Jewish History Blog
The Hasidic Movement ignited Jewish masses in remote communities with love of Judaism, but the movement had its roots in an earlier era of wandering Jews.
In the early 1700s there existed in Eastern Europe groups of people called Penitents, pious who went from city to city in the hopes of spreading their piety. They were people who felt they had to do public penance for sins they had committed. Often their behavior included whipping themselves and drawing themselves into a frenzy until they drew blood. They tended to attract a great deal of riffraff. Instead of being a pious group, they became synonymous with immorality, theft, murder and illicit behavior. Finally, they were banned by the government.
In the world of Eastern European Jewry, there also were groups who traveled from town to town to inspire the masses. They did not self-flagellate, but as penance for their sins they never slept twice in the same bed. They subjected themselves to suffering, hunger and pain – often leading to early death. Nevertheless, they were viewed as holy people.
Most of these people delved into practical Kabbalah. They wrote and distributed amulets to people who had problems and who had waited for them to come to town. These holy people served especially in the smaller Jewish communities where there were no great scholars, and where visitors rarely came. When a band of holy people appeared – or one holy person – it left an impression that could last a lifetime.
Even though one can find veiled criticisms of them from many of the rabbis of the time, they gained great popularity. Few were willing to criticize them openly and they were given a wide berth.
Rabbi Yaakov Emden records an event at the time involving someone named Rabbi Judah HeHasid (“Judah the Pious”), who came from the city of Siedlce (Shedlitz in Yiddish). He organized a group consisting of hundreds of Jews to walk from Poland to Jerusalem. The group marched throughout Jewish Poland wearing white burial shrouds, encouraging others to join them. Most of them died on the road. Yet, on October 17, 1700, the remnants arrived in Jerusalem. (more…)
Rabbi Yechezkiya Chaim Chizkiya Medini (1813-1905) is famous as the author of an incredible encyclopedic work of Jewish scholarship called Sdei Chemed. And, as is Jewish custom, he became identified by the title of that book.
Despite his accomplishments, in his personal life the Sdei Chemed knew only tragedy. His only son died before the son married. He himself was struck by blindness. Then, almost miraculously, two years later he recovered and was to see again.
He had three daughters. There were no Torah scholars in Crimea, so he married them off to artisans: a tailor, a shoemaker and a hat-maker. He joked that if nothing else he would always be well supplied with clothing.
He was well known for his piety and charity. There was a period in his life during which he spent or gave away every penny he made during the day; he would start every day over again from zero. That is the same story we find also concerning many Chassidic rebbes. It was the level of the Jews in the desert. When they ate the manna, they only had for that day (except on Friday, when they had for Shabbos, too). A person who doesn’t have anything has to rely on God. (more…)
The Sdei Chemed is an encyclopedia of topics in the Talmud and Jewish law, and in which the decisions and discussions of 1800 years are quoted and crystallized.
Rabbi Yechezkiya Chaim Chizkiya Medini is known for, and called by, his magnum opus, the Sdei Chemed, which is an encyclopedia of topics in the Talmud and Jewish law, and in which the decisions and discussions of 1800 years are quoted and crystallized. It is really the cornerstone of modern encyclopedic scholarship. In our times, we live in an age of encyclopedic scholarship; this type of scholarship has become very popular and continues to be popular. Rabbi Medini was the forerunner and pioneer of it. The remarkable thing is that he accomplished it mainly all alone by himself.
Rabbi Medini had a photographic memory. Once he saw a book, he would memorize it, until he literally had thousands of books in his mind. In the Crimea, there was no Bodleian Library at Oxford, Library of Congress in Washington or Vatican Library, which were all libraries where many great Jewish scholars had access to books. Rabbi Medini lived in a town where the library barely had one full set of the Talmud! (more…)
Portrait of Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini (1833-1904), author of Sdei Chemed and Chief Rabbi of Crimea for 33 years.
Rabbi Yechezkiya Chaim Chizkiya Medini (1813-1905), author of the Sdei Chemed, was not only a great scholar and genius but father of the modern Torah encyclopedia. His life spanned many lands, touching all types of Jews and even non-Jews.
He was born in the Old City of Yerushalayim, which at the time housed a large Sephardic population – “large” meaning maybe 800-1,000 in 1813. The Sdei Chemed’s father, Rabbi Rafael Medini, was a long-time settler in Yerushalayim. He traced his lineage back generations upon generations. According to some scholars, the name Medini comes from the word medina and indicated that the person was a legal resident. Jews were often denied permission to live in Jerusalem. Those who did were called “Medini,” signifying that they had the legal right to live there.
Rabbi Rafael Medini’s son, Yechezkiya Chaim Chizkiya, earned a reputation among both the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim in Yerushalayim by the time he was 10. He was raised and taught by his father; he never went to a formal yeshiva.
He married before his bar-mitzvah, at the age of 12. This was not unheard of among the Sephardim. In Yemen, some married as early as 10 or 11. His father supported him in his learning, enabling him to learn until he was 19.
Then, suddenly, his father died. At that time, not only did he feel the yoke of earning a living for his wife and himself, but for his widowed mother and his younger brothers and sisters as well. He tried his hand at a number of trades: he was a textile broker/merchant, but that failed; he tried to deal in wheat and grain, but that failed. The Jews in Jerusalem did not have an economy to speak of. (more…)
During the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Jewish were required to fill a quota of boys aged between 12-25 (it was 18-35 for non-Jews) for the Russian army to serve for a period of 25 years. It was, in effect, a spiritual death sentence.
The infamous Cantonist Decree by the Russia Czar was awful by itself. The decree was that Jewish children—some as young as eight years old, most at the age of 12—were taken from their homes and inducted in training camps in order to prepare them so that at the age of 18 they could begin the 25 years of service in the Russian army. But then the Czar did something which was emulated later by Hitler. He would have the Jews themselves choose their own victims, so that in effect he would morally destroy the Jewish people as well.
Every Jewish community had a quota to fill. If the quota was not filled, there were various methods to ensure that it would be filled. One method was that members of the families of the community leaders would be taken, or that they would be exiled to Siberia, which in many cases was certain death. Or, the entire town would be exiled and destroyed.
These draconian measures put the authority of the Jewish establishment in that town in a dilemma from which there was no escape. Imagine a decree which ordered the local authorities to deliver 300 children. Which 300? How does one choose them?
Certain communities chose them by lot, as terrible as that sounds. Other communities sent the sick, infirm, orphaned or the children of the poor—those who had no defense. There arose within the Jewish community an underworld of gangsters who were called chappers (“grabbers”). They were kidnappers who would take children off the street to fill the quota. If parents sent a child to school in the morning, they were not sure if the child would return home at night.
Wealthy Jews of the towns, even if their children were taken, would bribe the Russian officials to have their children released. The Russian officials always were corrupt. The poor people, though, had no way out. Therefore, the division in the Jewish community between the poor and the wealthy was no longer just a question of money, but of blood. (more…)
Czar Alexander gave Jews incentives to convert. But during his incentive period more Russians converted to Judaism than Jewish to Russian Orthodoxy!
In 1817, Czar Alexander was convinced by the Holy Synod of the Russian Church that his ticket to heaven was to convert all the Jews in Russia to Russian Orthodoxy. He therefore attempted to do so by granting special privileges to those Jews who would convert. They would live outside the Pale of Settlement, be entitled to freedom from taxes and other privileges. Stubborn Jews who remained Jewish would have everything taken away from them.
In order to make conversion more attractive, remaining a Jew had to be made more distasteful. Toward that end Alexander banned the Jews from having distilleries, which was traditionally a Jewish business. He also did not allow them to be landlords’ agents for the collection of rents, another traditional Jewish line of work. He granted these rights to the converts. He established an organization called “The Society of Jewish Christians” of which he was the patron.
One of the ironies of history is that if you try to make Jews good they are stubborn and if you try to make them bad they are stubborn. From 1817 to 1850, more Russians converted to Judaism than Jews converted to Christianity! (more…)
Baron Maurice (Zvi) de Hirsch (1831–1896), who built the Russian railway system, was an example of the new Jew in the rapidly urbanizing Russia: upwardly mobile but an increasing source of anti-Semitism.
Throughout the 1400s, 1500s, 1600s, and most of the 1700s, Jews lived in small, isolated communities—villages, farms, rural areas—as an agricultural-based people who lived among the peasants of Russia and Poland. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the Jews were transformed from an agricultural people to an urban one. This urbanization was taking place among all the peoples of Europe. However the Jews seemed to adapt quicker and more naturally – for better or worse.
For the first time, in the Diaspora at least, there was a substantial entrepreneurial class of Jews for whom other Jews worked. This was the beginnings of what would almost become class warfare among Jews, because the owners naturally saw things one way and the workers saw them another way. The workers saw themselves as being exploited under terrible conditions. Trapped in the middle would be the religious authorities, who somehow would have to make this decision who was right based upon the hard economic realities that they could not control. (more…)
Certain Jewish communities would copy every name from the tombstones in the cemetery, and when the government came to town looking for people, they would tell the officials the person they wanted was dead. Then they would take them to the cemetery to prove it. In one town, everybody was dead. The next town over had tombstones without graves.
In 1835, one of the anti-Semitic decrees of the Czar was that everyone had to take a last name. Jews never had last names. Today last names are the norm, but until 1835 in Russia, Jews did not have them. This decree by the Czar specifically was meant to identify and control the Jews.
Jews took names, but many of the names were of the cities in which they lived. Other names were based on Cohen (the priestly class) or Levy (from the Levite class). All the names that ended with “owitz” or “ovich” meant “the son of.” Thus, Rabinovich meant “son of a Rabbi.” Kaganovich meant “son of a Cohen.”
Many Jews took more than one last name, because they did not want to be identified. For instance, there was a rule in the Russian army that it never took a boy who was an only child or only son. A Jew who had four sons gave each of his four sons a different last name. Each brother had an entirely different family name. That way each was an “only son.”
A last name meant nothing to the Jews. It could be changed like a piece of clothing. Many people never knew what their last name was. Jews went to great length to avoid registration, to avoid being identified.
Many of the Jewish names in the United States were given by immigration officers on Ellis Island. Some are humorous. The famous Rabbi Nesanel Quinn, zt”l, of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas was a Cohen and told that to the immigration officer, who wrote it down as “Quinn.” There are some more medical names that we cannot discuss which were given. (more…)
In 1807, Napoleon attempted to revive the Great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish people in Biblical and Talmudic times, but which had been disbanded centuries earlier due to persecution. Preparatory to its convening, Napoleon convened a “Council of Notables.” He put before this Jews “Council of Notables” a series of 12 questions:
- Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife?
- 2. Is divorce allowed in the Jewish religion, and if it is, is it allowed even in contradiction to the codes of French law?
- 3. Does Jewish law permit a Jewess to marry a Christian man, or a Jew to marry a Christian woman, or may they marry only other Jews?
- In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen who are not Jewish, considered to be their brethren or strangers?
- What type of conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward non-Jewish Frenchmen?
- 6. Do the Jews who are born in France, and have been granted citizenship by the laws of France, truly acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it, to follow its laws, to follow the directions of the civil and court authorities of France?
- 7. Who elects rabbis?
- What kind of judicial power do rabbis exercise over the Jews?
- 9. If there is rabbinical jurisdiction over the Jews, is it regulated by the laws of the Jewish religion or is it merely a custom existing among Jews?
- 10. Are there professions from which Jews are excluded by Jewish law?
- 11. Does Jewish law prohibit Jews from taking usury from other Jews?
- 12. Does Jewish law prohibit Jews from taking usury from non-Jews?
Napoleon did not just have a passing interest in these questions or the Jews under his control. He had a program of assimilation for the Jews and expected the Council to provide him with pat answers that would make it seem as if they were agreeing with his program. The Council, indeed, prepared answers in keeping with Napoleon’s wishes. They were not about to risk their necks. Additionally, many of them truly believed in Napoleon’s program to assimilate the Jews. (more…)
Among its revolutionary changes, the Chassidic movement reawakened within the Jewish people the tremendous longings for the Messiah and the Messianic era. After the debacles of Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank and other false messiahs there was a strong negative approach toward any messianic ideas. There is a great saying in Yiddish: “If you burn yourself on hot soup, you’ll blow even on a cold drink.”
Even though Jews believed in the Messiah and the rabbis certainly preached belief, they had ceased preaching – or toned down considerably — that his arrival was imminent or even feasible in the here and now. Rather, they postponed the Messiah in the minds of people, because they were afraid that one more disappointment, one more charlatan, one more disaster, would be a calamitous blow from which the Jews could not recover.
Chassidus was able to revive the belief in the Messiah…. There are legends about Rebbes convening to bring the Messiah, but something always interfered with the successful completion of their mission, because Heaven did not want it to occur.
Therefore, during the entire 1700s, the idea of the Messiah was cooled among the Jews. This is seen in the writings and sermons of the time. The Noda B’Yehudah, Rav Yechezkel Halevi Landau, was the Chief Rabbi of Prague and one of the greatest scholars of all time. He bitterly opposed the Chassidim. He gave a sermon about a verse in Hosea (14:10), “The ways of God are straight and the righteous walk in them, but the sinners stumble in them.” The righteous go on the straight path and are successful, but the sinners, even if they go on the right road, will fall. Rabbi Landau was so anti-Chassidim that he substituted the word “Chassidim” for “sinners.” He was anti-Chassidic because he was afraid, as he wrote to his son once, of the Messianic quality of it. The Jews could not afford another false Messiah. (more…)