Tag Archives: Russian 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: Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz

Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz

Ze’ev Wolf Yavetz (1847-1924) was born in what is now Kolno, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) to a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family. A noted scholar from a young age, he became a distinguished historian, linguist, writer, and teacher. When he was 40, Rabbi Yavetz made aliyah to the Holy Land with his family and joined the Yehud moshava, where he worked in a vineyard. Shortly after, he was hired by Baron Edmond de Rothschild to head the new Rothschild-funded school in Zikhron Ya’akov. (Zikhron Ya’akov was one of the first modern Jewish settlements in Israel, founded by Edmond de Rothschild in 1882, and named after his father Ya’akov “James” Rothschild.) In 1890, when the holiday of Tu b’Shevat came around, Rabbi Yavetz wanted to do something meaningful with his students in honour of the Jewish “new year for trees”. So, he took his class on a tree-planting trip. This turned into a yearly tradition, and was soon adopted by neighbouring schools and villages. Eventually, the Jewish National Fund adopted the custom, too, and to this day over a million Jews participate in the JNF’s Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive each year. In all, the JNF has planted over 260 million trees in Israel, making it the only country in the world to have increased its tree population in the last century. Meanwhile, Rabbi Yavetz joined the Hebrew Language Committee (famously founded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) and helped to develop the modern Hebrew tongue. He coined a number of modern Hebrew words, including tarbut and kvish. Unlike other Zionists, Rabbi Yavetz never abandoned his faith, and worked hard to ensure Jews in Israel observe Torah law, and live like their ancestors. For this reason, he was a co-founder of the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement. (The more well-known Bnei Akiva organization is the youth arm of Mizrachi.) Mizrachi would go on to establish Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, ensure that Israeli government kitchens keep kashrut, and that public services rest on Shabbat. Mizrachi also had a political party, which had many names over the years, and is now known as HaBayit HaYehudi (“The Jewish Home”). Rabbi Yavetz spent the last years of his life in London, where he wrote a monumental 14-volume history of the Jewish people called Toldot Israel. Today, a school in Zikhron Ya’akov is named after him, as is the village of Kfar Yavetz.

Happy Tu b’Shevat!

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Words of the Week

… from the most inhospitable soil, surrounded on every side by barrenness and the most miserable form of cultivation, I was driven into a fertile and thriving country estate where the scanty soil gave place to good crops and cultivation, and then vineyards and finally to the most beautiful, luxurious orange groves, all created in 20 or 30 years by the exertions of the Jewish community who live there.
– Winston Churchillreporting to Parliament after visiting Rishon LeZion in 1921