The ‘heartbeat of the Jewish people’

Instituted by David Ben-Gurion, the National Bible Quiz for adults is witnessing a revival.

The ‘heartbeat of the Jewish people’ (photo credit: (Education Ministry))
The ‘heartbeat of the Jewish people’
(photo credit: (Education Ministry))
In a close contest in Jerusalem earlier this month, Menahem Shimshi of Elon Moreh won first place in the 2013 National Bible Quiz for adults. As first-place winner, he is now the official Hatan Hatanach (Bible “groom”) and will represent Israel at the 2014 International Bible Contest.
Becoming Hatan Hatanach is a cause for celebration, yet it is also a serious responsibility, explains Shimshi, a 31-year-old father of four. The winners of the early Bible contests were gifted scholars, and it will not be easy to follow in their footsteps.
Mentioning the late Amos Chacham, who won the first national and international adult Bible contests and went on to become a prominent Bible scholar, Shimshi says, “I have to expect more from myself.”
Judging by his performance at the National Bible Quiz, he obviously has what it takes. He works as a researcher at the Torah Research Institute next to the yeshiva in Elon Moreh and has already written two books, which the institute has published.
Concurrently he is a teacher of Bible and Hebrew language at the local high school.
Shimshi competed against 12 talented contenders from around the country at the Jerusalem International Convention Center on the seventh night of Hanukka. All 12 were remarkably wellversed in the Bible and had clearly prepared for many months.
Second place went to Hananel Malka from Or Akiva, and Yoram Gold of Beersheba was the third-place winner.
The theme of this year’s national contest was “The Other Is Me,” which was also the official theme of the Education Ministry for this year. Inspired by the biblical verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), some of the questions related to the subjects of heroism and giving of oneself to help others.
The National Bible Quiz is the culmination of a process that includes written tests and a regional Bible quiz in six different parts of the country. This year, over 2,000 individuals participated in all of the stages of the contest. Out of these, 12 – two from each region – competed onstage on December 4.
Also this year, Education Minister Shai Piron decided that the National Bible Contest for adults – which his ministry plans and orchestrates – would take place in Israel at the same time that contests were going on in other countries (the preliminary Bible quizzes abroad are organized in conjunction with the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization).
It was David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, who launched the Bible quiz. In 1958, on the country’s 10th birthday, the first Adult National Bible Contest took place in Jerusalem.
That contest led to the first international contest, drawing Jewish and non-Jewish participants from around the world who traveled to the Jewish state because of their love for the “Book of Books.”
Between 1958 and 1981, the national and international quizzes took place five times each, but they were discontinued.
Meanwhile, the better-known International Bible Contest for youth has taken place in Jerusalem every year on Independence Day since 1963. In 2010, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and then-education minister Gideon Sa’ar revived the adult contest, and in 2012, the first International Adult Bible Quiz in 32 years took place in Jerusalem.
As there has been a decision to hold the national and international contests on alternating years in the future, the international quiz will take place in 2014 on the first of Tevet – the eighth night of Hanukka – which falls on December 23.
Shlomo Ventura, who recently retired from the Education Ministry, was the coordinator of the 2012 International Bible Quiz and the two national contests that preceded it. He describes the experience as a moving one.
“There were 48 participants from 33 countries,” he recalls. “The contestants arrived in Israel about two weeks before the contest, and during this time we prepared them for the contest and took them on trips in the footsteps of the Bible. They discovered Israel, and we taught them Hebrew songs and sang together. Some of them had never been in Israel before or had been here only for a short tour. For them, the trip was the dream of a lifetime.”
Interpreters in five languages accompanied the group everywhere. Some of the participants learned a little Hebrew while they were here and were inspired to continue learning the language.
“After the experience, one woman who had studied the Bible in German and English told us that now she wanted her grandchildren to learn to study the Bible in Hebrew,” Vantura says.
A man who had been in the last international contest in 1981 wanted to make an impression on his grandchildren as well.
“He said he had prayed for years that the State of Israel would hold another international Bible quiz so he could compete again.
He wanted his grandchildren to see him onstage,” says Vantura.
That man was one of the 2012 contest’s winners.
Although the early international contests were open to non- Jews, it is now open only to Jews.
“The decision was made by the organizers to avoid conflicts about involving the New Testament,” Vantura explains.
According to the Education Ministry, the international Bible contest for adults has four main objectives: encouraging “the interest, study and reading of the Bible by the Jewish public in Israel and the Diaspora as the cultural basis of the People of Israel; strengthening the identification with the human, national, social and religious values of the Bible; establishing and strengthening ties with the Land of Israel and Jewish heritage among the public in Israel and in the Diaspora; and enriching spoken and written Hebrew, [and] the use of idioms, images and expressions from the Bible.”
The ministry’s website has information in English, French, Spanish, German, and Russian about participation and registration for the 2014 contest.
At this month’s national contest, Netanyahu and Piron lit a hanukkia and sang the blessings over the candles together onstage while the audience sang along. Piron called the Bible “the heartbeat of the Jewish people,” while Netanyahu spoke about the vital place the Bible had in everyone’s lives and the importance of ongoing Bible study. Mentioning the story of Joseph and his brothers, he declared that the stories of the Bible continue to have lessons for all of us.