YITZHAK (1885-1963).

Second president of Israel, born in the Ukraine. At age 18 he went to Palestine. Upon his return to Russia in 1905, the year of widespread pogroms in many parts of Russia, he joined Ber Borochov in establishing the Socialist Zionist party, Poale Zion. The Tsarist government, troubled by revolutions, found the Jews a convenient scapegoat and in many cases actually encouraged attacks upon them. Ben-Zvi, along with his father and brother, helped organize Jewish self-defense units. The Russian police exiled the entire Ben-Zvi family to Siberia, but Yitzhak succeeded in eluding his captors and escaped from Russia. For about two years he engaged in intensive Zionist work in Germany and Switzerland. In 1907, he finally reached his destination Palestine. On his arrival, Ben-Zvi immediately became a spokesman for and leader of the Jewish workers in Palestine. He was among the founders of Hashomer, the earliest Jewish defense force in modern Palestine. During World War I he accompanied David Ben-Gurion to America, where he organized first the Hehalutz, or pioneer movement, and later the Jewish Legion, which fought with the British for the liberation of Palestine from Turkish rule. After the war, he returned to Palestine, where he participated in the establishment of the Histadrut, the Palestine Workers Union, and Knesset Yisrael, the organized Jewish community of Palestine. For fourteen years, from 1931 to 1945, Ben-Zvi was head of the Vaad Leumi, or National Council, the executive arm and official representative body of Palestine Jewry. With the establishment of Israel, Ben Zvi became a member of the Knesset, the state’s parliament. In 1953, he succeeded Chaim Weizmann as the second President of the State of Israel.

In addition to his political and communal activities, Ben-Zvi devoted a great deal of time to scholarly studies and writing. His books on the history of the Jews in the Holy Land and on the different ethnic groups that made up Palestine Jewry are regarded as authoritative and exhaustive studies. His wife, Rahel Yanait Ben Zvi (1884-1979), was a well-known Labor Zionist leader, pioneer, and educator in her own right.


Blessings addressed to God. Tradition ascribes them to the 120 elders of the Great Assembly in the time of Ezra. A total of 100 benedictions was to be recited daily. They are categorized into four groups: First, before sensory pleasures (tasting food or drink or enjoyment of a perfume); Second, for the privilege of fulfilling a mitzvah; Third, praising divine goodness upon hearing good or bad news, witnessing the wonders of nature, and giving thanks upon deliverance from sickness or danger (birkat hagomel), or upon joyous occasions and seasonal holidays (shehecheyanu); Fourth, during the daily prayers, such as the Shmone Esre, or 18 Benedictions, which include petitions for personal well-being and the welfare of the Jewish people in addition to blessings of praise and thanksgiving.


Literally, son of the right hand, of good fortune. Jacob‘s twelfth and youngest son; Rachel died giving birth to him. Founder of the warlike tribe of Benjamin that settled on a stretch of land reaching up from the river Jordan toward the hills of Jerusalem. Saul, the first king of Israel, was a Benjaminite.


(12th century). Merchant and traveler, often called the “Jewish Marco Polo.” He started out from Saragossa, Spain, in 1160 and spent 13 years traveling around the then-known world. He kept a lively diary in Hebrew, recording detailed descriptions of Jewish life in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. The first English translation in 1840 of his journeys is highly esteemed for the historical and geographical light it sheds on the far away and little known Orient of that time. Benjamin’s vivid descriptions are particularly valuable because they include information on several peoples that disappeared completely once conquered by the Tatars.


Hebrew novelist and essayist. Born in Ukraine, he studied at the Yeshiva of Volozin and later at the University of Berlin. He was critical of Jewish religious tradition, which he found stifling, and under the influence of the German philosopher Nietzsche, he advocated a new approach to Judaism, emphasizing life and nature. Under the pen name Micah Joseph Ben-Gorion, he published twenty volumes. In his novels and short stories, he deals chiefly with small-town people, describing their struggles and passions with a mixture of realism and fable. His Hasidic tales and collections of Midrashic legends constitute a rich contribution to Hebrew letters.

BERENSON, BERNARD (1865-1959).

One of the world’s leading art historians. He was born in Lithuania, educated in the U.S., and lived in Italy where he embraced the Christian faith. His work includes Italian Painters of the Renaissance.


See Genesis.


Nazi concentration camp near Hanover, Germany, established by the Nazis in July 1943. Originally intended for Jews whom the German government wished to exchange for Germans in Allied territories, it became one of the infamous death camps. Anne Frank was among the victims of Bergen Belsen. The camp was liberated by the British on April 15, 1945. (See also Holocaust; World Federation of Bergen Belsen Associations.)


One of the great philosophers of the 20th century, Bergson was a French Jew removed from Judaism. His book Creative Evolution influenced many creative minds of his time. In 1927, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. When the Nazis occupied France, he protested against the antisemitic legislation they introduced.

See Sports.

BERLIN, IRVING (1888-1989).

One of the leading American songwriters of the 20th century (God Bless America, White Christmas), Berlin was born in Russia to a Jewish cantor. Without formal musical education, he managed to write more than 1,000 melodies, many of which have become American classics.

BERNHARDT, SARAH (1844-1923).

Known as the “Divine Sarah,” Bernhardt was the most famous actress in France in her day, and is still considered one of the great actresses of all time.


Composer, conductor, and pianist. Born in Lawrence, Mass., of middle-class Jewish parents, Bernstein was educated at Harvard University and embarked early on a musical career. At age 25 he became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. A year later he was named conductor of the New York City Symphony Orchestra. In 1948, he became musical director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducting for soldiers at the front during Israel’s War of Liberation.

Bernstein’s numerous compositions, ranging from symphonies to scores for successful Broadway musicals (West Side Story), include a number of works based on traditional Jewish motifs. His first symphony, Jeremiah, is a moving score based on the cantillation for the Book of Lamentations; his synagogue music has similarly rendered age-old melodic material with modern techniques. He was professor of music at Brandeis University, head of the conducting department at the Berkshire Music Center, and conductor of the New York Philharmonic.


A noted Talmudic scholar, Bertinoro served as rabbi in several Italian communities. At age 36 he decided to go to Palestine. In Jerusalem he organized about 70 Jewish families into a community. With the arrival of exiles from Spain, the community grew rapidly in numbers and prestige. Bertinoro’s letters describing conditions in Palestine are of great historic importance. He is, however, best known for his commentary on the Mishnah. Its clarity of language and style and its comprehensive presentation made it one of the most popular commentaries on that work.


Second letter of the Hebrew alphabet; numerically, two.


Literally, “court of law.” The term dates back to post-biblical times. Today it refers to a rabbinical court, where personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and conversion, are decided. Historically, Jews have voluntarily resorted to a bet din to settle financial and other disputes which they preferred not to bring before a state court. In Israel, the bet din or the rabbinical court handles personal issues, while the state legal system handles all other matters.


Literally, House of Study. Used to designate study halls for Jewish learning, the term is also used to describe one of the functions of the synagogue in Jewish life.


The two schools of thought, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai represented the followers of two contemporary tannaim, or sages of the 1st century. Hillel was moderate, seeking compromise and accommodation. Shamai was the strict interpreter of the law, who refused to bend on many issues of Jewish law. In time, the views of Bet Hillel prevailed in most cases.


See Bar Kokhba.

See Revisionist Zionism.


Town in the Judean hills south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem was the setting of the Book of Ruth, the home of David, and, according to New Testament tradition the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The architectural beauty of the Basilica, the Church of the Nativity, built in the 4th century, is still preserved. As the most important Christian shrine, Bethlehem is visited by many thousands of pilgrims, especially at Christmas time. Its population of about 22,000 consists mainly of Christian Arabs, in whose dress and features the influence of the Crusaders has been preserved. The holiest Jewish site in Bethlehem is the Tomb of Rachel. Under the Oslo Agreement, the town was put under Palestinian Authority rule.

BETTELHEIM, BRUNO (1903-1990).

World-renowned American child psychologist and educator. Born in Vienna, he spent a year in a Nazi concentration camp before he was released to go to the U.S. He wrote about this experience, and in later writings dealt with many other areas of human experience. His book Children of the Dream is a study of kibbutz-raised Israeli children.


School founded in Jerusalem in 1906 by the sculptor Boris Schatz for the development of the arts, home industry, and crafts in Palestine. It is named after Bezalel, chief architect of the Tabernacle (Exod. 31:1-6 and 35:30).

The school is closely associated with the Bezalel section of the Israel Museum, which contains a large selection of Jewish art objects and reproductions, many of which tour every corner of Israel. The Bezalel School is supported by the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) and the American Fund for Israel Institutions. In international art competitions, Bezalel students have received an average of twenty prizes a year.


One of the greatest Hebrew poets of modern times, Bialik is considered the national poet of Israel. At age 11, he had already studied Jewish philosophic works, concentrating on the Talmud. At 16, he entered the famous Yeshiva of Volozhin in Lithuania. Later, in one of his poems he immortalized the yeshiva student, or matmid, who dedicated himself to study, excluding all worldly matters from his thoughts. During the year he spent in Volozhin, the young Bialik drew closer to Zionism and to modern Hebrew literature. When the Russian government closed the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1891, he went to Odessa in southern Russia, drawn by its flourishing Hebrew literary center. In an anthology called Ha-Pardes, Bialik published his first poem, El Hatzipor, or “To the Bird,” expressing his boundless love for the old-new Zion. Other poems followed. His outstanding talent immediately impressed his readers. Here was poetry, deeply personal, yet touching the soul of the Jewish people. Like the ancient prophets, Bialik rebuked his people and exposed their weaknesses in fiery and sharp-edged verses. Yet the poet inspired the Jewish masses with hope, pride, and self-respect. His poem The City of Slaughter, written after the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, roused the younger generation to take up arms in self-defense. Bialik linked the past with the present in his poetic works. Drawing upon the rich sources of Jewish creativity, he gave new power and meaning to age-old traditions and ideals. He imparted unusual beauty and charm to folk themes, and created wonderful poems for children. In essays and stories, he was a master of Hebrew prose. He assumed a leading role in Jewish cultural life, a symbol of the national revival. At his magic touch, the Hebrew language became a vital cultural force. Together with his life-long friend J.C. Ravnitzky, Bialik popularized the rich treasury of the Talmudic and Midrashic legend, the Aggadah. In addition to poems, stories, and Talmudic legends he collected in Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Bialik wrote biblical legends in Vayehi ha-Yom, or “It Came to Pass,” recapturing their ancient charm and humor. He translated into Hebrew such classics as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Schiller’s Wilhelm Tel.

Bialik was beloved and revered while yet in Russia. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he was forced to leave the country and went to Germany. In 1924, he settled in Palestine. His home in Tel Aviv on a street now named after him became a place of pilgrimage for Hebrew writers. In 1929, Bialik visited America, and was received with acclaim. During the last years of his life, as editor, publisher, and critic, he became the guiding spirit of every Hebrew cultural and literary activity. He participated actively in the work of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Committee for the Hebrew Language. The Oneg Shabbat gatherings in Tel Aviv, over which Bialik presided, became a celebrated institution. His home in Tel Aviv has been preserved as a cultural center. Mossad Bialik, one of the foremost publishing houses in Israel, and Bialik prizes for the best in Hebrew literature are symbolic monuments to his memory. The 21st day of Tammuz, the date of his death, is observed as a national memorial day in Israel.


From the Greek biblia, meaning books. In Hebrew TaNaKh, meaning Torah, Prophets, Writings. The Hebrew Bible came to have many names: the Holy Scriptures, the Book of Books, the Old Testament, Divine Revelation.

Canon. Sometime during the 1st century, the final decision was made as to which sacred books were to be considered part of the biblical canon, also known as the Holy Scriptures. The word “canon,” meaning standard, that was applied by scholars to the holy books, comes from the Greek kanones, meaning models of excellence.

Influence of the Bible. For Jews, the Bible has been the source of life, growth, and survival. They read in it the record of their people’s spiritual progress, from Abraham, the first to reject polytheism, to the prophets’ momentous vision of God as the loving Father of all creation. When the Jews were expelled from Palestine and became wanderers, the Bible became a way of life and a Jewish “portable homeland.”

The influence of the Bible was not limited to Judaism, but has extended to two other religions: Christianity and Islam. Mohammed, the creator of Islam, was so deeply influenced by the Bible that at first he thought of himself as a new prophet of Judaism. His mind was so filled with biblical stories that he traced his descent to Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar. The theology of the Koran, the sacred book of Islam, shows Mohammed’s debt to the Bible and to Judaism. As Mohammedanism spread, the Bible influenced many people in the East.

Christianity took over the Hebrew Bible and added the New Testament. As Western civilization took shape, it absorbed the Hebrew Old Testament ideas. Biblical ideas


Movement formed after the pogroms of 1881 in Russia; composed mainly of university students who became the first pioneers to go to Palestine. The name “Bilu” is an abbreviation of the Hebrew words Bet Yaakov Lechu Venelcha


Literally, elevated platform or stage; the bimah is situated in the front of the synagogue or temple (in the Sephardic synagogue, it is in the center) sanctuary, where the service is conducted and the Torah is read.


. See Prayer.


Taglit; literally, discovery. Founded in 2000 by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, Taglit-Birthright Israel is a program that offers college students free educational trips to Israel. The program has been enormously successful, having sent already tens of thousands of young Jews to Israel, and has begun to have a major impact on the commitment of young diaspora Jews to the Jewish state.


See Passover.

BLOCH, ERNEST (1880-1959).

Composer. Son of a Geneva clockmaker, Ernest Bloch studied in his native Switzerland and in Germany. Macbeth, an opera performed in Paris in 1910, gained him immediate critical acclaim. In 1916, he came to the U.S. where he spent the rest of his life. A large part of Bloch’s work, distinguished by passionate intensity of feeling and free play of melody, has been devoted to compositions on Jewish themes. These included Israel, a symphony; the Baal Shem Suite; Schelomo; and Avodat Hakodesh (Sacred Service), an oratorio based on the Sabbath synagogue service. Even his works with non-Jewish themes

BLOCK, HERBERT (1909-2001).

Known as “Herblock.” Leading American political cartoonist, whose cartoons have been appearing in the Washington Post since the end of World War II.


The false charge that Jews use Gentile blood in connection with holiday rituals, particularly on Passover. This falsehood has been hurled at Jews in various places since the 12th century. Though popes, Christian scholars, and judges have denounced the suggestion of such an act, about 200 cases of this accusation exist on record. Often, Jews were tortured to make them “confess their guilt.” As late as the 19th century, 39 such cases occurred in Europe and in the Near East. One of the most notorious cases of blood libel was the Beilis case in 1911. In 1928, this accusation turned up in the U.S., when a Christian child disappeared in Massena, N.Y. Some officials asked the rabbi whether ritual slaying was part of the Yom Kippur observance. This case so shocked the nation that the organization later to be known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews issued a statement declaring, “There is no custom


American businessman, philanthropist, founder of the company Bloomberg LP. He enter politics, and was elected as the 108th mayor of New York City. A Republican, he served three terms. leaving office in 2013.


Far-Eastern province of the former Soviet Union, north of Manchukuo, bordering the Amur River. The region was set aside by the Soviet government for Jewish colonization on March 28, 1928. On May 7, 1934, Birobidjan was officially declared an autonomous Jewish region. Yiddish was to be the official language of the area in all educational, cultural, and legal institutions. Jewish communists and communist sympathizers around the world hailed the project as a great Soviet contribution to the solution of the Jewish problem. However, the experiment proved unsuccessful. In contrast to Israel, this desolate region held no national appeal to the masses of Jews. Information about Jewish life in Birobidjan is currently difficult to obtain. However, it is estimated that of the 40,000 original settlers, about 4,200 Jews remain, a small minority of the total population. After World War II, no effort was made to reestablish a Jewish autonomous region in Birobidjan. The Yiddish schools have been eliminated and only one synagogue remains, without a rabbi.

BLUM, LEON (1872-1950).

French statesman, three-time premier of France, socialist leader, and writer. Blum’s father was a wealthy Alsatian merchant whose four sons grew up with a good Jewish background. Young Leon studied law, and by the age of 22 was a distinguished poet and writer. The Dreyfus case stirred Blum deeply, and he became active in the defense of the Jewish officer accused of treason by the French Army. In the course of this work in 1896, he met Jean Jaures, famous leader of the French Socialists. Under his influence, Blum joined the Socialist movement, and by the end of World War I he had become the outstanding leader of the Socialist party. From 1919 onward, Blum served in the Chamber of Deputies almost continuously. From 1936 to June 1937 and again in 1938, he was premier of France.

Under the threat of the growing Nazi power in Germany, the French Socialist Party joined the Communists in a Popular Front coalition during the late 1930’s. Blum successfully opposed all efforts at a merger with the Communists. During World War II, when Nazi Germany ruled France through the puppet Vichy government, Blum was imprisoned and brought to trial for treason in Riom. With remarkable courage, Leon Blum faced his accusers as “a Socialist among Fascists, a Jew among antisemites,” and turned accuser himself. He showed so effectively that the appeasers were the real traitors of France that the Vichy government stopped the trial. Blum was transferred from the French prison to a German concentration camp; at the approach of the Allied armies, he was sent to a camp in Italy. Then in his seventies, he managed to stay alive until the Allied victory brought his freedom in 1945. France immediately put him into public service again, and in the spring of 1946, he came to the U.S. on a mission for his country. In December of that year, he again became premier of France. Leon Blum always identified himself closely with Jewish causes and repeatedly aided Zionism. In 1929 in Zurich, he participated in forming the enlarged Jewish Agency for Palestine. The halutzim of Palestine were grateful to Leon Blum. On November 10, 1943, while he was behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp, a kibbutz in northern Galilee was named after him: Kfar Blum.


See Rachel.