Tag Archives: Jewish State

Tisha B’Av: The Untold Story of Napoleon and the Jews

Tisha b’Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. This holiday commemorates many historical tragedies, most significantly the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. One of the most common stories heard on Tisha b’Av is about Napoleon walking by a Paris synagogue on this day, hearing the lamentations and loud weeping of the Jews. In the story, he asks what the Jews are crying about, and after being told about the destruction of the Temple nearly two millennia ago, apparently remarks something along the lines of: “A nation that cries and fasts for 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their Temple.”

Hearing this story immediately sets off some alarms. Firstly, Napoleon was no ignoramus, and was certainly well aware of the destruction of the Temple (after all, the Temple is featured in the “New Testament” and plays an important role in Christian history as well). More notably, Napoleon was a military man his entire life; his biography is the very definition of a tough guy. This man lived by the sword—it is highly unlikely that he would praise people for sitting and crying about something.

In fact, the myth of Napoleon and Tisha b’Av has been debunked multiple times (see here for example). One of the earliest known sources of the legend is a Yiddish article from 1912, later included in the 1924 American Jewish Yearbook, and similarly appearing in a 1942 book called Napoleon in Jewish Folklore. Here, we are given a far more logical version of the story: After hearing the weeping of the Jews in a synagogue in Vilnius, Napoleon points to his sword and says, “This is how to redeem Palestine.”

Napoleon and the Jews

An 1806 depiction of Napoleon emancipating the Jews

Napoleon would actually play a tremendous role in Jewish history, and might even be credited with starting the process of “redeeming Palestine”. It was Napoleon that ushered in the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe. Wherever he conquered, he would free the Jews from the ghettos, and give them equal rights. In France, he went so far as to declare Judaism one of the state’s official religions in 1807. Napoleon also famously sought (and failed) to re-establish the Sanhedrin.

These actions brought upon him the ire of many of his contemporaries, especially Czar Alexander of Russia, who branded Napoleon the “Anti-Christ” for liberating the despised Jews. Moscow’s religious authority at the time proclaimed:

In order to destroy the foundations of the Churches of Christendom, the Emperor of the French has invited into his capital all the Judaic synagogues and he furthermore intends to found a new Hebrew Sanhedrin—the same council that the Christian Bible states condemned to death (by crucifixion) the revered figure, Jesus of Nazareth.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe” (1745-1812)

Of course, most Jews were ecstatic, and relished their newly acquired liberties. It became common for Jews to name their children “Napoleon”, or adopt the last name “Schöntheil”, the German translation of “Bonaparte”. Yet, not all Jews were happy about this development. The Alter Rebbe—founder of Chabad, who lived during the times of Napoleon—wrote the following in one of his letters:

If Bonaparte will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase, and the prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if Alexander will be victorious, although Israel’s poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven…

The Alter Rebbe thus fled from the approaching French forces, inspired his followers to do the same, and even supported the Russian military. He was right about Bonaparte. Napoleon had no interest whatsoever in seeing the Jews flourish as Jews, or practice their religion proudly. His intentions were clear: the complete assimilation of the Jews into European society. It was Napoleon that first permitted Jews to serve in the military, openly stating that “Once part of their youth will take its place in our armies, they will cease to have Jewish interests and sentiments; their interests and sentiments will be French.”

As it turned out, opening the doors for Jews to serve in the French military would lead to the proliferation of the Zionist movement, and the establishment of the State of Israel.

France and Israel

1899 Guth painting of Alfred Dreyfus for Vanity Fair

In 1894, Theodor Herzl was a young journalist working in Paris. He was covering the infamous “Dreyfus affair”, where a Jewish captain in the French military, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly accused of treason. During this time, Herzl witnessed the extreme anti-Semitism of the French firsthand. He realized that no matter how much the Jews assimilate, they would still never be accepted into European society, and reasoned that the Jews must have their own free state. Thus, it was a Jewish soldier in the French military—what Napoleon so dearly wanted—which catapulted the Zionist movement.

Interestingly, Napoleon himself seemed to have supported the notion of a Jewish state in Israel. In 1799, before he was emperor, and while besieging the city of Acre in Israel, Napoleon issued a proclamation inviting “all the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag in order to re-establish the ancient Jerusalem. He has already given arms to a great number, and their battalions threaten Aleppo.” Ultimately, the British defeated Napoleon’s forces, and the plan never materialized.

Nonetheless, Napoleon’s role in igniting the flames of Zionism cannot be overlooked. Zionism was primarily a secular movement, its most fervent supporters being assimilated European Jews who, like Herzl, were frustrated that they were still hated and unwanted in European society. This secularism was a direct result of Napoleon’s campaigns. Without his spearheading of the Jewish “emancipation”, it is doubtful that there would have ever been a Zionist movement to begin with.

And although there is much to criticize about Zionism, these mostly secular European Jews succeeded in re-establishing a free Jewish state in the Holy Land after two very long millennia. Yes, the Israeli government is unfortunately secular, and Mashiach has not yet come, and there is a great deal of work to do to restore a proper Jewish kingdom as God intended. However, the State of Israel allowed for the majority of Jews to return to their homeland, escape persecution, live openly as Jews, fulfil mitzvot only possible in the Holy Land, and travel freely to Jerusalem. Israel is undoubtedly paving the way for the Final Redemption, which is why many great rabbis of recent times have described it as reshit tzmichat geulatenu, the first steps of the redemption.

It is therefore fitting that the gematria of “France” (צרפת), where the whole process began, is 770, a number very much associated with redemption as it is equivalent to בית משיח, the “House of Mashiach”. Ironically, this number is most special for Chabad—the same Chabad that so resisted Napoleon and the French! (And at the same time, adopted the tune of Napoleon’s military band as their own niggun, still known as “Napoleon’s March” and traditionally sung on Yom Kippur!)

Most beautifully, it appears to have all been predicted long ago by the Biblical prophet Ovadia, who prophesied (v. 17-21):

And Mount Zion shall be a refuge, and it shall be holy; and the house of Jacob shall possess their heritage… And they shall possess the Negev, the mount of Esau, and the Lowland, with the [land of the] Philistines; and they shall possess the field of Ephraim, and the field of Samaria; and Benjamin with Gilead. And the great exile of the children of Israel, that are wandering as far as צרפת [France], and the exile of Jerusalem that is in Sepharad, shall possess the cities of the Negev. And saviours shall come upon Mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be God’s.


The article above is an excerpt from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book! 

What It Really Means to Be “Israel”

This week’s Torah reading is Vayishlach, which begins with Jacob’s return to the Holy Land following a twenty-year stay in Charan. The most famous passage of this portion is Jacob’s battle with a certain angel. After its defeat, the angel gives Jacob a blessing and renames him Israel. What is the meaning of “Israel”? What was the purpose of this battle to begin with? And what does it all have to do with Jacob’s difficult twenty years in servitude to his deceiving father-in-law Laban?

Jacob vs. Esau

"Jacob wrestling with the angel" by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

“Jacob wrestling with the angel” by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

The Torah describes in quite some detail the conception, birth, and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. We see that Jacob was a “quiet [or innocent] man, sitting in tents” while Esau was a “hunter, a man of the field.” As twins, and the only children of Isaac and Rebecca, they were meant to work together in carrying on the divine mission started by their grandfather Abraham. Jacob was blessed with extra intellect and spirituality, while Esau was blessed with extra physical strength and ambition. Jacob would have acted as the peaceful teacher, while Esau would defeat any remaining evil in battle. As partners, they would have been unstoppable in bringing light, morality, and a new God-consciousness to the world.

Unfortunately, the two couldn’t channel their blessings in the right direction. Esau’s physicality got the better of him, and he descended into a never-ending spiral of materialism and lust. At the same time, Jacob used his cunning to take Esau’s birthright, instead of using his greater intellect to put his brother back on the right path. Nonetheless, Jacob remained dedicated to fulfilling his divine mission, while Esau “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).

By taking Esau’s birthright and blessing, what Jacob had done was to take Esau’s mission upon himself. However, Jacob was born soft and meek – not fit for a fighter – while Esau was the one born muscular and hairy, as if already a grown man (hence his name Esav, literally “complete”). Could Jacob really become that holy warrior that Esau was meant to be? The only way to find out was to put Jacob to the test.

Becoming Israel

Right after receiving Esau’s blessings, Jacob was told that his brother was out to get him. The soft Jacob immediately fled the Holy Land, as far away from his brother as he could. This was true to his character as a docile man, “sitting in tents”. But this was not what a holy warrior should do.

Jacob ended up in the home of his uncle and future father-in-law, Laban. He instantly fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, and agreed to work for Laban for seven years to have her hand in marriage. After seven years, Jacob was tricked into marrying the elder Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. It is hard to miss the irony of it all: Jacob, the one who tricked his father into getting his older brother’s blessing, is now tricked by his father-in-law into marrying his beloved’s older sister.

To have Rachel, Laban forces Jacob to work for yet another seven years. This is, of course, completely unjust. A man such as Esau would have surely taken on Laban, but the spineless Jacob simply agrees, and slaves away for another seven years. Following this, Laban finds more ways to trick Jacob out of an honest wage. But Jacob is starting to learn, and counters Laban’s wits with his own, soon building an even greater wealth than his father-in-law.

At this point, Jacob hears that Laban is not very pleased with Jacob, and Jacob fears for himself and his family once again. As he did twenty years earlier, he decides to flee. While Laban was away shearing his sheep, Jacob takes the opportunity to run away, taking the whole family with him. It appears that Jacob fails the test yet again, and is unable to confront his evil enemies.

Ten days later, Laban and his men find Jacob, and everything begins to change. Laban waltzes in to Jacob’s camp and begins threatening his son-in-law as he’d always done in the past. But this time, Jacob has had enough, and realizes he can’t run away anymore. “And Jacob was angered, and battled with Laban” (Genesis 31:36). Jacob succeeds, and Laban seeks a peace treaty (v. 44). The two make a pact and part ways, never to see each other again. Jacob is becoming a fighter.

Jacob vs. Israel

This sets up this week’s portion, where Jacob has to face off with Esau, twenty years after running away from him. The night before, Jacob goes off on his own and is confronted by a mysterious figure (See ‘The Surprising Identity of Jacob’s Angel’ in Garments of Light). The two battle it out all night long, and Jacob finally prevails. He is certainly no longer that weak, passive man he was two decades earlier. He has earned his badge of being a holy warrior. And with this, he is given a new name: Israel, one who battles with God; not against God, but alongside God, to defeat evil and make the world a better place. Jacob finally proves that he can indeed be Esau, and his taking of Esau’s birthright and blessing was not in vain.

The Sages tell us that this is the real reason why Jacob had to marry both Rachel and Leah. Originally, since Rebecca had two sons and Laban had two daughters, it was commonly said that the younger Jacob would marry the younger Rachel, while the older Esau would marry the older Leah (Talmud, Bava Batra 123a). Truly, these two couples were soul mates. However, Esau lost his spiritual essence to Jacob, and with it, his spiritual counterpart, Leah. The problem is that the Torah forbids a man from marrying two sisters! The Arizal (in Sha’ar HaPesukim, on Vayetze) tells us that, in fact, Rachel and Leah did not marry one man, for Jacob and Israel were really two souls in one body, and while Jacob married Rachel, it was Israel that married Leah. After all, Israel was the new Esau, the part of Jacob that wasn’t just “sitting in tents” but was capable of being a “man of the field”, too.

We later see that Israel was Jacob’s true self, his more-elevated inner being, and what he was really meant to be all along. God confirms this with a prophetic blessing (Genesis 35:10): “‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’ And He named him Israel.”

This brings a tremendous lesson for all of us: we are not meant to be the weak Jacob, passively sitting in tents and being pushed around. Rather, we are meant to be Israel, who can balance study and prayer with strength and might; who can balance the physical with the spiritual, the science with the religion, and who knows when to seek peace, and when to pursue war. It is most fitting that the founders of the modern Jewish State decided to call it “Israel” (as opposed to its more common historic name of “Judah”). If Israel is to fulfill its divine task, it should live up to its name: battling alongside God, as holy, righteous warriors, to repair this world – both physically and spiritually – restoring it to its original, perfected state.