Background of the Early-Nineteenth-Century Messianic Awakening
Background of the Early-Nineteenth-Century Messianic Awakening
Abstract and Keywords
Profound changes in late 18th- and early 19th-century European and Jewish history persuaded many traditional Jews around the world that the redemption was at hand and that they were living in the times of the “Footsteps of the Messiah”. Among the changes in response to that sense was a growth in messianic activism, especially on the part of the Perushim; the activism was grounded in the belief that it was proper for Jews to take steps, both spiritual and practical, to hasten the End-time. Those steps included an effort to locate the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, whose discovery would be seen as a further harbinger of the Messiah’s imminent appearance.
The world has surely collapsed and fallen to pieces and changes appear in the world each day. My wisdom and understanding, along with anyone with eyes in his head, can see that day of the Lord is near, when He will direct His attention to His people.
—R. Hillel of Kovno, Hillel ben ShaḤar
Emancipation and Messianic Faith: Reformers Versus Traditionalists
The beginning of the Modern Period in human history is characterized by a series of political and social revolutions that befell Europe, beginning with the French Revolution of 1789. The French Revolution's ideas regarding the equal rights of citizens aroused all of Europe and substantially changed the face of European society. In the wake of the Revolution, wars broke out that engulfed the countries of western, central, and eastern Europe and wrought changes in their forms of governance.
The Jews constituted a religious and ethnic minority in all the countries of Europe, and their fate was profoundly affected by each local government's attitude toward the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The controversy over “reforming the situation of the Jews” and the Jews' right to civic equality engaged thinkers and policy-makers in every European country. The question was answered in various ways, from ringing endorsement of Jewish rights to absolute negation of the idea. In France, for example, a law enacted in 1791 granted the Jews full equality as citizens; in Russia, meanwhile, the Jews were suppressed and persecuted mercilessly.
(p.4) But it was not only the legal status of the Jews that underwent change during this period. There were transformations as well in their self-image and in the intensity with which they considered substantive questions related to their existence as a nation and their standing among the nations. The dramatic improvement in the Jews' standing in some countries of Christian Europe, and the awakening in others of the old anti-Semitism in new garb, re-ignited messianic expectations unknown since the demise of Shabbetai Ẓevi's messianism.1 Events that suggested alteration of the world order had always aroused messianic expectations among the Jews, and they accordingly had more than academic interest in them at such a time. The world order was undergoing change before their very eyes, and they regarded these decisive and intense developments as events of the sort the sages had said would precede the Messianic Era.2
The possibility that Jews might attain equal civic rights for the first time in the history of Christian Europe compelled Jews and gentiles alike to consider their religious and national distinctiveness. The principal question presented was whether the Jews, once granted the rights of citizens, would be able to assume all the associated obligations as well or whether, conversely, their religion entailed a unique political aspect that precluded them from taking upon themselves all the obligations of citizens of their countries of residence, including a sense of full fraternity with the gentiles. Two fundamental Jewish ideas were seen as obstacles to granting the Jews full civic rights: that of chosenness, which obligates Jews to separate themselves from gentiles; and that of the Messiah, which, by invoking the hope to return to Zion and reestablish the kingdom of the Jews in their historical land, seems to conflict with loyalty to a European homeland.
The extended consideration of these questions led to the emergence of two principal approaches to contemporary Jewish belief in the Messiah: that of the reformers and that of the traditionalists. The reformers, in turn, were themselves of two sorts. The extremists, associated with radical reform groups, sought fundamental change in the idea of the Messiah. In their view, the very process of granting equal rights to the Jews represented the beginning of the Messianic Era. The attainment of equality could cure the ills of human society, for all individuals would be regarded as having equal status, and the nation of Israel could find its own repair through involvement in that process. In their opinion, the Jews' integration into society should be advanced by blurring any features that served to distinguish the Jews. Accordingly, they saw no continuing significance to the historical Jewish homeland; they substituted France and its mountains for Jerusalem and its hills, and they exchanged the Jordan River for the Rhine.
The more moderate reformers did not dare to repudiate the messianic idea outright; instead, they attempted to move it from the national plane to the universal. They sought to divest the Jewish messianic belief of its longing for the return to Zion, for construction of the Third Temple, and for reestablishment of the kingdom of Israel; in place of those elements, they gave prominence to the idea that in the Messianic Era, all mankind would recognize God's (p.5) sovereignty and achieve worldwide peace and happiness. Proponents of this position saw the traditional messianic belief as an obstacle to the Jews' integration into gentile society; accordingly, they tried to get rid of the uniquely Jewish features that interfered with that integration.
The traditionalists, in contrast, rejected none of the ideas associated with the Jewish belief in the Messiah. In their opinion, faith in the Messiah and the expectation that Israel would be redeemed in its Land were not at odds with the possibility of Jews being loyal to the countries in which they resided. Their civic obligations did not conflict with their religious distinctiveness. Even their hope to be redeemed in their historical Land did not clash with their devotion to their lands of residence: inasmuch as the redemption would take place in the distant future, beyond the horizon, it was not something actual; its realization was not practical. Traditionalists distinguished between loyalty to the historical homeland and loyalty to the actual, contemporary homeland by assigning each to its own historical era. The future one, associated with the distant days of the Messianic Era, was not something practical; it pertained to the domain of belief. The contemporary one, in contrast, pertained to actual existence, and it was the one in which the Jews were obligated, as a practical matter, to show political loyalty. Moreover, by authority of the Three Oaths that God had imposed,3 Jews were forbidden to do anything to realize or advance the time for their return to their Land and the establishment of their kingdom. It followed that the Jews' expectation of redemption in their Land did not contradict their loyalty to their lands of residence—not only because the expectation was anchored to an historical era different from the present one, but also because they were strictly forbidden to take any action to fulfill that expectation.4
Traditionalist circles could not fail to notice the upheavals, the wars, the disputes over the rights of Jews, and the gathering strength of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement and Reform in western and central Europe. As already mentioned, the sages' comments in the Talmud and midrashim about the events that will lead up to the Messiah's coming are diverse and even contradictory. But their common denominator is that all speak of extraordinary events or situations. And since the period under consideration was one of numerous upheavals, both in the state of the world at large and in the situation of the Jews, it is hardly surprising that Jews “daily awaiting the Messiah's arrival”5 would find in contemporary events indications of the sages' observations on the period designated as the “Footsteps of the Messiah” (iqveta de-meshiḤa).
That the traditionalists saw the spread of the Reform movement as itself signaling the approach of redemption is an astonishing feature of nineteenth-century Jewish life. No Jewish movement rivaled Reform in its effort to undercut the traditional messianic concept, yet it was in just this rejectionist stance that traditionalists found an indication of the coming redemption of Israel. The notion rests on the talmudic comment that the Messiah's arrival will be preceded by a dramatic religious and moral decline. Insolence will prevail, and the younger generation will rebel against the authority of its elders; (p.6) but it is this very decline that will bring the hoped-for messianic upheaval in its wake:
It was taught in a baraita: R. Judah says, the generation in which the son of David will come will be one in which the [scholars'] meeting place will be turned over to harlotry. … The wisdom of the scribes will decay, those who fear sin will be despised, the face of the generation will be that of a dog, and truth will be absent. … Young men will humiliate the elders … brazenness will abound … and the entire kingdom will turn to heresy.6
In his early-nineteenth-century homiletical and halakhic writings, R. Wolf Hamburg expresses the view that the Reform movement's success offers no evidence whatsoever of its truth. On the contrary, its success demonstrates its falsity: in traditionalist eyes, the phenomenon of absolute alienation from Judaism signifies that we are in the period of the Footsteps of the Messiah.7 Hamburg elaborates on this idea at length in his book Qol Bokhim, a eulogy for Meshullam Zalman Cohen. The book is not a typical eulogy, neither admonishing the audience nor sermonizing to it. Instead, the eulogy has an apologetic strain, in which the author explains the ways of providence with respect to the prospering of the wicked—that is, the Reform movement's success despite its rebellious doctrines.8 Hamburg bases his explanation on a difficult passage in the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin: “The son of David [i.e., the Messiah] will not come until a fish will be sought for one who is ill but will not be found.” He suggests the fish symbolize scholars; the success of the reformers will bring about a scarcity of great Torah scholars in Israel:
And the son of David will not come until great sages are sought to reprove the generation and set it straight and to heal afflictions of the soul, but none are to be found. … And see, from the time the yeshivas were closed, the [divine] abundance was diminished and glory and life have been taken away … and the son of David will not come until a fish is sought for one who is ill, and everyone, God forbid, will be culpable … and there will be a great calamity in the Footsteps of the Messiah.9
Some twenty years later, in his book Simlat Binyamin, Hamburg again directs his attention to the all-embracing religious decline that took place under the influence of the Reform movement. In his view, the reformers undercut the three central pillars on which the world rests—Torah, worship, and acts of kindness. Such extremism shows that we are close to the turning point, to the end of days. As he puts it:
But it appears to me that the prophet was speaking of the present time, nearing the time for redemption, for they [the sages] said, “if you see a generation subject to great tribulations, go and examine the judges of Israel,” that is, our contemporary parents and teachers, (p.7) who cause many to stumble regarding Torah and the commandments. … For on account of our many sins, the foremost people of the generation, the teachers, have repudiated the three pillars of the world: they have repudiated young students of Torah; they have repudiated prayer, which stands in the place of the [sacrificial] service, by not reciting the silent prayer; … and they have even repudiated the pillar of acts of kindness, for the principal aspect of the commandment [to do kindness to the deceased] is to act as pallbearers and escort the deceased to burial, but the wicked of our time seek to have [the deceased] carried on horse or donkey. … The rabbis and teachers of our time have repudiated good things that strengthen students of Torah, and they only waste money on having gentiles sing and on lighting white wax candles, in the manner of the nations of the world, and they actively deny the coming of the Messiah who will restore the order of [sacrificial] service to Zion and Jerusalem.10
Ẓevi Hirsch Lehren, leader of the Clerks' Organization in Amsterdam, similarly lived and worked under the influence of messianic tension, and he, too, saw the spread of the Reform movement and its ascendancy within Jewish communities as a sign of approaching redemption: “From this, one can perceive that salvation is near. For this exile of the shekhinah [God's presence] appears palpably in the appointment of one of our culpable enemies as rabbi and teacher. And on account of our many sins, asherot [pagan deities] have already been set up in some places in Germany, and what will be the end of it in all our holy communities?”11 Elsewhere, in reacting to the reformers' success, he says: “All of this shows that we are close to the set time of redemption, and salvation is near.”12
The traditionalists saw further evidence of the approaching redemption in the changes taking place in society at large. The improved attitude of the Christian world toward the Jews, manifested in their emancipation within the countries of western Europe,13 constituted a sign that the redemption was near. A book published in England in 1795 considers the approaching year of redemption on the basis of various End-reckonings; but, along with those End-reckonings, the author's proof that the End-time was approaching rests as well on historical events to which he himself was witness, including the age of liberty that ensued after the American Revolution. He writes:
And you shall know today and keep in mind [cf. Deut. 4:39] that in the year 5543 , which represented the end of years, there was proclaimed peace and liberty for the residents of the land of America; and from there the light of liberty was ignited and spread to the French state. And the Earth was illuminated by its glory to remove idols from the Earth. … And it continues to gain strength and to progress, providing light until the day when the kings gather and pass together, nations roaring and kingdoms shaking from the blood of the dead and imprisoned and from the violent campaign of the (p.8) enemy. … But what is written after? “Nations, acclaim His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants … and atone the Land of His people” [Deut. 32:43].14
Another work, Hilkhot Yemot ha-MashiaḤ (Laws of the Messianic Age), written in Germany in 1822, also interprets historical events in a messianic vein. It treats the reports from America as if the United States were preparing to establish a Jewish kingdom within it:
And the proof that now is the time of redemption is that now, matters are to be found in the world. … In North America, known as the United States … the government has determined that when 35,000 Jewish souls arrive, they will be permitted to establish a state … and it turns out that there will be a Jewish kingdom in a settled land. … When God, may He be blessed, grants that this endeavor on our part succeeds, I will ascribe to it the verse [Isa. 65:17], “For I am creating a new Heaven and a new earth.”15
It is well known that Ẓevi Hirsch Kalisher, in a letter to Baron Rothschild, likewise cites the achievements of the age of emancipation and the Jews' integration into the European economy as proof that the time set for the redemption is drawing near: “And in my eyes, it is clear that the light of dawn has begun to shine, for God has granted us that princes of Israel have become prominent in the world, such as the House of the Rothschilds and others like them … whose name goes forth from one end of the world to the other. … And, so, in every European state there are to be found notable Jews, important in the eyes of the government.”16
Theological Significance of the Wars After the French Revolution
The emancipation and the changes that took place in the governance and social structure of western and central European states were brought about by the French revolutionary wars. These wars, which produced a fundamental reordering of Europe, were understood as allusions to the workings of providence in matters beyond the normal human horizon: wars are not randomly visited upon the world; rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He brings them about for specific reasons. Europe was engulfed in conflict for twenty years following the French Revolution, and the wars were so intense, and the ensuing political and social changes so fundamental, that the traditionalists regarded them, beyond any doubt, as the referent of the talmudic statement “wars, too, are the beginning of redemption.”17 For obvious reasons, the Jews were precluded from committing these ideas to writing, but even the few sources we have provide evidence of their wide circulation.
In the diary he kept during the 1809 siege of his city, Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg describes the dreadful effects of its heavy bombardment by French (p.9) artillery. Though exercising deliberate caution, he directs his attention to the Jews' sharing in the wartime suffering and the theological meaning of that suffering: “Now, one of the most likely times for redemption is when Israel is at the greatest depths, a point than which there is no lower. Then he will look willy-nilly into the face of his Messiah … and thereby [fulfill] `look upon the face of your Messiah' [Ps. 84:10]—look for the good, and for the year of redemption.”18 Soon after, he returns to the subject and discourses on it: “And now, my brethren, please see and look how many great troubles and hardships were visited upon us during this present war, the full force of suffering. … And the holy shekhinah is in exile, and the Torah is diminished, and His great Name is desecrated through our many sins; but if we pray for the deliverance of our souls and our redemption, then war will be the beginning of the redemption.”19
It thus appears that a religious Jew in difficult circumstances fortifies himself with a faith suffused with hope for the messianic future that will bring an end to all the present tribulations. That future is ready to take shape, for the very fact that Israel's share of suffering has become so great signifies that things will soon change for the better. At the same time, transformations are occurring on a worldwide scale, suggesting Israel's involvement in the changing arrangements.
The concept that global change accompanied by dramatic events signifies Israel's approaching redemption reverberates in a discourse delivered in New York on 9 May 1798 by ḣazzan Gershom Mendes Seixas. Seixas formulates his attitude toward the wars in Europe on the basis of the talmudic statement that “adversity comes to the world only for the sake of Israel” (Yevamot 63a). In his opinion, the wars themselves clearly indicate that the days of the Messiah are taking shape and approaching, and the sign is reinforced by the two contemporaneous upheavals—the American War of Independence and the French Revolution: “When we consider the current situation and war-related circumstances, as well as the deterioration and ruination of human morals throughout almost the entire world, we come willy-nilly to believe that the days of the redemption's radiance are taking form and coming and that our God will reveal His will to again gather the dispersed remnant of Israel.”20
The sharpest expression of the view that the French Revolutionary Wars constitute a sign of the approaching messianic age can be found in a Hasidic tradition about MenaḤem Mendel of Rimanov:
At the time of the First Napoleonic War, the rebbe R. Mendele wanted to make that war into the War of Gog and Magog [an eschatological confrontation]. He pleaded in his prayer that he [Napoleon] would be victorious in battle in order to bring about the redemption. And he said that in his opinion, it was good that Jewish blood be spilled, and that from Pristik to Rimanov they walk knee-deep in Jewish blood, so that it would be the time for our redemption.21
Not everyone saw the Napoleonic Wars, with all their fearsomeness and all the Jewish blood they claimed, as a sign of Israel's approaching redemption. (p.10) A few sources record that some religious leaders of the age engaged in disputes over the notion. But the very fact of this intellectual confrontation confirms the existence of a view, described above, that was willing to regard the blood price imposed on Israel by the wars—even though they were not Israel's wars—as a sign of the approaching redemption.22
Napoleon's military campaigns in Egypt and the Land of Israel in 1798 also were seen by many as evidence that the Footsteps of the Messiah were upon them. The believers were undeterred by the historical fact that the campaign in the Land of Israel was firmly tied to strategic considerations, as Napoleon sought to overcome British hegemony over Mediterranean commerce and to broaden the areas conquered by France.23 In their view, God's providential direction of history operates through natural events, but particular events in and of themselves do not always represent the intended purpose; rather, they bring in their wake some other event, not yet apparent to the human eye, that turns out to be decisive in achieving the true purpose. ḣazzan Seixas of New York saw Napoleon's campaign in the Land of Israel in that light: “The recent [Ḥadashim la-beqarim; cf. Lam. 3:23] events [Napoleon's conquest of the Land of Israel] that unfolded in an orderly fashion, one after another, in the spiritual and physical worlds, constitute clear and reliable evidence of the truth of God's word … that the great and exalted day is taking shape and approaching.”24
Even though the historical reality is that Napoleon's true goal was the conquest of Egypt, and that he accordingly proceeded through the coastal cities of the Land of Israel and made no attempt to conquer Jerusalem, his campaign was accompanied by rumors of his intention to turn over Jerusalem and the Land of Israel to the Jews and to assist them in renewing the kingdom of Israel. These rumors appear to have been fed by redemption midrashim telling that, at the End, the Christians will rule over the Land of Israel, overthrow the Muslim rulers, and deliver dominion over the Land to the Jewish nation.25 The rumors told as well of a particular decree issued by Napoleon on 20 April 1799, in which he promises that, following his victory, he will return the Land of Israel to the Jews and help them establish their state there. Investigators differ on whether Napoleon actually issued such a decree,26 but whether he did or not is of little import for the present inquiry. What matters is that the excitement was generated and the question raised.
Napoleon's expedition to the Land of Israel and all that it entailed were marvelously consistent with the Jews' expectations for the role of Christians in the process of Israel's redemption, as foretold in the midrashim. The Jewish imagination was energized by the image of the dazzling military commander, apparently sympathetic to the Jews, who invades the Land of Israel and challenges the Ottoman rulers' hold on it. His image, activities, and expedition gave rise to legends that comprised a bit of truth wrapped in an abundance of wishful thinking. Here, too, we are concerned not so much with historical truth as with belief—a belief so firm that it subordinated reality to its needs. Thus, for example, the Jews wanted to believe that Napoleon's expedition to the Land of Israel was undertaken as a venture in its own right, to conquer the Land (p.11) and turn it over to the Jews. Beyond that, they wanted to believe that in invading the Land of Israel, Napoleon battled for Jerusalem and conquered it.
Echoes of such an invented “reality,” subordinated to belief, can be heard in an account by MenaḤem Mendel of Kamenetz, who visited Jerusalem in 1834. In describing the cemetery, he writes: “Still standing there among them is large marble pillar with the form of a hand at its top, known as yad avshalom. And when Napoleon, King of France, did battle on the Mount of Olives, its fingers were broken off of it by the cannons.”27
Napoleon's expedition to the Land of Israel aroused similar religious expectations among Christians. Even as the expedition was being planned, the French press published assessments of its chances for success and wrote sympathetically of the possibility that Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel would ensue: “It is known how much importance [the Jews] assign to their ancient homeland and the city of Jerusalem. They are dispersed throughout the world because of persecutions that have gone on now for eighteen hundred years, yet they still look toward the Land of Israel. … They will come there from the four corners of the world if only given the sign.”28
In Germany, too, Napoleon's eastern expedition generated excitement. A pamphlet that appeared in Berlin in 1799, containing a disputation between a Christian theologian and a Jew, had the Jew uttering these lines: “All the newspapers speak as one about Bonaparte's conquest of this holy place [Jerusalem] and add, almost seriously, that he conquered it for the Jews.”29 Another pamphlet, which appeared in Nuremberg in 1800, notes that Napoleon's expedition to the Land of Israel aroused messianic hopes among the Jews, as well as eschatological hopes among Christians. According to one commentator, the liberty the Jews will henceforth enjoy will no longer take the form of equality granted in exchange for assimilation; rather, it will be their actual national redemption.30
In Protestant England as well, Napoleon's expedition to the Land of Israel gave rise to theological deliberations over Israel's return to its land. These assessments commingled religious expectations with political considerations. The power that helped the Jews return to their land and establish their national state there would gain a grateful and loyal ally in the East, reaping abundant political and economic benefits. Accordingly, it was argued, England should hasten to take advantage of political opportunities by forming alliances to prevent France from harvesting that entire fruit in the wake of Napoleon's expedition.31 The Protestant theologians saw the worldwide array of events as natural causes directed by divine Providence to the fulfillment of “Israel's return.” The exact time of Israel's return to its land might remain uncertain, but there could be no doubt that it was near:
Never have there been so many reasons as now to assume that it is not far off. We live in dreadful times. We and our forebears have seen wars, but never since mankind learned to shed blood has there been a war like the present one, in which nations shell one another to smithereens on account of ideologies and principles simultane (p.12) ously linked to religious institutions and civil governments. The most shocking events transpire in quick succession. The “great Babylon” is shaken to its foundations; Rome itself feels the upheaval's blast; and its political-ecclesiastical government is terminated in an instant. The kingdom of the beast conceals itself and proceeds in darkness. The Turkish power has been attacked with great seriousness and is weakened by its own violence; it is now exhausted and weakened in all its parts to the point that it must ask its (hitherto) longest-standing enemy to support its shaky throne.32
There can be no doubt that the interest publicly shown by Christians in Napoleon's expedition to the Land of Israel and in the ensuing new prospects for Israel's return to the Land stirred the Jews themselves to see in the contemporary events signs of their approaching redemption.
Influence of International Uprisings and Conflicts on the Messianic Notion
After Napoleon's defeat in 1812, Europe calmed down as it recovered from the shockwaves that had overtaken it. The Jews' hopes that world events were heralding the approach of their redemption were nearly extinguished.33 But a new wave of international uprisings and conflicts soon inundated Europe, reigniting the tendency to see world events and transformations as a sign that the redemption was near.
July 1830 witnessed a new uprising in Paris. Under its influence, a rebellion against Holland broke out in Brussels, and an independent kingdom of Belgium was declared. The Dutch king, Wilhelm I, failed in his efforts to subdue the rebellion forcibly. At the same time, the Poles rose up against Russia, but that rebellion was put down by the armies of Czar Nikolai I. In the wake of the Polish rebellion's suppression, a severe cholera epidemic overtook Europe, leaving its mark on the era.34 Once again we are witness to events extraordinary both in their substance and in how they transpire and to political upheavals and transformations concentrated in time, place, and magnitude.
Ẓevi Hirsch Lehren, possessed of a powerful messianic faith, believed that no worldly decree was issued without a precursory supernal decree. On 24 June 1831, he writes: “The earthquake that has now come upon the world in several countries, and the manner in which the fear of government has declined and descended to the dust—who can be sure that this does not entail preparation for the coming of King Messiah, for God, may He be blessed, thereby shows the worldly kings that He alone appoints kings and kingship is properly His. And the shoot of David will sprout and his glory will be raised up, and the kingdom will be restored to Jerusalem.”35 Lehren comments as follows on the political and economic crisis in Europe at that time: “The page is too short to contain the account of the scandals and burdens brought about by the levies to raise armies in order to be fortified against the nation [the (p.13) Belgians] who have rebelled against His Majesty the King, [but] our eyes look heavenward, for all this is a good sign for Israel that the year of redemption and salvation has drawn near, may that be [God's] will speedily in our days, amen.”36
Soon after, Lehren writes:
It appears to me from world affairs that the year of redemption and salvation is near, for the rebellion against kingdoms that has gone on from the year before last year until now is no insignificant matter [lo davar reiq hu; cf. Deut. 32:47]. And I have said already from the beginning of this year, that if the entire world thought as I do and as do many flawless ones who similarly think that we have attained the days of the Messiah, who will reveal himself speedily in our days, and if they were to return to God with all their hearts and all their souls, then we would already have been redeemed. But on account of our many sins, many [people] attribute everything to natural events, in the way of the world, and they pay no attention to the fact that we have already reached the afternoon preceding the onset of the Sabbath. May God have mercy … and ease for us the tribulations of the Messiah [lit., “birth pangs of the Messiah”; suffering that is expected to precede his coming], and may we soon attain the repose and the assigned inheritance [cf. Deut. 12:9].37
In 1833, Lehren details for Israel of Shklov, a leader of the Perushim in Safed, the woes that have brought about a diminution in the funds sent to the Land of Israel. One difficulty was the serious harm inflicted by the cholera epidemic that began to rage in Europe in the summer of 1832. It claimed many lives and left many orphans needing to be sustained by the community.38 Moreover, the ensuing quarantine prevented merchants from traveling from city to city, thereby impairing the Jews' livelihoods and increasing the number of poor people who also had to be supported by the community. Yet another misfortune was the lengthy war waged by his country, Holland, in the context of the Belgian battle for independence. The war widened and spread; France and England came to the aid of the Belgians and made war against Holland to compel it to grant Belgian independence. Lehren expresses concern that the war might expand even further if Russia and Prussia were to carry out their threats to intervene on Holland's side. Still, he concludes optimistically: “Perhaps, in the meanwhile, redemption will grow out of this.”39
In winter 1832–1833, Lehren again expresses concern about a flare-up of war on a wider scale. Czar Nikolai I seemed likely to back the Turkish authorities in going to war against Muhammad Ali (the pasha of Egypt, who was being insubordinate to his Turkish overlord), and it was possible that additional governments would join in the war. Such a war would be unique not only in its dimensions but also, primarily, in its possible theater of operations—the Land of Israel—and Lehren takes comfort in the power of Providence to direct events: “Perhaps it is the time of the End and from it, and through it, redemption and salvation will grow.”40
Until the second half of the eighteenth century, few Jews resided in Czarist Russia. The entry of Jews into Russia's borders was forbidden, primarily for religious reasons. After the second and third partitions of Poland in 1793 and 1795, the number of Jews within the boundaries of Czarist Russia increased to about one million, representing the largest concentration of Jews in Europe.
The Jews in Russia found themselves in a situation very different from that of their brethren in central and western Europe. The latter suffered as a result of the revolutionary wars, but the suffering was not particularly directed to them as Jews; rather, it was the fate of the populace at large. And even the confrontation between Jews and gentiles over emancipation did not entail government intervention in the Jews' autonomous and religious lives. The Jews of Russia, in contrast, were repugnant to the authorities by reason of their very ethnic distinctiveness. In order to turn them into “useful citizens” of the society and state, the authorities sought to forcibly assimilate them. To that end, they enacted special decrees, imposing discriminatory and oppressive rules and coercive mechanisms.
The program of coercion and custodianship against the Jews in Russia became manifest in the time of Czar Alexander I, with the Jewish Statute of 1804. The statute eased the burden imposed on the Jews with respect to some state interests, particularly by granting them permission to own real property and to settle in remote, sparsely populated areas. But it was more onerous than previous arrangements insofar as it forbade the Jews from living in villages as lessees; it gave them three or four years to leave their villages and move to urban areas.41 On the eve of his death in 1825, Alexander I issued an order expelling the Jews from the regions of Mohelov and Vitebsk; another order forbade Jews from living within fifty kilometers of the western border, claiming that in those areas they engaged in smuggling.
The harshest decree to which the Jews of Russia were subjected, known as the Cantonists' Edict, pertained to the military draft. It was first proposed at the start of the nineteenth century, but Jewish intercession managed to prevent its being carried out. On 26 August 1827, however, Nikolai I brought those deferrals to an end. Implementation of the decree profoundly shook Russian Jewry. In contrast to the Austrian military draft, which grew out of an emancipation-based concept of imposing on the Jews equal civic obligations corresponding to their equal civic rights, the Russian military draft reflected the idea that Jews had to be assimilated into society. To that end, it was necessary to do away with every feature that distinguished them, to convert them from their religion, and to employ coercive methods. The military draft could serve as an excellent melting pot. Tearing the Jew away at a young age from his family and Jewish environment; removing his outwardly Jewish features, by steps such as shaving his beard and side curls and confiscating his prayer shawl, phylacteries, and sacred books; and introducing him to a strange way of life, characterized by a strict militaristic doctrine—all of these measures were (p.15) designed to ensure that only a few young men could maintain their Judaism. And not only were the young Jews placed in a strange, rigid context; they were subjected as well to an array of pressures, including harsh psychological and physical torments that one could escape only by agreeing to convert.42
The edict's malicious intention may be evident most clearly in its imposition on the Jewish community of the obligation to see to it that the draft quota was met; the matter was not seen simply as one between the government and the affected individuals. As a result, the Jewish community found itself on the horns of a harsh dilemma. It recognized that unless it strove mightily to produce the requisite number of draftees in a timely fashion, it would by its own hand seal the fate of all the Jews under its protection, for its inability to comply would subject the Jews to renewed attacks by the government. In order to meet the quota but avoid the painful task of selecting the draftees, the Jewish community used the “services” of criminal elements still known in Jewish history as “the kidnappers.” As the time for the draft approached, they would snatch children from among the poorer elements of the populace, and they were determined to meet the quota even if the boys they seized were of tender years.
Many of the draftees converted,43 either because they had been removed from their Jewish environment while still young, before their Jewishness had taken proper shape, or because they succumbed to the torments and coercive measures to which they were subjected. Those who succeeded in maintaining their Judaism did so secretly, fearing harassment by the authorities, and even they were transformed by their experience in fundamental ways. Twenty-five years of military service, of spiritual distance from everything Jewish, tore them away from the old Jewish world. When they returned to their communities, they were regarded as lost: “The cantonist label affected our children negatively not only during their military service but even when they returned to their parents' homes. They wanted to find respite after their harsh labors and after suffering much anger and bitterness; but, for understandable reasons, they could not be reunited with and joined to the source from which they had been hewn.”44 Many other draftees refused with all their might to free their bodies from torment by converting; they breathed their last and died for the sanctification of God's Name.45
How did a believing Jew understand the overall effect of these edicts? How did he view the oppression of the Jewish people in the Diaspora? Did he see it as a natural outgrowth of gentile hatred of Jews, or, perhaps, did he look beyond the human vision of natural, historical causes? Did he attribute the Jewish people's unique status to deeper, hidden, inner reasons, reasons grounded in a Providence striving to realize its program through human history?
Here, too, the believing Jew manifested his inclination to assign transcendent meanings to unique events in Jewish history. Caution, of course, precluded reducing much to writing and led those who dared to write to express themselves obliquely. Still, their meaning is unmistakable. Hillel of Kovno, in his book Hillel ben ShaḤar, reacts to the 1798 military draft of Austrian Jews, and we may regard his comments as applying, a fortiori, to the harsher Russian draft: “A new misfortune, greater than any that has arisen or been seen since (p.16) we became a holy nation, is the kaiser's decree to take men for service as soldiers, … destroying both body and soul by denying the opportunity to sanctify God's name by dying rather than transgressing.”46 In his opinion, this misfortune afflicted the Jewish people on account of its failure to empathize with the sorrow of the shekhinah's exile and to have pity on Jerusalem the desolate. In order to bring home the edict's horrors, he cites the admonition, from the depiction in Deuteronomy of the curses the Israelites will bear if they violate God's commands, that “your sons and daughters will be given over to another nation … and you will be powerless” (Deut. 28:32). In his words:
We do not sense the sorrow of the Holy One Blessed Be He and His shekhinah. Therefore, He brought this sorrow upon us, namely, “your sons and daughters are given over to another nation.” In other words, yesterday, you regarded your sons and daughters as a holy nation, dressed in Jewish garb, wrapped in a fringed garment, crowed with phylacteries, with side curls and beard, but in the space of an instant they are given over to another nation, in gentile garb, with shaved side curls and beard, and your eyes see it … and you are powerless to save them.47
He concludes: “Without doubt, it is the sparks of the tribulations of the Messiah.”48
In considering the oppression of the Jews of Russia, his own land, Hillel of Kovno cautiously speaks of edicts in general, without specifying their nature. Sometimes, he argues again that the divine purpose of the harsh edicts is to stir the people to penance, so that the redemption of the Jewish people might ensue. In formulating that concept, he relies on a talmudic statement: “R. Eliezer says: If Israel repent, they will be redeemed; if not, they will not be redeemed. R. Joshua said to him: If they fail to repent they will not be redeemed? Rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He will establish for them a king whose edicts will be as harsh as Haman's, and Israel will repent and return to the right path.”49
Hillel of Kovno attributes the same purpose to the edicts of his time: “For it is my opinion and understanding, and all with eyes in their heads will see, that the day on which God will attend to His people is near. … Then God will attend to the heavenly host, casting down the angel that torments us. That is to say, he will attend and command terrestrial kings to impose harsh and wicked edicts … as they [the sages] of blessed memory say, it is promised that there will rise up a king as harsh as Haman.”50 Continuing in the same vein, he concludes explicitly that the torments are “tribulations of the Messiah,” which will be followed by the redemption: “The Holy One Blessed Be He prepares for them a king as harsh as Haman. … When the fury of that fire pours down in those oppressive times, there will be no day more accursed. … Without a doubt, it is the spark of the tribulations of the Messiah, … and when the fire of His rage subsides, our House of Splendor will be built, as it is said, `by fire I will in the future rebuild it.'”51
Hillel of Kovno confidently ties the three elements together: repentance is (p.17) an inevitable consequence of the harsh straits in which the Jewish people are living; the redemption without a doubt will follow it, “but repentance on account of fear should not be fled, when they oppress us through subjugation to worldly kingdoms, and all wealth is lost, may that be God's will, speedily and in our day; and each day we look forward to the time when we will cry out to the Lord our God.”52
But it was not enough to view the oppressive decrees leveled against the nation of Israel as part of the historical redemptive process, and hope for the future could not suffice to ease the Jews' suffering. The present woes were too horrific to serve as a source of consolation by being part of a process that would turn out well. Yet, the Jews could do nothing concrete to ease their present lot. Subject as they were to edicts and persecutions, their only recourse was to spiritual action, such as fasting, praying at the graves of pious men and of ones' parents, and giving charity. Nevertheless, with the discovery of the Letters of the Clerks, we find that the Nobles of Vilna turned to Ẓevi Hirsch Lehren and asked him to make use of his access to the western European royal courts to generate international pressure on Nikolai I to revoke the edict.53 But these efforts, for all their audacity, invoked no novel procedures. They were grounded in traditional Jewish concepts with respect to both their overall view of the circumstances and the practical possibility of confronting the difficulties.
The Persecutions and a Changed View of “Pressing for the End”
In the early nineteenth century, a change took place in the traditional concept held by groups identified with disciples of Rabbi Elijah, the Ga'on of Vilna. The change itself, no less than the traditional concept, was grounded in the fundamentals of Jewish belief, and it dealt with the relationship between Israel and the nations of the world.
On the traditional view, the Jews were bound by the Three Oaths that God had imposed to bear the burden of the Diaspora and to refrain from any effort to escape their situation. But the Cantonist Edict cast in stark relief the oaths' limiting condition, which forbids Israel from rebelling against the nations or striving to hasten its redemption only as long as the nations do not subjugate Israel to an unreasonable degree: that is, as long as they grant it autonomy and permit it to maintain its Judaism. The oppressive, anti-Jewish measures imposed by the Russian authorities were so extreme as to annul the force of the three-fold oath: the decrees did not just deny true religious autonomy to Jews; they were intended as a way to terminate Jewish existence. Accordingly, the Jews were freed of the prohibition against pressing for the End and “scaling the wall”; beyond that, they were obliged to stand up for their right to religious existence and to act to emerge from under the hand of those who threatened to wipe them from the face of the earth. To that end, it was permissible, fitting, and even obligatory to press for the End.54
This ideology is articulated in a letter sent in late 1830 by Israel of Shklov, (p.18) a leader of the kolel (community organization) of the Perushim in Safed, to the Ten Tribes.55 Because the troubles in which the Jewish people finds itself are too harsh to bear, he asks them to try to hasten the End, through abundant prayer and pleading before the Holy One Blessed Be He and by crying out and acting to stir the redemption: “Let them engage in much prayer and crying with their pure and holy souls; let them dress royally and enter the inner chamber before the King, the King of kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He, and in their awesome audiences in the holy sanctuaries, before and within, for the waters have reached the neck [cf. Ps. 69:2], and, if not for our sake, let Him act for His. … And may He remember our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and have mercy and gather our exiles and build our holy and magnificent house.”56
The Three Oaths forbade the special spiritual activity that the Ten Tribes were requested to undertake for the purpose of influencing God to change the depressed lot of the Jews, but the force of the prohibition on pressing for the End had expired. The new situation in which Israel found itself required, many came to believe, that it rend the heavens with its cries, for when the Torah was being desecrated by the gentiles and its survival was endangered, it became necessary to act for God's name.
The request to undertake spiritual activities for the purpose of pressing for the End, set in the context of the harsh circumstances in which the Jews of Russia found themselves at that time, can be understood on the basis of the ideological conception described above. What is less understandable is the need to resort to the Ten Tribes in this context. Why did Israel of Shklov, the head of the organization of the Perushim in Safed, pin all his hopes on the spiritual activity of the Ten Tribes and look specifically to them to undertake these actions? At first glance, it appears that he and the members of his group should enjoy a higher standing than the Ten Tribes with respect to spiritual activity; for while the image and location of the Ten Tribes remained shrouded in mystery, he himself, and the members of his group, were legatees of the Ga'on Rabbi Elijah; they resided in the holy Galilee, and they could engage in activities at the graves of the holy men—great rabbis of all generations—who are buried there. But it stands to reason that Israel of Shklov looked to the Ten Tribes because their image was tied to various aspects of the redemption. He suggests they were graced with a unique capacity to influence heavenly activity related to all manner of extreme circumstances in which Israel might find itself. As concrete examples, he cites two episodes in which Jews in difficult straits were helped by the Ten Tribes.57 And, Israel of Shklov writes in his epistle, reports have recently been received about the discovery of traces of the Ten Tribes. To be sure, this was but a single report; still, it was enough to arouse the hope that there might now be a reasonable opportunity to establish contact with them. He writes that in 1829, emissaries from Safed went to Yemen and met a member of the tribe of Dan, who recounted to them the wonders of the Ten Tribes and their distinguished and marvelous status. Additional and precise details could not be obtained, however, for while he was speaking, the man mysteriously disappeared.58
(p.19) The confluence of extraordinary events requiring radical explanation with something able to hint at that explanation tends to strengthen the belief that the explanation is, in fact, the one that is sought. In other words: the fact that persecution of Russian Jews during this period became so intense as to annul the ban on spiritual activity directed toward hastening the End coincided with the emergence of an opportunity to engage in just such activity by invoking the Ten Tribes, and that juxtaposition strengthened Israel of Shklov's belief that a decisive change in Israel's fate was at hand and that it was poised in the doorway to the messianic age.59
That and more: according to the sages of blessed memory, the very discovery of the Ten Tribes constitutes proof that Israel is at the threshold of redemption, for it allows for realization of the hoped-for process of gathering the exiles and returning dispersed Israel to its source:
For that purpose, they relied on the words of our holy rabbis, the tanna'im,60 who taught us … and, similarly, our master, the tanna R. Simeon bar YoḤai [to whom authorship of the Zohar is traditionally ascribed] revealed to us in his holy Zohar, that at the time of the Footsteps of the Messiah, some of our brothers of the Ten Tribes will be discovered. … When in the future the Holy One Blessed Be He gathers Israel in, He will first gather the Tribe of Manasseh, … The Ten Tribes previously exiled beyond the River Sambatyon, whom the exiles of Judah and Benjamin are destined to join and bring back, so they may together attain the days of the Messiah and the life of the world-to-come.61
The Enlightened Rule of Muhammad Ali in the Land of Israel: A Sign of the Approaching Redemption
The Jews placed great messianic hopes in Muhammad Ali, who rebelled against the Ottoman authorities and ruled in the Land of Israel from 1832 to 1840. In contrast to Napoleon, whose expedition to the Land of Israel took no permanent root, Muhammad Ali's appearance produced a more enduring presence. He was involved with the Land, sympathetic to its Jewish inhabitants and their religious needs, and concerned about the Land's economic development and its residents' interest in security. The Jews who anticipated the redemption saw in his enlightened rule not a Muslim government but a European-Christian one, and, in reliance on the Zohar and the midrashim, they understood his appearance not merely as a change in sovereignty but as a reversal of religious-messianic significance.
According to the Zohar, the Muslims were granted sovereignty over the Land of Israel as a reward for observing the commandment of circumcision, and it is that merit of theirs that delays Israel's return to the Land and reestablishment of its sovereignty: “And the Children of Ishmael [i.e., the Arabs] are destined to rule over the Holy Land for an extended time, while it is empty (p.20) and lacking perfection, and they will impede the Children of Israel's return to their place until the merit of the Children of Ishmael is recompensed.”62 Because a premature effort by the Jews to seize sovereignty over the Land from the Muslims might cause prosecution on high, the Holy One Blessed Be He, according to a complementary midrashic source, will bring about a Christian conquest of the Land from the Muslims, so that it will be the Christians from whom the Jews regain it: “`And the swine'—that is Edom, `for it does not chew the cud'—for another kingdom does not follow upon it. And why is it called the swine [Ḥazir]? Because it returns [meḤazeret] the crown to its owners, as it is written, `Saviors will ascend Mount Zion to judge the Mountain of Esau [i.e, Edom], and sovereignty will be the Lord's (Obad. 1:21).”63
Of course, there was a contradiction between the Muslim faith of Muhammad Ali as an individual and his enlightened “Christian-style” regime,64 but that did not prevent believing Jews from ascribing religious-messianic meaning to the change in government in the Land of Israel. Echoes of that concept can be heard in the writings of Ẓevi Hirsch Lehren:
His exalted majesty judged well, for it is good for the people of the Land of Israel to live under the Egyptian king. … But days will come when they will speak of what God has commanded, for it is not a simple thing in our eyes, and there is room here to question whether the aforesaid king is, in fact, Ishmaelite, in which case there is no ignoring the words of the holy Zohar that because of the request of Abraham our father, peace be upon him, that “if only Ishmael live” [Gen. 17:18], our Holy Land was given to him. But if he [Muhammad Ali] is not Ishmaelite, a doorway of hope is opened that he has come only to clear the way to the kingship of Israel.65
Muhammad Ali authorized the Jews to repair their synagogues, a step seen by many Jews as signifying the start of the redemption. Lehren expresses gratitude for the news and extends greetings: “May God augment His kindness to his nation and speedily enable us to sense the true salvation and complete redemption, for we now have great need for it.”66
Gentiles living in the Land of Israel report in a similar vein on the effects of these changes with respect to religious ceremonies. According to them, the Jews saw this revolutionary phenomenon as messianic in and of itself, for only a short while earlier, under the previous regime, a Jewish community official nearly lost his life while trying to carry out minor repairs at the synagogue, which was now being renovated. The Jews, of course, still believed the Messiah would come miraculously; yet when they compared their present situation with what preceded it, they saw the change itself as proof of the Messiah's footsteps.67
It appears that the rule of Muhammad Ali, even more than the other events described above, was seen by Jews as a sign that the redemption was near. In contrast to the various negative developments, understood to be “tribulations of the Messiah,” Muhammad Ali's enlightened rule in the Land of Israel was not a passing event but a permanent state of affairs. The change in government (p.21) represented a fundamental change in circumstances, and the new situation appeared to be gaining stability. An echo of the strong sense that this change was substantive and religiously significant in a messianic sense can be found in the letters of Eliezer Bregman. On 2 March 1835, he writes from Jerusalem:
And the Ishmaelite gentiles are subjugated and greatly cast down, and the Jews, in contradistinction, especially the Ashkenazim, are, with the help of God, may He be blessed, raised to a high level. … And from reliable people it is heard that not in a long while (perhaps not since the time of our holy rabbi [R. Judah the Prince, late second to early third century C.E.]) have the Jews in the Land of Israel experienced, blessed be God, such great tranquility. It has reached the point where it reasonable to say that with supernal grace the beginning of the redemption has already arrived, and speedily and in our days may the Redeemer come to Zion.68
In an ensuing letter, Bregman writes: “In any event, the laws of the present king are very good, with the help of God, for the children of His people, so it may be said without exaggeration that through supernal grace, the beginning of the future redemption has already arrived, may it come speedily and in our days.”69
The ideas expressed here flow not only from the situation and events but, primarily, from direct experience of developments in Jerusalem—the place where the redemption of Israel is to take shape. It is that which makes these expressions of faith in imminent redemption as powerful as they are.
Appendix: A Text on Messianism
These nine lines translated below constitute the only Jewish source describing the great fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on 12 October 1808 (Hoshana Rabba 5569). The fire, which destroyed the church structure and weakened its great dome, was taken by the Jews as a sign that the time was “close to the coming of our righteous Messiah.” Earlier fires at the Church of the Sepulcher had likewise aroused messianic hopes, and this was no exception. The nine lines are written on the inside cover of the book MinḤat Ya`aqov (Polonnoye, 1802), acquired at an unknown time by the rabbi of Altona, Jacob Etlinger. My thanks to Judah Horowitz for providing me the photocopy of the source and allowing its publication. (The translation is by the translator of this volume.)
A great event that took place in the holy city of Jerusalem (may it be built and established speedily and in our day), for the rabbi R. NaḤum of Zamost came to us from Jerusalem and told us that on the day of Hoshana [Rabba] of the year 5569 , may it be blessed, before dawn, a fire descended from Heaven and the appalling house of idolatry, the prime source of impurity, was destroyed, [and it was] (p.22) a wonder or by means of magic or by means of wisdom, for it itself gave forth fire, and God judged it by fire, and several of their houses were burned along with several priests and treasures of kings and emperors that had been there from ancient times, [though] they maintained guards there, about sixty men, never stopping by day or night. And the cloister was made of marble, with a roof of iron, but it nevertheless was burned—destroyed, destroyed to its very foundation—and was left dust and ashes. And for the Jews, there was light and joy, and they all went up on the rooftops to rejoice, for they also had a tradition from the people of Jerusalem that when the foregoing impurity was burned, the time of our righteous Messiah's coming would be near. And they wrote to the Sultan [requesting permission] to rebuild its ruins, and he replied that because He had shown from the heavens His great fire, and He had light in Zion, it was not possible to rebuild it while we in the Holy Congregation of Tiberias still had among us worry over the land. And bless God that for the Jews, there was comfort and relief.
(1.) Several studies have treated messianism during this period. They include B. Z. Dinur, “The Question of Redemption and Its Ways During the Early Enlightenment and the First Controversy Over Emancipation” (Hebrew), in his book Mifneh ha-Dorot (Jerusalem, 1972), pp. 231–354; J. Katz, “The Historical Figure of R. Ẓevi Hirsch Kalisher” (Hebrew), Shivat Ẓiyyon 2–3 (1951), pp. 26–41; idem., “Messianism and Nationalism in the Teaching of R. Alcalay” (Hebrew), Shivat Ẓiyyon 4 (1956), pp. 9–41; M. Vereté, “The Restoration of the Jews in English Protestant Thought 1790–1840,” Middle Eastern Studies 8 (1972), pp. 3–50 (Hebrew original in Zion 32 , 145–179); B. Mevorakh, “The Messianic Question in the Polemics Regarding Emancipation and Reform 1781–1819” (Hebrew), Ph.D. dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1966; idem., “Belief in the Messiah in Early Polemics Over Reform” (Hebrew), Zion 34 (1969), pp. 189–218.
(2.) “R. El`azar bar Avina said: If you see kingdoms inciting one another, anticipate the footsteps of the Messiah” (Genesis Rabbah 42).
“R. YoḤanan said: The generation in which the [Messiah] son of David arrives [will be one in which] scholars become few and others watch helplessly in anguish. Numerous afflictions and harsh persecutions will be renewed; by the time one passes, another will hasten to arrive.” (Sanhedrin 97a.)
(3.) “What are these three oaths? One, that Israel would not ascend the wall [i.e., would not prematurely attempt to restore Jewish dominion in the Land of Israel]; one, that God adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world; and one, that God adjured the heathen not to subjugate Israel excessively” (Ketubbot 111a).
(4.) Applications of the “Three Oaths” during the period in question include the following: “The hoped-for return to Palestine … has absolutely no influence on our conduct as citizens. Experience has always taught as much in all places where the Jews have been tolerated, down to today. In a sense, (p.214) that fact is consistent with human nature, for a person normally does not daydream, but loves the land on which it is well for him. But it may also be attributed to our Sages, who foresaw the future and often in the Talmud taught us the prohibition against even contemplating the use of force to return. … They forbade us from taking even the simplest step toward scaling the wall and reestablishing the nation in the absence of the great miracles and supernatural signs promised by Scripture.” Moses Mendelssohn, quoted in Sefer ha-Ẓiyyonut: Mevaserei ha-Ẓiyyonut, ed. Ben-Zion Dinberg (Jerusalem, 1944), p. 183.
“We are not permitted to extend a hand and help ourselves. … We must remain quiet and calm, not contravening the commands of our ruler in each city and province. Until each and every nation, every ruler and prince, through his own good will and great love inspired by God becomes excited about this nation … and himself sends or brings it … to the House of the God of Jacob. … In this way, we hope only that they will send us to Jerusalem our holy city of their own will … and if they do not wish to do so of their own good will, then even if it appears to us that we are able to go up to Jerusalem by our own mighty force, we are not permitted to do anything on our own, so as not to violate the oath by which the God of our fathers adjured us.” Ẓeror ha-ḣayyim, R. Abraham Lowenstam (Amsterdam, 1820), p. 76a.
On the Reform movement's various approaches to the question of messianism, see W. Gunther Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism (New York, 1963); Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York, 1988).
(5.) “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even if he tarry, I nevertheless daily await his arrival” (Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith, Principle 12).
(6.) Sanhedrin 97a.
(7.) The Fürth community formed the arena for a sharp conflict between reformers and traditionalists. In the 1820s, the reformers gained ascendance; in 1830, Wolf Hamburg was removed as head of the yeshiva and was replaced as rabbi by the reformer Dr. Isaac Levy. The local yeshiva was closed, and its students were expelled from the city by the government.
(8.) In describing the appearance of the Reform movement in his city, Hamburg uses terms borrowed from the Talmud's definitions of the generation of the Redemption: “But the people of our generation even on the Sabbath study only non-canonical books. And in that respect, the face of the generation is like the face of a dog. For it is written, `And the dogs are brazen of spirit, not knowing satiation' (Isa. 56:11), that is, they fail to recognize the virtue of the Torah. … And it may also be said that the face of the generation is a new sect … whose face is turned only toward food and sustenance and this-worldly matters, pursuing physical desires, just as the face of a dog.” Qol Bokhim, R. Wolf Hamburg (Fürth, 1820), p. 44a.
(9.) Ibid., pp. 31a–32a. Hamburg elsewhere returns to his desired conclusion that the Messiah's advent will be in a generation that is entirely culpable: “What follows from this is that even if we are not eligible and worthy of being redeemed, there nevertheless is hope, as the prophet [Micah 7:15] said, `as in the days when you left the Land of Egypt' … and just as they were redeemed then at the [designated] time though unworthy, so will it be at the final redemption, to be redeemed though unworthy and even though we are intermingled with the nations of the world and have learned from their deeds, those of the wicked of our generation.” Misped ha-Mishneh, R. Wolf Hamburg (Fürth, 1823), p. 1a.
(10.) Simlat Binyamin, part 2, R. Wolf Hamburg (Fürth, 1841), p. 62b. A similar (p.215) attitude can be found in a eulogy for Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg: “Given what our rabbis and sages of blessed memory informed us and determined—that the Torah will in the future be forgotten in Israel—see, we are genuinely living in [fulfillment of] their words. For they knew, through their spirit of understanding; and a spirit from on high alighted on them and they prophesied and knew what was before and after. … And, behold, they see us, who, in our great sins, have destroyed truth, for we have descended ten degrees … and there is no doubt that this is the time of the divine right hand, for a reason hidden with the Creator. … And so we hope for him, to quickly see his magnificent might, and see the light he will bring to Zion.” Evel Mosheh, Eliezer Lipman of Solish (Offen, 1840). (Emphasis supplied, here and below.)
(11.) Iggerot ha-Peqidim ve-ha-Armarkalim mei-Amsterdam (1826–1870) (“Letters of the Peqidim and Amarkalim [Clerks and Administrators] in Amsterdam”; referred to as the “Letters of the Clerks”), 15 vols, Yad Ben-Zvi Library, Jerusalem, vol. 8, p. 168a.
(12.) “It is an act of Satan in each and every city and province, not just among the lay leaders but even among the rabbis. The holy congregation of Fürth will demonstrate it: Who sits at its head? A member of the Neologist [the term used in Hungary for Reform] sect [Dr. Levy], who does not believe in the giving of the Torah and its commandments orally … And they did not remove him; rather, they admonished him to conduct himself properly and to attend synagogue services on the weekdays. In Frankfurt-am-Main, the God-fearing ones thought they had prevailed, but nine were selected, all of them innovators. All of this shows that we are close to the set time for redemption, and salvation is near.” Iggerot ha-Peqidim (Letters of the Clerks), vol. 8, p. 161a (letter of 18 June 1839).
(13.) “Emancipation” refers to the recognition of the civil, legal, and political equality of Jews as citizens of the state, particularly in the wake of the French Revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man.
(16.) Shivat Ẓiyyon, part 2, A. J. Slutsky (Warsaw, 1892), p. 49. Even though this source is late, one may regard it as representing a concept expressed in Kalisher's letter of 25 August 1836 to Anschel Rothschild. J. Klausner, ed., The Zionist Writings of Rabbi Ẓevi Kalisher (Jerusalem, 1947), pp. 1–14 (Hebrew).
(17.) Megillah 17b. So, too, in the midrash: “At the hour of the King Messiah's revelation, all the kings of the nations will be fighting one another … and Israel will be agitated and terrified, saying, `where shall we turn?' … and he will say to them … `Fear not; the time of your redemption has come.'” Yalqut Shim`oni, Isaiah, sec. 497.
(19.) Ibid., p. 53. It may be inferred that Moses Sofer sought to avoid praying for the end of the war, lest the time of messianic potential go by. It is recounted that during World War I, in reliance on this passage, several admorim (Hasidic rebbes; sing. admor—an acronym for the Hebrew honorific “our lord, teacher, and rabbi”) wanted to declare a communal fast, “but the admor of Munkacz declined to pray for the peace of the nations, for in his view, war, too, was the beginning of the redemption.” Yemot ha-MashiaḤ, an anthology of the sayings of ḣayyim El`azar Shapira, the admor of Munkacz (Jerusalem, 1970), p. 57a. It is told of Rafael ha-Kohen, the rabbi of Altona and Hamburg and the first teacher of ḣayyim of Volozhin, that he aspired all his life to emigrate to the Land of Israel and was never able to, but in the wake of the wars of 1803, “he discoursed much on contemporary world events, in case they bear an opening of hope or will allow, once the sound of war is quieted, an opportu (p.216) nity to journey to his destination.” Rafael ha-Kohen never succeeded in fulfilling his hopes, and he died on 11 November 1803. Zekher Ẓaddiq, R. Eliezer Katzenellenbogen (Vilna, 1879), p. 21a.
Writing from Jerusalem in 1816, a Christian traveler, James Buckingham, described the attitude of the Jews toward the French Revolutionary Wars: “They still faithfully hope for the coming of the Messiah, and they are convinced that the recent wars served as preparation for his coming.” Mas`ei Noẓrim le-Erez Yisra'el, ed. M. Ish-Shalom (Tel-Aviv, 1966), p. 419.
(20.) Divrei Yemei Yisra'el, Dorot AḤahronim, R. Mahler, part 1, vol. 1, p. 129.
(23.) Some of Napoleon's early campaigns, in which the Jews were rescued from the rage of the local Christian populace, aroused messianic excitement: “It must be recognized that the French love for the Jews is unqualified. This is proven by [their treatment of the Jews] in all the cities and lands they have conquered, for if Jews are present, they augment and elevate them and subdue the children of Edom [a euphemism for oppressive Rome and, later, Christianity—translator]. And it appears to me that the prophet Obadiah alluded to this when he said [1:1] “a representative [ẓir] has been sent among the nations.” Ẓir [spelled ẓ-y-r] is an acronym for ẓorfatim yashpilu romiyim (the French will subdue the Romans) and over all is their great general, known as “the good portion,” that is, Buene Parto. “We must know that everything that happened to us this week, and the intentions of these Christians against us, had been revealed by God to this loyal general, for God makes everything a vehicle of his agency.” Ma`aseh Nisim (Chronicle from Ancona of the Days of Napoleon's First Italian Campaign), in Mevorakh, Napoleon and His Time, pp. 28–29; see also pp. 42, 53–54, 57, 85–86.
(24.) Divrei Yemei Yisra'el, part 1, vol. 1, p. 290.
(25.) E.g., Sefer ha-Zohar, Peirush ha-Sulam, Parashat Va'eira, par. 13; Leviticus Rabbah, Seder Shemini, end of chap. 13.
(26.) The question was examined at the Second World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in 1957. Prof. M. Vereté contended that no such a decree was ever issued, and he continued to adhere to that view, as I conclude from a discussion we had. In contrast, others say that Napoleon did issue a decree to the Jews; see Franz Kobler, Napoleon and the Jews (Jerusalem, 1975), and N. M. Gelber, “Napoleon I and the Land of Israel,” in Sefer Dinberg, ed. YiẓḤaq Baer, Yehoshu`a Guttman, and Mosheh Sova (Jerusalem, 1949) (Hebrew), pp. 263–288.
(28.) Mevorakh, “The Messianic Question,” p. 22.
(29.) Ibid., p. 50. English millenarian literature treats Napoleon's “messianic” mission at length. One book devotes hundreds of pages to examining every event in Napoleon's life and finding its basis in Scripture. In the writer's opinion, Napoleon's eastern expedition was motivated by his intense hatred for England and his great appetite for conquest and destruction, but God subjugated these motivations to the fulfillment of the divine mission with respect to the nation of Israel. The writer was convinced that Napoleon would proclaim himself the Jews' Messiah and return some of them to Zion. James Holty, A Combined View of the Prophecies of Daniel, Esdros and St. John (London, 1815), pp. 387, 466.
(30.) Mevorakh, “The Messianic Question,” p. 51. See also the study by Abraham (p.217) G. Duker, “The `Tarniks,'” in Joshua Starr Memorial Volume (New York, 1953), p. 196. The Scottish missionary McCaul tells that that when he visited the Warsaw suburb of Praga, he was received by the rabbi of the Hasidim, who told him he had long thought of Napoleon as the Messiah, a belief disproven by Napolenon's death. Nevertheless, the Hasid continued, one who returns the nation of Israel to its land will be recognized by the Jews as the Messiah. Jewish Expositor (London, 1821) (hereafter: J. E.), pp. 466–467.
(31.) M. Vereté, “The Concept of Israel's Return in English Protestant Thought, 1790–1840” (Hebrew), Zion 33, pp. 176–178. An English Christian theologian wrote in 1818 that Great Britain's destiny as a tool of Providence for bringing about the return to Zion is alluded to in Isa. 60:9: “For the isles await me, and the ships of Tarshish are in the lead, to bring your children from afar.” J. E. (1818), p. 73.
(32.) Mevorakh, “The Messianic Question,” p. 140. On the Jews' messianic expectations in the wake of Napoleon's military victories in 1806–1807, see A. Shischa, “Epistle of the Rabbinic Emissary ḣayyim Barukh of Miastro” (Hebrew), in M. Benayahu, ed., Sefer Zikkaron le-Rav YiẓḤaq Nissim, part 4 (Jerusalem, 1985), p. 330.
(33.) Despite Napoleon's failure, he continued to be regarded as having plans to restore the Jews to the Land of Israel. His purposes in establishing a Sanhedrin in 1806–1808 were examined in that light, and Metternich likewise assumed that Napoleon's purpose was to harness the Jews of Europe to his cause so they would assist him in his conquests. A note from that period states: “The Jews are beginning almost to believe in Bonaparte as the Messiah.” Mevorakh, “The Messianic Question,” pp. 88–91.
(34.) Thousands of Jews perished in the European cholera epidemic of 1831–1832. Those of a messianist bent saw the phenomenon as a positive omen. For example: “Although my soul is terrified and my spirit still has not calmed down within me after the sorrows and tribulations that have come over us … do not fear … for according to my reasoning, and what has been verified to me and my confidants regarding the force of the decree that has been issued on account of our many sins to augment the torments for our good, to bring near the set time for our redemption, may it be speedy.” Remarks of the Admor of Munkacz, ḣayyim El`azar Shapira, to his Ḥasidim on the eve of the festival of Sukkot, 1831, Yemot ha-MashiaḤ, pp. 76–77.
Judah ḣai Alcalay asserts that the ten years between 5590 (1830) and 5600 (1840) were a sort of “ten days of penitence” and that the woes afflicting Israel were designed to rouse them to repentance in anticipation of the End-year: “In 1831, there occurred the first cholera [epidemic], which destroyed many families and embittered many mothers.” Kitvei ha-Rav Yehudah Alqal`ai, YiẓḤaq Refael, ed., vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1975), p. 75.
One eulogist brackets the earthquake in Safed with the second outbreak of the epidemic in Europe in 1836: “[In] which, on account of our many sins, great communities in Safed and Hebron were destroyed, houses collapsed, and several hundred were killed. … A plague and epidemic, the illness of cholera, God protect us, spread throughout almost all the cities of Europe and claimed many victims.” The eulogist associates the cholera epidemic with the decline of the Torah's status following Akiva Eiger's death in 1838: “It is said at the end of [tractate] Sotah [49b], `in the [time of] the Footsteps of the Messiah, brazenness will prevail, etc., and those who fear sin will be despised and truth will be absent … until the fulfillment of their statement that the son of David will not come until a fish is sought for one who is ill and will not be found,' for it is known that a sage is compared to a fish.” Qol Bokhim, R. Israel ben Leivush of Krotchin ([Breslau], 1838).(p.218)
That said, it should be noted as well that other eulogists tied the events solely to the sins of the generation, assigning to them no messianic quality.
(36.) Ibid., p. 102b.
(37.) Ibid., p. 116b.
(38.) This is the only occasion on which Lehren manifests an understanding of the priority of local needs over funding for the Jews in the Land of Israel.
(40.) Ibid., p. 78a. These modes of thought appear as well in English millenarian literature. In an essay printed apparently in the 1830s, one finds the view that the Napoleonic Wars and the success of the Greeks in gaining their independence from the Turkish yoke are signs heralding the return of Israel to its land. E. Irving, The Signs of Time (London, 1810), pp. 10–14. Opposition to the view that there is a link between this-worldly wars and the approaching arrival of the Messiah can be found in Sefer ha-Zikhronot by Mordecai Samuel Girondi: “I heard the sound of a great tumult … the masses of many nations endeavoring to throw off the fear of their kings and princes who rule over them. With many sounds and full-voiced cheering, these cities and provinces, with no knowledge and no understanding, plan to destroy the peace of the world, and this brings fear and trembling to the hearts of those who fear God and love peace. … But I have come to tell you that you are a delight in my eye and your heart should not believe the words of the sage R. Solomon Samuel of Ancona, a teacher in the talmud Torah study house in your holy encampment, who heralds and says publicly that these sounds and cheering are signs of our righteous Messiah, for they are all dreams and vanities that have passed through his deceiving mind for several years.” Samuel Mordecai Girondi, Sefer ha-Zikhronot, sec. 230 (1848), ms. Montefiore no. 58 in Jews' College Library, London.
(42.) Y. ha-Levi Lifschitz, Zikhron Ya`aqov, part 1 (Kovno-Slobodka, 1924), photocopied edition (Israel, 1968), pp. 203–208. Of these measures' profoundly disturbing effects Lifschitz writes: “No pen is powerful enough, and no writer's hand enduring enough, to describe and depict the shocking images, the cries of despair and howling of the mothers, fathers, and family of the pitiful soul snatched by the kidnappers. … The kidnappers would burst into the house accompanied by armed soldiers and forcibly snatch the child away from his parents, carrying him in their arms to the guardhouse. … The parents would run after the kidnappers, screaming bitterly. The mothers and the wives would beat their breasts and pull the hair from their heads … even hearts as hard as flint would melt and become springs of water upon hearing the wails and keening of the mothers: `My son, my son, would that I had miscarried before you were born; woe, woe is me, would that you were now given over to be a slave to slaves, to trample your flesh so you are not defiled by eating non-kosher meat; I would rather you were brought to the grave now, for then you would be dancing in the circle of God and I would rejoice, for you would be buried in a Jewish grave. Woe, woe is me, for your bones will fall into a grave of cruel gentiles, from numerous torments and murderous beatings by the wicked. People! … Why are you silent about my poor son being murdered?' … Such [mournful] sounds are now heard in the streets … but [after a short while] they will fall silent … for can it be that they will cancel the edict?” Ibid., p. 114.
The author goes on to recount the harsh fate that befell those who were taken: “Many of those who were seized at first did not put any food in their mouths, because (p.219) of their great anguish. And some continued [to refuse food], contriving thereby to choose death and thereby be saved from a more bitter death, that is, service in Nikolai's army, which was regarded as a double death—a death of cruel torment, and a spiritual death of apostasy and conversion. But nature takes its course, and when hunger bore down on them, and they smelled the aroma of the food placed before them, slowly they were persuaded to eat.” Ibid., p. 115. And see, more recently, M. F. Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia 1825–1855 (Philadelphia, 1983).
(43.) Over the course of the nineteenth century, about 70,000 Jewish soldiers converted. Lifschitz, Zikhron Ya`aqov, p. 211.
(44.) Ibid., p. 213.
(45.) Ibid., pp. 210, 213.
(47.) Ibid., p. 24a.
(48.) Ibid., p. 25a.
(49.) Sanhedrin 97b.
(50.) Hillel ben ShaḤar, p. 8a.
(51.) Ibid., p. 25a.
(52.) Ibid., p. 42a.
(53.) J. J. and B. Rivlin, Iggerot ha-Peqidim ve-ha-Armarkalim mei-Amsterdam (Letters of the Peqidim and Amarkalim of Amsterdam), vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1970) (Hebrew) (hereafter: Rivlin and Rivlin, Letters of the Clerks), pp. 10, 11, 14, 25, 127–133.
(54.) “And now, in this recent generation, when troubles come frequently, there is no source of livelihood; and this people of God are at a low point—for on that account we fall and plead before our Master, have mercy, have mercy upon us! … Help us as we pray! … And if He is a bit angry over the sins of His people, they [the gentiles] have augmented their harsh yoke many times more than warranted … and they have violated the oath imposed on them by the Lord our God not to subjugate Israel too harshly so they will not press for the End.” Iggerot Ereẓ Yisra'el (Letters of the Land of Israel), ed. A. Yaari (Tel-Aviv, 1943), p. 352.
(55.) The spread of the belief in the existence and possible discovery of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel during the period under consideration is noteworthy. To cite some of the evidence: “So they are not mislead by vanity, we should go and make them wings so they may return to the land of our ancestors, as many went sixty years ago on hearing rumors of the Messiah son of Joseph and the Ten Tribes proudly returning, cited by journalists as a basis for mocking Israel and withdrawing support for their activities.” Ha-Levanon, no. 32 (20 March 1873). The author was Ẓevi Hirsch ha-Levi Lifschitz of Anikast, reacting to rumors, reported in the newspaper Ha-Maggid, that the Turkish sultan intended to sell the Land of Israel to the Jews. This evidence is supported by the reprintings of Menasheh ben Israel's book about the Ten Tribes in Shklov in 1797 and in Vilna in 1836 and 1837. The Shklov 1797 edition contains the following remarks by the printer: “And so, we have found that this book is nearly unavailable in our region, so we have taken the initiative to bring it to press so the Children of Israel may find some respite for their souls in our present exile.” He continues: “For a long time now I have wondered why nothing has been heard from our brethren, the Ten Tribes. … For why should not our brethren the children of Israel in the lands of Germany, Holland, England, and Italy—whom God has endowed with a scientific mind and with high standing in the hearts of the nations and their princes—investigate this important matter? … Accordingly, I said that since this is a time of good news … and our brethren the Children of Israel in this bitter exile have an op (p.220) portunity to rest from their sorrow and sadness and stop the fools of the nation from going astray by denying the existence of the Kingdom of the Jews.” Miqveh Yisra'el, Menasheh ben Israel (Shklov, 1797). The same wording appears in the Vilna editions of 1836 and 1837. I believe the concluding words of the quotation to be directed against rationalist circles that battled against the belief in the existence of the Ten Tribes and the prevalent sense of the approaching End-time. That rationalist view, it seems to me, was expressed in the publication of Sippur ḣalomot Qeẓ ha-Pela'ot or Me'ora`ot Ẓevi, a collection of letters written against Shabbetai Ẓevi and his disciples and published in six editions during the years 1804–1840. The introduction to that book states: “And now we have brought [it] to print, to stir the congregation of the children of Israel and fortify it so as not to budge the least bit from our commandments … and not to heed words of falsehood that contradict our holy Torah.”
Further evidence of the belief in the Ten Tribes is provided by Jacob Safir: “The persecutions in the Diaspora in the year  aroused many of the leading authorities among our brethren the Children of Israel in Lithuania to ask the ga'on, the splendor of Israel, may his memory be blessed [R. Israel of Shklov] to select wise men to search after our brethren the tribes of Jeshurun and sons of Moses, for it is told that in previous years there was a time of trouble for Israel, and those lost ones came and saved them from their woes.” Jacob Safir, Masa Teiman , ed. A. Yaari (Jerusalem, 1951), p. 154. See further discussion in chapter 5 of this volume.
(56.) Yaari, Iggerot Ereẓ Yisra'el, p. 353.
(57.) Ibid., pp. 347–348.
(58.) Ibid., p. 348.
(59.) “And all sources of livelihood and sustenance will be diminished, and Israel will become greatly impoverished. The poor and deprived will seek bread and there will be none; other harsh decrees will beset [them]; and children will come to the point of birth but the strength to bear them will be lacking. It will be a time of trouble for Jacob, but from it, he will be saved.” Ibid., p. 351.
(60.) [Tanna'im (sing., tanna) are the rabbis of the mishnaic period.—translator]
(61.) Yaari, Iggerot Ereẓ Yisra'el, p. 348.
(62.) Sefer ha-Zohar, Peirush ha-Sulam, Parashat Va'eira, par. 13.
(63.) Lev. Rabbah, Seder Shemini, end of chap. 3. [The midrash make this point through wordplays on Lev. 11:7, which mentions the swine as an example of an animal that may not be eaten. One wordplay is noted in the text; the other is based on the multiple meanings of the Hebrew verb stem g-r-r, including “grind”—as in “chew the cud”—and “follow upon.” As already noted, Edom (or Esau), is rabbinic code for Rome and, later, Christian Europe.—translator]
(64.) In addition to granting equal rights to the Christian minority, Muhammad Ali also arranged and outfitted his troops in the European manner.
(65.) Iggerot ha-Peqidim (Letters of the Clerks), vol. 5, p. 86a. Elsewhere Lehren says: “May it be [God's] will that this king or ruler remain in power, but if, God forbid, the government returns to what it was under his predecessor, then let the Protector of Israel protect the remnant of His nation. Ibid., vol. 8, p. 7a.
(66.) Ibid., vol. 5, p. 113b.
(69.) Ibid. p. 99.(p.221)