Tag Archives: Lithuanian Jews

Jew of the Week: David Wolffsohn

The Man Who Created the Flag of Israel

David Wolffsohn (1856-1914) was born to a poor, religious Jewish family in the Lithuanian-Polish town of Darbenai (then part of Russia). His father was a Torah scholar and teacher, and Wolffsohn, too, was learning in yeshiva with the same goal in mind. In his teens, he was sent to live with relatives in Germany to avoid being conscripted to the Russian army. There, he met the rabbi, philosopher, and early Zionist leader Isaac Rülf, and became his devoted disciple. Meanwhile, Wolffsohn took up secular studies and went on to apprentice at a trading company. In 1877, he started his own flouring business, and was soon one of the most prominent Jewish businessmen in Europe. Henceforth, he dedicated his life to realizing that ancient dream of his people’s return to Israel. He played a key role within the Hovevei Zion movement, and in 1894 was a cofounder of the Society for the Promotion and Support of Jewish Agriculture in Syria and Palestine. When Herzl’s The Jewish State was published two years later, Wolffsohn immediately journeyed to Vienna to meet him. The two became very close and traveled the Holy Land together, setting the foundations for what would become the State of Israel. Not surprisingly, when the World Zionist Congress was founded, Herzl was made its president and Wolffsohn its vice-president. Upon Herzl’s death shortly after, Wolffsohn succeeded him. As president, he was instrumental in reinvigorating Jewish life in the Holy Land (among other things, it was under his tenure that the city of Tel-Aviv was founded). However, Wolffsohn is most famous for being the one who created the flag of modern Israel. Back in 1896, Herzl had written: “We have no flag, and we need one. If we desire to lead many men, we must raise a symbol above their heads. I would suggest a white flag, with seven golden stars…” Herzl’s proposal was good, but his flag gained little support. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl thus: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The talit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this talit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations…” Wolffsohn designed a simple flag with blue talit-like stripes and a star of David in the centre. The flag caught on quickly, and the rest is history.

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Words of the Week

What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life…
– Albert Einstein

The traditional design of the talit inspired the modern flag of Israel.

Jew of the Week: Hermann Schapira

Founder of the Jewish National Fund

Zvi Hermann Hirsch Schapira (1840-1898) was born to a religious Russian-Jewish family in a small Lithuanian village. He studied to become a rabbi and at age 24 was appointed to his first post. However, he soon decided to pursue his passion for the sciences and ended up studying at a Berlin academy. Three years later, he settled in Odessa and worked for several years as a merchant. In 1878, Schapira moved to Heidelburg and spent another four years studying math and physics, during which time he earned his doctorate. He became a math professor at the University of Heidelburg, and published several important papers. Throughout this time, he continued studying Jewish literature, and contributed to three Hebrew periodicals. By 1884, Shapira was a vocal Zionist, and suggested the establishment of a Jewish National Fund which would buy land in Israel and help settle Jews there. He formally proposed the idea to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, where he also suggested the establishment of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Tragically, Schapira died the following year from pneumonia. The Jewish National Fund would finally be launched three years later, and it would take another two decades before the Hebrew University would open its doors. The JNF would go on to become one of the most important organizations in Israel’s history, and instrumental in the nascent state’s success. It purchased over 50% of Israel’s landmass, developed over 250,000 acres of its land, planted some 260 million trees, built nearly 200 dams and reservoirs, and established over 1000 parks. The JNF also played a key role in the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909, and in running Israel’s first postal service. It still owns about 13% of Israel’s land, and in the past decade alone, helped Israel expand its water capacity by 7%. The JNF is perhaps most famous for its Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive, which over a million Jews participate in every year.

Happy Tu b’Shevat!

Words of the Week

When God created the first man, He showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him: “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
– Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)