The Jewish people have never stopped studying Torah. Regardless of whether we’ve lived in times of prosperity or persecution, our people have continued to learn, analyze and innovate. Here is a list of 9 Torah books penned under the harshest of circumstances: incarceration.

1. Book of Lamentations, by the prophet Jeremiah

Baruch Writing Jeremiah's Prophecies ( Paul Gustave Doré)
Baruch Writing Jeremiah's Prophecies ( Paul Gustave Doré)

Jeremiah, son of the prophet and high priest Hilkiah, lived during the time of the first Holy Temple, and prophesied about its impending destruction if the people did not repent. But the people did not take kindly to his prophecies, and he was often persecuted and almost killed. Seventeen years before the Temple was destroyed, Jeremiah was imprisoned by the Judean king Jehoiakim for foretelling the downfall of the kingdom.

While Jeremiah was in prison, G‑d told him, “Take for yourself a scroll and write upon it all the words that I have spoken to you concerning Israel and concerning Judah. . . . Perhaps the house of Judah will hear all the evil that I plan to do to them, in order that they should repent.”1

Jeremiah dictated his prophecies to his student Baruch ben Neriah, vividly describing the tragedies and calamities that would befall Judah. Baruch recorded these prophecies in a scroll and read it before the king, who promptly threw the scroll into the fire. According to the Talmud, this scroll contained the first three chapters of the Book of Eichah (Lamentations), which was written in past tense, lamenting these events as if they had already occurred and making them all the more vivid.2 Later, the scroll was rewritten and two chapters were added.

Learn more about Jeremiah

When was Lamentations written?

2. Responsa and Commentary to Talmud, by Maharam of Rothenburg

Rabbi Meir ben Baruch (c. 1220–1293) was born in Worms, Germany, and later moved to Rothenburg, where he became known as Maharam. When King Rudolf I instituted new decrees persecuting the Jews, Rabbi Meir, along with many others, attempted to flee the country. As Rabbi Meir was considered the leader of Ashkenazic Jewry of his time, the king feared that if Rabbi Meir left, all the Jews would leave. The king had him captured while he was in the mountains of Lombardy, and he was imprisoned in a fortress in Alsace. Although the Jewish community raised 23,000 silver marks to ransom him, Rabbi Meir refused to be ransomed for fear of encouraging the imprisonment of more rabbis.

During his seven years in prison he authored many responsa on Jewish law, known as Teshuvot Maharam Rothenburg, as well as commentaries on several tractates of the Talmud. Additionally, his student Rabbi Shimshon ben Tzadok, who was permitted to visit him in prison, compiled his work Tashbetz Katan on Jewish laws and customs, based on what he heard from his teacher during this period.

Rabbi Meir died in prison, and it was only 14 years after his death that a ransom was paid for his body by Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen, who was subsequently buried next to him in the Jewish cemetery of Worms.

Learn more about the Maharam

3. Shem ha-Gedolim, by Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida)

Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724–1806), known by his acronym Chida, was born in Jerusalem to an illustrious rabbinic family, and became one of the leading rabbis of his time. He was a prolific author who penned at least 71 works on the Torah, Talmud, halachah and aggadah. When he was only 29 years old he was appointed as an emissary to represent the Holy Land abroad, to collect badly needed funds as well as to keep alive interest in the Holy Land. Chida traveled extensively, including to Egypt, Italy, Germany, Holland, England, France, Sicily, Rhodes, Turkey and Syria. It was during another such trip in 1774, when he reached the port city of Livorno, Italy, that he was placed in quarantine for 40 days (as was standard practice in that city for any foreigner from the east). While in quarantine he compiled one of his most famous works, Shem ha-Gedolim (“Names of the Great Ones”), a bibliography of great Jewish scholars who preceded him, together with their works. It is due to this work that he is considered one of the fathers of Jewish bibliography.

Learn More About Chida

4. David ba-Metzudah (“David in the Fortress”), by Rabbi David ben Chaim Chazan

Born in Jerusalem, Rabbi David Chazan was the son of the scholar Rabbi Chaim Chazan. He eventually moved to Thessaloniki (known by the Jews as Salonica), Greece, where he became a partner in a publishing house. He authored a number of works, including Chozeh David on Psalms, Kohelet ben David on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and Agan ha-Sahar on Mishlei (Proverbs).

While traveling to Vienna, he was imprisoned due to a case of mistaken identity. During his imprisonment, which lasted from Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, he wrote a work on Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), which he aptly called David ba-Metzudah, “David in the Fortress,” since he wrote it while he was imprisoned. The work was published in Salonica in 1748.

Read the work (in Hebrew) here

5. Bad Kodesh, by Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (Mitteler Rebbe)

Born in Liozna, Rabbi DovBer Schneuri (1773–1827) was the eldest son and successor of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. In 1826 (5587) Rabbi DovBer was arrested on charges that his teachings threatened the imperial authority of the czar, and he was instructed to appear in Vitebsk, the provincial capital.

After his arrest, Rabbi DovBer penned a letter to Nikolay Chovansky, governor-general of Belarusia, who would adjudicate his case. The letter was partially based on notes that his father, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe), had written during his own imprisonment. At the time Rabbi Schneur Zalman was asked to explain the Kabbalistic statement that the attribute of malchut (royalty) is the lowest of all the sefirot. He had given explanations that were accepted by Czar Paul and his ministers.

In this long letter Rabbi DovBer described the ten sefirot, their function and interrelation, with special focus on malchut. He succeeded in convincing Governor-General Chovansky, and was freed on the 10th of Kislev of that year. This long letter was later published under the name Bad Kodesh (an English translation of the work has been published under the name A Judgment of Truth and Mercy).

Learn more about Rabbi DovBer

Read Bad Kodesh in English

6. Daat u-Tevunah, by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (Ben Ish Chai)

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1832–1909), known as the Ben Ish Chai (after his halachic work by that name), was one of the leading Sephardic rabbis of his time. He wrote many works on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Jewish law, often interweaving the mystical and revealed aspects of the Torah.

He was once arrested on false charges and held in prison for 30 days. He writes that later it was revealed to him from heaven that the reason he was incarcerated was so that he would be able to sit and study diligently in that spot, in order to uplift the souls of certain Jews who were there. During that time he wrote his Kabbalistic work Daat u-Tevunah.3

Learn more about the Ben Ish Chai

7. Likkutei Levi Yitzchak, by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak

A page of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s notes on Zohar, written in exile with ink prepared by Rebbetzin Chana. Notice the various colors of this homemade ink.
A page of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s notes on Zohar, written in exile with ink prepared by Rebbetzin Chana. Notice the various colors of this homemade ink.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878–1944) was the spiritual leader of Yekaterinoslav (later renamed Dnipropetrovsk and then Dnipro) for 30 years. During his years of leadership Rabbi Levi Yitzchak resolutely engaged in religious activism, never giving in to the ever-growing pressure from the Soviets. He oversaw the building of a new mikvah, and clandestinely officiated at weddings and circumcisions.

In 1939 (5699) he was arrested and incarcerated for the “crime” of upholding Judaism. After more than a year of interrogations he was taken to Moscow for “trial,” and was sentenced to five years of exile in the remote village of Chi’ili, Kazakhstan. Although he lacked even the most basic supplies, his wife, Rebbetzin Chana, created a crude ink from plants, enabling him to continue transcribing his Torah insights. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak wrote thousands of manuscripts of Torah analysis and novel thoughts, encompassing and intertwining, in his unique style, Talmud, halachah, Kabbalah and Chassidism; however, unfortunately, most of these manuscripts were misplaced or destroyed by the Communists and then the Nazis. His wife, however, managed to smuggle out the manuscripts that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had written during his years of exile.

At the behest of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s son, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, these manuscripts were published in a five-volume set under the title Likkutei Levi Yitzchak, which includes his Kabbalistic commentaries on the Zohar as well as parts of the Talmud.

Read a brief biography about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak
Read his wife’s firsthand account of his imprisonment and exile
Read a selection of his teachings

8. Eish Kodesh, by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889–1943) was a chassidic rebbe in Piaseczno, near Warsaw, where he attracted many disciples. In 1905 he married Rachel Chaya Miriam (daughter the rebbe of Kozhnitz), who helped prepare his books and lectures, at times adding her own insights. He wrote a number of works, including Chovat ha-Talmidim (“The Students’ Obligation”) and Mevo ha-She’arim.

After the invasion of Poland by the Nazis, he was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, where he invested much time and effort maintaining and strengthening Jewish life and faith. In the ghetto he wrote a compilation of weekly sermons to his students, which grapple with questions of faith in the face of ever-increasing suffering. When it became apparent that the Nazis were about to liquidate the ghetto, he buried the book in a canister. After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, Rabbi Shapira was taken to the Trawniki work camp near Lublin, where he was eventually shot and killed on November 3, 1943, together with all remaining Jews in Trawniki.

After the war, the canister containing the book was found by a construction worker, and was published in Israel under the name Eish Kodesh (“Holy Fire”).

9. She’eilot u-Teshuvot mi-Ma’amakim (“Questions and Answers From the Depths”), by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (1914–2003) was born in Kupiškis, Lithuania. When he was 27 years old the Nazis invaded Kaunas (Kovno), and Rabbi Oshry and the survivors of his community were forced into the Kaunas ghetto and concentration camp.

Rabbi Oshry, who had studied under some of the most renowned Torah scholars of his day, was one of the only rabbis around to answer many of the Jews’ heart-wrenching questions during that time. Hoping to one day show the world how his fellow Jews thought, felt and behaved in the most inhumane of circumstances, he would write the questions and answers on scraps of paper. Right before the final battle between the Nazis and the Russians, he hid these papers in cans and buried them in the concentration camp.

Although his wife and children were murdered, he miraculously survived, and after the war he retrieved his writings. He published some in Hebrew under the title She’eilot u-Teshuvot mi-Ma’amakim (“Questions and Responses from the Depths”). Some of these questions were also published in abridged form in English under the title Responsa from the Holocaust.

Read some samples of the responsa