Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

It is still dark in the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 8, 1981, as I slip quietly out of the house to travel to New York City, where I will daven atop the World Trade Center and watch the daily miracle of the sun slowly rising over the city in all its glory. But this particular sunrise is special: this morning, I will be joining Jews all over the world in reciting Birkat HaChamah, the most infrequent of all Jewish prayers. It is recited only once every 28 years, on the day when the sun completes a 28-year solar cycle and returns to the precise position in the firmament where it was initially established by G-d on the Fourth Day of Creation, a restaging of the heavens as they were at the dawn of time.

I take the elevator up to the Observation Deck with my fellow Jews, each silently carrying his tallit and tefillin and lost in thought. It is almost impossible not to be deeply moved by both the wonder and the rarity of this mitzvah. When we step out on the deck, there is just the glimmer of light appearing over the East River, but no sight of the sun yet.

Entrance ticket to Birkat HaChamah services at the World Trade Center (April 8, 1981).

The davening began at 6:30 a.m. sharp, and it remains one of those tefillot that I will never forget. It turned out to be a remarkably beautiful day, with the guest of honor making its appearance right on schedule and dazzling one and all. My only regret is that I forgot to take my camera (and no cell phones at the time!), so the sights of that day will have to live on only in my memory. Fortunately, however, I did manage to hold on to what has become a remarkable keepsake of that morning: displayed here is what may well be the only surviving admission ticket to the 1981 Birkat HaChamah services atop the World Trade Center sponsored by the Wall Street Synagogue. I still get a chill whenever I hold it.

After the service, nobody seemed to want to leave. Some of the older men were telling grand tales of where they were and what it was like attending previous Birkat HaChamah ceremonies, but the story that I will never forget was told by a 92-year white-bearded rabbi, who merited to attend his fourth(!) such service. He described in detail how, as an 8-year-old, he was woken up in the middle of the night to join his family and all the Jews in his little town in Czechoslovakia as they walked together in the dark down to the river, where they stood in the morning chill waiting for the sun. As he shut his piercing grey eyes and began chanting a portion of the service from memory, we could all sense that he was actually transported back there through time and space… and the best part was that he was taking us with him.

Before leaving for my office, I pondered the famous thought expressed by the Aruch La’ner, Rav Jacob Ettlinger, upon reciting Birkat HaChamah in 1841: “How much the world has changed since I pronounced this praise for G-d’s creation 28 years ago, and how will it look another 28 years from now?” I remember thinking that “with G-d’s help, wherever in the world I happen to be in April 2009, I will do anything and everything within my power to return here to experience this again. Then, I will be the “senior citizen” (well, almost) who can tell the others what it was like to stand atop the World Trade Center 28 years ago, and I will tell them the story of the grey-eyed rabbi who was a child from Czechoslovakia….

As we now all know, it was not to be. And the world did, indeed, look very different in 2009. For one thing, the World Trade Center was gone.

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The World Trade Center in New York in 1981 and an unnamed Czechoslovakian river in 1897 are only two of the myriad times and places when this rarest of all blessings has been recited and celebrated. Exhibited here is a selection of Birkat HaChamah prayer pamphlets from my collection, and it is truly fascinating to contemplate the Jewish communities from around the world that davened from these booklets and to consider their status as Jews at the time.


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Jewish families, who were present in Reggio since the beginning of the 14th century, largely arrived from other parts of Italy and, beginning with the end of the 15th century, from the Iberian Peninsula because of the harsh persecution. The Jewish community settled in Reggio Emilia, an important Jewish cultural center. The ghetto was officially established in 1555 pursuant to Pope Paul IV’s vile, Jew-hating bull, Com nimis absurdum but, notwithstanding the antisemitism of Catholic Church, the Jews exercised relative autonomy, maintaining their own government, rabbinical court, hospital, and school. The Ghetto was freed by Napoleon’s troops in the early 19th century, only a few years before the Jewish community issued this Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here in 1813.


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Archeological discoveries in Tangier of ceramic pieces decorated with menorahs date back to the Carthaginian era, placing Jews there to a time immediately after the destruction of the First Beit HaMikdash. Jewish refugees fleeing Visigoth persecutions during the 5th and 6th centuries brought culture, industry and commerce to Tangier, and the Jews lived in peace for the next several centuries until they were utterly wiped out by the Almohades in 1148, and the few Jews who tried to return were slaughtered in the Inquisition. The next wave of Jews to settle in Tangier arrived in 1661, when the Portuguese ceded control to the British but, when the English abandoned the city in 1684, virtually all the Jews departed. In 1725, Moses Maman of Meknes, who was the Sultan’s treasurer, encouraged important Jewish merchants to return to Tangier, and it was this newborn Jewish community that issued this Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here in 1897.

Warsaw (1897).

Jews, who first settled in Warsaw during the 14th century, were expelled from the city in 1483 and were officially banned from the city until 1572, when they were again permitted to enter Warsaw. However, Jews were not permitted to have an authorized Jewish community until the Prussian conquest in 1795, when the Prussians permitted only Jews who had lived in Warsaw prior to 1796 to remain there. Three years after Napolean liberated the city in 1806, a Warsaw Jewish quarter was established, but only Jewish bankers, merchants, manufacturers, and doctors were permitted to live there – and then only if their children attended general schools. In the wake of the Russian pogroms, including particularly the great pogrom of 1881, large numbers of Jews migrated to Warsaw from Eastern Europe. A year before the Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here was published in 1897, there were over 400 yeshivot/cheders operating in Warsaw while, at the same time, the “Enlightenment” caused Warsaw to have the highest rate of conversion to Christianity in all Eastern Europe.

Kolomyia, Ukraine (1897).

Jews first settled in Kołomyia, then part of Poland, at about the turn of the sixteenth century and, although most were slaughtered during the infamous Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-1649, the Jewish community reestablished itself and numbered more than 1,000 after the July 5, 1772 Treaty of St. Petersburg, when Austria assumed control of the city from Polish control and made it part of the new province of Galicia. Jews, most of whom remained Orthodox, were involved in virtually all aspects of trade and industry, including particularly lumbering, and they played a leading role in Kolomyia politics after Jewish emancipation in 1867-1868. By 1897, when the Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here was published, the city had emerged as the center of both the nascent Yiddish press and the Galician Zionist movement, and the Jewish community boasted a Great Synagogue and about 30 other synagogues.


The history of the Jews of Tlemcen is marked by persecution and murder. It is likely that Jews have lived there since the 10th century, and there is evidence that there was a significant community there during the 11th century until the Almohad conquest of the town in 1146. Jews began to settle there again in 1248 and they lived in relative peace until persecution by the Muslim brotherhood in 1467 led to many Jews fleeing, but many Spanish refugees settled there in 1492 and the city evolved into a center of Torah study. In 1517, however, the Turks pillaged the city, destroyed Jewish property, and humiliated the Jews by forcing the Jews to wear self-identifying headgear.


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In 1541, the Christian armies of Spanish Emperor Charles V massacred the city and enslaved the Jewish survivors (their fellow Jews in Fez and Oran would pay a ransom to redeem them), but the Jewish community was again sacked by the Turks in 1670. When the French conquered Tlemcen in 1830, they found 1,585 Jews and five synagogues, but the Muslims slaughtered Jews in yet another pogrom in 1846. The Jews again rebuilt, and in 1870, the Crémieux Decree granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews. Nonetheless, antisemitism increased, although it did not take the form of extreme mass violence until pre-WWII, and it was in this environment that the Jews of Tlemcen gathered to recite Birkat HaChamah in 1897.

Frankfurt am Main, Germany (1925).

There was a Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main as far back as the 12th century, when a small group of Jewish merchants from Worms settled in the town and became prosperous until 1241, when the refusal of the Jews to convert to Christianity led to a pogrom when more than three-quarters of the city’s 200 residents were murdered. When Emperor Frederick II realized the adverse impact on the German economy, he imposed strict penalties against Jewish attackers, and the Jews returned in 1570 and thrived until they were blamed for the Black Plage of 1349 and the community was completely massacred. They were invited to return to the city in 1360, but were forcibly relocated to a ghetto; nonetheless, the community soon became a center of Ashkenazic Jewry. Another pogrom took place 1624, but the emperor outlawed the rioters, executed their leaders, and ceremoniously returned the Jew to the ghetto on 20 Adar, which has been celebrated in Frankfurt ever since as the Purim Winz (“the Purim of Vincent”).

In 1711, the ghetto burned to the ground after an accidental fire, but the Jews rebuilt and their situation dramatically improved in 1806, when Frankfurt was incorporated into Napoleon’s Confederation, the ghetto was abolished (1811), and the Jews received equal rights (1824). Frankfurt became a center of the Reform Movement, leading to a huge rift with the traditional Orthodox community. By the 1900s, Jews in Frankfurt had become prosperous and influential, and many fought for Germany in World War I; it was in this environment that the Jews of the city recited Birkat HaChamah in 1925.

Przemysl, Poland (1925).

A Jewish community, which existed in Przemysl by 1367, sustained several significant antisemitic events through the next two centuries until its Jews were granted a charter to trade in 1959, notwithstanding opposition from the municipality. From the mid-16th to the mid-18th centuries, the community suffered through at least nine anti-Jewish pogroms, and when Przemysl fell to Austrian Rule under the 1772 partition of Poland, its autonomy was curtailed and the Jews became subject to anti-Jewish laws, including limiting the number of their marriages and ordering them to attend government schools.

However, by 1785, the city’s Jewish community had become the largest in Poland and, beginning in 1897, many Jews in Przemysl joined Zionist organizations, including Agudat Herzl, the Bund, and Agudat Israel. When the city was occupied by the Russians in 1915 during World War I, many Jews were expelled by the Russians and others left the city, but after the war, Przemysl was incorporated in independent Poland and, by 1921, there were 18,360 Jews in the city, about 38% of the population. It was under these circumstances that the Jewish community of Przemysl issued the Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here in 1925.

Kisvarda, Hungary (1925).

Kisvarda’s fertile soil made it a regional agricultural center and an attractive place for Jewish settlement when they returned to Hungary after the devastation of Turkish occupation that ended in about 1690 and were given special permission to farm and trade by the Esterhazy family, the major landowners in the area at that time. In 1747, Kisvarda sent the list of its Jews to the county governor complaining that they had not remitted the special taxes that had been levied on them, and most Jews fled to the point that, according to the 1784 census, there were only about 118 Jews left in the city. The Kisvarda congregation was formed in 1796, with the establishment of a Chevra Kadisha (burial society) and, by 1844, the city had become a respected center of Jewish scholarship. The Jews, who numbered 3,454 in 1920, lived in relative peace until after World War I, when the Revolution of 1918 led to great Jewish persecution; this was the situation in 1925 when the Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here was published.

Krakow, Poland (1925).

The first recorded history of Jews in Krakow dates to the late 13th century, but Jews did not begin to own land and homes there until 1312, but protests against Jewish ownership beginning in 1369 resulted in the enactment of a municipal law permitting Jews to sell their homes only to non-Jews. Blood libels and mob attacks against Jews broke out in 1407, 1423, and 1457; in 1485, they were forced to sign an “agreement” barring them from most branches of commerce; and they were finally expelled from Krakow to Kazimierz by order of the King in 1495. In the 16th century, Jewish immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Iberia came to the city, including wealthy men and physicians, who were granted special tax exemptions from the King of Poland, and Jewish trade and Jewish life generally prospered during the early 17th century, with Krakow becoming an important center of Jewish scholarship. In the late 17th century, however, Jews were increasingly subject to attacks and blood libels, and the Jewish quarter was largely abandoned in 1677 after a plague killed 1,000 Jews. The community reorganized in 1680 and reopened its yeshivot, but was subject again two years later by renewed anti-Jewish rioting.

In 1761, the Polish Senate prohibited Jewish commerce in Krakow; the period between 1768-72 (known as “the Confederacy of the Bar”) was marked by unspeakable atrocities perpetrated against the Jews by both the Russians and the confederates; and after Austria annexed Krakow in 1795, it ordered the removal of all Jewish businesses. After a succession of control, Krakow was emancipated in 1867-68 and, by 1900, the Jewish population of the city had grown to 25,670. However, beginning in the late 19th century, antisemitism again reared its ugly head and pogroms broke out anew. This was the status of the Jewish community of Krakow when it issued the Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here in 1925.

Casablanca, Morocco (1953).

Moroccan Muslim scholars are among the few Arab Muslims to write extensively about the history of Jews in their own country, and much of the information we have about the earliest years of Jewish life in Morocco is from such sources. Although the very first mentions of Jewish presence in Morocco date back to the 2nd century BCE, it was only in the 7th and 8th centuries CE that the Jews began to actively settle in North Africa. In the 1490s, Jews arrived in Casablanca from Iberia after they were exiled from Spain and Portugal but, despite the construction of the Rabbi Elijah Synagogue in 1750, a substantive Jewish presence never really developed in the city until the arrival of Jewish merchants in 1830. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were 6,000 Jews in Casablanca (about 30% of the entire population), two synagogues, and eight Talmud Torahs. After the plunder of Settat, an important center of the region, in 1903, 1,000 Jewish refugees fled to Casablanca, which later itself was ravaged by rebellious tribes; in particular, many of its inhabitants were massacred in August 1907, with 30 Jews killed and 250 women and children abducted.

By 1912, Casablanca had become the economic capital of Morocco and, thereby, an important center for the Jews, who held high positions in commerce, industry, and the liberal professions. It was during this relatively peaceful time for Jews of Casablanca that the Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here was issued in 1953.

Bombay, India (1953).

Although Jews lived in Bombay (now Mumbai) over many centuries, the permanent Jewish settlement there was launched in the second half of the 18th century by the Bene Israel, who built a synagogue there in 1796, and the Arabic-speaking Jewish colony in Bombay was increased by the influx of other “Arabian Jews” from Surat, by the arrival of Yemenite Jews in the middle of the 19th century, and by a new wave of Jewish immigrants from Cochin, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bukhara, and Persia drawn to the prosperity of Bombay. The arrival in 1833 of David Sassoon (1792-1864), a Baghdad Jewish merchant, industrialist, and philanthropist, was a major turning point for the Jews of the city, as he founded and financed many of the educational, cultural, and civic institutions, hospitals, and synagogues in the city. Printing Jewish books and journals became an important enterprise, and the 1953 Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here is an example of the Bombay printing trade.

Djerba, North Africa (1953).

Djerba – nicknamed “The Island of Kohanim” because some 80% of the community is descended from priests – is one of the oldest Diasporan Jewish communities in the world, with some tracing its origins to the time of King David 3,000 years ago and others to the time of the destruction of the First Temple, with many Jews immigrating there after fleeing Jerusalem in 70 CE after the destruction of the Second Temple. The history of the Jews in the city includes two serious persecutions before the Holocaust, the first in the 12th century under the Almohads and the second in 1519 under the Spanish. Because they lived in virtual isolation from the rest of the world until the contemporary advent of mass tourism, the Jews of Djerba had been able to preserve a pure form of Judaism and, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the yeshivot there produced many rabbis and writers and were held in high regard. It was in this environment that the Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here was published in Djerba in 1953.

Cairo, Egypt (1953).

Setting aside the biblical events described in Exodus and thereafter (in which Cairo receives no specific mention), there is evidence that Jews settled in Fustat (old Cairo) within a short time of its founding in 641, with a synagogue built there in 882. During the 10th century, many Jewish immigrants arrived from Babylonia (present-day Iraq), resulting in two Jewish communities, Jerusalemite and Babylonian. After the conquest of Egypt by the Fatimid army in 969, newer Cairo was founded and the Jews immediately settled there and, by the end of the tenth century, the Cairo Jewish community had become the religious and cultural center for all of Egypt. The relative safety of the Jews of Cairo came to an end during the Mamluk reign from 1250 to 1517, when harsh legislation, pogroms, and persecutions became commonplace. After the Turks conquered Egypt in 1517, Jews were granted limited autonomy, although the Turks extorted large payoffs from the Jewish community and they were occasionally influenced to violence by the accusations of Muslim fanatics.

The tyranny and extortion against the Jews of Cairo by Turkish governors worsened during the 17th and 18th centuries, but a new era for the Jewish community began in 1840 under an independent Egypt headed by Muhammad Ali, and the new economic prosperity brought Jews to Cairo from other Mediterranean countries. Jews became active in public affairs and Jewish publications proliferated, and it was in this happy environment that the Birkat HaChamah pamphlet exhibited here was published.

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Poster for Birkat HaChamah gathering at the Kotel (1981).



Original newspaper photo of Jews davening and reciting Birkat HaChamah atop the roof of Tel Aviv’s highest building (1981).



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The next Birkat HaChamah will iy”H take place on Wednesday, April 8, 2037. Some of us seniors may not be around, but we can all hope and pray that our children and grandchildren will all gather in peace and health in Yerushalayim HaBenuyah (the ultimately rebuilt Jerusalem) – and that they will merit to tell the tale of their previous Birkat HaChamah observances and pass on the beautiful tradition to their progeny.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].