Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In one of the great ironies of Jewish history, the much-beloved Israeli national anthem was written by Naftali Herz Imber (1856-1909), a complex and deeply flawed vagabond, drunkard, and buffoon known as “the King of Jewish Bohemia in America.”

Imber, who was born into a strictly Orthodox chassidic family in Galici, was deemed an ilui (a child prodigy) in Talmud and Kabbalah and began to write Hebrew poetry, all by age 10. He left the shtetl in his early 20s and lived the life of a vagabond, wandering around the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a few years before arriving in Eretz Yisrael in 1882, where he worked as personal secretary to British author Sir Laurence Oliphant.


He became the “chalutz [pioneer] poet of the First Aliyah” after the publication of Barkai (Morning Star, 1886), his well-regarded collection of poems. Among those poems was a composition entitled “Tikvatenu,” the first verse and refrain of which (in altered form, as we will discuss) is the Hatikvah we know today.

Imber left Eretz Yisrael and lived in London before going to the United States, where he married a Protestant woman (she purportedly converted), tramped across the country, and finally settled in New York where, though a derelict, he continued to write poetry and prose generally supporting Judaism while personally failing to practice it, and vigorously advocating for Zionism.

Despite significant efforts by the Jewish community there to help him, he died of alcoholism in wretched poverty. Nonetheless, when his remains were transported for burial on Long Island, the streets were lined with throngs of people singing “Hatikvah.” (His remains were brought to Jerusalem for reburial in 1953.)

Imber wrote the first few stanzas of “Tikvatenu” (“Our Hope”) in 1878 to express the depth of his emotional feelings about the establishment of Petach Tikva (literally, “Door of Hope”). The Orthodox Jewish founders of this first modern Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael drew its name from the beautiful prophesy of Hosea 2:15: “And I will give her vineyards from there, and the Valley of Achor for a door of hope; and she [the Jewish people] shall sing there, as in the days of her youth and as the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.”

Thus, the “hope” actually expressed by “Hatikvah” was the hope that the establishment of the first modern Jewish colony in Eretz Yisrael in 2,000 years would serve as a harbinger of the reestablishment of a future Jewish homeland there.

Often while drunk, Imber would recite his poem to the early Jewish chalutzim of Rishon LeZion and other Jewish colonies, whose responses were so warm and emotionally heartfelt that he was inspired to spontaneously scribble additional verses on assorted scraps of paper until “Tikvatenu” consisted of nine stanzas, which he published for the first time in Barkai.

Shown here is a tremendous rarity, perhaps the earliest postcard featuring “Tikvatenu,” which was published by I.L. Zuesskind in St. Petersburg (1902). (The earliest printed version of “Hatikva” with this melody dates to seven years earlier in Breslau.) It features a young Jewish man and an elderly Jew holding a hoe while, in the distance, a mass of Jews march toward a rainbow cloud. The musical notes are accompanied by the transliterated Hebrew first stanza, with the refrain written above in Hebrew:

As long as in the heart within, a Jewish soul still yearns.
And onward, towards the ends of the east, an eye still gazes toward Zion;
[Refrain] Our hope is not yet lost, the ancient hope
to return to the land of our fathers, to the city where [King] David dwelt.

Many scholars compare the seminal line “od lo avdah tikvatenu – our hope is not yet lost”) to Ezekiel’s beautiful 37:11 “Vision of the Dry Bones” prophesy: “Behold, they say, our bones are dried, and our hope is lost….” Ezekiel describes the despair of the Jewish people in exile before ending the prophesy with God’s promise to the Jewish people: “I will open your graves…and I will bring you into the land of Israel.”

Note that Imber’s refrain as originally written is very different than the version we know today:

Our hope is not yet lost, the hope of 2,000 years,
to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Thus, perhaps “Hatikvah”’s most famous phrase – “the hope of 2,000 years” – was not actually written by Imber but, rather, in 1905 by Yehuda Leib Metman Hacohen (1869-1939), a Rishon LeZion schoolteacher who later founded the renowned Herzliyah Gymnasia in Tel Aviv. Interestingly, for some time thereafter, the amended anthem was sung in Eretz Yisrael while Imber’s original version continued to be sung in the Diaspora.

Shown here is what may be the earliest American postcard featuring Imber’s entireTikvatenu” – now called “Hatikvah” – including all nine stanzas. Published in the early 1900s by the Jewish National Flag Company, it features at the top a very early version of what later was adopted as the Israeli flag. The remaining verses of “Hatikvah,” which are not well-known, are actually quite magnificent; I present the English translation here, but readers of Hebrew will agree that the translation does not capture the beauty of Imber’s Hebrew:

[2] As long as tears from our eyes flow like benevolent rain,
and throngs of our countrymen still pay homage at the graves of (our) fathers… [Refrain]

[3] As long as our precious Wall appears before our eyes,
and over the destruction of our Temple an eye still wells up with tears… [Refrain]

[4] As long as the waters of the Jordan in fullness swell its banks,
and down to the Sea of Kinneret with tumultuous noise fall… [Refrain]

[5] As long as on the barren highways, the humbled city gates mark,
and among the ruins of Jerusalem a daughter of Zion still cries… [Refrain]

[6] As long as pure tears flow from the eye of a daughter of my nation,
and to mourn for Zion at the watch of night,
she still rises in the middle of the nights… [Refrain];

[7] As long as drops of blood in our veins ebb and flow,
and upon the graves of our fathers dewdrops still fall… [Refrain]

[8] As long as the feeling of love of nation throbs in the heart of the Jew,
we can still hope even today that God may still have mercy on us… [Refrain]

[9] Hear, O my brothers in the lands of exile, the voice of one of our visionaries:
(who declares) that only with the very last Jew, only there is the end of our hope!

In 1881, “Hatikvah” became the anthem of Chovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”), which was founded to further agricultural settlement in Eretz Yisrael. Although the anthem was later informally adopted at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, that occurred over protests by some delegates who objected to the non-Jewish origins of its melody (discussed below).

Moreover, “Hatikvah” faced intense resistance from Herzl himself, who opposed the song primarily because of his intense dislike of Imber; Herzl could not have been pleased by Imber’s bold and arrogant declaration that he was the true founder of modern Zionism. Herzl launched the first of several international competitions in 1897 in a quest to find an alternative anthem, but the results were so dreadful that he had no choice but to concede defeat.

Zira Cigarette “Zion” tobacco silk insert, circa 1905-1910, featuring the Israeli flag and the first two lines (in English) of “Hatikvah.”

Although significant dispute exists regarding whether “Hatikvah” was actually sung by the delegates at the First Zionist Congress, all agree that it was sung at the conclusion of the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1901, and at all Congresses thereafter. However, it was not formally adopted by the Zionist Congress until the 18th one, which took place in Prague in 1933.

In 1947, when Kurt Weill debuted his orchestral arrangement of “Hatikvah” in a New York World premiere conducted by Serge Koussevitzky in honor of Chaim Weizmann’s 73rd birthday, it was accepted by virtually all as the anthem of the Jewish people. “Hatikvah” was sung at the formal declaration of statehood ceremony on May 14, 1948, and became Israel’s unofficial national anthem upon the establishment of the Jewish State.

Over the next 50-plus years, however, there were several attempts to adopt other texts as Israel’s national anthem. For example, many religious Zionists, criticizing “Hatikvah” for its failure to mention either G-d or the Torah, urged the adoption of a biblical text, specifically the beautiful Psalm 126 (Shir Hamaalot – A Song of Those Who Ascend When Hashem Returns the Jews to Zion).

Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook wrote “HaEmunah” (“The Faith”) as an alternative anthem. It failed to garner much support, and Rav Kook, renowned for his unconditional love for even non-observant and secular Jews, did not object to the singing of “Hatikvah.” In fact, he publicly endorsed it.

Pioneers in Eretz Yisrael urged the adoption of the chalutz anthem, “Mishmar HaYarden” (“Watch on the Jordan”) – which, as it turns out, was also written by Imber. Social Zionists wanted Chaim Nachman Bialik’s “Techezakna” (“Strengthen the hands of our brothers renewing the soil of our land…”) to serve as the national anthem. After the 1967 Six-Day War, several Knesset members introduced a bill to make Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” the official anthem.

Although all these efforts failed, “Hatikvah” was not officially adopted as Israel’s national anthem until November 2004, when an abbreviated and edited version was sanctioned by the Knesset in an amendment to the Flag and Coat-of-Arms Law. Many analysts believe the only reason it was able to pass even then was because the nation was distracted by the death of Yasser Arafat on that very day.

* * * * *

The first generally recognized attempt to specifically set “Hatikvah” to music was a failed attempt by composer Leon Igly, who was brought to Zichron Yaakov by Baron Edmond Rothschild. A new tune soon emerged – the melody we use to this very day – in Rishon LeZion. The tune became so well-established that when Herzl visited there during his only trip to Eretz Yisrael in 1898, virtually the entire settlement greeted him with a stirring rendition of the song.

As a child, I recall hearing for the first time “The Moldau” by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana and exclaiming to my father, “He stole the Hatikvah!” “The Moldau” – one of Smetana’s six symphonic poems celebrating Bohemia in “Má Vlast” (“My Homeland”) – actually derives from “La Mantovana,” a 16th-century Italian song composed by Giuseppino del Biado. The song, which made its earliest appearance in print in the composer’s collection of madrigals, became very popular throughout Europe under different titles, and it was later adapted by Smetana to depict the beloved river which flows through Prague.

But the adaptation of the music specifically for “Hatikvah” was set by Samuel Cohen (1870-1940) upon his aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in 1888. Although everyone agrees that his melody was not original, its source is the subject of much debate among scholars. Various theories include a Sephardic tune for “Tefillat Tal” (the Prayer for Dew); a version of the prayer Yigdal then common in England and other Ashkenazic communities; a Spanish cancion; folk songs from Germany, Poland, Sweden, and France; a Giovanni Battista Viotti violin concerto; the Anglican hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”; a 17th-century French carol; and a general “wandering tune” that Cohen picked up in his travels through Europe.

The generally accepted contemporary theory, however, is that Cohen adapted “Hatikvah” to “Carul cu Boi” (“Wagon and Oxen”), a popular Moldavian-Romanian folk tune about a farmer taking his oxen to market, which Cohen referred to by the words of its refrain, “Hois! Cea!” (“Right! Left!”).

In response to Arab attacks against the Jewish Yishuv, the British banned “Hatikvah” in 1919 and, later, during the Mandate period, banned broadcasting it over the air. Jewish broadcasters responded with frequent playing of “The Moldau,” to which the furious British responded by banning all Smetana’s music from Hebrew broadcasts. Later, in an incredible April 20, 1945 BBC recording at Bergen-Belsen, Jewish survivors sang “Hatikvah” at an open-air Kabbalat Shabbat service with Imber’s original lyrics only five days after their liberation by Allied forces. (If you haven’t heard it, you must!)

More recently, Israeli Arabs – and, sadly, an increasing number of self-hating leftist Jews – have become vociferous in protesting against an anthem citing “the yearnings of a Jewish soul” when significant proportion of the State’s citizenry is not Jewish and lacks any connection to “Hatikvah”’s Zionist message.

However, artistically and politically, textually and musically, “Hatikvah” – which reflects the reality of the return of the Jews to their homeland – remains one of the great national anthems, and conductor Zubin Mehta hit the nail on the head when he characterized it as the most beautiful anthem on earth.

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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].